July 1st is fast approaching. I’ve known it would arrive sooner or later and it looms large as I think about Father’s Day, but somehow it snuck up on me.  Last July 1st, I celebrated my first official day as the Lead Pastor of Peachtree City United Methodist Church (hard to believe that we’ve already been here for a year!). We also celebrated our son’s 11th birthday on the same day (still trying to figure out how our youngest is that old).  And we found out that same evening that my father passed away.  This will be my first Father’s Day since his passing.

I told some people last summer that I was surprised by my own experience of grief in the wake of his passing.  Part of my role as a pastor for the last 16 years has been to walk through grief and loss with members of whatever community I was serving, yet I was still largely unprepared to travel the same road personally.  My father and I weren’t especially close for a host of reasons (it wasn’t a conflicted relationship, just a bit distant) and we had known for six months that his death was the inevitable conclusion to his journey with pancreatic cancer.  Thus the news of his passing and the days and weeks that followed were obviously sad, but not overwhelming or debilitating.  It wasn’t the days and weeks that got me, it has been the months and months of random memories that have come out of some unknown recesses of my memory:

  • The way he said burrito (I’ll try to spell it phonetically but it defied the laws of phonetics: beww-ree-tow)
  • The restaurant we went to that was on the way to his mother’s house with mile-high meringue on their peanut butter pie (better than it sounds)
  • The time we saw the space shuttle re-entering the earth’s atmosphere at 4:00 AM on the way to a bicycle race in Paris (the one in Texas, of course)
  • The fact that he was preparing to downsize houses in order to help me get through seminary without debt (thankfully I got a full ride instead and only found out about his plan by accident years after the fact)
  • The way he called me ‘Matthew,’ unlike literally everyone else in my life who calls me ‘Matt’

Father’s Day has never been a huge celebration in our family, and I’m sorry to say that I missed more than a few opportunities to celebrate him. I’m confident that this year will be different because the reflection and memory forced on me by grief’s journey has lead me to a deeper sense of appreciation for him and the kind of man he was.  He wasn’t perfect, and I think he struggled to know how to do family, but he knew how to discern right from wrong and had the courage to act according to that conviction regardless of the personal cost.  As challenging as it was to confront the darkness of his service in Vietnam, he eventually came to terms with it, which drove him to spend the last 25 years of his life serving the Vietnam Veteran community and their desperate need for advocates. While he was never too vocal about his spiritual life, he deployed his gifts relentlessly in service to churches who needed his particular skill set (of which there many).

Of all the things I’ve learned in the wake of my father’s passing, the unexpected power of simple reflection and remembrance may be the most important.  Reflection didn’t lead to a revisionist history of dad’s life; it opened new sight-lines into his character and person that helped to reframe my understanding him and my understanding of our relationship.  It’s probably too much to describe this as posthumous healing, but it’s something to that effect. 

I wonder what this kind of reflection and reframing would mean for other relationships that ought to be closer than they are?