When I was young I never had the slightest intention of being an obedient child. The only thing my father and I had in common was that we were both prodigal sons. I could never live up to his expectations, and it seemed the only thing we knew how to do was make each other angry. I packed up that anger and took it with me when I left home, carried it for years like a backpack full of rocks. I can say these things now because I know that an awful lot of men out there can relate, and because, in my case, it’s not the end of the story. My father and I eventually became friends. I grew to love the man, and I know that he loved me. In time, he even came to be proud of me, and he let me know it. The change in our relationship was something only God could have accomplished. I know this was true in my father’s case because I could see God’s fingerprints on his life.
Mine was not the only fence he mended. Over the years I watched my father go back and rebuild every relationship that he’d torn down in his youth— every last one of them. I don’t know many people who can say that. When he died he had no debts, no regrets and, as far as I know, not an enemy in the world.
There’s no doubt in my mind about where my father is now. The Bible tells us— Jesus tells us, in his own words— about the final test, about how, in the end, he decides which of us belongs to him.
“I was thirsty and you gave me a drink of water. I was hungry and you fed me.”
For many years my parents worked with a mission organization, traveling all over the country at their own expense. Sometimes they helped build churches, and sometimes they did disaster relief. They handed out cups of water to thirsty people, sandwiches to the hungry. One year they made a trip to the border of Mexico with a team of doctors, crossing over every day to bring medical care and clothing to the destitute. But the officials at the border wouldn’t allow them to bring boxes of donated clothing into the country, so my parents would get up every morning and dress in fifteen or sixteen layers of clothes, then drive across the border, take them off and give them away.
“I was naked and you clothed me.”
As for me, I can remember exactly when my relationship with my father changed, and it’s a moment I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. In my early thirties I had an accident that put me in the hospital for five or six weeks, and every day when my father got off work he would stop by and visit for an hour or two. He’d sit at the foot of my bed and we would talk. We just talked baseball and fishing and work, nothing important. The important thing is that we talked. We’d never done that before. We began to see each other as human beings.
He was there one afternoon, just the two of us in my hospital room, talking about nothing, and it was almost time for him to go. My feet stuck out from underneath the sheet, and sitting at the foot of the bed he noticed that the bottoms of my feet were dirty from walking around barefoot in the burn unit. He didn’t say a word about what he was doing, he just got up and went over to the sink, wet a wash-rag, squeezed it out, then came over to the foot of the bed and washed my feet. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but something in the back of my head said, “Remember this. This is important.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment marked not only a turnaround in my relationship with my father, but with my heavenly father as well.
Not long after that I remembered Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper, the master washing the feet of the slave. He told them to remember this, that it was important, and that if they didn’t get this they didn’t get anything. He was trying to tell us that being Jesus isn’t about following all the rules, it’s about humility and love and forgiveness. It’s about having a servant’s heart.
Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel all the time; if necessary, use words.” My father was never a talkative man, but he preached. He preached with a hammer and saw, a cup of water, a sandwich. A wash-rag.
In his twilight years my father poured out the last ounces of his life taking care of my mother. He was there for her all day and all night, every day, caring for her, keeping up with her medications and answering her endless questions. He had no life of his own, he just served her, out of love. He did this right up until the day he went into the hospital. I’ve never seen a more complete life. He had restored every broken thing in his life. His work was done, his bags were packed and he knew where he was going. He breathed his last with a loving family standing around his bed, singing him into eternity.
I’ll miss him. I’ll never watch another baseball game without thinking about my dad. I’ll never catch another fish, or plane a piece of lumber, or work on the plumbing underneath my house without thinking about my dad. But I am comforted by this one thought: last Sunday, at about eleven o’clock in the morning, God was watching for my dad, and saw him coming from a long way off. Somewhere in heaven a fatted calf died, and the feast began.
Because there is nothing God loves more than a prodigal son, coming home.
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