“Greater love hath no man than this, that a
man lay down his life for his friends.”
- Joh 15:13
As sometimes happens when I write, the topic changes midstream. I was working on a piece about unexpected joyful experiences when my dad showed up. I shot him a mental smile indicating, 'I'll get back to you.' He didn't go anywhere.
I am in the final year of my father’s life. Ed Dreisinger entered earth's orbit in 1914 and drifted out of life's grasp in August of 1986, a quarter of the way into his seventy-third year. In the end, life was not so good. He was stricken with progressively debilitating Parkinson's Disease lasting for a decade and a half. The days were difficult. His last breath came in the arms of the woman he had loved and with whom he spent most of his adult life – my mother.
The Stoics say nothing can hurt you without your permission, each person is responsible for the things they think and do. Losing an arm or leg, a job, your family can only hurt you the soul if you permit it. Since you are a spiritual creature, the decision to be affected by external circumstances is a choice.
My dad watched his body (and eventually his mind) slowly and inexorably slip into a chasm from which there was no escape. And yet to the very end, he held to the passion for, and in, the teachings of Christ. They had taken him from the streets of Toronto to a life of service, for which he had hungered and never forsook. His physical circumstance notwithstanding, he was a faithful child of God…no doubt a stoic.
His early religious experience...
My father's religious journey began in Pentecostal fundamentalism. A form of religious teaching that focuses on fear. Fear that you will be punished in the fires of hell for sins committed in this life. Its teachings conjure images of Rodin's Gates of Hell which depict scenes from Dante's Inferno. The sculpture (Gates of Hell) leaves little doubt as to the eternal torment awaiting the sinner. The language and images sowed into the minds of congregations fill them with undercurrents of terror that influence them all of their lives.
It is uncertain when my dad came to understand how damaging this message was but he eventually left the church – a path roundly condemned by his pastor, by whom he was excommunicated. While a traumatic experience, he was undaunted and went on to get a formal university education in divinity and religious philosophy.
The mistress to whom he gave his life was the church. That is not to say he didn't love his family. He did with ferocity, but as the scripture says, your treasure is where your heart lies. His treasure? It was the people my father's Master touched through dad's ministry. That was what he wanted, and that's what he got. His heart? It lay in justice, faith, and ironically, fear.
Justice for the common man. He fought for the disadvantaged in the Toronto of his youth and early adult life. He saw how those with means often oppressed those without resources, and whenever or wherever he could, he confronted it. He was fearless in speaking truth to power. He was also funny with a great sense of humor. Oscar Wilde could have been talking about my father when he said, "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." Dad had the touch to know when and how to use humor to deflect potentially dire circumstances.
He was driven by faith. A belief that all men and women deserved a level playing field. He fought for this his entire life, north, and south of the Canadian border. Like all of us, there were dark times when it looked like there was no path forward. In those situations, he found strength in prayer, knowing that focus, hard work, and the next step would bring a brighter day. Faith in Biblical teachings was the catalyst that kept him moving when it would have been much easier to back away.
There was another driver, one religious people hardly ever talk openly about, but hangs around their necks like a boulder teetering on the edge of a cliff. Fear is that boulder. There is the unvoiced dread that in some way, God has a cosmic algorithm generating spreadsheets jampacked with every action, thought, or circumstance of their lives. In the end, they fear life’s personal data will be used to determine their final resting place either in heaven or hell. The undercurrent of, "Am I doing enough to be saved" floats in the spiritual background, like a specter waiting to pounce.
My father knew intellectually this to be untrue. He lived, preached, and taught a loving and gracious God. There were never sermons nor personal counseling that threatened eternal damnation. He understood that when the scripture said to fear God, they meant to honor and reverence Him, not to be afraid of Him. Yet, while he escaped the clutches of Pentecostal fundamentalism, he never entirely overcame the insidious seeds of fear and doubt it had planted in his mind as a child.
He fell victim, as do we, to the metaphor in the parable of the wheat and tares. The scripture says a man planted wheat (truth) in his fields (minds of mankind), but while men slept, the enemy came and sowed tares (untruth). The problem, as the parable goes on to say, is that in early growth, both look the same. The story says to leave them alone until they are fully grown, so moral choices become clear. This takes a level of spiritual maturity or what the scripture calls the harvest. Making choices for right, are often easier said than done. As anyone reading this knows, it takes a discerning mind and the will to change things that hurt us spiritually.
Dad knew that to teach a punishing God was wrong and false, but for him, the roots of the tares ran deep. He had been taught as a child, for example, that sickness was God's curse for disobedience. When he developed Parkinson's disease, he wondered whether it was punishment for some unnamed sin committed earlier in his mind or life. In his later years, he openly questioned this with me.
Regardless, because of his early religious experience, he was determined to not plant fear of God in the minds of his congregations, and more importantly – the minds of his children. In this, he succeeded. To his flock and to us, he and my mother were unrelenting in teaching us that God was love, compassionate, forgiving, and understanding of our weaknesses – full stop!
What we are taught and, more importantly, what we choose to believe makes us who we are. My dad decided NOT to show the God of the universe as vengeful and punishing. In that context, his son grew up nothing like him. As a result, the seeds of love and assurance grew in his son, bereft of the fear of a vengeful Creator. In reality, it is an impossible calculus to fully appreciate the effects of that decision.
When my father appeared midstream while writing about a completely different topic, I did what I could to politely and respectfully dismiss him. Once it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere, my mind drifted his way. I’m glad it did.