The Jesus picture occupied a very special place in my childhood home, the space above the mantel of the fireplace. It was Dad’s version of an altar.
I never really understood why he had Jesus’ portrait in our home. He never went to church even while he dropped me and my sister off at the Lutheran church every Sunday morning for Sunday School. I started when I was seven or eight years old. By the time I was twelve, I hated church and demanded an end to the meaningless ritual. He agreed. Perhaps he had a similar experience as a child and that’s why he never went himself. Perhaps it was because he was Presbyterian.
I still did not understand why the Jesus picture was over the fireplace. Dad never talked about spiritual things. I never saw him pray or read the Bible. Early on I figured out the difference between the language spoken at the Lutheran church and the language spoken at home. When I heard him use the words “Jesus” and “God” they obviously did not mean the same thing to my dad as they did to the church people.
So why the “altar”?
He never told me how he got the Jesus picture, but after I became a Christian in high school, Dad told me a story about it. An incident happened before we started going to Sunday School. It’s probably why he wanted to take us, to give us a shot at spirituality.
Dad came home after work one day to find an Okinawan woman “witnessing” to my deaf-mute mother concerning her religion, Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist movement that was growing rapidly on the island. Over a period of a month, the woman convinced Mom that if she converted and gave money to them she would be healed. She would regain her hearing and speech. But there was another condition.
The Jesus picture had to come down.
If the picture meant nothing to Dad before this, it meant something now. The Jesus picture was no longer the image of a gentle Savior who was known to sit around sheep and children but the icon of a holy and jealous God protecting the vulnerable and requiring loyalty. Dad was incensed that the woman had promised something she could not deliver to my mother. How dare she invade his home with her religion and her demands! He refused to dethrone Jesus from the wall. Mom was so furious with Dad that she gathered a few belongings and left the house with the woman.
He let her go.
Dad chose the Jesus picture and almost lost his wife. (Yeah, she came back later when she figured out the lies.)
Fast forward to a particular night of my junior year of high school. “Hey, Dad. I became a Christian tonight.” “That’s nice.” End of conversation.
Again fast forward a few years when I’m in Bible college. Dad prays the “prayer” and now I consider him a Christian.
Then years later when he’s retired. I write him a letter assuring him that once saved, always saved even if he still hates church.
Final fast forward to the days following his sudden heart attack and death. I listen to audio tapes made by Dad. In the middle of instructions on where to find everything in case he dies, he suddenly bursts into verbal praises of God.
I let him go.
This thing called “conversion” is not one decision. It’s a journey. It’s a life of choices and conversions. Of moments of faith. Of doubts. Of final breaths of praise. Of letting go.
I believe that when Dad got to heaven, it wasn’t the doubts or his aversion to church that defined his journey. Instead I imagine he heard these words from Jesus:
Thanks for keeping my picture.
Thanks for keeping my picture.