Monday, my father died.
Then Tuesday came. Just like every other day. It didn’t seem right. It felt rude and cold. Disrespectful. Shouldn’t there be something different about Tuesday? About today? My father is gone, and life won’t ever be the same.
Despite my desire for cosmic recognition, the sun rose again this morning. It has every day since dad’s passing. The days will cycle in apparent ignorance of this week’s events. Even so, I know the impact of Sam De Man sings into eternity.
It has been wonderfully difficult to look back upon my dad’s life. The beauty of a life well lived is an abundance of fond memories. The struggle of eulogizing a great man is brevity.
I’ll begin with memories I’ve rehashed many times over the years. Even before my father’s death, I enjoyed reflecting on the late September and early October Saturdays from my childhood. Those fall weekends were packed with football. I loved the game, and so did dad. Starting my kindergarten year, dad showed amazing patience as he coached and cheered and encouraged this underweight, overly shy son who tried to play the game. He helped me strap-on my oversized battle gear then slapped my backside launching me into an awkward trot out onto the field. Dad would clap and coach from the sidelines, adorned in his ‘Forest Hills Youth Football’ coaching jacket, which he proudly wore many years after I stopped playing.
Our post-game routine included talk over cider and donuts. Memories bring back the smell of dirt and rain and grass. I recall images of dad cupping his hands to shout instructions and encouragement. After shouting he would blow into his hands, trying to stay warm. He served me well in my desire to play ball.
Those Saturday morning ball games were followed by Saturday afternoon chores—and a bit more football. Dad would pace through his ‘to-do’ list accompanied by Bob Ufer, the play-by-play broadcaster for University of Michigan football. Dad would drag his well-worn black and silver radio around the yard so as not to miss a play. I’d glean a listen while tossing and kicking a maize and blue Nerf football to myself. Although occupied in our own activities, dad and I were together. He worked. I played. Yet, all the while I was stealing glances at my father, pondering the day I would grow to be just like him. To do manly work. To serve my family.
The smell of freshly cut grass in the cool of fall has always freshened those memories of my dad and football. Those memories will feel different now, but are nonetheless sacred. I’m forever bound to my father through those unique times we shared. Despite being an average player, he cheered like I was the best. His shouts for number 88 still reverberate in my soul. My father’s words of affirmation continue to have a profound impact on my manhood. He blessed me in ways that continue to bolster me in my marriage, my parenting and my work.
Beyond football, dad also loved to fish. His success varied, but his passion did not. He was infamous for his ‘black grub’ and ‘purple worm’ lures – which often caught more wind-burn than fish. I recall a time of poking fun at a yellow lure he inherited from his dad. It was big, beat-up and ugly. In my opinion, it was good only for catching weeds and submerged logs. Dad absorbed our pessimism without saying a word. He calmly tied-on the lure with an “I’ll show you” look in his eye. Once secure, dad cast ‘Mr. Ugly Lure’ a mile out…and promptly deceived a behemoth from the depths of Lake Cadillac.
We never did get whatever it was into the boat. From my perspective, that was a good thing for two reasons. One, I was young and scared of whatever it was dad was dragging toward our rowboat—a boat that suddenly seemed much too small. Two, because if he landed the scaly beast we’d never hear then end of how we mocked his lure which landed the catch of a lifetime.
For a while, dad fished year round. He, and his best friend David Haaksma made a habit of venturing out onto the winter ice of Reeds Lake in the dark of Saturday mornings. He and David had many adventures together – from eating 3 lbs of taco meet in one sitting to other things best not mentioned in a eulogy. Death came for David years ago. For those who loved him, it was much too early. Just like it seems my father’s death is premature. Yet, they both left us right on time. My guess is they have already recounted the days gone by. David was always coaxing my dad toward having fun. They could be a rascally pair. Much fun will be had in eternity by those two. Trusted, manly friendship is like buried treasure. Search it out. Find it. Savor it. Protect it. My dad had a good friend in David Haaksma. My dad had many good friends—because he was a good friend.
