The most important man in my life, my father, died today, at around 4:20 p.m. after being diagnosed with lung cancer over a year ago. What a blessing to have had him this long after that diagnosis, which, as you can imagine led to an ugly, though mercifully brief, end. But I must say that watching him over the last four days slowly come to the end of his earthly life was the most painful and yet deeply and richly meaningful thing I’ve ever experienced. Beautiful moments indeed. When one of us asked him, "Dad, are you looking forward to meeting Jesus?" He said, in a slow, small whisper to which he had been reduced, "I already have." And how wonderful to hear him say again, "I love you."
I held my dad in my arms as he took his last breath, even as he held me in his arms shortly after I took my first breaths, and most importantly as he held me during my baptism, something not at all common in 1962 when the thing to do was to have the female godparent hold the child. But my father insisted on holding his son as he was brought into the kingdom of God through the washing of water and the word. And it was my father who first placed my Lord’s body into my mouth when I received Holy Communion at my confirmation, as he assisted the pastor in distributing the elements. I remember looking up at him and seeing the tears in his eyes.
My father was the principal of the Lutheran school where the very first Bible verse I was required to memorize was: "God is love" and the second: "We love God, because He first loved us." As these beautiful truths were unfolded the faith given me in Baptism I was deeply routed in Christ and His Gospel. Profoundly rooted through the nurture of my parents and my Lutheran school teachers.
My parents literally scraped by to provide for me and my brother in a time when Lutheran teacher salaries were worse than they are today, and if you know much about Lutheran teacher salaries, you have some idea of just how low their salaries were. But I had no idea how poor we were, for I recall only very, very happy memories of a loving father and mother.
I remember fondly sitting nestled next to my father in church, in the very first pew of church, on the left side, where I now sit with my family. People wonder why we sit there. I’ve always sat there, and it began next to my father.
My father set an example to me of absolute devotion and dedication to God’s Holy Word and the Lutheran Confessions, instilling and nurturing and encouraging in me a deep love of Lutheranism. He set an example for me of how one lives as a Christian husband and father. A Christian husband who loved his wife with honor, respect, devotion and kindness. My parents had a partnership that I’ve rarely witnessed in any other couple. They provided together a warm, loving home to my brother and me. He devoted his whole life to work in the church, serving as a Lutheran principal and school teacher. My mother’s and father’s example of service to Christ and His church, unselfish, total service, is why I decided to become a pastor. And then, my father, watching me attend the seminary, decided himself to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a pastor and so, at age 50, picked up and left his home of 26 years, to attend the seminary. What fun it was to attend seminary at about the same time. I was the upper classman! I even was able to preach his ordination sermon. My father startled a few of his fellow seminary students when the other men heard him slip once in public and say to me, "See you later, sweetheart," one of his many terms of endearment for his sons! He caught quite a bit of good-natured ribbing that day, and he just smiled and the men smiled too, nodding knowingly of the special love between father and son. My dad was a strong, tough man, with a loving, tender nature.
During his years of service in Pensacola, Florida he patiently and persistently worked toward the integration of black and white teachers in a time when such behaviors resulted, not infrequently, in cross burnings in the front yard. He was not doing it to "make a statement" but simply because Christians do not treat their fellow men as anything less than fully human, and Christian brothers and sisters even more so. It was a time in our country where a little boy could take a drink from the "black only" fountain at the Sears Roebuck, with the permission and encouragement of his mother, only to have the sales clerk nearby glare and say, "That’s only for blacks!" My mother responded, "Is the water any different?" He stood by a white man who hired black people, encouraging him to remain strong, even when his store was burned to the ground by racists.
My father was beloved by students, parents, coworkers and members of the congregations he served as a pastor in Indiana and Michigan.
My father was a model husband, father, teacher, pastor and Christian. Sons, of course, tend to put their fathers on pedestals. And may our good and gracious God grant to all Christian fathers the faith, confession and virtues that justify the high regard in which their little boys hold them, so that they, like me continue to hold them in that same high regard. May God grant my father peace eternal! I love you Dad. You loving son, Paul
PS — Several lessons learned through this experience:
God used my dad to teach me how to die. Thanks be to God for that.
The classic Lutheran chorales are the greatest sermons ever preached.
The Pastoral Care Companion is a priceless treasure.
Pastors: please never forget that you visit a home at at time like this you are truly Jesus to the family. You come in his stead, and by his command. You bring us His word of Absolution and His body and blood, which you put into our grieving and hurting bodies and souls. What a blessed ministry you have. What a wonderfully peace-giving and calming presence you bring when you bring us Jesus and the power of His resurrection as we watch our loved ones fading away.
What indescribable comfort the Gospel is.