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Tribute to an imperfect father: A son's reflections on Father's Day

It will soon be two decades since he suddenly left us. I was just thirty-nine at the time, a minister, as he had been for nearly half a century. But, as it does to everyone, time had caught up with him. When it did, Dad reluctantly retired from the pastorate. They made Louisville, Kentucky their retirement home and, although they lived across town from the church I served, seldom did a week go by but what they'd be in church on Sunday. One day, they surprised me and joined. Unquestionably, it was one of the happiest days of my life.

But, the happiness and pride I felt was short-lived. By nightfall, Dad suffered a massive stroke, lived ten days and died. We held a memorial service for him in the church where he had been a member only a very few hours. Dad's influence was far-reaching, much more so than we ever imagined. More than a thousand people showed up to pay their respects. Someone told me later it was the largest funeral service in the church's history. My older brother gave the eulogy, my younger brother sang, and I gave the funeral sermon.

I once heard Barack Obama say, "A son is either trying to live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes." For a long time after his death, I viewed my father's unexpected passing one big cosmic mistake. I was confused and angry at him for leaving. My life began to unravel. As a consequence, I left the ministry altogether, changed careers, and, since my marriage had not been a priority in my life either, when Dad died, so did it.

Furthermore, I wondered where God was in all of this. In fact, over time, I grew mad as hell at her. "Why would you take my father? What kind of God are you, anyway?" I had counseled others to look to their faith in times of crisis. In my own crisis, I found little help in my faith. Where does a minister turn when he/she has doubts? Fears? Anger? Sadness? For many months following his passing, I was the proverbial basket-case. For about two years to be exact; but, time heals and I eventually did.

In the last few days, I've been thinking much about Dad. So, on this Father's Day, I've found myself expressing personal thanks for the many priceless things I learned from my father.

I learned early on that Dad was not a perfect man. He made his share of mistakes. One of them was that he was so busy with church work he had little time for us. He would sacrifice just about anything, even time with his family, if he thought it would enhance his image in front of others. What's interesting to me is that, while I grew up recognizing these flaws in him, and resenting him for them, once I became an adult, a minister, and a father myself, I pretty much repeated the same pattern with my own family.

My Dad used to say, "Son, there's not much about life, about yourself, or about God that you'll ever understand. Learn to live with ambiguity, be at peace, and forgive yourself and others when you make mistakes, and don't forget to forgive God, too." I've long since forgiven him for leaving, forgiven God for taking him, and today, I am at peace. I still miss him and it doesn't take much to make me cry whenever I think about him. But, I no longer regard his death as a mistake. I've learned so much from Dad, especially how to forgive. How could I be anything but grateful for this?

I learned to laugh at life, with others, and at myself from Dad. He had a joke for every occasion. My brothers and I had heard all of them dozens of times. But, he'd say, "Did I ever tell you about the time..." and we'd say, "Only about a thousand times." Then, he'd proceed as if we'd never heard it before. At the punch-line we'd laugh as if we never had. It's a funny thing but, today, I'd give almost anything to hear him tell a story I've heard a thousand times before.

Dad taught me the value of hard work; the importance of charity, too. I got my first job at age twelve, delivering the Lexington Herald-Leader. At five every morning, my older brother and I folded the newspapers, then rode our bicycles around the neighborhood delivering papers before daylight. That first month, I think I made twenty bucks. As I was basking in my financial windfall and imagining all I would buy with it, my Dad handed me an offering envelope for church and said, "A tithe of twenty bucks is two dollars. That much is God's part. Put it in this envelope and drop it in the offering plate on Sunday."

The good book says, "God loves a cheerful giver." Well, maybe so, but my Dad didn't believe God was too particular about how we gave. The funny part is this: that was more than forty years ago and today, whenever I receive a paycheck, the first check I write is the charity check. And, what's really funny is that today I actually enjoy writing it.

Dad was a very devout man. And, he wanted his sons to grow up being devout, too. But, he was wise enough to know what many religious parents do not. You cannot simply tell a child what to believe and then think you've successfully transferred the faith from one generation to the next. Dad knew instinctively what Deepak Chopra expressed beautifully: "Beliefs are a mere cover-up for insecurity. You only believe in the things you're not certain about."

He knew that, until you have forged a faith in the crucible of your own experience, you might grow up with a a religious identity, but you'll hardly be a spiritual person. Dad modeled for us the spiritual values that were important to him. Instead of telling us what we should believe or how we must live, he left it to us and to God to work out together. As a consequence, I am a deeply devout person today because I choose to be, not because I've been cloned or coerced into being religious.

My Dad took serious the teachings of Jesus. Instead of qualifying or explaining away the radical things Jesus said, such as, "Love your enemies," Dad put it into practice. Were he here today, he would be among the few who are actually embracing our Islamic brothers and sisters and calling for an end to all wars, the majority of which are religiously instigated anyway. He'd be among those pleading for equality and justice for all, whether you're gay or straight, Palestinian or Jew. He'd remind people that authentic faith is about being fully human and learning to live in the here and now and at peace with others; not escaping this world and living in some imaginary place in the future.

In an age of religious dogmatism and thoughtless fundamentalism, whether in Christianity, Islam, or any other religion, it is my sincerest wish that every child within the human family would have the opportunity of being raised, as I have, by a father who, though not a perfect man, is worthy to be remembered and so honored on what we call Father's Day.

I regularly post thoughts and stories just like this one on my blog (and I've written a whole book on the spiritual insights to which I've been the beneficiary over the years). I'd love to share some of the things I've learned with you. Just visit my website for more information and for the books I've written. From there, you can visit my blog for more online reading. Go to: http://www.stevemcswain.com.

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