A Noble Four Letter Word
My father-in-law had a great impact on my life. He was father to four daughters and always considered me the son he never had. We were quite close and the world lost a great person when he passed away in 2005.
One of our last few conversations before he died took place as we sat across the dining table from each other at his home in Toronto. He had been diagnosed with cancer and was given no more than a few weeks to live. It came as a shock to him and to us. In this, one of our “farewell” conversations, I’ll never forget a particular word he used because he used it often in moments of reflection.
A little background will help. When the Second World War began, he dutifully enlisted to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator. He navigated brilliantly by the stars. He served his country and a cause for the world with duty and honor at a perilous time in history. His use of that word “duty” epitomized his own life.
I heard him utter it again as he faced death. He was downcast as he worried that he had not left his finances in better shape for his wife. The truth is that he had provided for her, but with his sudden diagnosis, he suddenly felt so uncertain about it all. I said to him, “Please don’t worry about it, Dad...we’ll be there to take care of her.” He paused, overwhelmed by the weight of the limited time left to him, and said in somber tones, “But it was my duty to do so...” and the tears ran down his face.
There was that word: “duty.” In fact, I almost never heard him speak publicly without somehow bringing it in as a reminder to his audience. He would often quote Lord Nelson’s famous call to his countrymen before the battle of Trafalgar, “England expects every man to do his duty.” So prone was my father-in-law to quote that line that when he wrote his first book, about six hundred pages in length, I asked him with an amused expression, “Where in the book is Nelson’s line?” He looked so sheepish and dodged the question, so I opened the book and there it was: the opening line of the first chapter. I smiled and applauded that he had made my search so easy.
Duty. The two extremes towards this call miss the mark. The materially minded don’t like the word because they think it somehow handcuffs us—why place a burden of compliance that is self-made and mere convention, they insinuate. That venting is understandable, because materialists often miss the essence of many things as they go for form rather than substance. The spiritually minded don’t like the word very much either because they think it diminishes a greater demand, the demand of love. They mangle the form by isolating the substance. Their mistake is in putting asunder what God has joined together.
In his conclusion to the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon said that “the whole duty of man is to fear God and to keep his commandments.” So I ask, is it one’s duty to keep the commandments? Yes, indeed. Jesus positioned two commandments as the greatest: to love God and to love our fellow human beings. Making the love of God and of man our duty is surely not making them opposite sentiments.
Whatever the reasons, we are discomfited by the multiple illustrations of failure to do one’s duty that are everywhere, from political leadership to academic responsibility, and so often in the place of the arts. Offices of responsibility are more often sought for the power they bring, rather than for love of duty. Educators think character can be ignored in favor of letters against their names. In the world of entertainment, programs are aired with monetary goals in mind rather than for building up that which is good. Perish the thought that television executives might bear a responsibility to society! The living color that brings entertainment to us reflects only the color of green to its purveyors...dollars that can sacrifice sense. But that’s another topic for another day.
The worst effect from the failure to do our duty is evidenced in the home. The situation is dire. I know of those who have walked away from their wives and children and even their grandchildren to pursue selfish ambition. I find that heart-wrenching. I have seen those grandchildren longing to see their grandfather but he’s not there. He has turned his back on the minimal requirement of love: his duty.
Those who walk away with such callousness think duty and love are at odds because they often subsume love under their own personal need and ignore the greater commitment of duty. That misreading has cost our society so much. China flirted with a one-child policy and realized a generation later the costly mistake they had made in raising a whole generation of children with no siblings. How much more costly is it that multitudes are raised with no father?
What is scary about this scenario as I write about it is that to even address the need for a father is to run the risk of being accused of making a veiled attack on the culture of progressive thinking. That is not the point I am making. I am simply acknowledging that many men over the years have opted for selfishness over duty, for professional accolades over nurture, for image rather than substance, for temporal gain over an eternally defined profit, for sitting in the board room rather than standing by a crib. There is the old saying that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. We are seeing now that the cradle is ruling the world as we rock ourselves into the arrogant belief that not only is an earthly father unnecessary, there is no need for a heavenly Father either.
