A Genuine Christian
Too many people attempt to shift the message of Christ away from its original focus on individual reformation toward a mass political movement. My father, who died last week from pancreatic cancer, resisted that tendency, as I explained in my eulogy at his memorial service Sunday. I share that eulogy here, in edited form, as a tribute to my father’s exceptional life and example.
- Before he died, my father asked me to talk about one aspect of his life. He asked me to talk about his Christian faith. I promised him I would.
As I started to jot down a few things I might say about my father’s Christian faith, I wondered: Was there a single word — a single adjective — that would best describe my father’s faith?
“Remarkable” was an option. My father’s faith was certainly remarkable. Anyone who met him could tell you that. “Consistent” was another option. My father’s faith was absolutely a consistent faith. He lived it, with honor, day in and day out. But while both of those adjectives are true — while my father’s faith was both remarkable and consistent — the adjective that stuck with me, that I think best describes my father’s Christian faith, is “genuine.”
My father was a genuine Christian.
If you take a moment to look up the word “genuine” in a dictionary, you’ll find that it means several things. It means “actual.” It means “true” … “sincere” … “free from hypocrisy or pretense.” When something or someone is genuine, they are “produced by or they proceed from the [original] source.”
So when I say my father was a genuine Christian, I mean this: His Christianity was without hypocrisy or pretense. It was produced by and it proceeded from the original source: from Christ.
I’m comfortable making that claim, I’m confident attaching the word “genuine” to my father’s Christianity, because I have been a first-hand witness to how he lived his life. I have also heard the testimony of others who witnessed how my father lived his life. And based on that knowledge, I’d like to share with you today three passages of scripture from the New Testament, all of them from the Gospels: the books that tell the story of Jesus. After I share each of these passages, I will talk briefly about relevant aspects of my father’s life, and when I’m done, I trust there will be no doubt in this room, there will be no question in any of your minds, that my father was not only a Christian, but that he lived a genuine Christian life.
The first passage I’d like to read today is from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 22, verses 35 through 39:
… an expert in the law tested [Jesus] by asking, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
Jesus said to him, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’
My father honored both of those commandments.
Now, I realize it’s difficult to prove that my father honored the first of those commandments; that he loved God with all his heart and soul and mind. He told me he did, as he told anyone who would listen to him. And I believed him. But how do I prove what he believed to others?
Every day on this planet, billions of people say things they don’t really mean. And because people say things they don’t mean, it’s far too easy for all of us to become cynical; to mistrust each other; to demand some form of proof that the words we hear people say are true. And that’s why I think Jesus tied the two great commandments together. He knew it would be difficult for us to prove our love for God to the people around us because the people around us can never really know what’s in our hearts. And so Jesus gave us a way to demonstrate our love for God. He gave us a way to move beyond statements to actions.
He did that by giving us the second greatest commandment: the opportunity to prove that we love God by demonstrating our love for the people around us. And so I can prove that my father loved God because I saw my father act with love toward his neighbors. I saw my father think and care about other people before he thought and cared about himself.
And who were my father’s neighbors? Everyone he met. His family, his friends, his colleagues. We were all my father’s neighbors.
After my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it surprised me how quickly he began to weaken; how quickly the cancer began to take its toll. When that started to happen, there is not a single one of us who would have blamed my dad if he had thought first about himself. In fact, we would have told him, if he had listened to us, “Do what’s right for you, Dad. Don’t stretch yourself. Take it easy. Make you as comfortable as you can be before you leave us.”
But that was not my father. His first thought was not about himself or his comfort, but about his neighbors: his family and friends and colleagues. He demonstrated his love for all of us in several ways. I’ll mention two.
First, his love for the people of this Church. Shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer, my father told his pastor that he wanted some time on a Sunday night to share with the members of this church the lessons that he, my father, had learned during his life. His pastor said “Absolutely. You tell us when, and we’ll make it happen.”
And so, in early January, my father — getting weaker by the day — gathered up strength he didn’t have, ignored the discomfort he felt, and made his way up these steps to sit in a chair, right about here, and share with the people of this church the lessons he had learned during his life. My father didn’t do that for his own benefit. He didn’t do that out of love for himself. He did that out of love for this congregation. He did that because he loved his neighbors more than he loved himself.
In similar fashion, my father ignored his disease to make sure that before he died, his wife, our mother, was taken care of: that the finances were in order; that she knew where to find the things she’d need when he was no longer around. He did the same for us, his children, our spouses, and his grandchildren. Throughout the entire time he was dying, my father was loving his family more than he loved himself.
Now, these simple acts may not sound like that much to you. But you have to understand, even these simple acts required strength my father didn’t have. They required reading and writing, concentration and focus — tasks that we all take for granted, but tasks that became more difficult for my father with every passing day. Even last Sunday, a week ago today, when my father could hardly move himself up in his bed; when he had a very difficult time staying awake for more than a few minutes: I was standing there when he told my mother he wanted to help her check and balance their banking statement, one more time.
I told him: “Dad, Mom’s a smart woman. I think she can do this. And if she has a problem, I can help her.” He responded: “I just want to go over it with her one more time, to make sure.”
