Archives For Fatherhood

On Burying One’s Father

January 29, 2013 — 22 Comments

marine flagI just buried my father yesterday. Well, not literally, since the service was held in a chapel at the cemetery, but my family and I said goodbye to him in a traditional Christian service. Because he was a combat veteran Marine Corps sergeant major, he received also very impressive military honors at graveside.

It was quite nice. Although he had passed rather quickly, and completely unexpectedly, he had lived a long and full life. That sounds cliché, but during his 84 years he had a successful career in the Corps, enjoyed a long and peaceful retirement, was blessed with a loving and faithful wife, and found great joy in his three children, nine grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren.

Best of all, though, after what some would call a rather misspent youth, he became a good man . . . and ended his days with faith in Christ and with virtues such as repentance, forgiveness and charity evident in his life.

As the day of the funeral was approaching, I recalled one of Jesus’ conversations with several prospective disciples.

As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another [Jesus] said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-60, ESV).

To some, Jesus’ words here sound harsh. However, the Messiah was not encouraging people to cease honoring their parents. After all, that would be in direct disobedience to the Commandments God delivered to us through Moses. No, Jesus affirmed our call to respect and care for our parents. What he was condemning was the excuses we make to delay accepting his invitation to follow him.

While we might offer a truly important reason for our procrastination, we often push back the spiritual “season” of our life with far more lame reasoning. “I’ll settle down after I get married, but right now I just need some time to “enjoy” life.” or “I’ll start going to church once I have kids and they can benefit from it.”

On Sundays we rarely think twice about disobeying another of the Commandments by ignoring the Sabbath and not preserving it’s holiness. Years ago Keith Green wrote a song “Asleep in the Light,” which featured the convicting lyrics:

How can you be so dead

When you’ve been so well fed

Jesus rose from the grave

And you, you can’t even get out of bed.

Most of us live long enough to suffer the loss of a parent. It’s something, perhaps, that you don’t really understand until you experience it yourself. Even then it’s difficult to console others by saying we’ve shared their loss. After all, every relationship is unique, and each human being processes grief in a unique manner.

C.S. Lewis knew well what it was like to lose his parents. His beloved mother died when he was quite young. In Surprised by Joy, he describes the pain. With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.

Alas, Lewis does not describe his father’s passing in his too-brief autobiography. What he does say, reminds me of my own father’s vast reservoir of humor and encouragement as his health waned. Lewis simply writes: “My father’s death, with all the fortitude (even playfulness) which he displayed in his last illness, does not really come into the story I am telling.”

Many of you who have lost your parents can empathize with me, and with the journey I am facing as I adjust to life without either of my parents. Because I loved them, I miss them. And the love makes the pain worth it. Besides, as Paul reminded young Christians in his first letter to the Church in Thessalonica, we “do not grieve as other do who have no hope.” Our hope is secure, resting in the very One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday. In truth, it’s a “holy-day” for all those who offer their thanks to a benevolent God.

Like all holidays, it can be good or bad, depending on the way it is perceived by each individual, and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. Most of us are thankful, for example, for our loving families. And, even if we can’t be together at these special times, we draw warmth and strength from their love. Tragically, others have been victimized by those who should have protected them, and “family” in their eyes is not something to be thankful for at all.

I was not a perfect son. I strove to be a better father. And, now that I’m blessed with seven grandchildren, I’m trying to be the best grandfather I can be

Many years ago, shortly after having our first child, I gave myself a Father’s Day gift. (That’s not a typo. I purchased for myself a modest plaque with a priceless message.) It reads: “the greatest gift a man can ever give his children is to love their mother.”

I displayed this proverb in my office through the years, as a reminder to myself and others of this profound truth. It’s easy to love one’s spouse as a newlywed in the hot flush of youth. It’s also easy, I’m learning, to love my wife in the snug and warm autumn of life. For many, however, the trials and tribulations that are a natural part of all relationships appear insurmountable. Between the newlywed and maturelywed days, it’s not all easy. While our hormones still surge and familiarity breeds corrosive contempt, we may take for granted the person we once vowed to cherish above all others.

The desire to be a decent father greatly amplifies the importance of being a devoted husband. Knowing this made my reading of a recent article quite painful. I had known for years that President John F. Kennedy was rather promiscuous. Yet a recent article in The Atlantic reveals just how debauched the man was. The article, if you have the stomach for it, praises the strength of his wife Jackie, and is available online here.

It describes just a few of his disease spawning liaisons, and noted that he often traveled with one of his so-called secretaries, should there be “any trouble scaring up local talent.” One imagines the dirtiness felt by the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting him during his sordid escapades in the White House pool. The saddest tale for me was his deflowering of a sophomore intern from Wheaton “right there on his wife’s bed.” I won’t sully you with any more accounts.

When I read the article, it nearly made me sick. He was a vile husband. I recalled the numerous famous pictures of him playing with his children—the doting father, one would think. Yet, in reality, just because he was such a malignant husband, he was also an appalling father. To mistreat his wife so badly, was to dishonor his children as well.

The image that came to me as I looked again at the pictures of Kennedy’s glorious Camelot brought to mind Jesus’ words about whitewashed sepulchers “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:26-28, ESV). The verse which follows could be JFK’s epitaph: “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

A More Godly Alternative

C.S. Lewis experienced neither the normal, nor ideal, form of fatherhood. While he loved and respected his own father, theirs was not a close relationship. And then, at the end of his life, the death of his beloved Joy caused him to transition from the already tentative role of stepfather into the fullest demands of single parenthood. Lewis loved his two sons. He was the best father he knew how to be.

Despite being ill equipped, he did the honorable and right thing—he could do no other. He provided for all the physical needs of his sons, and did his best to meet their emotional needs as well. In Lenten Lands, his son Douglas Gresham describes how painful it was to be at The Kilns following his mother’s passing.

In cowardice and self-pity, I deserted the home and the two men whose company and loving support had for so long been all that had preserved my sanity. When at home from school, I was rarely at home. I know now that I could have done far more than I did to help both Jack and Warnie to bear the burdens which were their lot, but with the blind selfishness which is characteristic of egocentric teen-aged boys, I was too wrapped up in myself to spare time for others.

Strangely, Jack and I had, through these difficult years, become very close, and I think that he understood quite well the reasons for my reluctance to be a part of The Kilns at that time. At first, after Mother’s death, with almost unbelievably naïve complacency, I never doubted that The Kilns and Jack would always be there for as long as I needed them. Then, when it began to dawn on me that there was an increasing likelihood of Jack being snatched away, and with him The Kilns, I reacted by rejecting The Kilns entirely and by not daring to love Jack any more than I already irrevocably did.

For his part, Lewis comprehended just how important understanding fatherhood was. In his tribute George MacDonald: An Anthology, he says this about his mentor:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.

Lewis concurred with MacDonald that “Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.” And, if this is indeed true, our emulation of it in this life possesses even more importance than I ever imagined.