[title subtitle=”WORDS Stoney Stamper
IMAGE courtesy April Stamper”][/title]
I was talking with someone a few months ago and the subject of religion came up. Now the common rule of law is you don’t talk about religion or politics, unless you are prepared to have an argument. It doesn’t have to be an argument, but more often than not, that’s how it ends up. So today, we won’t discuss politics. But religion, that one is important to me. The gentleman I was talking to made the comment, “Religion is only about money. The church is nothing more than a business. Just another way for snake oil salesmen to make a buck from unwitting folks that don’t know any better.” That struck a nerve; now let me tell you why.
I come from a very religious family, on both sides. My great grandfather, R.L. Stamper, was a Pentecostal evangelist for over seventy-five years. He told stories of revivals he held all over Oklahoma and Arkansas that would often last until the wee hours of the morning. He’d talk of the crummy old tents they used, and never having enough pews or seating. People would stand for hours, or sit on the ground, listening to him preach. My dad talks about being a little boy and sleeping under the pews when the services went on well past his bedtime.
We called him Granhappy and he was a man of faith as hard as iron. He would preach often, well past his one hundredth birthday, about the dangers of being a “lukewarm” Christian. One of my favorite sayings of his was “you’ve got to be all in for God, tooth and toenail.” And when he got done telling you that in his raspy, fire and brimstone voice, you believed it. He’d almost scare the Jesus into you. But he didn’t preach for a living. He did it because he felt he was called to do it. He felt compelled to preach God’s word to any and every living soul that he could get to listen, and he was pretty hard not to listen to.
On the other side of my family was my grandpa, Pastor Gene Grace. He was different than Granhappy. First of all, he was our pastor at Murphy Church of God. Not an evangelist, but a full-time pastor at the church. He and my granny were the pastors at countless other churches over more than sixty years. My mother went to thirteen different schools in her twelve years as a student. Papa and Granny had a similar calling, but different, too. Papa Grace always felt his calling was to take on churches that were having hard times. He was on the Board of the Oklahoma Church of God for many years of his career. He was well known and well loved by everyone that knew him. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that he is the kindest soul I have ever known. I realize that may sound biased coming from his grandson, but it’s not just my opinion. My wife, April, has often told me that she has never felt the presence of God more from anyone in her life, than she does from my Papa. His eyes are filled with happiness and kindness. There is always a smile on his face, even when he has good reason not to be smiling. God has tested him about as much as anyone I can think of. He’s been hurt, really hurt, many times. Broken back, broken neck, cancer. But his faith is unshakable. Due to his reputation in the church he could have easily found a big church that would pay him a nice salary and give him a nice home so he and Granny could have been more comfortable. But he never did. In fact, generally, once he got his church to where they were doing well, when attendance was up, and tithes and offerings were beginning to give the church a little breathing room, he would feel the pull of God to take him somewhere else. Usually to another tiny church in the middle of nowhere. I remember the offering boards hanging on the walls of his churches, that would show how much the church offerings had been the week before. Often, it wasn’t much. And his part of that was even smaller. Once the bills were paid for the church, money was sent to missions so that the Word of God could be spread to other parts of the world that he couldn’t reach. After that, if there was anything left over, and that’s a big if, then he and Granny would get a little paycheck. It wasn’t enough to live off of. So, between his two services on Sunday, and one on Wednesday night, and when he wasn’t sitting with someone at the hospital or visiting one of his parishioners, he would work.
He is a great carpenter. Taught by his father, he could build about anything. If you needed something done on your house he could do it. More than anything he did roofs. Now, I don’t know if you have ever been or worked with a roofer but it’s about as tough a job as you’ll find. He’d often start well before sunup carrying eighty-pound bundles of shingles up and down a ladder hundreds of times a day. Repairing old deck boards, tearing off old shingles before replacing them with new ones. He never complained. Not once. He’d sweat through his clothes before nine in the morning, change, and then get back to it. He was a skilled craftsman, but this was labor. Hard labor.
When he’d get home at night, he’d shower and change clothes, and then go back to his pastoring duties when they were needed. A pastor doesn’t just work on Sundays, folks. The people from his church were his sheep, and he was their shepherd. He helped them. He protected them. He built them up when they were down, and he celebrated with them when there was reason. My dear grandmother, Shirley, was with him step for step. She was cooking for someone or working with the children in the church. And when she wasn’t doing that, she often had a day job, as well. She was a great cook, and worked in cafeterias at the schools in the towns they lived in. Anadarko, Lindsay, Hugo, Muskogee, Locust Grove, just to name a few. They drove old, used cars. But they were always solid vehicles. He didn’t care what they looked like as long as they were clean and dependable. Sometimes the homes they lived in were nice enough, but other times, not so much. But I can promise you, it would be nicer, cleaner, and everything in it would be fixed before they moved out.
I remember one such place more than the rest. I didn’t notice it so much as a child as I do now. In 1992, they were the pastors at the Hugo Church of God, in Hugo,OK. Their parsonage was a little apartment above the church. It wasn’t very nice. But when Granny and Papa lived there, it didn’t seem like that. They filled it with love, God, and then Granny filled it with good food, because that’s just what grannies do. When we visited it felt like home because that’s how they made it feel.
They’ve retired now, not too long ago, actually, and my goodness, have they earned it! They live in a little house I lived in as a child, right next to the church that they pastored for over thirty years.
Did they do this for the money? Of course not. They aren’t wealthy, or even close to it. Not in the sense most people consider wealth. But I can promise you this; there will come a day when they walk the streets of glory together, and I have to believe that their mansion is going to be one of the grandest sights you’ve ever seen. And Papa won’t have to work on it, although he probably will anyway. And they won’t have to drive old, used cars. Although they probably will anyway. The reasons they have lived their lives this way are numerous. Love, faith, kindness, generosity, caring for others more than themselves. Money cannot secure a place in that list.
Ian Thomas, a famous evangelist, once said, “A man could have all the money in all the banks in all the world, and be worth nothing, so far as God is concerned, if he is still living to and for himself!” If that’s the case, then I’m going to say that in God’s eyes, Eugene and Shirley Grace are some of the richest people in the world. And I sure am blessed and very proud to call them my family.
Stoney Stamper is the best-selling author of My First Rodeo: How Three Daughters, One Wife, and a Herd of Others Are Making Me a Better Dad (WaterBrook) and author of the popular parenting blog, The Daddy Diaries. He and his wife, April, have three daughters and live in Oklahoma, where they are heavily involved in agriculture and raise and show a variety of animals.