Saturday, June 14, 2008

Postponing the sermon in honor of my Dad

I'll bet my Dad did the same thing, postponing work on his sermon until he had finished something that seemed more interesting and more important to him than his Sunday sermon, though he loved his work and gave it his all during his too-short life. I want to tell you his story, as I remember it, though some details don't necessarily agree with the way others remember it.

Merritt Bernhardt Ketcham was born Nov. 18, 1907, in northern Missouri, the second oldest son of a railroad gandy-dancer and his strong-willed wife. When he was about 12, his dad lost his arm in a hunting accident and could no longer do the heavy work of railroad maintenance, so he turned to moonshine as a way to support his family of a wife and seven children.

My dad and his older brother John became the delivery boys for Grandpa Ketcham's illicit brew until Grandma Ketcham became alarmed at the dangers of this job for a young boy and shipped my Dad off to Wyoming to live with friends on a ranch near Pinedale. This was a three day journey by mail train and he went equipped with mainly the clothes on his back and a bag of sandwiches.

Living on the Peyton Dew ranch as a teenager, attending Pinedale High School, and learning the skills of a cowboy, my Dad grew to young adulthood in the majestic setting of the Wind River and Teton mountain ranges, running cattle to and from mountain pastures. He played sports in high school and did well in his studies, but there was no money for further education and he eventually ended up an orchardman in the Snake River valley on the Oregon Slope, near the Idaho border.

Here he met my mother, who was friends with his sister Alice. The whole Ketcham family had followed my Dad from Missouri to Wyoming and then on to Idaho, where there was work for Grandpa Ketcham and his children. Merritt Ketcham and Mona Elizabeth Larson, a railroad man's daughter herself, were married Dec. 23, 1935.

My Dad had dedicated his life to God when his youngest sister Nellie Mae was desperately ill. And shortly after their marriage, my parents moved to Chicago to attend Moody Bible Institute, where they both studied for two or so years and my Dad qualified as a minister. I'm not sure when or where he was ordained, possibly at the Mossyrock Community Church, his first pastorate.

That's where I was born, in a Chehalis, Washington, hospital 30 miles or so from the tiny hamlet of Mossyrock. I was the first surviving child. My brothers Jimmy and Charles were stillborn.

This picture was taken in Mossyrock in the fall of 1942, when I was a few months old.
My Dad served the Mossyrock church for two years and then was called to Calvary Baptist Church in Portland, where he served for seven years; then it was on to Athena, Oregon for nine years and Goldendale, Washington, for the remaining eight years of his life. He died at age 62 from chronic illnesses related to heart abnormalities. Or at least that's what we have decided from knowing his health history.

And here I am in ministry, following in his footsteps, hoping that even though our theologies are/were miles apart, he understands somehow, somewhere, that I learned it all from him.

Here's what I learned from my Dad about ministry:
1. It's important to be approachable as a minister, knowing what my congregants' lives are like, being available to them as a pastor but also as a special kind of friend, someone who is not aloof or in an ivory tower of professionality but who can relate to others on a very personal level without overstepping boundaries.
2. Humor is an essential ingredient in ministry. Without it, it's too easy to be hurt by chance remarks or criticism.
3. Be serious about your values, but try to understand others' values.
4. Be friendly and welcoming to all; don't play favorites.
5. Ministers do not often receive all the appreciation they deserve, but this is just life. Don't be hurt by it.
6. Look for many ways to minister. Be involved in your community.
7. Find friends among ministers of other faiths. You can talk with them about things that your congregants might not understand. Even your spouse might not understand!
8. Your integrity is worth your life. Don't give it up. When it's questioned, examine your behavior and change anything that doesn't meet your standards. But you are the final judge of your integrity, not the world.
9. Let ministry be your passion but don't do your family the disservice of neglecting them.
10. Love people, even the ones who are radically different from you, and learn from everyone.

My Dad, the Reverend Merritt Bernhardt Ketcham, has been my role model for virtually all my life. The most treasured memories I have of him revolve around the times we spent together, especially the moment in the Dinty Moore Cafe in Biggs, Oregon, when he called me "Pal", thrilling me deeply. He lives on in me and I trust he has come to terms with the differences in our theology, if indeed there were any serious gaps.

I believe he would bravely listen to my theology, even if it was hard for him to accept. I believe he would champion my right to be true to myself. I believe he would forgive my childish slights. I believe he was pleased with me. After all, he called me Pal.


Little Warrior's Mom said...

Oh, this makes my eyes wet, and my heart sing. Those last two lines. Is there anything else a child really wants from their parents? My mother listened to a copy of my Hallelujah sermon and called me to tell me how much she enjoyed it. I told her I didn't need any further presents for the rest of the year.

"Pal." That's so cool.

Earthbound Spirit said...

What a beautiful tribute, Kit. Thanks for sharing this!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your kind words, LWM and EBS.

Mile High Pixie said...

A wonderful tribute indeed! I'm so glad your dad left you lessons that are not only helpful in your work life, but frankly anyone's preofessional life as well. I'm sure he's enjoying your work right now--what more fitting way to honor someone's memory than to help others the way they did!

ms. kitty said...

Kind words, Pixie, and thank you.