Tuesday night, my Facebook feed filled with images of my dad. There were photos of him presiding at weddings, commiserating in front of Eastern European tour buses, installed at his desk among purposefully-stacked papers. There were photos of camp: kids laying on their bellies for a look over Rockledge cliff, staff dressed in their silliest for Thursday night dinner.
The accompanying statements thanked him for being a leader, an inspiration, a mentor. More than a few people said they wouldn’t be who they are today without my dad’s influence, or that of the place he helped to create.
It was a beautiful, spontaneous display of gratitude and grief. My dad loved his ever-expanding church-camp-travel family, and I’m so grateful to you who comprised it. He thrived on your energy and friendship.
I was also privileged to see my dad in his roles as son, brother, uncle, husband, and grandpa. Most of all, of course, I got to know him as Dad. Today I’d like to honor him as Dad.
Dad was rooted. This November, on a chilly, sunny day, my dad and I set out for rural Southwest Wisconsin. True to form, my dad had planned the road trip around food; we stopped no fewer than six times for the finest maple long johns, cheese curds, apples, lefse, pie, and beer the area had to offer. But in between stops for fortification, we took in the hills, the winding roads, the clear sky. The rolling landscape holds my dad’s boyhood home, my grandpa’s barbershop, and the general store where my dad held his first job. His love of this place – the land and the people it held – was palpable.
My dad was curious. This curiosity was channeled into many endeavors, but most significant for my family were our vacations. In my dad’s eyes, the purpose of family vacation wasn’t relaxation but rather motion, education, and fun. He wanted to open our eyes to parts of the world we’d never seen, expose us to people who weren’t like us, show us that the places we saw on TV were touchable. We visited historical sites, museums, rode ferries, took bus tours, saw shows from the Lion King on Broadway to a Don Ho musical revue in Hawaii.
We walked through cities like Chicago and San Francisco because that, he said, was the best way to feel their energy. We learned that when he said a destination was “just around the corner,” that was true…but that the corner may or may not be close by.
Traveling with my dad taught me to seek out the unfamiliar, to embrace difference rather than fear it. He was fascinated by people’s stories and our collective history as intersections of current events, personality, and values. We traveled so he could pass on that fascination.
My dad was a welcomer. At Bethel Horizons, he made a place for everyone. Everyone could contribute, and everyone was worthy of being in community. Everyone was indeed seen as somebody made in God’s image. This belief in unconditional acceptance was quieter at home – no repeat-after-me litanies were shouted – but it was unmistakable. No matter how messy my life was at the time, I was always welcomed home. Maybe I was worried about, maybe my choices were not quite understood, but I was always loved rather than judged.
Finally, my dad was a servant. He didn’t like to take credit for the way his work changed people’s lives. He credited the work itself, the fact that forgiveness is powerful; he saw himself only as a person who chose to put forgiveness in action.
In this attitude of humility, my dad has left us with another opportunity. Many relationships, opportunities, and connections have been catalyzed by my dad’s life, but they don’t hinge on it. We are all capable of being welcomers, of finding God’s image in others, and of choosing fascination over fear.
We have lost a leader, a mentor, a friend, a dad. But we are still powerfully and lovingly led. New horizons await us all…and they’re just beyond the pie.