Now, he never got to do that. He never had a chance to complete that one last act of love. The cancer had essentially won the battle at that point. But that’s not what matters. What matters is the fact that my father tried to complete that last act of love. He had every excuse in the book to think first about himself, but he didn’t. Instead, all the way until the end, he obeyed the greatest commandments: he demonstrated his love for God by loving others, by putting others before himself.
The second passage I’d like to read today is also from the Gospel of Matthew, this time from Chapter 25, verses 31 through 40. This passage starts with Jesus speaking. He said:
… when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? … when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
The King will answer and say to them, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. That was my father.
I can’t count the number of times someone told me that my father gave a generous gift to someone who needed it. There is not a list long enough to capture the names of all of “the least of these” who benefited from my father’s time and talent and treasure. In fact, I imagine some of those people are sitting in this room today.
Even in his profession, my father was compelled to care for the least of these. In one of our many conversations during his final months, my father told me that he knew he could have been a richer man. My father was not a poor man, but he was convinced he could have been even more wealthy, if he had taken the relatively small tax preparation business that he and my mom had started … and expanded it; opened an office outside the home; hired staff, taken on more clients — and yes, made more money. He knew he could have done all of that.
But he told me that he didn’t do all of that for two reasons. First, he didn’t want to take the time away from his family. Second, he knew he couldn’t bring himself to charge people what he needed to charge them to make a business expansion viable. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my father’s tax clients, I’m sure, could have paid more than he charged them. But there were also many, I suspect, who could not pay more; whose only option for professional help on their taxes were my parents.
And my dad knew that. So he kept his prices low, charging far less than he and my mom deserved — and in some cases, I’m sure, he charged nothing at all. He did that deliberately and gladly, knowing full well that by under-charging his clients, he was foregoing the opportunity to add wealth to his home. But it didn’t matter. It was yet another way that my father tried to care for those less fortunate than him.
The third and final passage I’d like to read today is from the Gospel of John, Chapter 4, verses 5 through 9:
Jesus came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the piece of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s Well was also there, and Jesus, tired out by the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink,” since his disciples had gone off into town to buy food.
The Samaritan woman asked him, “How can you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?”
In that simple act — stopping at that well and chatting with this woman — Jesus shattered two social conventions of his time. It was taboo in Jesus’ day for a man to sit down with a woman who was not his wife and talk with her, one-on-one, in a public place. It was also taboo for a Jew to speak with a Samaritan. But Jesus didn’t care. To him, this woman’s gender and her background were not important. The only thing that mattered to Jesus was that this woman was a person, like any other person, who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.
In this way, too — as I’ve learned only recently — my father emulated Jesus.
In 1965, shortly after I was born, my father took a job at Monsanto. Now, it’s important to remember what was going on in 1965. A year earlier, Congress had passed landmark legislation to help put an end to discrimination and advance civil rights in this country. And a year before that, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had delivered the speech in which he said: “I have a dream … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It would be nice to believe that Dr. King’s words in 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 combined to immediately put an end to discrimination in this country. Sadly, that was not the case. In fact, there was such violent backlash to the Civil Rights Act and to Dr. King that on April 4, 1968 — 41 years ago this week — Dr. King was gunned down and killed.
So let there be no doubt. In 1965, three years before Dr. King was killed, discrimination continued, too often and in too many places in this country.
If you don’t believe me, ask Cleo Collins. Cleo was also working at Monsanto in 1965. Cleo remembers how many of his white colleagues treated him: the averted glances; the condescending talk. If Cleo is willing to remember those days, he’ll tell you that the laws might have changed, but the prejudice and disrespect were still there.
And then: Cleo met my dad. Many years later, Cleo told my Mom that my father was one of the few, perhaps the only white man, who treated Cleo with the respect he deserved, who judged Cleo not on the color of his skin but on the content of his character.
There’s a reason Cleo Collins and my father remained lifelong friends. There’s a reason Cleo stopped by my parents’ home the morning my father died, without even knowing until he got there, that my father’s time on this planet was no more. Cleo loved my dad, because my dad loved Cleo — because my dad did for Cleo effectively what Christ did when he stopped to speak, with respect, to a Samaritan woman.
Fast forward now, from 1965 to 2008, when a man named Barack Obama persuaded a solid majority of the people of this country to judge him on nothing more or less than the content of his character.
My father did not vote for Barack Obama. Their politics were far too different. But unlike some so-called Christians, my father never spoke ill of Barack Obama. In fact, after Obama was elected, my father told me, “He’s now my president, too. And I will respect him and I will pray for him as he leads this country.”
There’s more to the story than that. When my father learned that his oldest grandson had used his first-ever vote for President to help elect Barack Obama, my father was not disappointed. He didn’t scold my son or tell him he had cast the wrong vote. To the contrary, my father openly, proudly told anyone who would listen that his oldest grandson had voted for Barack Obama.
I think my father was proud of my son’s vote, not because he agreed with his vote, but because he saw in my son’s vote a familiar story: the story of one person judging another person on the content of his character; nothing more and nothing less.
For these reasons, I know my father was a genuine Christian: because he demonstrated his love for God by loving others more than himself; because he took time to help those less fortunate; and because he freely gave the people he met the respect they deserved, whether or not they looked like him or thought like him or voted like him.
My father was a genuine Christian. And it’s my hope today that his example will motivate all of us, starting with me, to live our lives more like he did.