During my life as a preacher’s kid I remember a church we served that was beautiful, but the neighborhood around it had slowly become a high crime area. Within this neighborhood was a charming slum lord (yes, I’m being snide) that ran a series of apartment buildings that housed mentally ill people released from psychiatric centers due to lack of funding. Those people ended up being some of our favorite church members – particularly James.
James used to shuffle into church each Sunday, dressed in his one dirty pair of khakis, an old yellowed dress shirt and a tweed jacket that housed more holes than tweed. I remember his gait, because he walked a lot like a pigeon, with his head leading the way in a bouncing rhythm. His red face was topped with thinning, strawberry blond hair, and he stood about 5′ 7″. He would always stop in the doorway as he entered the sanctuary and take off his hat in respect, holding it with both hands as if it would protect him from the stares. Oh, and one more thing, James had a nervous laugh that never stopped. As his head rocked forward the laugh would increase in volume, as it rocked back it would get softer. But it never stopped.
What we didn’t know at first but later discovered was that James had been hit by a train as an adolescent and suffered brain damage. That damage caused him to rock back and forth and laughed uncontrollably through all of dad’s sermons. It’s never good when a minister is trying to make an emphatic point about your spiritual life while someone is laughing like he is Jerry Seinfeld delivering some of his best material.
Although James rarely spoke, he always nodded at people respectfully, kindly tipping his hat to the ladies. He took his faith seriously, and even though he laughed through most sermons he listened to every word. In fact, James took one of dad’s sermons to heart quickly, and took action on the message. Dad had spoken about the widow who gave the only thing she owned of value to Jesus – her two small coins. While dad had been figuratively referencing giving your time and heart to God, James took it literally and realized all he had of any value were his false teeth.
Every Sunday from that point forward James would bow his head as he held the offering plate, remove his false teeth, and place them gently among the envelopes and cash. This offered a ghoulish display for the rest of the congregation that had yet to give their money. The plate, like James, looked as if it were laughing. But James understood the concept of service and sacrifice, and he put that understanding into action every Sunday. But while the teeth were false, his motives were absolutely true.