First of all, thank you for these kind reflections on Dad’s life. He was truly an amazing person. His heart was big. He was what I call a “reformer”, a “protector”, and someone who genuinely wanted to do what was just and right. Sometimes that may have looked like being a bull in a china shop, or it may look like something that would inspire others and would be endearing.
Growing up, Dad and I had a few amazing, intentional conversations. He was always honest, and disarmingly empathetic. Oftentimes I would wonder if he really “got” me or was listening all of the time, yet when we had these conversations, I was amazed at how humble and, even vulnerable he was…that he really did care, even as he wrestled with how to say it. We didn’t always talk, we didn’t always connect…and, at 50, I’m realizing that we did not spend enough time together growing up. Dad had things that he wanted to do, and those were not necessarily things that I wanted to do…yet, Dad had an amazing sense of grace, deep love, and allowed me to grow in the way that I needed to grow. He gave me a gift of being able to question, which I did, a lot…he would always remind me growing up that “But dad” was something I’d say a lot…
Even though we didn’t always talk, I was paying attention, I was watching. And, I know that who I am today was influenced by how my dad conducted his life. Here’s what I noticed:
As a school principal during the time of busing, he wanted to make sure that every kid in his care knew that they were important. If there was an injustice, right or wrong, he inserted himself into the situation and try to make things right. When some parents at his school said that he favored children of color over white kids, he would shrug and remind them, rather forcefully I’d imagine, that all children are wonderful and beautiful and deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, equality, and honor. Dad lived out Jesus’ command to make sure that children would be taken care of and honored. He was a defender of children.
As a man of faith, he took seriously God’s imperative to welcome the immigrant, the foreigner into our community. Growing up, his example of welcoming immigrants, being a true friend, to the Vietnamese families that our church sponsored…as well as folks immigrating from Sri Lanka and India made a huge impression on me. Dad felt God’s love for those seeking a new life in this country, or anywhere and his heart went out to them. He was a man of action, I can remember going to immigrants’ homes and seeing Dad listen, advocate, and work towards making sure they what they need. Not only was that a great example to me, but to everyone that knew what he did for others. When Dad met someone from Africa, Central America, and had the opportunity to hear their story, he would be moved to do something…He was more than just talk.
As a church member, Dad wanted to make sure that everyone felt included. That our actions and language matched up to what he believed Jesus’ actions would be…that doesn’t mean that Dad would talk a lot about God, he actually did what he believed God was pushing him to do. Whether or not it was God, right or wrong, Dad’s determination for action was not in question. I know that there were many times when folks like me, pastors, would have a “come to Jesus” moment with Dad. Yet, they also knew that he was genuine and was a friend. Dad gave of his time, money, and talents in relationships…growing up, he was the volunteer youth director at our church, Cedar Creek Baptist. We would have youth hayrides and bonfires at our house, trips to the Smokies, summer camp at Cedarmore, and so many other memories…
I would notice how dad was being around his friends on trips, and so many family vacations with the Waddles, I saw how he modeled unwavering commitment to his friend, really brother, Paul Waddles. I saw his action in his airstream group, his leadership and friendship in getting things done and having adventures all over the country, Canada, and Mexico. He modeled a love for life, and seeing community form.
As a member of the Wheeler/Jones family, I saw how Dad loved his sisters. They have a bond that goes beyond even life experiences. He was always committed to them, no matter what. I also saw how he treated with respect his parents, Rufus and Francis, and his in-laws, Howard and Elva. He modeled for Beckie and me that kind of commitment that goes beyond the moment, beyond the disagreements or personality differences, he modeled something that we forget often in this world, that family is more than blood or contracts at the courthouse…and when we include everyone, without judging (or much judging), that whatever needs to be worked out, will work itself out. Dad truly loved being at family functions with cousins, sisters, in-laws, nieces, nephews…he, and mom, taught us the importance of being with family.
As a grandfather, Dad was so incredibly proud of McKenzie, Will, and Brennan. Really, they could do no wrong. He may voice his opinion at times…and he certainly had them…but, he would do anything for them, and loved being around them. He may not always have had the right language or had the most fun ideas of what to do…but, he was so content to simply be around them. He was an example to me and so many others of what it means to find his glory in others, especially his grandkids, being truly who they were. Dad modeled what scripture would say is God’s glory…God, as a loving parent, is glorified when we are fully alive…God’s glory is wrapped up in our glory. Check it out, if you don’t believe me, read Colossians or really anything in the Bible. God is crazy about us…Dad was crazy, in love with his grandkids.
Dad also modeled welcoming to Debbie and to Jamie, my amazing partner in life and Beckie’s amazing partner in life…from the moment Deb came into the picture, Dad was for her and so glad to have her as a part of his life. We may joke that it took a while for Jamie, but, really, you could see how Dad loved being around Jamie and so glad that Beckie has him.
As a husband, I saw how dad respected, honored, and loved mom. Even though he would have a unique way of showing it at times, even though he may not have the right words, or the right, shall we say “tone” or “volume”, he revered mom. He included her in everything, she was/is truly his best friend. He knew he had won the lottery with mom, and mom felt the same way about him.
I truly know that mom will be surrounded by so many…she has amazing friends and family that believe in her. And, mom hasn’t met anyone that isn’t her friend! That’s going to be important for her in the days and weeks ahead. She’s also had 50ish years with dad and was raised to be a strong woman by her parents. Mom has an amazing foundation of life well lived, and more life and adventure to live as well. Mom is a force in this world and will embrace this next part of her journey with the peace of knowing that she’s had this gift of time with dad, and now has a gift of mystery and relationship that will take her to other places and experiences.
The writer of Hebrews, in the Bible, says that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, are cheering us on now, and that we are a part of something larger. All of us in this room, if we are honest, don’t know what life after death is like…but, we do have the story of God, a story that says that death is not the final answer, that there is something more powerful than certainty in life, and that is relational fidelity…God’s friendship with us and how we live that with each other. Dad is somehow living into that relationship, into that mystery, with Rufus, Francis, Howard, Elva, Will, Ron, and Matthew…as well as all of our other ancestors and those who come after us. He is now a part of that great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on in this race, this life…friends, in his honor, and in the honor of all of those who believe in us, and in a God who is crazy in love with us, let us run it well.