My Father's Living Will

By Lila Docken Bauman

"Your father's blessings are greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills."—Genesis 49:26

Losing your father never comes easily. He may have lived to a gray old age, or he may have faded from your life before you knew him. But the loss of him forever transforms you. Through some miracle I don't yet understand, embedded in that loss is a blessing from God that can come no other way.

I anticipated my own father's death for many years, knowing his failing heart could not sustain him for long. As it turned out, he lived until 81, longer than statistics predicted for him. But as he took his final breath, a voice protested inside my head: "It's not enough time!"

There is never enough time with your dad. There remains too much you didn't get to share with him.

After Daddy died, however, all the things he left behind pushed themselves into my awareness, tingling with his presence. I suddenly saw a complete life I hadn't noticed before, brimming with unfinished possibilities. He left clues of himself everywhere—in his much-scribbled Bible, in his poetry, in the childish joy of his grandkids, whom he loved without restraint.

The biggest surprise has been what he left living inside of his family. I have not read Daddy's legal will, but I see his "living will" pouring out its bequests upon us faster than we can gather them up. I want to share his living will with you, not only in tribute to my father, but in tribute to all fathers, and to those children who may not have yet claimed their inheritances.

Daddy's ministry

My dad, Art Docken, served as a minister for over 40 years. He had a pastor's heart, and stuck close to that core. I remember many nights hearing the car pull out at 2 a.m. He was not the kind of man to wait until morning to respond to someone calling for prayer or help. One parishioner 20 years his senior called my dad "Daddy" because he always felt mentored and nurtured by him. My dad was a shepherd who loved his sheep—who loved people—with his whole heart.

Daddy included the whole family in his ministry when he could, at a time when church pressures often kept pastors away from home. For church events Daddy had deacons available to set things up. But with a twinkle in his eye he pulled us from school on those days so we could help him out instead. We thought it was great fun.

Perhaps the biggest legacy from Daddy's ministry was his openness—his lack of guile or hypocrisy. He was at times too blunt; as a man of sharp discernment he never sugarcoated his numerous opinions or criticisms. But anyone he dealt with knew he was playing straight, knew that what he said was what he meant.

From a daughter's perspective, I saw that the man preaching from the pulpit was the same man who loved my mother, loved us kids, mowed the grass, helped us with our homework, combed out our tangles, watched old movies in the middle of the night, and strove privately to live up to his public words.

After retirement he volunteered for ministries and developed ways to share his faith. He created a digital slideshow about Jesus' life and ministry and gave it away, never considering trying to market it. He started a book for his grandchildren about the miraculous grace of God. He remained consistent up to the day he died.

Not that he looked for acknowledgment. Unimpressed by position or politics, he sacrificed his own status to protect his family from those pressures. He gave the same respect to support staff, strangers and children as he did to those with prestige. It taught us powerfully about how God loves the world.

His passion for life

My dad was a creative and sensitive person who relished adventure. And he loved being a father. Although his job allowed few vacation days, he turned business trips into family retreats. He embraced childhood, and while overly strict in some ways, he indulged us shamelessly in others. How many nights did my siblings and I sneak outside at 11 p.m. to greet a new snowfall in our bare feet, hearing Daddy tell Mother, "Oh, let them have fun for a while. They're only kids once."

Daddy spoke from his experience of exploring and traveling during his youth. He understood that one of the best classrooms is life itself, and he made sure we enjoyed access to as much of it as he could.

When I was 14, my parents took my 13-year-old sister, Carrie, four-year-old brother, Will, and I along on a preaching tour through the Philippines. It didn't matter that our school threatened to fail us for missing a month of classes— how could my dad not take us on this adventure? (We earned straight A's, by the way.)

"Forgiving Daddy relieved the pain of the grudges we carried. But the process produced an unexpected effect for which I thank God every day."

Toward the end of our trip, his decision teetered on the foolhardy as we embarked on an eight-hour drive through rebel-controlled jungle to reach the tiny village of Don Carlos in Bukidnon. The driver insisted that we kids duck when a car passed so that bandits could not see our blonde hair.

After two breakdowns, we arrived in the village in the middle of the night with nothing available to quench our thirst but local beer. Our hotel room was a concrete cell with cots, a primitive toilet, and a spigot and bucket. Its walls, infested with ants and a massive spider, vibrated with the snores of a dozen other guests. We awoke at 4 a.m. to the sounds of roosters and a herd of pigs being maneuvered into the open market next door.

Later that day we met and worshipped and ate with Christians who had never before seen blonde kids, and whose joy and hospitality transformed our lives. Will developed a scorching fever during that trip, but even he agrees with Carrie and me that we wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

His faith

Daddy's faith undergirded every detail of his life. He never wasted a chance to remind us of God's unshakable trustworthiness.

