words:Stoney Stamper images: April Stamper
“May the Lord richly bless you and keep you safely in his arms. Shake hands and be friendly. You’re dismissed.” How many times have I heard these words in my life? Thousands of times, no doubt. These were the words that my grandfather, Brother Eugene Grace, used at the end of every sermon that he preached. He was the pastor of Murphy Church of God, in Murphy, Oklahoma, for the better part of fifty years. He moved to a few different churches across the state during that half-century of work in the service of the Lord, but most of my life he stood at the pulpit in that little country church in our tiny community of Murphy that consisted of no more than half a dozen families. The “Welcome to Murphy” sign boasted a population of ninety-eight citizens, although as hard as I try, I cannot come up with more than half of that. Maybe if we included dogs, cats, sheep, and horses, but still, that’s pushing it.
The attendance on a Sunday morning at our little church was generally more than the population on the sign. In fact, when I was younger, I remember the congregation being so big that you’d have a hard time finding an open spot on a pew. Church isn’t normally considered a fun place for a child, but I admit that a Sunday morning service at our church had a certain amount of excitement to it. It was like a huge family reunion every single Sunday. Both sides of my family, the Stampers, and the Graces attended Murphy Church of God. My Uncle Rick was the leader of the youth group, a group that both me and my future wife April attended together as kids. My cousin Terry played the piano and led the music along with my mom and my Aunt Marilyn. And my other grandpa, Papa Stamper, was the Sunday school superintendent. At the end of Sunday school every week, he would jerk the door open on each classroom, undoubtedly wearing one of his eternally cool and colorful blazers, and he’d say, “TIME!” letting us know that it was time to move to the auditorium for the sermon. My brother, sister, cousins, and friends would talk and laugh as we made our way out into the sanctuary to find our seats as the old folks shook hands and chit-chatted in the lobby. Inevitably, my grandmother, Sister Grace, would hunt me down to give me hugs and kisses, no matter how big or old I had gotten. She’d then take her place on the second row on the left side of pews, with her arms spread out on the back of the bench and her eyes pointed to the heavens, and she’d sing every word to every song. All through the sermon, she’d keep her eyes closed and repeat over and over again, “Praise God, praise God, praise God. Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.” She’d never stop saying it, and more importantly, you didn’t want her to, because you knew that she meant it. I always felt like maybe God listened to her just a little bit better than he did anyone else. I always felt like that if she was praying for me, that nothing could ever go wrong.
On the other side of the sanctuary sat R.L. Stamper, my great grandfather. Born in 1896 and hard as nails, he was a semi-famous evangelist in northeast Oklahoma and western Arkansas. His silver hair combed straight back, a starched white shirt with the initials R.L.S. stitched on the cuffs and collar, and either a blue or red sport coat and a tie to match. His cowboy hat was left on the hat rack by the front door. He was the definition of the fire-and-brimstone preacher that you see on television. He was generous to a fault, always kind to everyone he met, but he could definitely scare you to death with his stories of the End of Days that he was certain were upon us. He would often have his own sermon, all by himself in the corner. His voice was loud and hoarse, and if you listened closely, you would often hear your own name in his prayers. Between his prayers and my granny’s, there was no doubt in any of our minds that we were covered in God’s blessings and protection. Oftentimes, during testimony, his testimony would turn into the sermon. Once the old man got rolling, he was like a freight train, and it took a while to slow him down. On extra special Sundays, he and his wife Dorothy, whom he married after my great grandmother died, would get up in front of the church and sing the old gospel song, “Come and Dine.” “Come and dine, the Master calleth, come and dine. You may feast at Jesus’ table all the time!” They never sang a different song, that I recall, but they didn’t need to. The funny thing about it was, neither one of them could sing worth a quarter. They were both off-key, and neither of them in the same key. My cousin Terry would keep playing that piano as if he were playing for the Gaithers, and if one of them would hit an unusually flat note, which they would inevitably do, you could hear him giggle over the microphone, but never miss a beat on the piano.
And then back to the pulpit stood my Papa Grace. Small in stature, quiet in person, but behind the pulpit he was, and still is, a warrior. A warrior for God. I can honestly say that in my nearly forty years on this earth, there is not a preacher that I’d rather hear deliver the word of God than my papa. Sure, I know I am biased. But I also know good preaching when I hear it. And I have heard a lot of it. Twice on Sunday and every Wednesday night for eighteen years. Less often than that as an adult, but I still go and “get fed,” as the old folks like to call it, every chance I get. In fact, we made the six-hour trip back to Murphy not too long ago. The church is smaller now. The building is the same size, of course, but it seems smaller. And the congregation isn’t nearly what it once was, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t get the same message delivered to them as they would have if the crowd were bigger. It’s funny how certain things, no matter how much time passes, never change though. The distinct smell of the lobby and sanctuary, a mixture of cleaning supplies and thirty-year-old carpet. My cousin Terry’s loud and flamboyant laugh echoing through the auditorium. The sound the doors make when my papa would lock them as everyone was leaving to go have lunch with the family. Those little details seem pretty inconsequential, but it’s pretty crazy just exactly how important they are to me.
April and I raise our kids to believe just as we were taught to believe. We read the Bible, we say our prayers, and we do our best to spread goodness and kindness and generosity to all those we come in contact with. We take them to church, but I have never been able to find a church that I’ve felt the fondness for that I have for Murphy Church of God. That church has been a part of my family for more than ninety years. Our families were built there, many of us were married there, a few of us have nursed ourselves back from divorce there. And many, more than I care to remember, have said goodbye there after they passed from this life into the next. And sadly, that number is growing. But no matter how many of the older generations we lose, still she stands. Murphy Church of God. It makes me sad that Murphy church is not a part of my weekly routine any longer, but one thing is for certain, just as my grandfather prayed over me each week from its pulpit and promised me that he would, the Lord has richly blessed me.