My father’s joy of football and fishing found close company with a chainsaw. He often mentioned the great satisfaction he felt when a hot stream of woodchips would pound upon his pant leg as he deftly sliced through a fallen tree. If there was a tree to be cut, he was there. Then after the cutting, in typical Sam De Man fashion, he’d head home and take all the necessary time to return the chainsaw to a pristine state. Just like he did with all his tools. Clean. Organized. Catalogued. Ready for use. It was impressive, if not compulsive. But it endeared us to him. He served us by always doing—and I mean always doing a job right and doing it right the first time. He was fond of saying “a job worth doing is worth doing right” and “never do half a job.” Thank you, dad, for blessing us with a second-to-none work ethic.
But dad was not all work, just like he wasn’t all play. The same man who coached ball, fished, bowled, laid tile, played softball, tore-down and hung drywall, dug-out stumps, soldered copper pipes, cut down rogue trees and has pictures of John Wayne lining his workshop was gentle, sensitive and caring. At his core he was a man who felt life deeply. Even in his propensity for wanting everything just so, he mustered the patience to teach his children how to drive a stick around the quiet roads of a cemetery. He sat quietly with a frustrated eight-grader and brought understanding to Algebraic equations scrawled on tear-stained paper. And I’m forever grateful for the time he calmly walked me to the bench on our front porch. There, we both cried unashamed over an uncertain future as I was in the midst of my own wrestling with cancer.
In his softness, my dad found courage. Courage to haul his family of five around the country. We were rather conspicuous in our brown and tan van, green and white striped camper and mom’s handcrafted shirts that said “Let’s go camping.” Dad led us through the collecting of experiences and the building of cherished memories. Memories that have forever embossed themselves on our family psyche. We won’t ever exhaust the laughter from the memory of our wave-saturated Pictured Rocks boat tour complete with regurgitated bologna sandwiches and grape pop. In these, and many other ways my dad sacrificially served our family.
Someone recently asked my father how he managed to stay married for almost 45 years. His answer? “You serve your mate.” And he did. Dad married his high school sweetheart and became a lifetime one-woman man. He was faithful to his covenant with my mother till his dying breath. And while he had breath, every day he told her, “You’re special.” A healthy, vibrant, Christ-centered marriage was the best gift my father ever gave to my mom, and to us children. I pray his example will echo through the marriages of his children, grandchildren and beyond. Thanks, dad, for being a loving, faithful, trustworthy husband.
In so many ways, my dad made others feel valued and honored. He was a man well loved because he loved well. He was a man of impeccable integrity. A man who could be trusted – completely. A man who gave unconditionally. A man who was loyal – to an employer for almost 40 years – and to His God.
A bit more than sixteen years ago, my wife and I spread our wings and flew from the church of my youth and landed a few miles north of here. Dad and I reconnected in a spiritual sense through the men’s ministry at that church. He and I had the special pleasure of growing together in our effort to live as biblically authentic men. We worked-out our faith side-by-side. We built a legacy together. He watched me grow through the tensions of marriage and parenting.
As I grew into my own ministry settings, he blew winds of confidence over my fragile ego. He smiled as he listened to me teach. I could feel his fatherly pride. It warmed my soul. It filled my spirit in a way only a father can for his children. He told me often what a good dad I was. I reflected the compliment back to him. We spoke words of affection for each other. The spoken word is powerful. I treasure my father’s words to me.
Going forward, Thursday mornings at my church will be different. Incomplete and lonely – at least for a while. I will miss seeing dad arrive – 15 minutes early, of course – with his Bible, 3-ring binder, pen and highlighter. I long for just one more of his hearty handshakes coupled with his rye smile. My ears ache to hear him greet me just one more time – not with “hello” but his special blessing of, “my son.” He made me feel valued. Important. Honored. Thank you, dad.
One result from our shared spiritual journey the past several years came on Father’s Day in 2005. Dad wrote me a letter that accompanied a gift. In the opening his letter, he said this: “I have been contemplating writing this note and giving you some token to commemorate our relationship – something that would be a remembrance of some significance. I have agonized over this and had multiple second thoughts about what would be just right. I settled on a gift that would remind you of the direction that you should go and who should be your guide. Hopefully, when I am no longer around, it will bring to mind the good times we have shared and the father/son bond that we have developed.”
