by Mark Lehman
Recently I found a 46 year old letter in the shoe box which dispelled a lifetime of very unflattering impressions of my insufferable Uncle Fern.
The origin of his unusual name is unknown. Proving that truth is always better than fiction, Fern’s loyal wife was named Fred (short for Frederica). Fern was a small town fire-and-brimstone preacher who served several South Texas congregations throughout his life. A mandatory visit to his church was non-debatable when my family traveled to his region of the state.
The misery of attending Uncle Fern’s church always began with my parent’s extra scrutiny of my wardrobe and hygiene. Shoes were polished to perfection, the top button of my best shirt was uncomfortably fastened to accommodate my clip-on tie, and of course every hair was held in place by that oil slick of a hair product known as Brylcreem.
An Uncle Fern service was steeped in tradition, and following some old standard hymns, and the passing of the collection plate, he got down to serious business. With a voice so powerful he could be heard in the next county, he began his Sunday rants about the evils of Satan’s infiltration into our daily lives.
It was customary for him to call out any parishioner he felt was not towing the line. I lived in constant fear I would be publicly humiliated for some unknown transgression. He once shamed the high school football star for wearing white socks to church, and he even called for the removal of the homecoming queen for wearing a form-fitting dress to her coronation. (He dismissed as a “mere coincidence” the fact that his morally superior daughter, Frankie, was runner-up that year.)
The uncompromising gospel according to Fern gave me plenty of ammunition to dub him as a narrow-minded jerk. Until I uncovered some shoebox letters which showed ole Fern had a compassionate, and even progressive, side to him.
Several letters written in 1972 hinted a calamity was brewing in the Central Texas town of Marlin over the subject of evolution being taught to the sophomore class which included Fern’s granddaughter, Francis. In one letter, Frankie sought guidance from her father about what argument she should make to the school board when demanding her daughter’s excused absence from this class.
Fern lowered the decibel level of this debate when he wrote to Francis encouraging her to attend the science class with an open and compassionate heart. In a three page letter, he told his granddaughter: “In my opinion, science and religion are not opposed to each other.” He also told her she should embrace science as the best way to uncover truths about ourselves and our world. Fern emphatically stated, “I have studied scientific facts about our universe for many years, and I always conclude the more science I study, the more in awe I am of the amazing creativity of our heavenly Creator.”
Who would ever have thought the study of science would have softened the heart of fire-and-brimstone Fern, while strengthening his already strong faith. He wouldn’t dare preach on this controversial subject in his day; however, I know he would be so pleased that today many progressive churches are approaching the same subject and coming up with the same conclusions he hit on decades ago: Science and faith can exist in perfect harmony.