Thursday, February 16, 2012

If Dad Were to Have a Retirement Party, This is What I Would Say


Instead of talking about Dad, I would like to tell you about my life. For as long as I can remember, I have been known as the daughter of Ron and Susan Little. It’s time that my side of the story is told! Dad doesn't really want the focus to be on him anyway.

It started early. At 6 weeks old, I accompanied my parents and their youth group to Panama City Beach, the first of many trips I would take with them to that beach and that very hotel. Too young and too innocent to recognize the foreshadowing of things to come, I imagine I enjoyed the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the waves, the water's movement and rushing breath a not too distant memory.

At 10 weeks old, I moved from my comfortable home in Birmingham, Alabama, to a one bedroom, family housing apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, where Dad attended seminary. In total, I have been on a seminary campus for four different degrees—it doesn’t really matter that they weren’t all mine. My Greek proficiency should probably be better.

I enjoyed making Dad's textbooks more colorful and I believe he secretly enjoyed my Crayola crayon interpretations of theological images and pastoral care scenarios. Somehow, Mom, Dad, and I survived the experience of close quarters, no money, and the Louisville winters. Even though a meal at Shoney’s was the splurge of those days, it was nice to share them with families in the same position. I’m just glad that the seminary daycare workers were there to take me in when Dad dropped me off—it truly took a village to take care of me!

After his graduation, we moved to Athens, Georgia, where Dad took a position as Campus Minister at the Baptist Student Union. Though Dad was the one who received a paycheck, I think that Mom and I were nearly as involved. BSU was a family ministry. We went to square dances and coffee house nights and Dinner Theaters. If our family was away for the weekend, most likely we were at a BSU function or on a BSU retreat. Rock Eagle, Toccoa Conference Center, and Ridgecrest were our weekend homes. Our Spring Break and summer vacations often included college students, on mission trips to various locations. The three-week family trip out west, from Georgia to California and back included a stop in Las Vegas, where the Southern Baptist Convention just happened to be held that year.

On one mission trip to Key West, Mom and I slept together on a twin air mattress and took showers in a high school girls’ locker room. However, Mom mysteriously avoided some of the most character-building trips with Dad. She missed out on the winter retreat where the facility's heating system was broken. Dad and I were so cold at night that we slept underneath the covers, knowing that if we were to let even the tips of our noses out that they would quickly be covered with frost. In the evening, during the worship services with the students, we would all huddle together, thankful for the fireplace and the three space heaters.

Later on, when I was in college, Mom didn't make the trip to South Korea, either. The trip did not start off well for me. On the plane ride over, the 13-hour plane ride, I sat, wedged between Dad and a large Korean man. The airplane food gave me a sense of what was to come—for the many days that we were there, I survived on rice and the pre-packaged Rice Krispie snacks that I thankfully had packed in my suitcase. One heavenly meal came with lettuce, the best lettuce I have ever tasted. I still can't be in the same room with anything that smells like fermented cabbage or fresh, and I mean fresh, fish.

Dad was smart, though. He’d planned a two day respite in Hawaii—the hook that would bring suckers, like me, back for more. Our first meal in Hawaii was a quick lunch at Subway. Even though I was ready to savor what was sure to be one delicious sandwich, I put my head down on the concrete picnic table, waiting for Dad to return with our meal. I fell asleep, exhausted from it all.

Truly, I just never caught on. Mom and Dad left Athens when Dad started working in the collegiate ministry office of the Georgia Baptist Convention. He called me one day and invited me to go skiing with him. Still in college, the thought of free meals sounded nice. Having never learned to ski before, I thought that Dad might teach me on this trip. A few days before we were to depart, he called and said, "Do you want to stay in a room with two Chinese women or me and another campus minister?" "What?," was my dumbfounded reply, "What did you say?" In his “ha, ha, I got you” tone, he said, "I told you this trip was for the international students." "No, Dad, no you didn't." It was too late to back out though, so I went along. I still don't know how to ski.

