A Tale of Two Fathers

Dad and Penny snow
My father Wilford L. Walters passed away on Saint Patrick’s Day in 2017. The following is the message/eulogy my little brother Eli Walters shared at my dad’s memorial service: 

I’m thankful today for my dad’s life. I always knew who he was. He’s there, in my earliest memories, and each day I could say, “That’s my dad.” He always lived in the same house with my mom, and my siblings, and me, as I grew up. And I almost always knew where to find my dad…typically either working to provide for his family or at home. I would often go to work with my dad. On those days, when I was really young, my job was mostly to stay out of harm’s way and entertain myself as he worked, but I got to watch him. And eventually, I was old enough to work with him. I don’t think I ever even filled out a job application until I was in college. I worked with Dad…all four seasons of the year…inside and outside…on roofs and on the ground…mowing, trimming, shoveling, plumbing, repairing, cleaning, painting. My dad pulled me — terrified — onto roofs. I got to ride tractors, push mowers, use propane torches, cut pipe, saw limbs, pet cows, touch electric fences, shoot guns, climb ladders…and on…and on. I got to do things with my dad that many children only dream of doing.

My dad worked for a lot of different people as I grew up, but it seemed that he spent most of his time cycling through the same short list of people. Mowing and trimming at Forsht Farm in the spring and summer and raking leaves there in the fall. Painting, cleaning, and letting the dogs out for Mrs. Delozier. The Mohrs, the Dells, the Claars, the Royers, Mrs. Zinn, this church. I recall many hours spent painting inside and outside this church with my dad. My dad was trusted, he knew how to do a lot of different things, he did good work, he cleaned up after himself, and he did it all at a very fair price. That likely explains why I never recall my dad lacking work. It seemed that there was always someone waiting for him to tackle another project.

And my dad was a hard worker. His endurance, in my mind, is legendary. When he would get into a job, he (which was frequently “we”) would often spend long days on it. On many occasions, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’d be pleading with him, “Dad! I’m hungry! Can we pleeeeeeeease go home?!?!” Typically, when he reached the point where he was ready to quit for the day, I was already passed out on the ground from low blood sugar and exhaustion. At least it some times felt that way. One of the last big projects that my dad and I completed together was the roof on my current house. We spent quite a few long days on that roof, and even at the age of 75, he would be pushing to go just a little longer, while I was suggesting that we quit for the day.

My dad’s stories made many of those long work days seem at least a little bit shorter. Especially when we’d both be painting in close proximity to each other, and it was otherwise quiet, he would tell stories. Stories from growing up, stories from his early working days, stories from his Army days, stories about the family before I was born into it. He told a lot of humorous stories. One of my favorites from his Army days was the story of how my dad was accidentally stabbed in the forehead with a fork while eating at the mess hall. The perpetrator had intended to stab someone…but my dad wasn’t the intended target. (We can reenact it downstairs during the meal.) But my dad also told a lot of serious stories. As the youngest grandchild on both sides of the family, I had missed a lot, and through my dad’s stories, I got to know people that I would never meet. I came to understand our family history and dynamics. Whether he knew it or not, my dad taught me and influenced me a lot through his stories, particularly his stories about remaining faithful to a certain young nurse-in-training back home, while he was halfway around the world in Korea.

Now there is one way in which my dad abused me as a child. He forced me to watch the Steelers during the 1980s. It was truly cruel and unusual. But, God does work things together for good…I became a Green Bay Packers fan. My dad loved sports. Athletics was the most significant connection between my dad and me during my formative years. Other than working, we otherwise spent the most time together playing catch in the backyard. In those years, I don’t know that anything gave me more pleasure than throwing a baseball, and my dad did that with me. Spring through fall, from age 9-18, multiple days a week. Many tens of thousands of pitches were thrown in that yard. I had my dad, I had a baseball in hand, I had the smell of cowhide under my nose, and I felt…alive. During one of my dad’s last days, as he was sleeping, I took a picture of his left hand. I specifically wanted to capture an image of his crooked left index finger. I won’t take all the blame for that, as my dad worked with this hands all his life, but that finger took such a pounding from me over the years, pitch after pitch after pitch. So much of my own frustration and pain was channeled into that short 60-foot trip of a baseball from my hand to my dad’s catcher’s mitt.

My dad served other people. During my lifetime, he served this church in a variety of roles. My parents co-taught a middle school Sunday school class for many years. I recall my dad going off to evening Trustee meetings, and I remember many Sundays of counting the offering, sorting bills, rolling coins. And my dad served his family. I recall camping out in my Grandma Walters’s living room with my parents, as they helped to care for her in her final days of life. And my dad invested many hours into the houses that my brother, my sister, and I have owned. He helped to put a roof on two of them. He cleaned, he painted, he fixed leaks, and more. My dad also served his neighbors. When neighbors reached out for help, my parents always seemed quick to respond. He would always mow some extra grass and shovel some extra snow to help those around us. And he was known to keep most of 16th St Duncansville stocked with fresh-picked tomatoes from his garden during the late summer months. And through it all, I never sensed that my dad thought that put anyone in his debt…or that he expected many thanks for it. If anything, it seemed to be one of the significant ways that he knew how to express love.

