What I admire most about my dad

Today’s post is in celebration of my dad’s 78th birthday.

All relationships are complicated at times, and the bond between fathers and sons is especially freighted with family history, birth order dynamics and role expectations. I have been blessed to enjoy the benefits of a healthy relationship with my dad for nearly all of my 51-plus years.

Larry Wallace holds a largemouth bass in a boat on a lake in Central Florida
A largemouth bass always elicits a huge smile from Dad, whether he or one of his boys caught it.

Neither of us are perfect, but our human frailties do not prevent respect. He has many skills I covet, including fishing, grilling, and repairing everything from lawnmowers to cars to home furnishings, but here are the his qualities I admire most:

Conviction. Dad stands by what he believes. He believes the worship of God to be a sacred act and dresses accordingly when attending church. He believes Jesus Christ died for his sins, and he can, at the very least, prioritize participating in the life of the church as a response to that sacrifice. He believes everyone needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he prays fervently they will, witnesses when he has an opportunity and invites people to come to church who might otherwise not hear the Gospel. He leaves Gospel tracts with restaurant servers and toll booth workers. He gives generously to missionaries who take the Gospel to the far reaches of the world. My dad has religious convictions that he stands by and organizes his life around, and I have always admired him for it.

Calling. The direct result of his conviction was his response to God’s call on his life to become a pastor. A mechanic for American Airlines, Dad was not looking to be a preacher when he began to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudging that more was required of him. He did not have an ego-driven need to stand in front of people and be affirmed. He wasn’t looking to turn his life upside down and take on a difficult challenge. He had a good job with a clear career path and a young family he was able to provide for financially. Though he wrestled with what surrendering to the ministry might do to his family and his financial stability, he ultimately knew God was calling him to set aside those doubts and trust Him. So after 10 years at American Airlines he retired, went back to Bible college to earn a degree, and joined the staff of our church as associate pastor. He remained faithful to that call even when circumstances forced him to leave the church staff and return to aircraft maintenance work at General Dynamics. He continued to give his life to serving the Lord through our church until he was called to serve as the pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Wales, Florida. I’m sure it was a difficult decision to relocate his family from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to rural Central Florida, but because of his commitment, he followed through.

Laughter. Not every part of Dad’s life was deadly serious. As much as conviction and calling drove his daily decisions, he has always been a person who enjoyed laughter and making other people laugh. His sense of humor helped him cope with the stresses of the ministry and his skill at storytelling made him an appealing preacher and speaker. I remember countless dinners we were invited to in people’s homes where he became the evening’s entertainment. He regaled guests and hosts alike for hours with stories from his childhood in Georgia, serving in the Air Force, catching fish, or raising three boys. When our church started a senior adult ministry called “Keenagers,” he found a willing and eager audience for the most cornball of his jokes, relishing in their groans and chuckles. I hope I inherited some of his storytelling skill, though I confess I don’t have as good a memory for jokes.

Adventure. Dad would go out of his way to surprise us or spark our imagination. When Santa brought us our first Atari video game system, he converted the interior of my grandmother’s old florist delivery van in our garage into the cockpit of a spaceship. While we blasted space invaders on our old TV screen, we felt like we were in the Millennium Falcon dodging Imperial star destroyers and tie fighters. He also put in an above-ground swimming pool at great expense and effort. We spent many hours over two summers splashing and playing through the Texas heat before we moved to Florida, and the pool immeasurably enhanced our summer fun. I will take to my grave the year my parents secretly packed the car on Thanksgiving while we unsuspectingly played in the yard all day. That evening after our traditional meal, Dad piled us into the car for what he called “going for a drive.” As dusk turned into night, my brother, Lee, and I repeatedly asked, “When are we going to turn around?” Dad responded each time with “Do you want to turn around?” That simple but profound question not only helped me embrace adventure and new experiences on that trip to Houston, Galveston, and the Texas monument in San Jacinto, his igniting the exhilaration and reward of encountering the new and unknown fueled so many of my choices throughout my life.

My dad, like all dads, is complicated, but I am grateful for his love and support throughout my life. I hope I am able to give the same gifts and pass on these qualities to my boys. It is a tremendous legacy worth passing on.

What I want to tell my dad

Of all the retail-induced holidays, Father’s Day requires the most time at the greeting card shelf.

It takes me forever to find something that captures the essence of the relationship I have with my dad. I don’t know who writes cards these days, but some of us would like something more meaningful than fishing, golf, napping, giving your children money, flatulence and drinking beer.

Dad shares funny videos with Harris and Carlton
Dad, sporting his sabbatical moustache, shares funny YouTube videos with his grandsons Harris and Carlton.

I also don’t feel that the sappy cards say exactly what I feel either, and it’s hard for sons to imagine giving voice to such sentiments. If you buy into the fact that a card can say something that you can’t verbalize, then maybe those cards are appropriate, but I strive for authenticity in my Father’s Day message.

So rather than let a greeting card company speak for me this year, I thought I’d subject you to a list – five things I want to tell Dad this year:

1. As I get older, I don’t need you less; I need you in a different way. I understand if it feels like what you used to do for me isn’t needed or appreciated, but now that I’m a father of three boys, your accumulated wisdom and experience can benefit me. And when we have an open line of communication, I can share my questions and problems in a way that invites your input. Ultimately I may make different choices than you did, but it is helpful to hear what you learned from raising us three.

2. It gives me great joy to see you enjoy your grandchildren. I can buy you gifts. I can finally afford to buy you dinner now and then. I can offer verbal affirmations that may lift your spirits. But I feel like the best I can give you is time with my boys. When I see you laughing and singing those crazy songs with them, it reminds me of those special times I enjoyed with you when I was young. I believe it brings you real joy to have those times, and maybe you are getting to re-live your best moments with your sons. I know it means a lot to my boys because of the way they talk about their Paw Paw.

Dad and Daniel Vestal
Pastor Wallace and Dr. Daniel Vestal, two preachers telling fish stories at my 40th birthday party.

3. Although you have been a pastor for more than 30 years, you were my dad first. While I have seen you in the role of spiritual leader and adviser, I need you primarily to be my dad. Last month as Carla and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, I watched the video from the rehearsal dinner.  As I listened to a much younger version of me explain why I asked you to be my best man rather than officiate the ceremony, I was struck by how I feel the same today. I have always respected your convictions and your ministry, but your support, correction and guidance have had a greater impact on shaping who I am. You always seemed to know that, and I am grateful.

4. I still want to make you proud. I’m not bringing home report cards or playing high school sports anymore, but I am not so differentiated that your approval doesn’t carry significant weight. The profound impact you have had on my identity comes through with nearly every important decision I make. What you think, whether I want to admit it or not, still enters into the equation as I consider options and angles. You continue to make a difference in my life and worldview.

5. I can’t say this any other way: I love you. I love you on your best day, and I love you on your worst. I love you when you feel like you are being a good dad, and I love you when you feel that you have failed. I love you when you preach your best sermon, and I love you when you deliver a dud. I love you when you give surprising and extravagant gifts, and I love you when all you can offer is an encouraging word. As I grow to understand a father’s love from firsthand experience, I love you more each day. No circumstance I can imagine will change that.

So if there’s a card on the shelf that says all that, I couldn’t find it. I hope you don’t mind that I shared this in a public forum. I have a hunch that there are a lot of sons out there who would say similar things to their dads if they could find the right card.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I look forward to many more years of learning from you, loving you and depending on you.  You’re a great father, and I hope that truth will give you more joy than a gift card.

OK, I’ve had my chance, what would you say to your dad if you could? In what ways has your father made an impact on you? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.