When dad was a youth, the family milk cow, Rosie, had a calf. His dad told him, “Bud, you want to get strong?” Dad was always up for that. “Go out and lift that calf every day.” So, Dad did. It didn’t take long, of course, for the calf to grow faster than Dad’s strength. But he remained fascinated by strength and devoted to exercise his entire life.
Three days before he died, I put him on the phone with a man in our congregation who had wanted to meet Dad. Ben is retired career army. “How are you doing, sir?” Ben asked. “Well, I just did a pull up and a few push ups, so I guess I’m doing all right,” Dad replied. Totally Dad. Dad all over.
Just a few years ago, he was walking up Mount Trashmore with my sister and her husband and Dad got to the top first. His son-in-law was winded, but not Dad.
Much further back, when my young men were just kids, we went camping together. We spent the afternoon at the pool at the state park and they saw Dad shirtless, with a large scar from the first cancer surgery – an incision line that began in the middle of his chest and curled around below his right lung into his back, with hash marks where the staples had been. I told the kids it was from a shark bite. Their eyes got huge, and Dad joined the fun. “You should see what I did to the shark.” That night they fell asleep to stories from a living legend who swam with alligators, was bitten by a shark, and remained calm even when a skunk walked up to our campfire.
The next morning, as the sun rose and dad and I began to wake, I heard him moan for help. He had a weird sleep disorder. On occasion, he wakes up but cannot move, not even his mouth. He needs someone to move him and then he can move his own body. He moaned, the words unclear and unarticulated, “Help me.” I crawled over the boys, who were still asleep between us, and gave his shoulders a shake. “Thank you.”
When Dad was ordained a Baptist preacher years ago, he took as his text the story of Caleb, a strong man and a spy – something else Dad appreciated. Now facing the final chapters of his life, Caleb says, at the age of 80, “I am just as strong to go out for war now as I was at 40.” Pretty impressive. I don’t know that Dad would have claimed that 2 years ago at the age of 80, but he was still doing awfully well. (Yes, our second son gets his name from Dad and his love for this story. Dad didn’t want us to inflict his given names on either of our boys.)
This love for strength is something that makes Dad’s embrace of Jesus and the gospel so fascinating. We worship a God who took on human flesh and blood, who humbled himself to the point of death – death on a cross, death at the extreme of human weakness. We often ask questions, good questions, about life and death, about evil and justice. We express the desire for God to do something and we even place responsibility on God for the presence of evil in the world. After all, if God is all-powerful, then why do we deal with pandemics, racism, and cancer?
Dad’s last words, spoken to Mom as she was asking how she could help him, were, “Are you asking the right question?” While his remark wasn’t appropriately placed in that conversation with Mom, it reveals his passion to ask good questions to stimulate fresh and creative thinking. In many of our “why” questions, we forget that we deal with a God who embraces weakness, whose “weakness is stronger than human strength, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” So, a better question is to ask, “Where do we see God?”
I see God in Dad as he dramatized and lived out weakness that is stronger than human strength. Not because Dad chose that as a way to triumph, but because it was the path set before him in the providence and mystery of godliness, a path he accepted graciously. Long before the cancer became stronger than he was, he was learning to embrace weakness. “My strength is perfected in weakness.” In place of the bravado and machismo in which he had been socialized, he practiced mutual submission with his wife and lover, my mom. Some of those food choices mystified me, but his response always was, “I love her, JP.” Dad did his best to practice submission to God in his calling, in the leaders whom he had committed to follow even when he thought he had better ideas. Dad experienced weakness and learned to ask for help in those weird sleep disorder moments.
We all need saving. From our own bravado, from our own ambition, from our sleep disorders or cancers. We all need saving. From our racism, from our fears, from our favorite sins, even from our greatest strengths. We all need saving. On our side, it begins by acknowledging and embracing weakness. And just as Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father, embraced and welcomed Dad, so he opens his arms to me and you.