Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reflections on a Father

Our pastor asked me to reflect on what I learned about love from my father for our service this morning, and after talking with my brother yesterday, I decided to share it here just as I did in church this morning:

Occasionally, but only occasionally, my brother Stephen and I would find ourselves in a situation where we were tired of doing an activity, didn’t want to start it in the first place, and certainly were loath to see it to completion. In those moments, my father could always be counted on to tell us to keep at it because it would “build character.” Perhaps you have heard this phrase in your lifetime too, and perhaps you feel about it the way Calvin did. You know Calvin – not the theologian from the 16th century, but the theologian from the 1990s funny pages. Calvin’s father came out one night and called “It’s getting dark, Calvin. Time to come in and go to bed.” Calvin ambled up and responded, “But Hobbes and I were catching fireflies. Can’t we stay out a little longer?” Always ready at teachable moments, Calvin’s dad responded, “Ha! First you didn’t want to go out, and now you don’t want to come in. See, by not watching TV, you had more fun, and now you’ll have memories of something real you did, instead of something fake you just watched.” Later in bed, Calvin confessed to Hobbes that “nothing spoils fun like finding out it builds character.”

Fathers can always be counted on to help us build character, which is why Joy regularly rolls her eyes and restrains herself when I parent by telling Sam or Noah to pick themselves up, shake off their tears, and have another go. A father’s tough love is a cultural cliché – walk down the Hallmark aisle in May, and you’ll be assaulted by pink and white frilliness that proclaims a mother’s tenderness while the next month, the same aisle is festooned in blue and brown straight lines that let us know that dad, by contrast, doesn’t appreciate that nonsense. But that tough guy formulation masks some of the greatest truths about love that we learn from our fathers.

Looking back, one important fatherly truth stands out to me from my own upbringing – love is never embarrassed. Perhaps all fathers have this propensity, but mine was uniquely gifted at embarrassment. Riding through my small Southern hometown in my dad’s blue Chevy Luv truck was an adventure, primarily because he was always on the lookout for treasure. Driving by a household pile of garbage, he’d slow down, his eyes would rifle through the pile, and he’d tell me or my brother to jump out and grab something. We would make sure no one was looking, dash out as quickly as possible, grab the object and toss it in the back, and slink back to our seats with our heads down. Can you imagine how a 13-year-old boy felt performing this ritual, just knowing that someone would see, tell their friends, who would tell your friends. Embarrassment knows no greater field to flourish than a 13-year-old boy’s heart.

I’ll also never forget how my father appeared at my wedding rehearsal and dinner decked out in the brightest yellow shirt you can possibly imagine. Small suns have less luminescence than he did that night. His reasoning was true to his life and training as an historian – Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (and even tiny Elizabeth) wore bright yellow as evidence of their extreme happiness when news of Catherine of Aragon’s death reached them. My father’s happiness certainly exceeded theirs and for better reason. I should have been mortified, but I wasn’t. A strange thing had happened in the ten years between those occurrences. The lesson my father had been nurturing had sunk in. Turn to the person next to you – your spouse, child, or dear friend. Think of all the things they have done over the years that made you cringe and shake your head. But you’re still here. You still love them. You see, love is never embarrassed because love is accepting. Love sees the other as they truly are, as a unique child of God whose life enriches your own beyond all understanding. Picking up trash, wearing yellow, proclaiming to the world that he is who he is was the greatest act of love my father performed toward me. He gave me permission to be myself, to love others for themselves, and to see a penetrating glimpse of God’s love in the process. And it is that treasure, more than any we picked up through those many Arkansas days, which encapsulates what is unique about a father’s love. It is a gift of love that truly builds lasting character.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tribute, Andrew; I'm truly and deeply touched! As you know, as fathers we often wonder if what we're doing will turn out for good or ill. I'm pleased to see that my time as a father seems to have turned out as well as yours is in the process of doing. I'm proud of your fathering! And while I'm at it, thanks for being a cooperative son, working with us to find the right way.


PS You never complained about the $100 bill I spotted on the street, sent you after, then let you keep. Guess that one was worth the embarrassment! ;-)