Sister Mary Katherine. No, not Sister Mary Clarence. Katy was no Sister Act, not an undercover nun. She was my first grade Sunday School teacher.
Only in more traditional Baptist churches did you hear women referred to as sister. Don’t let we Baptists know that Roman Catholic women, given to simple vows, have been referred to as sisters longer than there has been a Baptist Tradition. We would quickly adjust our confessional statements declaring such a designation anathema if we knew.
About two weeks I drove my Dad and Mom to Portland Avenue Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. That sentence sounds like it is such a long trek. It isn’t. We went to the funeral for my first grade Sunday School teacher I knew as Mrs. Kilman. Spellcheck changed it to Kidman. Not kidding.
The funeral folder reminded us that Katy influenced many in her 56 years at the Crestwood Baptist Church, the church of my childhood and youth. I will be 56 in May. She spent another 25 years at Portland Avenue Baptist Church. If you are keeping score, that is 81 years. I have some to go to get my 81 year pin. Katy not only taught me in Sunday School. She also taught me in Training Union, think Baptist discipleship for children.
One Sunday evening, I was maybe 6 or 7, we covered the story of King David and a descendant of King Saul. David and Saul are pretty simple names. No trouble with pronunciations. Saul’s grandson, Mephiboseth, received kindness from the new king. It was an act that ran counter to the practice of most new power families. When I heard Saul’s grandson’s name I giggled. So did Randy and maybe even Jimmy. It was the sort of funny that you could not stop. The more we realized we were laughing at a Bible name, and the momentary guilt that we might somehow be acting sacrilegiously by thinking the name was funny, could not overtake our belly laughs. Katy’s husband, John, saw it humorous even as he tried to settle us down to listen.
We weren’t scolded. We were loved.
Over the years of my childhood, Katy taught in Vacation Bible School. She had the voice of an angel. Beautiful alto harmonies added to the Ladies’ Trio of which she was a part. She sang in the choir, in the alto section. Katy and my mother worked with our church’s Senior Adult group – The Jolly Elders. They may have been the initiators of the ministry at Crestwood. Katy’s mother, Grace “Nanaw” Peterman, was my first lawn mowing customer when I was 9 years old. Katy’s daughter-in-law,Mary, taught in our Youth Department when I was in high school. Katy’s grandson Ryan was the ring bearer in our wedding nearly 36 years ago. To say this family holds a number of special places in our own family is an understatement.
One of my favorite books is Eugene Peterson’s, The Long Obedience In the Same Direction. Centered on the Psalms of Ascent, Peterson’s reflections key in on life as journey. The songs were sung on the way, during pilgrimage. We make much of achievement, of accomplishment, the arrival at a destination. Teaching children the Bible is less an achievement and more a journey. First graders move on to Second grade and on to the Third. A Teacher shows up to do it all again. It would be easy to see how over time we must adopt a different vision since a year in elementary Sunday School is not accompanied by finals, exit exams as it were. What is being taught is that we are not alone in our journey through life. God is with us. So are his people.
Ron, Katy’s oldest son, led us in congregational singing. He encouraged us to sing the parts. I sat next to my Dad and we sang the bass line. The gathered family and friends sounded like a church choir. Sitting near me was Maria. We grew up at Crestwood. We graduated from high school and college together. We sang in the Youth Choir. I saw adults I had not seen in more than 30 years. The memories were rich that day.
Sitting in the service and reflecting on Katy’s faithfulness to family and faith and God’s faithfulness to her, I realized that in January of 1989 I began serving my first church as a full-time pastor. The church that put up with my novice attempts and had faithfully provided young preachers a place to begin. I am not sure I achieved the average tenure in its history. Reading the list of their pastors put the average at between 2-3 years. I served about 16 months.
It was not happy feet or a forced departure. I had been accepted into the Doctor of Ministry program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The move to a church closer to the seminary would make me more available to Patty and the girls should a need arise. Otherwise, I would be gone during the week for four weeks at a time, three times a year. A five hour commute every day would have made it largely impossible to succeed in the program. I commuted for three years in college but the drive was less than an hour.
This summer I will have served Snow Hill for 25 years. When I graduated with my MDiv in 1988 the average tenure was somewhere between 2-3 years. Using that figure, I have pastored somewhere between 8-12 terms at one place. My predecessor served for 25 years. In fact, since 1968, Snow Hill will have had just two pastors. God willing, I may be privileged to spend the rest of my time as pastor right where I am.
Some days I wonder what influences have led me to think a pastor may, if possible, remain at one place for a long time. Brother Justice pastored at Crestwood for more than 20 years before retiring. Brother Carpenter, our Bible History teacher in high school, was pastor of a small congregation in south Oklahoma City for a long tenure. Brother Emery pastored at Snow Hill from 1968-1993. I know there are others.
Maybe it was Katy, and those I knew/know like her. Today, many look for the day when they can retire from serving in a local church. Know this, young boys and girls remember those who taught them in Sunday School when they were children. Sometimes it even sticks that despite the ups and downs of church life, the highs and lows, helps them weather their own experience of the highs and lows faithfully at one place for a long time as adults. Sure, what we are physically able to do over time may change. Serving others may last a life time. It did for Katy.
The practice of a long obedience in the same direction haunts my memories and provides hope for my future.