My sister Judith recalls the one and only time she leaped from a high dive. Terrified of heights, she climbed the ladder and tipped herself into the open air, clinging to Daddy's repeated promise that he would be right there with her when she hit the water. He was.

"I have never gotten back on a high dive board again," Judith says, "but I have never forgotten what faith is—that terrifying leap into the unknown, holding tight to that absolute trust that God will not let you sink. That's come in handy over and over in my life. I'll never forget that."

Daddy mentored our faith at every step and prepared us for our own relationship with God. As a minister, he understood the sacrifices that accompany God's calling.

My sister Abby decided to take a year off from college to teach as a volunteer in Amman, Jordan. As she prepared for the trip, she saw worry cloud my mom's eyes. She told Daddy, "I'm not going to Jordan. I can't put Mother through that."

"If God is calling you to do a job," Daddy answered, "you've got to do it. He will take care of the details. He'll take care of Mama. Besides, she would worry about you no matter where you were." So Abby went, and her experience enriched the whole family.

A couple years later, Daddy wrote in a letter to me, "God wants you to be happy. Tell him your desires, and he will work his purposes through the talents he gave you. Just cut the rope, and let him guide your boat away from shore. You'll never regret it!"

The legacy of forgiveness

I idolized my dad, as kids often do, but did not blind myself to his shortcomings. He made mistakes we had to work to forgive, and his own example of forgiving others made this easier.

My dad's job frequently required him to extend himself beyond what was humanly reasonable, and he sacrificed many things in the process. Losing his health and time with his family were the worst.

He endured periods of great sorrow in his ministry, facing moments of slander, malice and betrayal from some of his closest friends. Although it hurt him deeply, it never shook him. "Why are you worried?" he would say. "God knows. We are all his children."

Now that we are adults, my siblings and I have had our own letting go to do. It was not easy growing up as minister's kids under constant public scrutiny, and Daddy was a lot stricter than he needed to be at critical periods in our development. We battled a lot with frustration and guilt.

But Daddy mellowed out as he grew older, and to his credit he prayerfully acknowledged his past extremes. He and my mother rejected the legalism we grew up with and embraced God's grace. This provided us a space in which to reconcile and grow as a family.

We expected that forgiving Daddy would relieve the pain of the grudges we carried, and it did. But the process also produced an unexpected effect for which I thank God every day.

In forgiving our dad, we opened our laps to receive blessings he had been waiting to load upon us. Freed from the snags of the past, we were able to share the time of his life when he had become more of the person he had longed to be. Had we not released our old disappointments, we would have completely missed the man Daddy had become.

I know now that Daddy did what he could with what he was given in a culture where faulty legacies about manhood and fatherhood continue to be passed down. When I looked for them, I found glimpses in my dad of the hopeful and curious boy he once was—and always remained, deep down.

If I could offer a little advice, find that kid in your own dad. Then nurture that kid in the children you know, in honor of your father, so that they don't end up scarred by the same burdens you've seen.

Most dads have left very apparent blessings. When you search through the boxes of his life, you'll find them. Even if you don't know your dad, he gave you life, and in his old age would feel proud of your talents and choices, which are yours to make every day. Anticipate that reunion with him when all mysteries and barriers fade.

This is what Daddy taught us: Forgive, be forgiven, and get on with life embraced by God's love and faithfulness.

During his recent hospitalization, after he had survived his first few surgeries and was barely a day off the ventilator, he whispered: "No grudges. Only peace. All is well."

Daddy narrowly survived a traumatic triple bypass in December, and after three follow-up surgeries in seven weeks, he insisted on going home. He accepted the hospice care and declined steadily until his death in March.

During one visit while he still had some strength, Daddy and I discussed the details of one of his unfinished projects, which I promised to complete for him. We both understood that his condition would likely not improve.

As I kissed him goodbye that day, I impulsively pressed his palm to my head, as he had often pressed my cool hand to his own brow while he was hospitalized. Daddy immediately grasped my head with both his hands, and prayed his blessing on me. I shall never forget the love, acceptance and exhortation that flowed from Daddy's hands and heart at that moment. That blessing healed me of all worry and doubt, and gave me permission to go on without him.

But that prayer was not his legacy. He left that everywhere else, embedded in all our lives and memories and faith and choices. It was his living will to us, his children, who can now freely pour those blessings from Daddy onto others. Unlike his physical belongings, the bequests of his living will increase and multiply in the giving.

And those blessings are greater and more lasting than all the bounty of the distant mountains, and of the age-old hills.

Dr. Lila Docken Bauman teaches media, culture and communication courses at St. Louis University. She is married and has a 3-year-old son.

Lila Docken Bauman
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