A father’s influence

By the Rev. John Burns

Songwriter Steve Goodman wrote the following words about his father in his emotionally laden composition “My Old Man”:

And oh the fights we had/When my brother and I got him mad/He’d get all boiled up and he’d start to shout/And I knew what was coming so I tuned him out/And now the old man’s gone, and I’d give all I own/To hear what he said when I wasn’t listening/To my old man.

I have lived half my life without my father. He died when I was 30. I am now 60. He never met my wife, two of my children, my daughter-in-laws or any of my grandchildren. Not only did he not meet a single person in the church I’ve served for 25 years, but he also never knew I took the job. For half my life, I’ve been unable to seek his advice, benefit from his support or receive his affirmation. Yet, although I often “tuned him out” when I was a boy, and although I’ve not heard his voice, felt his embrace or smelled his Old Spice cologne in 30 years, my father still speaks to me.

He communicates not so much in memorable lectures or pithy words of insight that come to mind, but through his way of life. My father took to heart Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy 6:6–7 on how to guide children in the way of the Lord. Moses said, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” As a deacon, Sunday school teacher and every service attender of the Baptist church in which I grew up, my father practiced his faith in our home, at his job, in our neighborhood and in our church.

It’s his way of life that continues to guide me. I think of his integrity when I’m under pressure to compromise my values, his humor when I’m on the verge of taking life too seriously and his simple faith when I make following Jesus too complicated.

Much to my surprise, and his, too, I assume, I am not much impacted by his lapses. The days he lost his temper, those times when he made a big deal out of mistakes that I thought didn’t matter, his indifference to my Little League baseball career, his preference to take his day off when I was in school, have become overshadowed by the example of his consistent, everyday determination to follow Jesus. Even when he failed, he taught me the same lesson. For he was quick to admit his mistakes, seek God’s forgiveness and thank God for the mercy and grace to continue his journey of discipleship.

The specific nature of my father’s lasting influence on my life gives me hope that my children, too, will not be overly impacted by my lapses. Randy Newman wrote, “God bless the potholes/Down on memory lane.” I trust that there will be enough potholes in my children’s memories to mute all those things I shouldn’t have said. I take comfort in their ability to tune me out. Each of my offspring has had to spend every Sunday morning listening to their father, the preacher. I can’t imagine how that would feel. Self-preservation required that they not listen to every word. Just yesterday, one of my children admitted that he fell asleep in the midst of my latest theological masterpiece. Thankfully, my experience with my own father assures me that words fade away but a life well lived speaks forever.

My prayer is that, one day, if my children realize they’ve lived half their lives without me, something I have stood for, believed in or loved with my whole heart will continue to guide them when they need such guidance. I’ll be with God but, hopefully, something of who I am will walk with them. How we live this day truly has power beyond our years, so may our lives shine forth into the generations that will follow.