Happy Birthday, Dad!

I wrote this last year for my Dad’s birthday. Since it’s his birthday again today, and since I’m moving down to Haiti to be apprenticed in his job, I figured I’d post it again. Happy birthday, Dad!

Today is my Dad’s birthday. Having nearly lost him twice in the last five years (to kidnappers in 2006, then to a brain aneurysm in 2010), I am taking this occasion to write him a tribute, however imperfect and incomplete it might be. 

My Dad was my childhood hero, he was to me a seemingly inexhaustible supply of knowledge and wisdom (I once proudly informed my neighbors’ kids that “my Dad is never, ever wrong”). Since then, even though my view of my Dad’s knowledge has been somewhat chastened, he has played a tremendous variety of roles in my life.

As a child, my Dad was my pastor, teacher, and comforter. My Dad took any opportunity he could to teach me the Bible, in church as well as out, and he taught me a deep passion and reverence for the Word of God. An iconic image of my Dad in my mind’s eye is the sight of him in his “SR” (Study Room), rocking back and forth on his knees, praying in tongues over an open Bible. He taught me, by example as well by admonition, a love for the presence of God as well. As kids, my siblings and I would groan at the sight of my Dad strapping on his classical guitar because we knew that that meant the next 45 minutes would be spent in “family devotions.” Secretly, though, I loved it. One year, when I was 10 or 11, my Dad walked us all the way through the book of Proverbs, teaching us every morning in the hour before schoolwork started. Someone told me recently that “you were born wise,” but the truth is quite the opposite. Any wisdom I have is due to my Dad’s steady determination and cheerful imperviousness to my childhood whining. 

My Dad was the first way the Gospel reached me. When I was five years old, he drew stick figures on a sheet of graph paper to demonstrate what baptism represents. “John is a sinner who needs to be saved by God’s new life,” he explained, drawing a stick figure standing up. “John has to go under the water and die to sin…” (another stick figure lying flat on his back underwater) “but since John trusts Jesus, he will come up out of the water a new creature, leaving his sins in the water” — and now a stick figure with hands stretched upward — “and living a new life with the Holy Spirit of God inside of him.” And then he drove the whole family to the beach and baptized me in the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

My Dad taught me plenty of things besides the Bible as well. He was a history buff, and he would take me on hikes to the old French forts scattered along the coast and tell me the stories behind them. Every time there was a movie on about World War II or Vietnam, we were watching it. He would take obvious delight in explaining to me the stories behind the battles being referenced, what the insignia on the soldiers’ uniforms meant, and a thousand other minute details.

In addition to the knowledge he passed on, my Dad also taught me crucial life lessons by his example. For instance, once, on our way back to the U.S., we had a layover in Port-au-Prince. One of the hundreds of beggar children that roam the airport came up to us and asked if he could shine my Dad’s shoes. My Dad said yes. When the boy was finished, he asked if he could shine my shoes as well (I was wearing white tennis shoes). “No, they don’t need to be shined,” I began to answer, but my Dad looked at me and said very gently, “Let him shine your shoes, son.” He then paid the boy the full price for two shoe-shines. I never forgot that. Over the years, though my Dad acquired a reputation at our church for being a disciplinarian since he wasn’t afraid to call people out for their sin, I watched him quietly create literally hundreds of small “jobs” in our church that we didn’t really need but which helped people make a little more money in a city where there was 80% unemployment.

Due to his childhood spent as a military brat, changing schools every three years, my Dad could understood the dislocation, rootlessness and divided loyalties my siblings and I were experiencing as missionary kids in a way that my Mom could not. “You will never be fully from either the United States or Haiti,” he once told me, and that has proven over time to be true. He was my comforter on several occasions when Haitian kids mocked me because of my skin color or accent or told me to go home because this was their country and they didn’t want me there. My Dad was always able to put things back into perspective and restore my shattered sense of confidence.

As I grew up, I went through an adolescent phase of rebellion and disrespect. There were times when my Dad and I butted heads, and times when I thought he was hopelessly uncool. My Dad saw me through this phase, and through my bouts of insecurity that often coincided with and fueled my attempts to carve out my identity over against him. I had no more faithful encourager through these years – my Dad taught me to play guitar, and refused to let me give it up. When he discovered my first blog late in high school, he read and praised every post I wrote. When I ran into girl issues, and got my heart broken for the first few times, I also had no gentler comforter than my Dad.

When I got to college, and sent my parents a letter of confession of sins I’d committed in high school, the next time my Dad saw me, he hugged and encouraged me without a word of condemnation. He then told me how he saw God at work in my life, how the hardness and rebellion had given way to repentance and a gentle spirit, and he asked a crestfallen teenager if he would preach in his church the next month. I have often seen this spirit of forgiveness at work in him – a few years later, when he was kidnapped, he developed a special relationship with one of his captors, to the point where when they released him, the guy offered him his watch and asked him to pray for him. “Maybe I’ll come visit your church someday,” the kidnapper offered tentatively. “I certainly hope so,” my Dad responded without hesitation. “I would love to see you there.”

So much more could be said about my Dad – about the tremendous work of discipleship he has achieved in Haiti, at the cost of the better part of his adult life, about the 52-day hospital ordeal in Canada that nearly claimed his life last year, about the indomitable faith, hope and love which have been his greatest legacy and his greatest gift to his children, about the obvious and tremendously corny love he still has for my Mom after 30 years of marriage. Suffice it to say, though, that after 26 years of life, my Dad is still my hero. I hope to follow him into ministry and emulate his example. I hope that my life looks as beautiful as his does when I am 56 [57 now].

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