Lessons Learned from My Dad
As I considered what I might write this month, especially with consideration for Father’s Day, I initially thought I might write an article about spiritual lineage. Father’s Day is one of those holidays that honestly makes me a little uneasy. The holiday presents similar challenges to that of Mother’s Day: how can I honor the holiday without alienating those who grieve on this day? Additionally, preachers run the risk of totally exhausting the metaphor of God as parent, which can be problematic for those congregants who have had traumatic or otherwise altogether negative experiences with their own parents. Advent, Christmas, and Easter all lend themselves to endless lessons and sermons. But how might Christians observe less religiously anchored holidays? For me, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are both occasions for remembrance. While I can certainly speak of God as divine parent with some caution, in recent years I have been more inclined to reflect on spiritual fathers and mothers from Christian history for these holidays. To speak of our Christian lineage—saints and martyrs, preachers and servants, liberators and healers—as a collection of spiritual fathers and mothers helps to anchor all of us in a different kind of family: one that does not hinge on the health or success of our own nuclear families.
And yet, even though my imagination is drawn to spiritual lineage this week, I must admit that part of my spiritual lineage is indeed my biological dad. My dad, Don McLaughlin, has been a preacher my entire life, and has given his life to the work of God in the world. The man is not perfect—and he would be the first to let you know. But I figured that for this holiday, I would invite you all to share in some of the lessons I have learned from this man who in many ways has been a spiritual giant in my life. So, here are four lessons I learned from watching and listening to my dad over the years. I hope that these lessons will extend far beyond me, to bless our extended spiritual family.
1) People are simply complex. People are always more complex than you can readily see on the surface. Every single person in your church carries deep and hidden wounds, secrets, fears, and insecurities. There will be moments in our ministries where people surprise us with their reactions or responses. Maybe you thought you were preaching a totally innocuous, and even pleasant sermon, but one of your congregants unexpectedly lashes out at you. “Where did that come from?” you wonder. And maybe you even think, “What is wrong with them?!” The temptation, of course, is to defend yourself. Sometimes the temptation may even be to fire back at the person. But my dad always taught me to pause; look deeper at the person. The sermon hit a sensitive nerve, somehow, somewhere. Who is the child of God in front of you, and why are they hurting? A good minister, and a good sibling in the faith, will strive to look at people deeply. People are simply complex; thus, our compassion and our empathy must become dynamic, flexible, and intuitive.
2) Always give people a dignified way forward. People mess up. Oftentimes people make mistakes that are born out of their aforementioned complexity. Other times people mess up because they don’t know better yet. No matter why a person messes up, we should always give them a dignified way forward. If we are to affirm the image of God in each person, and if we truly believe in the active work of the Spirit to restore all that is broken in this world, then we must create avenues for people to recover. This is not to say that people should not endure consequences; consequences are actually necessary for the development of a person’s dignity. Rather, to always give a dignified way forward is to extend forgiveness, and look for ways to affirm a person’s humanity and inherent value.
3) Always look for the story. Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns. We are always narrating life, as we navigate drama and discomfort, and anticipate resolution. One thing my dad taught me through his preaching is that there is always a story to tell. Listen carefully to the people around you, and you will hear the story of God’s pursuit of humanity. Pay attention to details; there you will find unexpected beauty and fodder for curiosity. Look at peoples’ eyes; study their hands; observe their postures. When you pay attention with an open mind and heart, you will discover endless stories around you—stories that will break your heart, stories that will inspire, stories that will trouble you, and stories that will force you to think. Look for the stories, listen for the words.
4) Lastly, and most importantly, love first. For my dad, this wisdom stems from God’s own initiative to love us first. To love first means to assume a posture of love for the world around you, not waiting for anyone to earn your love or approval. This kind of love demands radical hospitality—the kind of hospitality that is necessary to welcome the complexities of life, to affirm the inherent value of each human, and to listen to people’s stories. To lead a life of love first is to be transformed, ourselves, in the radical love of God, so that we may better love our neighbors.
I suppose you could think of this CHARIS post as a tribute of sorts, but more than that I hope you will be blessed by the wisdom of this spiritual family member, whom I am honored to call dad. I hope that during this Father’s Day season you will take time to consider the wisdom of those who go before us, and that you will be inspired to lead a life of service and love for your communities.