For the introduction to the Lessons From My Father Series – Click Here
Mark Twain said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”. Apparently, this post is ‘witless‘…get some coffee – it will be a long read!!!
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
– Victor Frankl
I don’t cry. That’s right – no tears…just like Johnson’s Baby Shampoo! It is strange, though, that the older I get, the more trouble I have with occasional moisture build-up in the corner of my eye. It seems to be worse when I watch certain movies or attend significant ceremonies. I have seen the same trend with my dad. When we were growing up, Old Yeller yelp his last and dad would let out exaggerated yawns and other strange noises. My mom and Julie would go through a whole box of Kleenex and dad would stretch out his arms and say, “I’m goin’ go sit for awhile.” (“Sit” was code for bathroom.) Now that my dad is older, all you have to say is “Hallmark” and he wells up.
I used to think that this strange transformation from calloused he-man to weepy grandpa was just a sign of age and something from which I was sure to me immune. Now I’m not so sure that it has so much to do with age as it does with experience.
In was the spring of 1981. I was a sophomore in high school and had won first place in a state forensics competition. This allowed me to compete at the national finals at Rutgers University. My parents cleared their schedules and the three of us drove from central Michigan to New Jersey for the week long competition. Being a small-town kid, the whole experience was amazing. David beats Goliath; Arthur removes the sword; Dantes becomes the Count; stories of rags to riches ran through my head during the whole trip. Success here could mean scholarships, career opportunities…just think of it…this could be the beginning of the rest of my life! It would be nothing but wine, women and song! Ok, maybe root beer, pen-pals and a small sonnet. Either way, this was big for a teen from the sticks.
I competed on Tuesday and since the results were not to be posted until Friday, we would have some time to be tourists and see the sites. That’s when the call came! Mr. Gibson had died. We would be going home early and forfeit the competition. Perhaps one of the sweetest elderly couples in the church, Mr. & Mrs. Gibson had attended for some time. They lived in a well kept home on the edge of town next to the the mill pond and I occasionally mowed their lawn and did some odd jobs throughout the summer. Mr. Gibson had lost his battle with cancer while I was pursuing my future. It was always understood in our family that if someone in the church family needed their pastor – my dad – he would be there. In those days before cell phones and pagers, every family vacation, weekend trip or holiday excursion was met with the same expectation – if the phone rang, we would probably be on our way home. But that is just how it was. Someone in the church was in need and dad was the one to meet it. So we packed our bags and headed back to a beautiful funeral where the Gibson family received every bit of tender comfort that dad could offer. I couldn’t really understand this level of compassion for the “other” family but, although I was disappointed in having to drop out of the competition, I knew that this was the right thing to do.
I need to stop and share another story that helps explain why we seemed so willing to pack up and go.
I played soccer in high school…forward left wing, which meant I would often get the ball and dribble past the sidelines on my way towards the goal. Even though dad wore many hats at our small church, he would clear his schedule so he could come to my games but Dad refused to sit in the stands. He roamed the sidelines and tried to stay close to the action. Whenever I would come blazing past with the ball, he would yell out, “Go, Mike, Go! Shoot it!” And as I would get closer to the goal, he would say, “That’s my boy!” That would serve as fuel to my feet and I would charge the goal and take a shot! On the occasion that I would score, that’s when I would hear a blood-curdling scream –- that would be my mother!. She had been known to stop a good number of sporting events with her piercing pipes. Players would stop dead in their tracks and look at the referee and wonder why he blew his whistle. The “ref” would be looking at the stands wondering who brought a whistle. Nope! Not a whistle…my dad had brought my mom! My mom would then turn several shades of red from silent laughter while her chin became glued to her chest and her shoulders would bounce up and down. It was probably a winning combination, though. The other team would first hear the shout, then the scream and then they would be confused the rest of the game. I got the trophy for most goals that year!
