Happy Father's Day to all, and particularly to my dad, John Smith...and also to the newest dad in our family, Tristan Chen, father of my grandson.
Dads have a job to do, and my dad has done his fairly well. For example, dads are supposed to warn their kids about the problems in the world. So when we were little my dad told us about the guy who stuck his arm out the window of a moving car...and along came a truck...and now the guy doesn't have that arm anymore. I think about that story every time I stick my arm out a car window. Thanks Dad.
My dad also warned me about certain lines of work. He told me "don't join the army and don't become a minister." Obviously, I only half listened to him. My dad also taught us kids to never, ever try to fix the family TV set ourselves. He never actually said that to us, outright. But we learned by his example.
And he also taught us to never let failure or discouragement or criticism or pain define you. He instructed us to transcend those things in life...and move on. Again, this was not something he said outright, he just taught us by example.
And then there was the most profound thing he ever said about being a dad: "The best gift a father can give his children is to love their mother." The collateral benefits of that advice are never-ending. In the case of our family, it resulted in all of his children becoming feminists (that philosophy that gender is irrelevant when it comes to a person's worth or potential.) It also resulted in our learning respect, obedience, sacrifice, and generosity. We're not perfect at any of that stuff, but those imperfections are no fault of his.
Okay. That's enough of the mushy stuff. Let's get on to something more amusing about John Smith: He infused us with a love of animals. And since most of our growing up years occurred in the open country (he tended to be appointed to country churches) we had lots of opportunity to befriend the animals he brought home.
When I was in grade school (we lived in rural DeKalb County) he got us some rabbits. Then he got us some cats...which didn't make for a good mix. We once forgot to shut the door on the rabbit cage, so the cats punished us by eating our rabbits. A better mix occurred when he let us keep three stray dogs who got dumped out in the country and stayed around our house (mostly because of the food we gave them that day while our parents were away.)
When we lived in the small town of Dalton City, some guy needed to get rid of a dog, so my dad took her. Her name was "Paula," named after the recently elected pope (Paul VII.) It is the only animal we have ever had that was named after a religious figure. The rest were named, "Mutt, Rover, "The Pig," etc.)
When we lived in Rock Grove, he brought home 50 baby roosters for us to raise. There is a reason that no one has ever raised 50 roosters in one chicken coop before. The whole thing became a bloody mess...and that was before Dad decided to chop the heads off the 28 survivors and give all our friends a free chicken for their pot. (My dad was born when Herbert Hoover was president. Hoover campaigned on the slogan "A chicken in every pot." That didn't work out so well for Mr. Hoover, mostly because of the depression that hit while he was president. But my dad was able to make it happen 40 years later...in the hamlet of Rock Grove, which had about as many houses in town as we had left over roosters.)
My dad also thought we ought to have a pony (which I have written about in other Sunday letters...a story too embarrassing to reprint here.) And then there was the day he brought home a runt piglet from a neighboring farmer. We felt sorry for the pig until...well...he grew up...and became a pig in the metaphorical sense.
I grew up inspired by my dad to love animals, all the while avoiding idealizing or anthropomorphizing them. No matter our emotional expectations of them, cats will be cats, pigs will be pigs, and roosters will be roosters.
And so it is, when I leave the house and mutter to Earl-the-Cat to be a good cat while I am away, I misspeak. I do NOT want him to be a good cat. Otherwise I am likely to find a cache of freshly killed mice, birds, and squirrels in the hallway when I return. What I really mean, when I leave him alone in the house, is, "Don't be a cat while I'm away." I want him to be an ineffective cat.
I was at Northbrook United Methodist Church last Sunday for their annual "Blessing of the Animals." My daughter Alison preached the sermon that day. The whole worship experience was located on the church lawn, with the congregants toting along their dogs, cats, turtles, and parakeets. It was an unruly crowd, particularly when two dogs in the back got into a fight at the start of the sermon.
I've never heard so much confessing going on in a worship service. Usually we just have one prayer of confession and get it over with. But this particular day, people were offering profuse apologies through the whole event. "Rover, don't sniff him like that...I'm so sorry." Or, "Down Fitz! So sorry he got hair all over you...he's shedding." Each pet owner must have uttered at least a dozen apologies to the other people present.
Since I didn't have a pet in that gala, I was able to relax and simply be entertained by all the animal antics. I found myself amused at the guilt effusing from the human creatures there...and their attempts at substitutionary atonement through all the apologies made. I think it would be best to begin a "Blessing of the animals" with a general absolution and forgiveness of sins...then get on with it.
So here's to my dad...and the love of animals that characterizes all his descendants. And may the Lord have mercy on all who try to be "dad" or "mom" to their pets. Amen. Mike