by Steve Watters
Christmas songs have a way of collecting memories over the years. Held in the vault for all but a limited time of the year, they tend to accumulate memories for better or worse. The first time I noticed this was with the song “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” That’s the song that was playing when I was around 9 years old and heard that the parents of boys at my school had died in a car accident after a night of Christmas caroling. Over 3 decades later, that beautiful song still stirs haunting emotions of that tragedy.
I see this in a significant way now as I listen to Handel’s Messiah and I’m reminded of the phone call I received 10 years ago this week from my mom in the middle of a performance of Messiah telling me my dad was near death. My sorrow is triggered again when I hear Messiah and, yet that music also stirs gratitude for God’s grace.
God’s grace is throughout Messiah as it follows the hope that emerges from hopelessness and then follows the promised Messiah through birth, death, resurrection and consummation. But when I listen to it each December, it also reminds me of God’s grace in what He impressed on me as a dad through my dad’s death.
In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis observed that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains,” adding, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” My pleasures and my conscience had, to a degree, been shaping me as a dad to be engaged in the lives of my young children. But it was in the pain of my dad’s death that I saw more clearly the eternal weight of my commitments as a dad.
That season impressed heavily on me the significance of dad’s making and keeping three simple commitments:
It was evident at my dad’s funeral that making and keeping those commitments shapes generations in a way nothing else can. A few years ago, I wrote a series of articles for Boundless webzine called “Presley to Preacher” (http://www.boundless.org/adulthood/2004/presley-to-preacher-part-1) about my dad’s life as a rock singer turned pastor. Those articles tell about the trajectory my dad was on as a young husband and father and the dramatic difference it made in our family and community when he changed directions.
I won’t repeat the long version of the story here, but I want you to know some of the details that shaped me so significantly, and that I hope will inspire you as a dad while you still have a primary opportunity to shape your children.
Let’s look at each commitment:
Provide for your family faithfully with resources and presence
The haunting reality of my dad’s story is that we could have easily had a different kind of funeral. It could have been a dramatic scene with musical celebrities, memories of amazing concert tours and praise for musical accolades. Several of my dad’s old band mates as well as some significant musicians did attend his funeral. But while they talked about his life as a musician, they couldn’t help but also talk about his love for God and his family—those were the commitments of his life that impressed them more, especially the musicians who had lost their faith and families along the way.
And it was those faith and family commitments that shaped my life, even though as a child I often imagined what it would have been like if my dad had stayed focused on his goal of becoming a millionaire in the music business. Each year growing up as we decorated our tree to the soundtrack of Elvis Christmas music (another set of songs loaded with childhood memories), I thought about the story of my dad meeting Elvis in 1973 after a day of recording at Sun Studios in Memphis. Meeting his musical idol was the pinnacle of dad’s career, but as I write about in the “Presley to Preacher” articles, it was also a glimpse of where his life might have headed, as he saw the toll of Elvis’s career on his faith and family.
Dad never had a more glamorous job than his time as a rock singer. After he left the music business, he worked as an encyclopedia salesman, a feed salesman, a woodstove salesman, a carpenter, and other unglamorous jobs—but he faithfully provided for our family and came home every night to love on us before getting up to do it again the next day. That simple commitment can’t be overvalued. It was impressed on me at dad’s funeral that professional accolades at death are worthless if they are undermined by neglected families.
Love your wife and children generously and faithfully
In the last conversation I had in person with my dad, he told me that next to believing Christ for salvation, the best thing he ever did in life was marry my mom and have my brothers and me. He went on to tell us just how much he loved us. It was a joy to hear him say those words and know they were true from my experience—that they were consistent with the life I watched him live, even at the toughest points.
I never had to wonder if my dad loved my mom. He acted like a perpetual newlywed around her. We were treated regularly to their displays of affection in our home, and often in public as well. Just as important, my brothers and I never saw him look twice at another woman. And we heard dad praise mom frequently for all kinds of things—her beauty, her piano playing, her cooking, her decorating, her work in the garden, whatever he found praiseworthy.
He faithfully loved my mom through the full spectrum of the vows—for better and worse, health and sickness, and rich and poor. In fact, it was his commitment to love her at the low points of sickness and tight finances that kept those lows from seeming too traumatic to my brothers and me.
And I never had to wonder if my dad loved my brothers and me. He told us often, but what really spoke volumes to me was the unconditional love he showed to my twin brother as he followed a prodigal path. Watching him extend relentless grace and truth to my brother for over a decade of turbulent wandering gave me a glimpse of God’s amazing grace, and expressed the gospel with the same force that my dad presented it from the pulpit in his 25 years as a pastor.
I was convicted at my dad’s funeral that I too often find myself living in the “eternal now”—thinking that life will be an endless version of the current chapter. But chapters end. Dads die. Children grow up. Young couples get older. And we just can’t take for granted that we’ll get more future opportunities to express and show generous, faithful love. Today is the day.
Love God foremost and point your family to eternal life with Him
Just as I never had to wonder if my dad loved my family, I never had to wonder if he really believed the things he said about God. There was no disconnect between his life at church and his life at home. Through regular devotions, nightly prayers, and ongoing family conversations, my brothers and I had no reason to believe the Christian faith was isolated to Sundays. But more importantly, we witnessed our dad loving God with his all his heart, mind and strength. We watched him tear up talking about Jesus; watched him tell strangers the Good News; and watched him love prisoners, drug addicts, shut-ins and other desperate folks like someone who really believed Matthew 25:31-46.
I learned later in life that observing authentic faith in a dad is an off-the-chart indicator for the likelihood that faith will transfer from one generation to the next. I realize salvation requires a work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, but a dad who truly loves God and leads his family accordingly is a significant means by which the Holy Spirit works.
Finally, Dad made clear that nothing was more important than finding eternal life in Christ. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got a college education. For one thing, my dad never had the means to pay for it, but he also didn’t make as big a deal about my education or future career as I saw other dads do. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. He celebrated my accomplishments, sought to teach me as much as he could along the way and taught me how to work hard, but he had me look to horizons beyond my future education and work—to eternity. He saw no other success in life as more important than being ready to stand before God at final judgment and being welcomed into eternity with the words “well done.”
I’m humbled to look back now and realize how God worked in my dad’s death to impress these commitments on me when my children were still young—and in fact, when my oldest was the age I was when my dad left his musical career. I pray I can be faithful till the end as my dad was and that’s why I ask the Holy Spirit every day to give me sufficient strength to fulfill these commitments in my life. I pray you’ll seek that as well.
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