Thirty-five years ago, I observed my first father-less Father’s Day. Just a few weeks earlier, on the day after I returned home from my junior year of college, my dad passed away. That morning, I’d heard him and my brothers talking as they ate breakfast before heading off to school and work. Regrettably, I decided not to get up and join them, preferring the luxury of sleeping in. That was my last chance to give Dad a hug, tell him I loved him and kiss him good-bye. And I missed it.
Dad was a pastor at a time when ministry was considered an all-consuming, 24-7 calling. A pastor who gave himself wholly to the Lord’s work could trust God to make up for whatever neglect his family suffered. I didn’t understand until years later how difficult that was for my mom, but Dad’s devotion to the Lord had a profound effect on each of us kids.
Shortly after I was born, Dad accepted a position as full-time camp director at Lutherdale Bible Camp in Elkhorn, WI. School holidays and vacations meant camp was in session, and since Dad had no full-time assistant for the first 12 years, our family vacations consisted of visiting grandparents whenever a trip could be squeezed in. Summers especially kept Dad busy. He’d be up to ring the wake-up bell at 7 a.m., come home for a short nap in the afternoon, and then stay up until midnight to make sure all campers were in their cabins and asleep. We’d rarely see him at home during the summer, but I knew if I needed him, all I had to do was look in his camp office or somewhere on the grounds.
I never felt neglected because I knew without any doubt he’d be there if I needed him. He drove me to the hospital late one night when my appendix ruptured, staying through the emergency surgery until I was awake and back in my room. He was in the audience for my first band concert when everyone else in the family had other commitments.
Still, in many ways, Dad was a stranger to me until the summer I worked in the camp kitchen. There, in his work environment, I learned to know my dad. I saw his compassion for people who were hurting, his patience with those who sometimes appeared incompetent, his willingness to help anyone who needed a break. When the water pump broke one summer, I saw him carry pails of water from the lake to keep the toilets running, and I wondered that the camp director was willing to perform such a menial task.
Many times, the staff taught me who Dad was. One counselor, engaged to be married, told me how she went to him for advice on building a successful marriage. When she asked how to keep her husband interested in her year after year, he told her she’d need to ask my mom. Another staff member confessed to me how several of the counselors, wanting to work out some differences, had gone off campus late one night–a serious breach of rules. When Dad learned of it, he asked for verification. Embarrassed by the intentional disobedience, the counselor admitted it was true.
“I trust everything got worked out?” Dad asked.
“Good.” That was all Dad said about the matter, but the counselor never again broke the rules, never again wanted to betray Dad’s trust and feel his disappointment.
I was 21 when Dad died, still just a kid in many ways. I’ve missed knowing him as an adult. Missed his wisdom, his love, his humor. Now and then, at the supper table on a winter night, he’d tell us of an event he or someone he knew had experienced. Not until he spoke the punchline did we realize it was a joke. I suppose my family’s penchant for puns and jokes is a legacy from Dad.
My dad gave nearly 20 years of his life to the camp, but in the end, a rift in the governing board forced him out of his job. I never heard him express any anger or bitterness over the unjust end to his career. Never a word against any of those who forced him out. To this day, we don’t know all the factors that led to his dismissal. He never spoke of it, desiring above all that the camp continue in its ministry of teaching kids and adults of the love of Jesus Christ, our Savior.
A year and a half after leaving the camp, he was gone. Following his funeral, a woman who knew him from many years of attending family camp whispered in my ear, “Your dad didn’t die of a heart attack. He died of a broken heart.” I suspect she was right. But his heart was healed the moment he stepped into eternity. And ever since then, he’s been celebrating Father’s Day with his Heavenly Father.
Dad, if you can see this, thanks for your tender and unfailing love. Thanks for setting an example of integrity for us kids and for all who knew you. Thanks for modeling devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.