An encomium for my father, at age 70

An encomium for my father, at age 70

dad-and-winston-1

When my wife reminded me–yes, she had to remind me–that my father was turning 70 this week, I couldn’t help but say, “Well, it’s about time! That man has been in his 60s forever.”  (My parents have become ageless to me.)

What follows is my very inadequate attempt to celebrate my father, who today becomes a septuagenarian.  Congratulations, Dad!  Happy birthday!

If forced to summarize by father’s character and disposition in two words, it would be this:

gentle authority.

On the whole, the word “authority” is usually coded negatively:  catastrophically, as a culture we have confused authority with authoritarianism.

But authority is beautiful:  when sick, we make an appointment with someone who is an authority on the body (they’re called a doctor) and receive treatment; when confused about a subject matter, we seek out an authority, or expert, on the matter (e.g., a professor) and gain knowledge; if a criminal enters our neighborhood, we call the authorities and are protected.

Authority is expertise and justified influence.  In its absence both confusion and chaos reign.  I knew neither of these growing up.  My father’s authority brought life-giving order and peace to our home and to my life.

Together with my mom, they made our home a place where I–and all my friends–really wanted to be, so much so that, as ambitious and adventurous as I was,  leaving for college was an incredibly hard thing to do:  the thought of never again being under my parents’ roof, of no longer sharing dinner with them, or going to church with them, or talking about my day with them, or seeing them live out their lives in quiet yet deliberate and sacrificial faithfulness–all of that would be sorely missed.  And even as I write it now, I’m filled with longing, both a longing to be home with them but also a longing to make my home the same kind of place for my children.

Authority is also coded negatively, especially within the institution of marriage, because it implies that the husband and wife have different–and therefore (illogically) unequal–roles.  But if any of us Clark kids know anything about our father, it’s that he deeply respects and loves our mother.  He always has. And their relationship, both would say, is complementarian:  he exercises a selfless authority (the buck stops with him), while she has a mission-minded allegiance to him (she places her significant capacities at his disposal).

My parents are incredibly different:  my dad is quiet, cautious, methodical, systematic, “slow and steady,” and more indirect, while my mom is entrepreneurial, industrious, intuitional, engaging, and emphatic.  I’ve often asked myself why my parents’ radical differences have, on the whole, led not to bitter conflict but to beautiful complementarity:  oh my goodness, they have accomplished so much over the years, helping an innumerable number of people.

Why the complementarity?  I’m not sure I can fully answer that, but I do think that both have fought to embrace the marital role that God has given them:  my dad (like many men I know) is naturally passive, predisposed to abdicate (vs. abuse) his authority; my mother is naturally pro-active, predisposed to be over-assertive (no surprise, given her many gifts and her love for people).  But both have submitted themselves to God’s ways, fighting these predispositions so that over time they have actually . . . changed, and the results are nothing short of breath-taking.  (Maybe the Creator knew what he was doing?)

But on top of this counterintuitive submission to divine design, I have seen something in my father over the years that is the sine qua non of anyone who uses their authority well:  my father listens.

In fact, he proactively listens to my mom.  He knows her, and he knows her gifts.  I can remember numerous times as a kid when I would walk out into the living area of our home, and my dad would be at the table, with pen and paper; he and my mom would be talking about a difficult issue, and my dad would be writing down my mom’s thoughts.  Wow.

Within our home, my dad always championed my mom.  If I ever disobeyed or disrespected my mother (and I most certainly did), I could count on a “swift and certain” response from my father.  To mess with mom was to mess with dad, and you just weren’t going to win (though I have to say, mom did spank harder).  Thank you, dad, for not letting me win and for demanding that I learn to treat a woman with unqualified respect and admiration (Sarah thanks you, too, and so do my three daughters).

To risk belaboring the point:  there were few things more powerful to me as a child than to see the love and respect that my dad had (and still has) for my mom.  According to Stanford sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway (in her book Framed by Gender) research shows that housewives are “perceived to be in the lower half of all social groups in social status and [are] seen as similar in competence to the elderly and the disabled.”  Though my mother has never cared about the perceptions of our generally corrupt culture (perhaps because her Lord was crucified by his own culture?), nevertheless, it’s far easier not to care, when your husband eagerly champions and cherishes you.  Thank you, dad, for how you delight in mom.

I could easily spend the rest of this post delineating the ways in which my dad tirelessly and faithfully served in his local church as a layleader, often doing the thankless, behind-the-scenes executive and administrative work, work that frees  a pastoral staff to pastor and preach their congregation.  As a pastor, I would kill for a man like my father in my church:  supportive, reliable, diligent, honest, never complaining.

My father’s temperament, described above, does not lend itself to what our culture would (unfairly) consider a “natural leader.”  But for this very reason he has been a leader and mentor to so many young men who also “don’t qualify,” men to whom my father patiently and respectfully listens and then opens and explains Scripture, in a simple, practical way.

And if there is one thing central to my father’s world, it is Scripture.  My father’s daily time in the Word is not a matter of discipline (though at one time it may have been); it is a matter of delight.  As a kid, this left a significant impression on me.  Sadly, at the time it didn’t lead me to read Scripture more myself, but it did force me to concede:  by not reading Scripture I was surely missing out on something really good.  Now, as pastor and scholar of Scripture, I love when he calls me up to talk about a passage:  I bring my knowledge of the languages and the ancient world, and he brings his wealth of experience and maturity.

But, and perhaps this is what I thank God for most about my father, over the years our phone conversations have not stayed within the safe confines of abstract discussions of Scripture or theology.  I have been able to confess my deepest and darkest struggles to my father, and he has always responded with love and wisdom and prayer.  Though naturally more adverse to conflict, my father has on several occasions bravely confronted me with my sin and strongly warned me of its devastating consequences.  Dad, I can’t thank you enough for this.  Your words have not been forgotten.

I’m so sorry for my numerous and deep failures–they still can reduce me to tears of shame and regret, but because of you they are far, far fewer than they would have been.  Given all the wise counsel and inestimable hours of prayer from you and Mom, a strong case could made that, without you two, our marriage wouldn’t have made it.  A million thank you’s, Dad.

At age 70 my father is, I am confident, still doing one thing:  trying to grow.  As he has gotten older, I have truly admired this about him.  He continues to fight his own sin–yes, surely at times prompted by my mom, but that’s the point:  whenever prompted by Mom, he truly tries to improve (e.g., given to melancholy, detachment, and withdrawal, my dad fights for joy and thanksgiving and humble service in his church).  Thank you, Dad, for persevering in your faith.

Thank you, Dad.  For everything.  May you have your happiest birthday yet, with many, many more to come.

 

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My father with my son Winston, at Duke Gardens

 

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