i'm watching with wonder as a tear spills out from behind his funky purple glasses and streams down his face. revivalist preacher eddie lee todd is delivering an intensely visceral and emotionally vibrant sermon, same as always. he's wearing a plaid shirt, high-waisted dress pants and a painter cap – early fifties dress i would guess. his voice is on tempo, picking up speed and his adjectives are well chosen and well placed – this man has had a lot of practice speaking. but instead of smiling and nodding along, i'm staring at him in amazement with my mouth hanging open.
at 84, this man has been delivering similar messages to vast and varying audiences for decades on end. he's preached his way around the united states and several other countries. but this is different. we're alone in the family room and this sermon is for me. there is no way he can know the gravity of the things he's saying.
eddie lee todd lives in hemet, california. he's currently going through some hard times – his wife clara (of 64 years) has a badly injured hip and is staying in a rehabilitation center in nearby murrieta. her alzheimer-like symptoms make it difficult for her to recall who people are and what's happening around her. we call them mimi and papa. i'm pretty sure everyone does.
papa is staying in murrieta with mimi during the days and sleeping at his daughter dahna's house in adjacent temecula each night. if i had to guess, i'd say that papa's symptoms are characteristic of a person with mild alzheimer's disease; he has a very hard time recalling who people are and what is happening around him.
papa started by telling me how grateful he is that we're friends. it surprised me that he even recognized me, as that's not always the case. in everyday life, his words and mannerisms may be confused, even incoherent, but man when he preaches he's on it! the phrases swiftly tumble, concise and un-jumbled out into the room. the beauty in his manner is amplified too – he's gentle, not overbearing; he's reverent, by no means authoritarian. papa's demeanor is that of someone who's so inclined to love that he's no longer conscious of his efforts to do so.
throughout the few days i got to spend with papa that love shone through the confusion and the debilitation. some kind of strength was made perfect in his unashamed weakness.
once, while talking with jonathan and me, papa encouraged us that Jesus came to give us life, and life abundantly. “abundantly,” he repeated, “that means more than you've got room for. so make some more room.”
both jonathan and i were deeply affected by his words. we felt like that was exactly what we needed to hear. sermons are apparently no problem for his otherwise worn out mind. he can remember specific scripture references. sometimes when he would quote them, i would look over at his wife and see her mouthing the words. no doubt mimi's heard at least some of them hundreds of times.
back in the family room, papa is finishing his personal exhortation (what will likely be his last words face-to-face with me). he tells me that a soul – my soul – is worth more than the whole world. this resonates strongly with me as a part of an emerging remedy for my insecurities. still standing, he finishes his preaching and i thank him as he starts away. he's nodding and saying something like “that's alright.” suddenly he turns around and says, “that's sermon number one.”
staring up at the aging man behind the purple glasses, i wonder if he really even knows who i am. did he understand what he was saying, or were the words just flowing through, on their way from a Source to a very grateful and awestruck recipient.
|papa and jonathan at the table in temecula.|