Bearing the Family Name

This week is my father’s birthday. He would have been 84. As it was, he passed away shortly after his 62nd birthday. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been so long ago. Having been one of the greatest fathers I have ever known, it’s hard not to spend time thinking about him around this time of the year.

Born into a small farm town bearing his family’s name, my father’s parents were older when he was born. An only child, he inherited the family farms when he was in his early twenties. Not wanting to be a farmer for the rest of his life, he sold the farms to his uncles and headed off to see the world. Joining the military, he was spared battle when the war ended before he finished training. After his stint in the military, he spent some time as the owner of an airplane mechanic shop (he told me the pressure was too great knowing if he made a mistake someone would crash and die). He also owned a log truck company; all of two trucks. He sold out when his logging partner wanted to expand. Yes, I could have been the son of a trucking magnate. Eventually, he settled into what has now become the family business: prison work.

As a young man, he fell in love, married and his wife became pregnant. Unfortunately, shortly after giving birth to my oldest sister, his wife died of complications from the delivery. I often wondered how he could have dealt with such a tragedy. He had no parents. He walked out of the hospital with a child, but no bride. For some, this would have been too much to endure. Fortunately, my sister’s grandparents took them in and helped raise the baby. If he had emotional scars from the experience, he never showed it. Maybe he didn’t feel like he had the luxury of wallowing in self pity.

Eventually, he met, fell in love and married my mom. They stayed that way until his death. In a world where most of my friend’s parents were split up or they had a step-parent, I lived in a non-traditional home with both my parents. That was then. Today, of course, in-tact families are even rarer. Seven years or so later, our family was complete with four kids. We grew up without wanting much. Not that we had much. Our memories were filled with camping, boat races, and barbeques in the back yard. What we lacked in stuff, my parent’s made up in experiences.

I learned a lot from my Father. He taught me to take care of my family. He showed me how to be husband and a father. To be fair, he wasn’t perfect at either, but he was close. He taught me about integrity and character. And, he taught me about responsibilities and work ethics. He was respected by everyone who knew him, including the inmates he worked with. Many of them have told me so. I always say, if I could be half the man he was, I would be satisfied.

Over the years, I have had hundreds of conversations with teenagers at church, and in my work in juvenile corrections. One topic of conversation I seem to always end up on is fathers and father figures. When asked about the subject, many of those I speak with share that they either have no father, or their relationship with their father is severely broken. As I talk with them, I ask about other men in their lives that may provide a fatherly influence. Believe it or not, many of them don’t even have that. As I talk with them, I share how important it is for them to have a father influence in their life. I offer ways that they can connect, and I encourage them to actively seek out and develop such a relationship. In fact, I tell them it is absolutely necessary to have a father influence in order to have a successful life. Why so important? I use an analogy of someone being tasked with drawing an elephant when they have never seen one before – difficult enough for someone like me to draw one, but utterly impossible for someone who has never seen an elephant before. Without an example of a father to observe, a boy can never become one.

Why is it so important? What if we just didn’t have a father figure in our life? The problem is our earthly fathers are the example we have of our Heavenly Father. Their purpose is not simply to assemble Christmas presents, put a roof over our head and food on the table, teach us how to throw a football and make French toast. We need them to help us understand our Father God. Otherwise, we just can’t have the complete understanding we need Him. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it best when he said, “Whoever does not have a good father should procure one.” It’s probably the only thing I ever read of his that made any sense. So, it must be good.

What kind of Father is God? He’s the kind of Father who loves us unconditionally. Most of us in the world only think we know what unconditional means. He’s the kind of God who is patient with His children. I only wish I had the patience my dad had. He’s the kind of Father who rejoices when His son returns home after squandering his inheritance on sex, drugs, and rock and roll (ok, that’s a bit of a paraphrase). Ultimately, He is the kind of Father who wants the best for His children, but respects them enough to let them choose the path they will take.

One of my favorite pictures of me and my dad is a photo of us when I was probably five or six. He’s holding me in his arms. I have booth my arms around his neck and, you can tell, I am squeezing tight. I’m kind of surprised I didn’t choke him. What I like about the picture is that it reminds me just how close I was to him at that moment. So close; I was not going to let go. So close nothing could hurt me when I was in his arms. I realize that is how close I want to be to my Father God. That’s my example. As I miss my own earthly father this week, I realize how grateful I am to him for being such a great example.

As I stumble with my own children, I always make sure to hug them. Even though they are considerably older than six, and I could never actually pick them up. I make sure I am not stingy with my love and affection. Of all the lessons my father taught me, that one I’m sure, was the most important of all. Thanks dad.

________________________________________

Michael Yoder is a married father of three. He has been involved in local youth ministry for over 20 years and currently oversees the Youth Program at Bible Center Fellowship in Salem, OR. His current position as the Assistant Superintendent of Transitional Services at the Oregon State Penitentiary puts food on the table and a roof over his family’s head.

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