Contrast these two stories: Some years ago, an Air Canada flight from Dallas to Toronto met with an emergency. A fire had broken out in mid-flight in one of the restrooms. The pilot began a dramatic and sudden descent, knowing he had but a few moments to land if any were to survive. He descended at a furious speed and when he touched down emergency crews were on hand. As soon as they opened the door for rescue, the whole aircraft, sucking in the oxygen, turned into an inferno. There were some fatalities and some suffered burns, but because of his skill and the crew’s commitment, many were rescued. The captain was the last one to leave the burning airplane as he was literally pulled through the window with his uniform afire. It was a story of skill and heroism, and the captain deserved the tearful and heart-filled commendation he received as someone who had done his duty.
Switch scenarios. We move to April 2014. A ferry in Seoul, South Korea, capsizes and a large number of passengers are killed, most of them high school students who, waiting for instructions to abandon ship that never came, were swallowed up by the water and drowned.
One of the reasons the instructions never came is that the captain himself had fled the sinking ship and made sure he was safe on dry ground. The chorus of condemnation from the loved ones of those lost, tormented because of a captain who betrayed his trust, is not surprising. The teacher who had organized the trip took his own life, feeling that he had no right to be alive while most of his students perished. Even the prime minister of South Korea offered to resign because of the ripple effect of the tragedy. No celebration here, no commendation of a brave man; just a series of wrong decisions that resulted in the ultimate wrong decision of a man who put himself first and failed to do his duty.
Duty is the handmaiden of love and honor. It is doing that which is right rather than that which is convenient. In fact, failure of duty generally amputates somebody else’s right. Duty recognizes a cause greater than one’s self. As men and as fathers we have a duty before God and man to do what is right, honorable, and sacrificial.
On this occasion of Father’s Day, I call upon every man to do his duty: his duty to those who are in his care and his duty toward whatever task is in his trust, regardless of the personal cost. I pause, myself, to reflect upon ways in which I could have served my family better. I wish I had done that in more ways than I did. Watching our children live out their lives for God is a thrill that cannot be gainsaid.
My concern at this stage is for our youth. They live in a world akin to a tantalizing buffet line of seductions. How do they have the wisdom that enables restraint and discipline? Institutions seem accountable to nobody but themselves. That needed wisdom must come from within the home. That’s where instruction and the impartation of love, responsibility, and duty must begin. This will be a far better world if every man would do his duty to our young.
The hymn writer put it well:
Put on the Gospel armor
and watching unto prayer,
When duty calls, or danger,
be never wanting there.
(Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus)
My father-in-law was that kind of man and that’s why his last words at the end of his life were incredible. As he neared death, with his wife and children standing by his bedside, he uttered two statements. Looking toward the heavens he said, “Amazing, just amazing!” Turning to his wife of 62 years, he said, “Jean, I love you.” Those were his last words before meeting his heavenly Father.
Love had at last wedded beauty to duty, the enrichment of the here and the enchantment of the hereafter. It was the finest and the most soul-affirming of farewells. Doing your duty before God and man is ultimately welcomed in the embrace of love and commendation from whom it really matters. What more could a wife and children have asked for?
God places before us a call to the most rewarding service: to love that knows its responsibility and that will reap the fitting reward of children who honor their parents. Out of such homes society can build a better future. That in itself would truly be amazing. To be sure, the path to that end is fraught with obstacles, perils, disappointments, and heartaches. But we cannot fail in our duty. The first step is defining, that we might know God who sent his Son who, in turn, fulfilled his duty and laid down his life so that you and I might know the love of our heavenly Father. Duty and love came from heaven to earth so that earth might reflect that splendor.
Happy Father’s Day, Gentlemen. And to families that are missing their father today, my prayers are especially for you. May God our heavenly Father be your strength.