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One dad’s five actions

First slide

“Sundays too my father got up early,” wrote poet Robert Hayden, “and put his clothes on in the blue-black cold, / then with cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze. … What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

The son of an evangelical preacher and first-generation Americans, my dad rose early to provide for his wife and three sons. Since no quantity of words will ever capture the way he has served his office of fatherhood, this Father’s Day I will settle for five verbs. 

Sit. My dad sits on the front porch smoking his pipe. He watches the nuthatches and chickadees take turns at the feeder. Sometimes he reads his Bible, but otherwise he is listening, observing, maybe praying. In the pre-internet and pre-smart phone era, he is showing me in my childhood something important: how to experience silence and solitude. Capable of tremendous work, Dad is showing his sons how to sit in stillness. 

Fish. Our homework is done, Dad has pulled into the driveway, and we grab our fishing poles and head down to the river to fish for carp, catfish and bluegills. Dad lights up his pipe and asks us about our day at school. There with his boys, he is at peace. Three or four evenings a week throughout my childhood, this is where I am with my Dad. A great blue heron wings by regally in the dusk. A carp slaps its tail in the nearby lily pads. Dad is showing his sons how to sit and fish.  

Debate. At the river, I am complaining to Dad about how my seventh-grade math teacher, whose teaching style is leaving me behind and exasperated. Dad, a former prosecutor, hardly pauses before drilling me with questions. He is at it again. He proceeds to graciously lay bare the inconsistencies in my claims. This is my Dad who at the muddy riverside cites legal precedent in the Magna Carta, Constitution and compiled statutes of Illinois law. Dad is teaching his sons how to sit and fish and debate, to see the other side of the argument and stand in another’s shoes.

Praise. Riding home from church as a family, I am taking issue with part of the sermon we just heard. Dad sidesteps what he sees as unedifying criticism and counters with two positive points that inspired him. As we pull into the driveway he delivers his closing statement: a ringing endorsement of the sermon and our pastor. This act is replicated thousands of times in my childhood in different settings. In fact, I will never have the occasion of hearing Dad speak ill or even critical of another. Dad is teaching his sons how to sit and fish and argue and praise, always lifting others up. 

Serve. It is dinnertime, and the question is coming with the certainty of a dependable train: “Well boys, what did you do for your fellow man today?” he asks. Yes, he cares about how our day at school went and the full ambit of our lives. But Dad, a public servant who volunteered at juvenile detention facilities, held public office for 12 years and now works daily as a parole board member with the state’s hardest criminals, is doing something important. He is orienting his sons not toward comfort and their own egos, but to the public square: our neighbors, even strangers. Dad is teaching his sons how to sit and fish and debate and praise and serve. 

“What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Not much. But today I thank God for the austere man who got up early to serve his office in love — a father who made banked fires blaze for his family. 

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is the bishop’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017