My father was a Baptist fundamentalist who loved people more than a fight. However, when battles were waged on behalf of people, he could be a fierce fighter.
I was 11 when he took the opportunity to reinforce just how much people mattered to him. My lesson began on a summer vacation day at our community pool, where I was swimming with my 13-year-old neighbor, Jerry.
At some point, Jerry began asking me to distract bikini-clad swimmers so he could get a submerged close-up of their anatomy. I refused to be his co-conspirator, so I called him a pervert and left the pool in protest.
He followed me to offer his comment: a punch across my jaw. I answered with a single blow to the back of his hard head, and we separated to opposite sides, like boxers nursing our wounds.
At home, my father found me in the kitchen icing my broken hand. When I told him my story, he smiled and surprised me by saying how disappointed he was that I’d ignored his oft-repeated advice to plant a tight squared fist on the nose of my opponent.
Then he pulled back the kitchen curtains to look toward Jerry’s house. He thought he’d seen early promise in Jerry, but now sounded unsure. “Jerry needs to know that people aren’t objects for his selfish use,” he said. “Hopefully, you helped him see that.”
I didn’t understand my father’s commentaries until a few weeks later, when he was interviewing for a pastor’s job in a Southern Baptist Church. His “interview” consisted of preaching a trial sermon, meeting with deacons and eating a family dinner with an influential member.
After church, I felt underarm stains forming on my newly dry-cleaned suit while we drove to our host home. When our hostess greeted us at her front door, she offered to store our purses and suit coats in a hall closet.
I declined her offer, retracting my plaster cast deeply into my bulging sleeve. Suddenly a boiling pot summoned our hostess back into her kitchen, so my father took the moment to question my behavior on such a warm day.
I knew that these dinners were more about interviewing our family for a good fit into the church, so I explained that I was trying to hide my cast.
“Why?” he asked.
“They won’t want to hire a pastor whose son gets in fights.” I said.
At that point, my father dropped to his knees to meet my flushed face and nervous eyes.
“You won’t embarrass me, Son.” he said. “Family is more important. In fact,” he added with a hand sweep of our surroundings, “you are more important than all this.”
Then he simply stood and began removing my coat, like a ringside trainer freeing a fighter’s robe from quivering shoulders.
My father’s lesson that people are more worthwhile than personal gain, job advancement or poolside popularity remains a difficult lesson for me to live even today. In fact, the truth is that a recent opportunity caused me to examine my commitment to helping people.
The “opportunity” came in a gentle conversation with a supervisor who made sharpened points about my caring skills. Her comments hurt a bit, but the result was that I rededicated myself to my father’s lesson of loving people where they are, how they are and because they are God’s children.
The church didn’t hire my father, but at the end of the day, my dad and I knew that we had won the fight, and my father and I remained connected for the rest of his life.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Recorded comments are welcome at 608-9715. Visit thechaplain.net.