And as my parents served and gave of themselves to the church, to family, to friends, to neighbors…as they very often tried to do what they thought right and best…I watched them, at times, be mistreated, insulted, and torn down. I mention that only because I got to see my parents dealing with some very significant wounds as I grew up. And I watched them wrestle with those things, with great anguish and with many tears…and understandably so. But, far and away, what stands out to me the most from the wounding and the hurting is not the expressions of pain from my parents. What stands out to me…what I carry with me…is the commitment to not return evil for evil. The commitment to forgive, even when it is the last thing that you feel like doing.

But my dad was far from perfect. I desperately wish that my dad had asked good questions and listened more, that he had been more gracious in responding to my mistakes, that he had been more affirming and encouraging. Maybe some of you can relate, as you think about your own dads. But when I dwell too long on any of those unfulfilled desires, I am reminded of the fact that my dad…my parents…lost two children. My brother Kerry to leukemia, at age 7, which was before my time, and my sister Peggy, at age 22, in a car accident. I wasn’t around at all for the first, but no one was closer to them than me for the second. And when I ponder those incredible losses for even a few seconds, especially now as a father of three young children, my focus turns from the ways in which my dad came up short to amazement at the miracle that my dad could move forward, that he could find a way to carry on after losing one child, let alone two. I marvel that he could find a way to work again, to tell stories again, to smile again, to laugh again…to do anything more than lay down and quit. I have no other explanation than the grace of God.

In telling you that my dad came up short, that he wasn’t everything that I needed him to be, I’m not saying anything that you don’t already know. If you are a dad, like me, you know this. We fall short of being all that our kids need us to be. If you are a child of a dad, which is all of you, you know this. No earthly father has been everything that his child needed him to be. Maybe you never even knew your dad, maybe he abandoned you at an early age, maybe he was physically present but relationally and emotionally absent. Maybe he did far worse. Or maybe he was engaged and active in your life.

Regardless of the specifics of our stories, our dads were not and are not perfect. They were and are something less than we need or needed them to be. Even at the age of 38, I continue to be in desperate need of a perfect Father. The good news, the great news, is that there is One.

I am most grateful to my dad for taking us to church every Sunday. I wasn’t always thankful then, but I am now. My dad made certain that I heard about Father God. My dad made certain that I heard that we were separated from our Creator because of sin. My dad made certain that I heard about Father God’s only begotten and perfect Son Jesus, who was born among us as a fully human baby and who lived a perfect life, despite being tempted in every way that we are. I heard that Jesus died a horrific death that we deserved because of our sin, and by his perfect shed blood on the cross, he wiped clean the sin-full slates of God’s children. I heard that he took our sin upon himself unto death, and his righteousness was credited to our accounts. I heard that, on the third day, Father God raised Jesus from the dead…that Jesus conquered sin and death, and now we too can walk in newness of life in Him. I heard that Jesus ascended into heaven, and he’s at the right hand of God, interceding for all those who believe. I heard that Jesus, God the Son, sent God the Holy Spirit to dwell within God’s people…to remind us of all that Jesus taught…to comfort, to encourage, to empower. I heard that Jesus will be back…to separate those who belong to His Father from those who do not. And all who belong to Him will spend eternity with Him. And I believe it. I believe it with all that I am. And on this day, my dad wanted to be certain that you would hear as well.

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And Jesus also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” So I’ll leave you with a few questions from my dad.
Do you believe?
Will you believe?
Will you call upon the name of the Lord Jesus, through whom you can have access to a perfect Father?

You see, my dad wasn’t everything I needed him to be. But he pointed me in the direction of my Father God, who is more than enough. I may have lost my dad, at least for a while, and I will mourn that loss again and again in the coming days. But I know my perfect Father, who is, who always was, and who will always be.

Please pray with me: Father God, thank you for my dad. Thank you for the ways in which his life reflected aspects of your nature. In your word, you have declared to us that we all have sinned and fallen short of your glory. Thank you that you did not leave us in that helpless situation. Thank you for sending your Son Jesus as the perfect and final sacrifice to save us from sin and spiritual death. Thank you for conquering sin and death through Jesus.

Father God, I thank you for those here today who believe on the name of Jesus, who have confessed their need for him and have thrown themselves upon your grace. Father God, by your Holy Spirit, work in their lives…work in my life. Reveal to us the areas of our lives, the places within us, where we continue to resist you. Bring us to repentance and surrender. Jesus, reign in every area of our lives. You have not just saved us from a future hell…come near, come now, bring order to our present chaos, give us abundant life and joy.

Father God, I thank you for those here today who do not believe. I can only ask today that you soften their hearts, that you remove the scales from their eyes. Holy Spirit, make their hearts new so that they may believe. Give them the gift of faith in the Lord Jesus, so that they may receive and experience your saving grace.

God, be an overwhelming comfort to my Mom in the days ahead. Let her know your grace, love, and provision more than she has ever known it before.

In the name of Jesus I pray, Amen.