Dad is interesting. The son of an older father, whose grandfather was the son of an older father, his family tree appears to be missing a couple of generations. Although it seems incredible, Dad’s great grandfather was born in 1807.
As a result, my father’s family had very old roots. It’s values and its stories came from the earliest times of American society. So he was born with an ancient soul.
He lived on a small strip of inhabitable land beneath the shelter of the Alleghenies, in a tiny village called Chesapeake. It is built on the banks of the Kanawha just barely beyond sight of the much higher elevations where his family lived a generation before. He swam perhaps before he could walk but at least soon thereafter. He farmed when his hands were able hold a hoe. He learned to read the forest floor and knew what animals had been there and when. He learned which berries, roots and leaves people could eat.
Like his father, dad became a contemporary Daniel Boone, as much at home in the woods as in town.
To me, Dad will always smell of sassafras. Although he became a polished, urbane minister, my favorite image of him will always be of him returning from the mountains with game, or from the river with fish. And, every year, he brought paw-paws and sassafras in from the woods.
I didn’t learn those lessons. They already seemed a part of our family’s distant past, when those old folks buried up on the mountain had been alive, back in the days before Lincoln. Dad connected me to that past and loved telling me about it. It just seemed so quaint and remote to a kid growing up ducking under desks to protect himself from Russian bombs.
We moved into Charleston when I was young. Nearly every week we visited Chesapeake and Marmet. It wasn't far. However, those few miles took us into a different world. There were Syrians, Greeks, Jews and Chinese in the city; even a few Presbyterians! In those days, people tended to live in their own ethnically defined community, so school was the place where you met those other kinds of people.
Dad thrived there, in Charleston. Although he never stopped wanting to farm and hunt, he knew he had to adapt to a rapidly changing world. So he started a business to support himself as he pastored our small church. When the church kept growing, he sold his business. Perhaps it was time for a stable, predictable life.
When I was in my teens, Dad decided to move to South America.
People move around a lot now. They didn’t then. It would have been a shock had he said we were moving to Maryland or Pennsylvania. But Ecuador? That might as well been the dark side of the moon! Moving there would involve learning a new language and eating God knows what. But I suppose for Southern West Virginians, if you are going to move out of the state, you will have to learn a new language anyway – it might as well be Spanish!
That’s how, in the spring of 1969, my mom and dad took three children out of the Appalachians Mountains and moved them to the Andes.
My dad started learning our new language right away. He began preaching in it as soon as he knew enough words to get his point across. He made business acquaintances. He met government officials. He started schools. He helped clinics get established in Indian villages. He organized communities of new Christian believers. He worked tirelessly to help younger people rise out of poverty and ignorance. He purposefully and openly ignored all forms of class distinction, which he despised and taught us to despise.
Twenty years later, now in his fifties, Dad returned to the United States. He and my mother had no home. They had spent their savings building churches and schools. They had to figure out how to fit back into a country that had changed more radically than they had imagined.
Dad began by starting a church in West Virginia.
Then, he began planning churches among immigrants. He believed Anglo-Saxon Christians were not noticing the many opportunities for the gospel among the nation’s newest peoples. So he went to work to make a difference.
As they build countless congregations, my dad and mom lived modestly. They stayed out of debt. They invested what they could. They rejected the growing madness that minsters of the gospel should display conspicuous wealth.
So, when dad retired, well into his seventies, their modest home was nearly paid for. As he has repeatedly told me, “I don’t think I will be a burden on you kids. I think I have things pretty well planned out to take care of us.”
And that has proven to be true.
Dad is eighty-one now. His hearing is challenged. He has had a serious bout with glaucoma.
Nonetheless, every morning after prayer he cleans up, dresses up, and goes to work. Sometimes he is busy writing articles or books. Sometimes he is repairing something in the house before it breaks. Sometimes he is taking a trip to speak or meet with someone who needs encouragement.
But here is the takeaway. My dad tried to teach me all sorts of lessons I couldn’t seem to learn. I may have been stubborn. Maybe I was wired differently. For whatever reason, I have not learned nearly as much as I could have. So, in a dozen different ways, Dad is a much better man than I am.
However there is one thing I have learned from Dad. It may be life’s most important lesson: never stop growing.
In many families, the children are gradually forced to parent their parents.
That hasn’t happened in our family. It is not likely to happen. My dad is still a step ahead, still growing, still thinking things anew. He still tries to figure out why young people think differently than he. He wants to know what he can learn from them as well as teach them. He tries to understand new technology and then uses it. He likes a challenge. And he really doesn’t like it when people discourage others.
Not long ago, some people were grumbling about our president. Some of them got pretty passionate. Dad remained silent. After a while he said, “This new president is terribly young and he has such a heavy burden. Maybe we should just pray for him.”
Well. What does one say after that?
It has been hard on Dad to accept his hearing loss. It was really a difficult day when someone told him he should learn sign language. But after a few weeks he told me, “Well, I figure its just another language to learn. I’ve done that before. I can do it again. Besides, do you know deaf people have their own culture? God probably wants me to care for people in that culture. If that’s what He wants, I’ll need to learn that language. We just do what we can.”
Those are the components of Dad’s greatest lesson to me: Keep moving. Keep growing. Don’t get trapped in a particular era or a particular stage of life. Grieve things that are passing and then adapt to the way things have changed.
When I think of an example of a life well lived, I think of Dad, a mountain man who became a citizen of the world.
I am proud of all his accomplishments. But to me, he will always smell of sassafras, fresh from the forest; a gift from a man with roots who learned the importance of both stability and adaptability for living a wise, meaningful and holy life.