Originally written July 30, 2008
James Michael McDonald, IV died this week. My father was 71. He was a salesman.
In high school, I read Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman. The play resonated with me. The challenges of family life presented in Miller’s classic tale mirrored many of my own personal experiences. It was as if I knew the Loman family personally: Willy and Linda, Biff and Happy. In a way, I did.
If the dictionary offered a pictorial definition of the word dysfunctional, you would find a copy of our family photo. But then again, that may be a challenge; since I don’t recall our family ever having taken a photo together.
Ours was a home of self-inflicted poverty, of alcoholism, of abuse, of anger – a house filled with chaos. Most of the memories I have of my childhood are traumatic and painful. I do not remember much joy or love, especially from my father. Ours was a family without Christ.
We lived in 38 states by the time I was 16. During my early days, we traveled with a carnival. I have memories of playing with cheap stuffed animals in dirty musty motel rooms while my parents fought; not just argued, they literally fought.
Later, my father became a salesman – first roofing, then vacuum cleaners, then hardware, and later back to vacuum cleaners. And, for the record, I consider the profession of salesman to be an honorable one. But, like all things, it can be practiced dishonorably. My father was quite adept at opening new accounts and making sales, but he was not very good at account maintenance. We moved often; our roots were always surface deep.
This was not the way my father grew up. His father was quite wealthy, as was his father, and his father before him. James MacDonald, my great, great grandfather, was president of what is now Esso, the old Standard Oil’s overseas operations. James I was a professing Christian and an astute business man.
However, instead of investing his life in his son, (my great-grandfather), he sent young James II to live in a boarding school. The seeds of familial disunity were sown. My great-grandfather did not raise his son. He left my grandfather and great grandmother to live a selfish life of false dreams.
My grandfather, James III, having learned lessons from his father, dispatched my father, James IV, to the best military schools in the States. My father was welcomed home only on holidays. Growing up, I don’t recall ever having met my grandfather—though I recall bitter tears in our home at his death.
The only lesson my father learned from his father was to live for self. After James I, each preceding generation blew more money, partied a little more, moved further and further from biblical living, and became increasingly foolish. Until God pulled me out of the pit, I was well on my way to surpassing them all on that path of wickedness.
My grandfather was married 8 times. Once, for only a day. His view of marriage affected those who came after him. Especially, it seems, James IV. And like my grandfathers before him, my father did not invest in his children. He did not invest in his wife. He invested in himself. Over the years, numerous inheritance checks made it into the hands of my father. Rather than saving it, investing it, or using it wisely, he immediately splurged it on his latest hobby: electric trains, ham radios, photography. It was as if he was an overgrown kid with no self control. And at the end of his life, James IV had nothing.
Well, almost nothing. He did have the love of this son.
I loved my father. And I have always tried to honor him. Some may wonder about my idea of honor after reading the paragraphs above. Others have asked how I could love a father who proved to be so unlovable. I do not believe we honor our parents by pretending they were something they were not.
Many Christians have fathers who exhibited honor and commitment throughout their lives: handing down wisdom and godly character traits to their children. How thankful they should be for such a precious Christian heritage—a sweet gift of God. But through God’s perfect providence, this was not my life.
However, I can state just as emphatically that I am blessed—and I am thankful for my father. No, he didn’t live Christ before me; he didn’t live faithfully or sacrificially in any way. But, by God’s grace, he did teach me.
There were a few times when I experienced true kindness and insight. I will always treasure those memories.
But, more often than not, I was able to learn from him the reality of the total depravity of man. I lived and witnessed what happens when a family is not united in Christ. I saw the impact sin can have on generations. My life was full of reality, not theory. These were not warnings from a godly father; these were lessons from a loving God.
Through it all, I have come to understand that God is sovereign. I am absolutely confident that if it were not for His redeeming work in my own sinful heart, I would be a worse father and husband than the generations that went before me. Truly, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
God ordained that I would be born into the family I was. He ordained the years of strife and anger, the hunger and the neglect, the violence and the shame. And, through His work, God has given me a zeal for family that is unshakeable. I want families to be joyfully united in Christ because I know the dark alternative. I want to see marriages pure and undefiled because I know the despair of adultery, abuse, and hatred.
In God’s sovereignty, I discovered my friend, Randy Winton, just happened to live near the hospital where my father lay in California, 2000 miles away from me. He and his family faithfully ministered to my father. Time after time, Randy told my father Jesus’ story. Thank you Randy for investing your life in this way!
During the weeks before my father died, I was able to speak to him regularly over the phone. Just before he became incoherent, the Lord gave me one last opportunity to share the Gospel of Christ with him. I clearly told my dad he was dying. And, I asked him once again if I could pray for him. This time he let me. I asked the Lord to heal my father, spiritually and physically. He cried, and then said, “Yes, please God, please.” When I called back the next day, the nurse commented on the apparent impact my previous call had on my father. She said he was restful, for the first time in quite a while.
I have been holding on to my father’s tearful plea ever since.
I do not know if the Lord changed my father’s heart. I do not know if I will see him in Heaven. But I do know the Lord has given me peace. I trust Him and His plan.
How do you want to be remembered?
Please hear me. I want to challenge every father who reads this. Do you sacrifice your desires for the needs of your family? Do you visibly show the love of Christ to your wife and children? Do you understand the impact you can have on your children and your children’s children? Men, live Christ before your family. Rejoice in the wife of your youth.
Several weeks ago, my wife’s grandfather, Dr. Michael DeBakey, passed from this life at age 99. During his remarkable career, he accomplished many great works. He was a renowned surgeon who gifted the world of medicine, and all of us, in amazing ways. He was a hero in the eyes of the world. But I have to ask you, is this what is truly important? What will it matter if the whole world celebrates your great works, if you’ve lost the hearts—and maybe even the souls of your children?
While the lives of some men are obviously selfish, the motives of others are less evident. Many men willingly invest much time and energy into “helping others,” while neglecting and sometimes even despising their own families. I have to wonder, men, are the accolades we secretly desire from others neatly hidden behind our good and noble works?
Many wives and children will agree that they feel they come last in the lives of their husbands and fathers.
And men, in the end, if we’ve lost our children, or “dealt treacherously” with our wife, has God been glorified? No matter how seemingly glorious our life ends, if we are glorified, rather than God, then we are truly deceived—and we’ve received as our reward nothing but shame.
I am thankful for the father the Lord gave me. And, right now, I hang on to my last conversation with him, praying that the Lord did indeed open his heart to the Gospel. Should I see my earthly father in Heaven, it will be another incredible reminder to me of the amazing grace of Jesus—grace that covers all our sins, even mine. May the Lord use this testimony to expand His Kingdom—I am confident that my father’s life was not in vain.
Thank you, Father, for my father, salesman and sinner that he was. I trust Your plan.
To God be the glory!