Dad was always there for me. He had made the significant deposits into the Love/Support/Encouragement Bank Account, so when it was time to make a withdrawal, it did not require much to cover the expense.
We would go home from the competition at Rutgers and I would continue to muse over the reasons for dad’s liberal compassion. To this day, there is not a member of dad’s church who hasn’t woke up after surgery to see my dad praying at their bedside, or raised a tear-filled eye while mourning their loss and found my dad waiting…silently, to offer comfort and support. In the few conversations that we have had regarding this issue, the only thing dad has ever said about this ‘passion for compassion’ was about his own father:
“I never really understood what people went through when a family member died until my dad died; then I knew and felt it.”
As I remember back to his brief comment, it occurs to me that it was his experience that softened his heart; not his age. When someone has a loss or expresses a need, my dad is able to draw upon his experience with his father and let it fuel his engine of compassion. When he watches reruns of The Walton’s and feels the tug at his heart – and his tear ducts, it is a lifetime of experiences that allows him to relate to the characters, stories and drama of John Boy. While it is true that experiences come with age, those experiences do not guarantee a positive outcome. They can serve to harden our hearts or soften them. I believe that the more of life we experience, the softer our heart can become. But we must choose what impact they will have on our hearts.
Bryan is a fairly new friend. We only met at work a few years ago but we have a lot in common and we bonded quickly as fast friends. Recently, his father lost the same battle as Mr. Gibson. Here are Bryan’s words about his father:
I just wanted to take a moment to sincerely thank all of you for your support during these difficult times for me and my family. I’d also like to share some brief thoughts about my father. He had been fighting cancer for several years. The truest testimony to his life can be displayed by a vivid picture in my mind. On Tuesday April 7th when the doctors relayed the eminent news of his passing, as he lay in the ICU he was surrounded by his wife, five children, three daughter-in-laws, a niece and granddaughter who stood arm in arm mourning the loss and saying how much they/we loved him. The following day when all the tubes were disconnected and life support removed; my Mom (his wife and best friend for over 41 years) kissed him, hugged him, said how much she’ll miss him and said good-bye. Consider this for just a moment. Can we all be so blessed? Consider a life so rich that in his last hour; he was surrounded by so many; remembering, touching, loving, caring, supporting and saying goodbye. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also”…My Dad’s heart was with and for his family. And that is where his treasure went.
I did not know Bryan’s father and yet, as I read his letter, I begin thinking (a little selfishly) about the loss of my father and what that would mean to me. I share a small part of Bryan’s experience and that produces compassion, empathy and a desire to lend comfort and solace. This whole concept of compassion and empathy being forged by the experiences that we live or witness takes on a new level of significance when I consider another Teacher of life lessons.
“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
Why would the Creator of joy, contentment and peace leave the grandeur of His heavenly home and lower Himself to this fallen world? If He is Creator, would He not just intuitively know the very heartbeat of His creation? Couldn’t He, in His omniscience, sense the depth of pain that comes from a still-born child or the crushing weight that presses down on every breath when you lose your father or life-long companion? I believe that He does know all of these things about us even better than we know it about ourselves and He knew them at creation’s beginning. God has always understood our plight, so there must be another reason (beyond our salvation) for coming to this earth and experiencing humanity – a more personal reason: He wants us to know that He knows. He sent His Son to experience our emotional turmoil and triumph for something other than His benefit. I believe it was simply to allow us to know that he understands.
The phone calls still come to my dad. He still appears in the hospital waiting rooms in the wee hours of the morning and offers the thing that every soul needs – compassion. Our heavenly Father waits by His phone and says, “Call unto Me and I will answer you and show you great and mighty things (Jeremiah 33:3). So when the heavenly phone rings our Father packs up His Words of Life and tells His Son, “We have to go. The family needs Us.”
OPEN MIC: SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
- Who has been there to help you with compassion when you needed it most? Have you thanked them?
- Have you offered this compassion to anyone else?