Though the accommodations were never 5-star rated, all of these trips were a special part of my childhood and young adult years. I've logged an abnormal number of hours in 15-passenger vans. I've slept in sleeping bags, on hard floors of churches and in Korean hotels. I've eaten brown bag lunches in any number of places. But, I've seen the Grand Canyon. I've seen the beautiful waters off Key West and Oahu. I've met people from all over the world and have been exposed to a number of different cultures.

On these trips, I learned to ice skate and I learned to snorkel. I learned how to pray with people and was given the opportunity to do so, on my own. Supported and nurtured by my family's home church, the First Baptist Church in Athens, I encountered God within a formal worship setting, but I also encountered God, learned about God, and saw God move outside the walls and within the world, the world that was and is bright and lovely and satiated, and the world that was and is dark and dirty and hungry.

Whether Dad seeks out situations or just has an unfortunate "I will help you" sign on his forehead, Mom and I could never be sure. We have heard the life stories of several waitresses and the tragic tales of many a cashier. We have sat closely together in the front seat of our car, holding each other's hand as two strangers were suddenly occupying the back seat, their car visible in the rearview mirror, smoldering along the side of the road. Quietly, I sang Kum Ba Ya to myself. I think Mom was rolling her eyes at Dad, laughing at me, and praying, all at the same time.

Mom doesn't exactly get off the hook, though. I have seen her be both mom and minister to her high school students, through education or with a comforting hug. Mom sat with many a student after school, either hearing about his or her home situation or going over the day's lesson with someone who needed a little extra help. I waited around, happy to share my Mom, but eager to get home, too.

I am the only biological child of my parents, but truly, I have never been an only child.

Dad, yes, has spent his last 30 years ministering to college students. But, his definition of ministering isn't always neatly summarized. His Bible study groups frustrated a lot of students because he never supplied answers for them. The groups would study verses—learning historical context and not skipping over the ugly or difficult parts of Scripture.

He taught students about budgeting, never going to lunch without a coupon. If he saw a young couple headed in the wrong direction or engaged in a toxic or even abusive relationship, he tried to help them go a different way, often separate ways. His counsel would continue with the girl (or the guy), encouraging the courage of either of them to maintain that separation. He would continue his counsel with the guy (or the girl) whose tongue or touch had become out of line.

Dad has picked up the phone to call the mom of a student who was skipping class—and then handed the phone to the student. He has told a naïve, a poor naïve, but cocky freshman, that if God could speak through a jackass then God could probably speak through him too. Dad had a witch visit him in his office on multiple occasions, threatening to put a spell on him, but I'll let him tell you the rest of that story—I’m not really sure how it turned out.

I have previously mentioned his work with International students. He dressed up like Santa Claus for the children of those students. He has taken students who have never seen snow skiing, white-water rafting in ice cold water, and hiking up and down Stone Mountain in the Georgia summer sun. He always tries to make them laugh, even though humor is understood a bit differently in their cultures. He has seen students relish the opportunity to worship as Christians, freely and openly, visibly and loudly.

Dad is not perfect. He refuses to give up the word “sike,” he is often too honest, and he can’t help but look for the best deal on anything, from cars to apples to lunch. However, inside and out, at work or at home, in the United States or in some other part of the world, Dad carries the command to “Love thy neighbor” everywhere. My parents have both taught me and demonstrated to me what “this” life is about. It’s not always convenient, it’s not always clean, it’s not always comfortable. But, they go as they are guided and they will continue to do so, following Jesus wherever he may lead.

Dad may be retiring, but he is not done. Ministry is ministry, no matter the title or the venue. As long as there are students who need help sorting things out, as long as there are unstable fast food workers, as long as there are poor souls who just need to smile at something, Dad will be ready. I’m pretty sure he’s already bugged several friends, looking for somewhere to plug in and operate.

As I sit in our family housing apartment, watching my daughter dismantle her dad’s stack of New Testament books, I have intermingled feelings of pride, excitement, and fear on her behalf. Oh child, what a life you will have, the daughter of a chaplain and a soon-to-be professor, the granddaughter of a crazy man and a crazy woman who married that man. My prayer is that my life, as it intersects with yours, and as we are led by Jesus, will continue in this ministry of laughter, study, and love.