Papa Didn't Preach

Papa Didn't Preach
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When people learn your father is a Baptist minister, they have some questions.

One of those questions is really an assumption with different punctuation -- some variation on "Bet you were in for plenty of sermons at home when you messed up, huh?"

"Papa Don't Preach" was a hit song from the 1980s. It was a number about a girl who got knocked up by a boy her father had warned her about. She's going to keep the baby and marry the guy, and asks for her father's understanding, not his censure.

Because Madonna was then a world class expert at pissing people off, this somehow managed to draw calls from the Vatican for a boycott of her concerts.

I mention the song because PKs of a certain vintage are probably sick to death of all the plays on that title they got while growing up. Folks assume that if your "papa" has a "Rev." in front of his name, you really got preached at.

In my case, not so much. Rev. Robert Lott -- "Pastor Bob" to most; "Dad" to a select few -- didn't preach when I was growing up. Not much anyway.

I don't just mean he didn't lecture. I mean he didn't preach.

Dad was never a senior pastor. He was an associate pastor at one church and a youth pastor at another. He clocked in very few hours behind the pulpit.

It was just as well. Most of his "messages" are epigrammatic in nature. They pack practical theology into tiny bottles that might be missed in the larger oceans of lengthy and tedious sermonizing.

To his young audience, Pastor Bob would say things like, "You need to see yourself how God sees you."

He would caution against going on like the pagans do before meals: "Don't pray too long when people are hungry."

He would amuse us with the longest running joke that he wasn't in on, almost always declaring that whatever passage he was about to read us was "one of my favorite verses in the Bible."

He would sum things up in one simple sentence, weighed down with meaning like a tree with too much fruit on it. Dad's final line at his own mother's eulogy was, "That is the hope."

And he would make useful distinctions that take a while to sink in. Most memorably: "Give thanks in all things, not for all things."

That last one used to infuriate me, because I didn't understand it.

It was a riff on and explanation of St. Paul's first letter to Christians in Thessalonica, Greece. Believers were told to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances" -- or things -- "for this is the will of God in Christ for you."

The question of theodicy rears its head here. How do you thank God for cancer or for a consuming fire that takes your home away or for a pink slip when jobs are scarce?

Answer: you don't. You take what comes and thank God anyway. Not for what has happened but for other reasons.

To rejoice, to pray, to thank God -- these are good things in themselves, Dad was saying, quite apart from your health or comfort or dwindling bank balance.

Dad didn't explain all the nuances of his message. Instead, he embodied it. He did, and does, what he could for a great multitude of people. He bore tremendous burdens -- physical, emotional, financial -- and gave thanks in all of this. Even in the worms.

That's almost the stuff of a sermon, but someone else would have to preach it.

Jeremy Lott is editor-at-large of RealClearPolitics and author, most recently, of William F. Buckley.

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