Good Dads

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | June 21, 2020

This Sunday we are observing Father’s Day. I thought that this week I would take a step back from the issues that have weighed so heavily upon us so far in 2020 and offer up something more in heart- warming frame of mind as opposed to the heart-rending. With that in mind, I want to share some stories about positive father figures that I have known over the years; men who have taught me something about life, whether they knew it or not.

I could start with my own dad, but then I wouldn’t know where to stop. Last year our extended family gathered in LaGrande, Oregon to scatter my dad’s ashes. We told the oft told tales of dad and his exploits. The common theme that ran through many of these stories about my dad was his willingness to share. Whether it was helping out in some way, or offering material support, generosity was part of his character.

So I’ll leave that there and move on to other dads I have known.

When I was ready to begin my work as a pastor, my first job was only supposed to last six months. I was going to go Round Lake Presbyterian Church near Mcgregor and First Presbyterian Church in Tamarack, to help them get ready to call a full-time pastor. I ended up staying three and a half years.

On Horseshoe Lake there lived a couple named Jack and Ella Burton. Jack was a retired dairy worker and Ella was an all-around good soul. I met them when they greeted me at the church my first weekend up there. The Volkswagen Beetle I was driving had skidded off the road and into snowbank. It was surely a sign of God’s grace that when I broke the handle on Jack’s snow shovel, they still took me in.

They were a great couple. We hit it off immediately. Jack was a natural storyteller. With his tales of the north woods he revealed the peculiarities of both nature and the people who lived in those parts. He also taught me how to fish.

For Jack, simplicity was the best approach to fishing. I had started out with a tacklebox full of lures and gizmos and Jack would say, “Now what do you think you’re gonna catch with that contraption?” He tended to be right. In time my fishing gear downsized to what I could carry in a canvas bag I slung over my shoulder.

We would fish off the dock or out in the boat. If we caught fish, we would clean them and then finish the night off with a cup of coffee. It was all more than I ever thought ministry could be.

One day Jack did something I did not expect him to do. He up and died. He had a heart attack and was dead by the time he hit the floor. I was stunned by the news. In school they talked about ‘pastor-parish relationships.’ No one ever said that you might actually get close to people and feel it when they died.

I went over to see Ella. Friends and family were gathered around. She and I went off to a separate room. She said, “Jack loved you like his own son,” and that’s all it took. All my professional reserve flew out the window and I sat there sobbing into my hands.

After I regained my composure, I was at a loss for words. Ella told me that those tears meant more to her than anything I could have said.

When Jesus told his would-be followers, “from now on you’ll be catching people,” he wasn’t talking about snaring people against their will. He was making a statement about the nature of life in God’s realm. It’s all about relationships. It’s not about rules and dogma and systems. It’s about how people get along with each other.

Sometimes the memorable fishing trips were the ones where somebody caught a whopper. More often than not, the memories involved the ones that got away. Regardless of who caught what and how many were brought into the boat, there were times of great storytelling and conversation; there times of extended silences. The best times fishing were about friends simply being together.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Chaung Tzu wrote, “The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish and when the fish are caught the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find the one who has forgotten words? That is the one I would like to talk to.”

Of all the things I learned from Jack that I carry today in my life and work, it is that forgotten words are often the words that mean the most.

Shortly after I moved to St. Louis Park, I met my next-door neighbor. “Just call me Lefty,” he said. Lefty was a retired construction worker and folks called him lefty because he had a prosthetic left leg. To say that Lefty was a character would be an understatement if there ever was one.

One day Lefty came over and suggested that my house needed painting. I agreed with him, but since I had just moved in, I didn’t have much cash to spare and told him I would need to save up for the job.

He then suggested I could paint it myself.

It was a big house; three stories tall. It would require scaffolding. The upside was that since it was new construction, there would not be a lot of scraping and prep work. But still.

A day or so later, 20 cans of high-quality oil-based paint appear at my front door. A gift from Lefty. He brought his ladders over for the one and two-story parts. For the really high up there three-story side of the house, he and his son built a scaffold out of wood beams and planks. So I got to painting.

I am not a fan of heights. I just could not force myself to get up on the two-plank wide walkway at the top of the scaffold. It might have been different if there was a railing, but it was just wide-open spaces. I suggested to Lefty that I would need to hire someone to finish the highest parts. Lefty went up there and finished the job. No need to pay someone for what he could do. He walked around that scaffold like an old hand, which he was.

I should mention that Lefty was legally blind. He could see what was right in front of him, kind of like a bear can see, but beyond his perimeter he was blind. He said heights didn’t bother him because he couldn’t see the ground.

After the house got painted, he mentioned that he was building a retaining wall between our properties and that the hill on my side would need to be terraced. Which he also paid for, and which I did the terracing work. A fence around the back yard, for which Lefty and son dug the postholes, finished our mutual home improvement efforts.

From then on, he simply left fresh tomatoes in season and he gave my boys a freshly caught and skinned squirrel in the hopes that I would make them a squirrel pie. Like the high parts on the house, I would leave that part to Lefty.

He once told me that one of his daughters was a Lutheran pastor. They didn’t get along too well; he didn’t go into detail, but he thought that by looking out for my best interests, somebody might be looking out for his daughter as well.

When I was growing up there were a lot of dads around. Most of my friends came from traditional families where there was a mom and a dad in the picture. The dads went to work and some of the moms worked outside of the home as well.

One of the dads I knew belonged to my friends Craig and Marty Enyeart. Craig and I met up in second grade. Marty was a year behind us, and we became life-long friends. Their dad, whom I always knew simply as “Mr. Enyeart,” was an interesting person.

He was 47 years old when Craig was born, so he was the oldest of my friend’s dads. Other than his white hair, which Craig said he got when he fell off a ladder and broke his back, he didn’t seem old. He was interesting.

In 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated, I was in the 4th grade. Craig brought a photograph to school that showed his dad receiving an award from President Kennedy. That was an amazing thing – to see someone I knew with this historic figure that I knew of. The award had something to do with Mr. Enyeart’s work with the YMCA.

One time he told us about his travels for the YMCA that took him to Germany in the 1930’s. The people he was staying with took him to a Nazi parade where Hitler appeared. He said he was unmoved by all the zieg heils around him. He said the people he stayed with were as enthused as the rest of the crowd.

After he retired from the YMCA, he took up a second career in real estate. One time when I was in college I ran into Mr. Enyeart on the bus. He said he was old enough to collect social security and he was thinking about retirement but wasn’t sure what he would do. Maybe he would just keep working.

He did eventually retire from real estate and then he went to work for a Hospital in Portland, as a greeter. He worked there for many years and when the hospital administration enacted budget cuts, they cut his position. Many of the staff, including doctors, protested and threatened to strike if Mr. Enyeart, well into his 80’s by now, was sacked. They said his presence at the door was an integral part of what made the hospital reflect its name, “Good Samaritan.” As a result, he kept his job until the day he decided it was time to retire. Mr. Enyeart lived well into his 90’s. I think his interest in life was what made him interesting and contributed to his long life.

Retirement, hmm… When I finished my work in Scotland, I thought I might retire. Turning 65 and all that. But after a while I thought life is too interesting and maybe I have more to offer and so why not keep working for a while. And so, thanks to Mr. Enyeart I can say, life continues to unfold in interesting ways.

Jesus referred to his heavenly Father as Abba – Dad. His dad was generous in all good things, but especially in love. That’s what connects all the good dads I’ve known in life, and probably the ones you’ve known as well – their sense of generosity in all good things. To them I say, “Thanks for sharing.” Amen.

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