Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Letter from my Father

My wife ran across a letter from my father the other day as we were cleaning out the garage. He passed away in September of 1988, and it is dated March 18 of that year. Despite the fact that 20 years have now passed, it still feels like yesterday. The point of sharing what follows is a reflection on how ones priorities and thinking change over the years with regard to ministry and time.

I arrived at my first parish, Grace Lutheran Church of Baldwin, Michigan, in August of 1987, fresh out of seminary. A month later I had to fly to Denver for my wedding. Naturally, after being away so soon and following a brief honeymoon, I felt that I should settle down and stay in the area for a while.

My father, on the other hand, had been admitted to the Veteran's Hospital in Milwaukee soon after I took my call, and although he would never be able to return home again, he still hoped for that possibility. Only 65 years old, his disabilities seemed far beyond his age. Naturally, both my mother and father were adjusting to the new changes of life without me near (they in mid-Wisconsin, me in Michigan). Looking back now, I wonder if I should have taken more time to be with them.

Dad writes:
"Your mother tells me that she hasn't seen you since you were married [September 1987]. I haven't seen you since you were ordained at the church [June 21, 1987] and I was sick in bed. I think that is the last time you were at home. Now your mother tells me that your vacation time isn't until in August. That's a long time away yet.

I'm getting along the best I can which doesn't mean much. Not having anything to do is what gets me down. I get weak spells and I think that's got something to do with my blood pressure and I have to lay down and rest. I do have an appointment at the G.I. Lab on the 25th of April so I don't think I'll be going anywhere before then. I haven't heard a thing from the social worker. Every time I ask I get the same old answers. You are not ready yet or we are working on it and we will let you know so I don't have any idea of when I will be leaving this place if I ever do. My morale gets gets pretty low here. It can't go no where else but down and there is no one here to try and boost your morale up. The mail is the only thing I have do look forward to.

Your mother was telling me how busy you are. If you like it Donald then you don't mind keeping yourself busy...."

Dad was never critical of my commitment to church and ministry. He understood. Yet I still wonder now if a trip sooner than August wouldn't have been in order. I had a small parish then and they would have understood. Hearing his sadness all these years later I regret that I didn't take that moment and go. I was faced with a similar dilemma here in this church soon after I arrived. My father-in-law was facing serious surgery in Denver and we need to be there. The leaders of my church never hesitated to encourage me. They knew the importance of family.

The demands of church and family often conflict, and choosing one over the other is a tough call. Learning balance takes time, and 21 years have brought difficult but valuable lessons for this pastor. For any readers out there who are just going into the ministry, do not forget your responsibilities to your family. Remember that sometimes the requirements of ministry can wait for you to tend to your equally important call as father, husband, or son. Looking back I realize that some moments were lost that cannot be reclaimed. Perhaps passing on these thoughts can redeem a bit of that.

[Note: The picture to the right is captioned by my mother: "Dad - 3/30/88 - His corner of the world." It sits on my desk at the church.]

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