Two or three years ago, having heard that my Dad needed a new large-print Bible, I drove across town to the Lifeway Christian Store and purchased him one. Of course, it was the King James Version, the only kind he had ever known.
I wrote his name in the front and added this: “In appreciation for the Bible you bought me for Christmas, 1948.”
In presenting it to him, I said, “Dad, I want you to do me a favor. Mark it up. When you read something you particularly like, underline it or write in the margin.” That was a new thought to him.
Dad grew up in the generation that was taught not to mark in Bibles. That’s why the Bible which belonged to his mother, my Grandma Bessie, who died in 1982, and which Bible I own, has very few notes in the margin. She was such a godly woman with excellent insights; I would have loved for her to have marked that Bible up.
On November 3, 2007, at the age of 95 years and 7 months, my dad went to Heaven. The next day, when I arrived, one of my sisters handed me the Bible. “Pop wanted you to have this back,” she said.
There on the presentation page where I had lettered his name and written my appreciation, he had added, “At death, give back to Joe.”
A word about his handwriting. For a man with only a 7th grade education, and a lifelong coal miner at that, Pop’s writing style was impressive. He used to tell us how the schools in his childhood taught classical penmanship to the students. He would hold the pen in a certain way and move his hand around in circles. “We practiced these exercises until we learned to write well,” he would say.
The other morning, two months after Dad’s death, when I remarked to Mom about his notes in this Bible, she said, “Even at the last, he still had this beautiful handwriting.”
At the top of the Bible’s presentation page, Dad had written “Romans 8:1.” He had no way of knowing it’s one of my favorite verses, a most treasured assurance of our salvation. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I was so pleased that it had come to mean so much to him.
Turning to Romans 8, I saw Pop had underlined that verse in his shaky hand and at the top had written, “Amen.” He also underlined verse 18, another keeper: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
One page before, I noticed he had also underlined Romans 6:23. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Pop sure could pick ’em.
Let me digress a moment to say why this is special.
Carl McKeever grew up hard. The eldest of a large family that knew only coal-mining and near-poverty, he was supporting himself from age 12 and working a full-shift inside the mines alongside grown men at 14. His language was coarse and he quickly developed a weakness for some of the vices associated with that culture.
I’ll not belabor that point, except just to say that while he had gone to church when he and Mom were courting, and at some point professed faith and was baptized, by the time I arrived, six years into their marriage, he had quit going to church. As far as I could tell, while he always respected the church and held preachers in high esteem, he seemed to make no pretense about being a Christian. Looking back now, I think he felt unworthy.
Even then however, he loved preaching and would sit for hours in front of a radio listening to a sermon, then twirling the dial until he found another. Something inside him was crying out for the spiritual nourishment and worship he was not getting. He always loved the singing of church congregations and gospel quartets. When I was eight and the family purchased a combination phonograph-radio, all the records Mom and Dad bought were gospel songs by the Chuck Wagon Gang.
It was about the same time he asked me to walk the railroad track with him to the next town of Sophia, West Virginia, where he bought me a Bible. I think now it indicated something good and even godly inside him.
God got Pop’s attention in his 48th year with a heart attack and other health problems. The doctors ordered him on disability which ended his coal-mining and gave him more free time than he had ever experienced.
When Mickey Crane came to our home church as pastor, Pop began to respond to his sweet nature and his excellent preaching. That was 30 years ago and Brother Mickey is still there, still giving outstanding leadership to a thriving congregation which has constructed all new facilities. A few years back Pop told the children he was making a large contribution to the building program in each of our names.
The other night I was looking through the hand-written journal I kept each day throughout the 1990s and into this century. Among the last entries was one about a 2001 revival I preached at Meek Baptist Church in Arley, Alabama, an hour away from home. “Pastor Etsel Riddle called on Pop for the benediction,” I noted. That must have been a first for him, but Dad did fine. Hearing him pray in public blessed the entire family. I wouldn’t have taken a thousand dollars for that.
He’s gone now and I’m missing him greatly.
Occasionally, while reading through the Bible he ordered returned to me after his death, I’ll come across a note in his handwriting. At the end of Job, the last verse reads, “So Job died, being old and full of days.” Pop underlined that and underneath wrote in that lovely script: “Carl J.”
That was vintage Pop. He was forever taking newspaper clippings and writing in the margins around them, having a one-sided conversation with someone. When an advertising flyer arrived in the mail announcing some offer you-dare-not-resist, if the opening line was attention-getting, Pop would jot something in answer, then leave it lying around so the rest of us could enjoy it.
I came by this weird sense of humor honestly.
The last time I was home, a month after Pop’s death, I found a scoresheet where my brother Glenn and I had played 3 hands of rummy with Dad. I know precisely when it occurred because at the bottom in my handwriting are FEMA’s phone numbers and a number to call to get a “blue tarp” on my house following Katrina. That would make it early September 2005 during our evacuation from New Orleans.
On the back of that score-sheet is an advertisement for one of these medical books which farm families seem to collect, containing natural cures and home remedies. The letter begins: “Dear Customer: We’re probably about the same age….” Pop had underlined that. He was 93 years old; no comment was needed.
The letter went on to charge that research universities and medical institutions were hiding these scientific breakthroughs from the reader. The most presumptuous line in the letter was this: “I love you and I want you to have these life-giving secrets of super health before it’s too late.”
Underneath, Pop had written: “Blame. B Lame.” I laughed out loud when I read it. Good for you, Pop, seeing through such tripe.
When my children were young, I would sometimes volunteer to make their lunches for school. Before closing the sack, I’d find a scrap of paper and write a note or draw a little cartoon. Just a little something to let my child know that Dad was thinking about him or her.
Now, my dad is sending me these notes. And the thing is, by putting the notes alongside Scripture he’s pointing me to the larger messages from the Heavenly Father. It’s the best of both worlds.
Flipping forward from the end of Job, I notice that Dad underlined a good deal of the 15th Psalm. He wrote nothing in the margin, but what he underlined in his shaky hand was excellent.
“He that walked uprightly, and worked righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbor, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor.” And then, the last verse: “He that doeth these things shall never be moved.”
At the 23rd Psalm, he circled the 23, and then circled the “6” at the last verse: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
On the next page, in the 25th Psalm, he circled the “7” for that verse. It begins, “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions.”
Thank you, Pop. You sure knew a great scripture when you found one and the right prayer of thanksgiving for one who knows what it is to receive God’s mercies and forgiveness. Thanks for these little “hellos” you’ve scattered throughout this Bible. You’d be interested to know what I’m doing with it.
Your 11-year-old great-granddaughter Erin, with the same name as one of your sisters, asked me to read through this same Bible and write my own notes in the margin and then give it to her when she’s older. She saw that I spent two years doing that for her brother Grant, and just completed his Bible on Christmas day, one week ago.
Today is January 1, 2008, and I have my assignment. Better get at it.
The other grandchildren will be wanting their Bibles too. I’m 67 now and it takes a couple of years on each Bible….I have 8 grandchildren in all….
It’s a good thing Dad lived to be 95. I may be needing every day of that before I finish.