I’ve been thinking about that as I sit at my desk in my office at home. It’s late at night, Marlene is in bed, and our two basset hounds are asleep in the living room. Above my desk, not three feet away, a picture looks down on me, as if keeping watch while I work. It is a happy shot of me with my three sons. From left to right, Nick, Mark, me, Josh. The boys are in beige suits with dark brown ties, I am wearing a dark suit with a fancy tie that more or less matches their outfits. We took the picture at Mark’s wedding in California last summer. You can tell the photographer took the picture after the ceremony because we’re all laughing. Mark in particular looks very happy, as a new husband should be. I remarked during the ceremony that I often think when I officiate at a wedding, with the happy couple in front of me, the blushing bride and the slightly baffled groom, both of them nervous and glad and scared and probably exhausted, with family and friends watching closely, I think to myself, “They don’t have a clue.” Whenever I say that, people laugh, especially the ones who are or have been married because no one really has a clue before they get married. You can go to all the classes in the world, and you’re never quite ready for the big change of waking up the next morning with someone else sleeping next to you, knowing that if all goes well, you will wake up next to this person for the rest of your life.
And so I look at the picture and see my boys with me, and the happy moment reminds me of huge commitments that started long before they were born. Two of them are married, we have no grandchildren yet, and they have not yet settled into their careers. But time tends to take care of all of the details of life. At this moment our family is scattered. As I write these words, Josh and Leah are in China, Mark and Vanessa are in Tupelo, and Nick is in Africa. Our family was together for a total of four days last year, and I don’t know that we’ll do much better than that this year.As I look around my office, I see something else that calls out to me. On top of my bookcase there is an American flag folded neatly inside a triangular wooden frame. Four stars are showing. It is the flag that draped my father’s coffin 34 years ago. I had not seen the flag since the funeral director gave it to my mother on that sunny day in November when we buried my father. As I ruminate on the matter, I realize that I don’t know who kept it all these years, but last June Mark and Vanessa surprised me by finding the frame and giving it to me for my birthday last year.
So here I sit with my sons in front of me and my father behind me, all of them looking down on me, as if to say, “Ray, we are counting on you.” And I think that is true. The memory of my father calls out to me and says, “Be the man I taught you to be,” and my sons call out, “Be the man we need you to be.”
It is not easy, this business of being a father, a son, a husband, a friend, a leader, a Christian, a model for others to follow. I am steadied by the thought that I am not making this journey alone, that my father and my sons are walking with me. Two days before Father’s Day, looking at these pictures, I feel as if I’ve already received my present.