This past month I lost my father to lung cancer, diagnosed less than three weeks prior. I had the privilege of speaking at the memorial service. But this was a moment I had been thinking about for an awfully long time.
Back in 2004, I got the inspiration to write a eulogy for Daddy that I could share with him before he died. Here is that original text:
What immediately strikes anyone here, although none of us are surprised, is the numbers of people whose lives were touched by this man. I knew there would be a great turnout today, and you have not disappointed me (and indeed there were several hundred in attendance). This fact alone is a tremendous honor to us, and we know why it has happened. A band director (I only have come to understand much after the fact) is in a unique position to impact the lives of the students who pass under his baton. Unlike other academic subjects, where contact time is so small, a band director, at least at the high school level, sees his students in and out of class, in formal and informal settings, in great moments of achievement, and in painful moments of disappointment. Unlike the coach, who also sees his students in a wide variety of settings, the band director has the unique role of teaching art and aesthetics, which allows him to point his students to a higher realm, where life takes on greater meaning, and where words do not suffice to describe the beauty which is a reflection of the One who gave us life and meaning.
But understanding these things is a matter that precious few attain. And, alas, fewer and fewer recognized the value of his role in the last several years leading up to his retirement in 1982. This is why he was so excited when “Mr. Holland’s Opus” came out – so much so that he rented the entire West Theater just to invite everyone he could, as though to say, “This is what I have been trying to tell you all these years! Come see what music means to children!” When I first saw the movie, I wept as I gained a greater understanding of Daddy than perhaps at any time before.
When I went to college, my musical abilities were obvious, but I stoutly resisted going in that direction, setting my sights on “bigger and better” things. But the love of music that he taught me won the day, and I ended up with a music degree. Daddy was rightly proud of the fact that Jacksonville State (where he attended) usually had more music majors from Cedartown than from any other school. This was because he taught not only with excellence, but also with a unique ability to pass on his passion for music, a trait that clearly distinguished him from most other band directors. I even pursued music education myself for a while in Post-Baccalaureate studies before setting down in Social Work. (The irony was that I had gone from my father’s area of interest to my mother’s, who for years before raising us and for years after, worked with families who were deemed unfit to raise their own children. But she loved them, and still has scores of their pictures on our wall upstairs.)
Now I am in the ministry, but the double irony is that I understand that I am doing what they both did: pastor the community. Biblically, pastoring is not a position, but a function, and it is only sad that they were not recognized and encouraged by the community in their shepherding roles. (This was no longer true by his death. See here.)
One great example of that relationship he had with the community is found in an incident that my wife still tells of today. We had just married and, as is commonly the case, we got several gifts that were duplicates or just unnecessary. When we went to Wal-Mart to see if we could exchange them, we had no receipts, but I assured Diana that it would be no problem. They did, nonetheless, give us a hard time about being able to help us at all, until I played the “John Thomas” card. The lady immediately called her supervisor over, explained the extraordinary nature of the situation, and they both agreed that having John Thomas for a father was good enough for them. We got a full refund in cash.
At home growing up, we were blessed to have a man as father who was both kind and loving, and wisely strict when necessary. He taught us a work ethic, loved to talk with us on most any topic, and taught us respect for our elders. He more than once reminded me, so as to not become unappreciative, of the fact that we had two of the finest men he ever knew for grandfathers.
His love of us was never plainer to me than when in October of 1983 he gave up smoking. I had been after him for some time to consider his health in this area, and I felt, though he never really was one to talk about it, that he stopped more out of his love for us than for the benefits to his body. Similarly, in recent years, we have been encouraging him to eat better and take natural supplements. Giving up his grease and comfort foods was excessively challenging to him, but he began taking supplementation, even though he didn’t even think the stuff was anything other than a moneymaking scheme, all because he loved us, and maybe because he heard what I had said: “I want my children to know you as well as I did my grandfathers.”
