(Christian Courier column, May 2016)
April 14th marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I journaled throughout his ten-year illness in the hopes of someday writing a book about it. Maybe I’ll still get to that, but if I haven’t managed to do so in 20 years, what are the odds?
Once I had a conversation with friends on this intriguing topic: “Who are the five people in your life who’ve had the strongest impact on your faith?” Topping my list was my dad. It would take – you guessed it – a book to write about his influence on me with appropriate clarity and comprehensiveness. But here’s a teaser.
Dad wasn’t preachy. The closest thing to a sermon might be an emphatic declaration, punctuated with a pointing finger, that you can’t expect a man who is hungry and has no shoes to listen to the gospel. First, you feed him and give him shoes; then you tell him about Jesus. He had a pronounced bias toward a “social gospel.” So I wasn’t completely surprised when, many years after he was gone, Mom revealed to me that her father had once called him a “communist.” As a young whippersnapper working in a cement factory, Dad had the temerity to criticize management and speak up on behalf of the employees. He always sided with “the little man.” No surprise, really. He grew up on “margarine street,” a disparaging Dutch phrase for government-subsidized housing.
When asked to serve his church, Dad didn’t hesitate. He helped organized the Cadet program in Sarnia’s Second CRC and also in the Wyoming CRC, serving there as the club’s first Head Counsellor. Mom still has the faded certificate commending his dedication. He was an elder in both of those churches, too, and served a term as Board Chair for the John Knox Christian School Society.
Dad’s convictions extended beyond his CRC community. Once he met a desperate and penniless Scottish family stranded at the Sarnia train station. He invited these strangers into our home and they stayed with us for several weeks. He spoke up at his local union hall promoting Sunday as a day of rest. Later in life, as a hog farmer, Dad regularly donated pork to widows.
These commendable examples of Christian witness were but the public expression of Dad the family man. He loved our mom. He valued her work as mother and housewife. He complimented her meals in our presence and made sure we understood that a clean and orderly home was not a gift to be disrespected. It all sounds a bit too good to be true, I know, but I do have the corroborating testimony of five siblings.
He treated us kids well, too, patient, encouraging, never given to harshness. I’ll confess I was the most challenging. One night I skipped Young Peoples to meet up with an unchurched guy. I was careful, I thought, to return to church in time to get picked up. I hid in the washroom waiting for the right moment to join the others as they exited the classrooms. Suddenly I heard my dad’s voice. Alas, he’d come early and discovered I hadn’t been there! By the time I worked up the courage to face him, he’d already left.
Flummoxed, I ended up at a friend’s house and had to call for a ride home. Dad said nothing as we drove in the inky night. Finally, turning into our lane, he quietly expressed how disappointed he was in me. He didn’t ask where I’d been or what I’d been doing. I may have mumbled a half-hearted “sorry,” I don’t recall, but his merciful restraint reverberates in my memory.
When I was a child, our church constructed a Wayside Chapel for Travelers that stood for decades on the highway, a shining jewel box when lit up at night, stocked with tracts and a taped sermon by Rev. A. DeJager. Dad helped build or maintain this miniature church (we’re no longer sure which), a storybook edifice that charmed me whenever we drove past.
Suddenly I understand. Dad is that church. A “little man” housing God. An everyday Christian hostel. Come stay with us, soup’s on, pick out a pair of shoes.
Dad wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. But that’s for the book. Here’s today’s takeaway: Weary, perplexed Christian parent, take heart. You are foundation, tabernacle, temple. Glory is your cornerstone. Have faith, keep faith: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).