My gift was a compass. A poignant reminder to stay the course. To not drift. To walk wisely down the narrow path. My father knew where he was headed. He wanted to help me go there too, and in the best shape possible.
In the journey of life, we are all headed somewhere.
The question is: where are you headed?
Many would say my dad was a good man. Indeed, he was. The overriding theme of his life was gracious service. He was never afraid to go last. He always got the last hobo pie from the campfire. He was frequently last in line at church potlucks. For many years, he was the guy who turned-off the lights. But being good and doing good for the sake of goodness is empty. A long dead-end street. A journey that drifts and heads along a wide path to nowhere. Outside the context of faith in Jesus Christ, the good works of the best men have no lasting value.
What motivated my father was love. Love for God, and love for people. One man defined biblical masculinity as,”the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility.” That was my father. He joyfully accepted responsibility. He sacrificed. And he did it because his Lord asked him to. He lived-out the instruction of I John 3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
My father didn’t serve to receive kudos or pats on the back. He didn’t give his best to get something in return. He gave now, to gain later. He worked hard to glorify the sacrifice of Jesus who gave his life for our gain. My dad lived in ways that led people to Jesus—literally and practically. He knew where he was headed. His heart’s compass pointed toward Jesus Christ.
So when dad’s perfect draftsmen’s print declined to illegible scrawls, when his hair went from never being out of place to not being there, when he could no longer communicate with words, he continued down the path of faith. Until the end, he lived-out his life verse:
Isaiah 40:30–31 (NIV)
“Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
My compass reminds me where I’m headed. I’m headed where dad is now.
As each of us ponders where we’re headed, we have to wonder if we’re good enough for heaven. Perhaps right now you’re wondering how to make-up for all the bad things you’ve done? The good news is that Jesus answers those questions for us. We aren’t good enough—but He is. We can’t make-up for the bad things we’ve done—but He can.
Through his death, Jesus made it possible to have a restored and good relationship with God. It doesn’t matter what you’ve said, done or thought. We’ve all got our junk. And doing a lot of good things, like my father, is not enough to cleanup the mess. Only faith in Jesus Christ and His ability to take care of our wrong-doing—our sin—puts us on good terms with the God of the Bible. Only by believing and receiving God’s forgiveness and grace can any of us enter heaven. The heaven where my father now rests and enjoys the reward of his labor. You can be assured of going there, too. By believing in the forgiveness of sin through Jesus. God’s Word, the Bible, tells us…
“But God is faithful and fair. If we admit that we have sinned, he will forgive us our sins. He will forgive every wrong thing we have done. He will make us pure.” 1 John 1:9 (NIrV)
Our hope – which is dad’s hope – is Jesus Christ. The truth of who Jesus is and what He’s done for each of us is why my father gave away so much. Why he served so many. Why he is remembered as a good man.
So, as we say a concluding goodbye to a wonderful man of God, I find comfort in the words of Martin Luther’s hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God.’ Luther reminds us of the battle we fight against a dark, powerful, ancient foe. He also insures we not forget who fights for us against our enemy. The One who give us hope—our Great Hope. Hope in the truth that just “one little word” brings victory. That Word is Jesus Christ. Here’s how Luther said it:
That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.
Dad now sees that Kingdom with clarity. He is again talking with his dad, whom he adored. He laughs about the ‘good ole’ days’ with his best friend. He walks and talks with Jesus. What a conversation that must be. I’m sure there’s a “well done” in there somewhere.
Sure, I’ve got lots of “why” questions.Sixty-six years seems but a short time to tarry here in this world. If I can live my own years half as well as Sam De Man, I will have lived well.
The tears come and go. I suspect they will for a while. In some ways, I hope they never stop. They honor my father, who was a great man. They acknowledge the pain of life. And they intensify a longing in my heart for the day when the vision of the Apostle John is made realty:
Revelation 21:3–4 (NIV)
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Lord Jesus—come quickly!