His faith was only periodically verbalized, but it was a real presence that shaped his work and his raising of us. In latter years he indicated to me that he was being driven more and more to internalize and externalize his relationship with God in more significant ways. He was always forgiving, unwilling to bear grudges, quick to try to make sure no one beat himself up over a fault, and patient with our foibles. He had tremendous compassion for the hurting: he was willing to give a lift to the poor soul found stranded and helpless, and he had a knack for finding stray and wounded dogs to bring home. So much so that our yard was a recognized hospitality house for dogs from all over the neighborhood.
He powerfully shaped all three of us into the men we are today, men who value the integrity, loyalty, and responsibility he exemplified. And we are all teachers at heart; we want to impart something of ourselves into those we are serving. That is the mark of this man: teaching is a vehicle for mentoring and for fathering itself. We are all three proud to call him Daddy.
What continues is the text of the actual eulogy I gave. I decided that too much had changed, including the experience of my last week with him, to just use what I had written.
Of course a lot has happened since I wrote that in 2004. When I shared it with him back then, he was typically dismissive. He didn’t want to take credit for what I had written. But then in 2012 when the whole community came out in support of him by making a surprise concert and dinner in his honor, my voice became one of a host of voices who said much the same thing over and over and over again. Later when he would watch the DVD, he would shake his head and say, “I just can’t believe that people feel that way.” But he was no longer dismissive. Even if he couldn’t understand all the praises, he had to take them all seriously.
The accolades started up again just a couple of weeks ago when the “Honoring Mr. Thomas” page appeared on Facebook. This time he might have joked about the lavish praise publicly, but privately, he was becoming more pensive. What people were saying and thinking about him didn’t add up in his mind. In the grand scheme of life, he viewed himself a mere speck. He wondered just how could he have made the difference people claimed. I asked directly if he had a hard time receiving gifts, and he confirmed that it was hard — from both people and from God. Yet he had a profound grasp of the kindness and mercy of God towards him. In his final words to Mother, he expressed his awe that God would have been so gracious in giving us the family we have and the history we share.
In fact, some of the most remarkable conversations I had with Daddy were in his last week of life. Sure he had a solid faith, but death seemed to kick it into high gear. He wondered aloud about heaven and what was in store for him. He thought about others who had gone ahead.At one point the incredible contrast between his finiteness and his sinfulness and the unfathomable mysteries of creation and the greatness of God caused him to go into spontaneous worship praising the magnificence of God. Does that sound like the John Thomas you knew? Not for me.
There seems to be a creeping Universalism coming even into the Bible Belt that says that everyone goes to heaven. That sounds kind and comforting on the surface, but it can’t work that way, neither from the perspective of historic faith, nor common sense. Let me explain.
When I queried Daddy a few days ago about politics (I tried to get in as much as I could to the last minute!), I asked: “Does being at the end of life impact your attitudes towards current events and politics?” He answered, though they are still important, they certainly lose their centrality in the face of eternity. He then continued with a tremble in his voice, “I just want to know where are all the people have gone that have died.” Moreover, he was keen to have all his boys with him in heaven. Now why would someone with such a clear grasp of the mercy and kindness of God worry about the eternal destiny of his friends and family?
The answer is: What father would force an unwilling son into relationship with him? We often think of the story of the Prodigal Son in earthly terms, but it applies equally well in terms of heaven. The Father wants a relationship with all of us. We choose to enjoy our earthly inheritance without Him or we can choose to have a relationship with our Father and keep even greater riches long-term. How can we deny the goodness of God to the most evil of sinners who chooses to come home?
At one point I read him the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in response to our discuss about receiving grace and gifts. The direction he took the conversation told me more about his philosophy of serving others. He told the story of one band director who was an example of self-serving leadership, and then he told of his band director, mentor, and hero, John Finley, who exemplified a foot-washing attitude towards leadership. I endeavored to impress upon him that what he was really saying, without saying it, was that he values those characteristics in others because he strove to be a such living example himself. And at last, he did admit, that this is how he wanted to be for his students. Let me read from that chapter for you, in his voice, only slightly modified from the original:
“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Conductor’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Conductor and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no student is greater than his teacher, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:12-17.
I have no doubt that this man was my father for this very reason, that I might become such a man for others in my context. I challenge you today to consider that he was in your life for the very same reason.