In 2008, James Michael McDonald, IV died. He was 71. He was my father, and he was a salesman.
In high school, I remember reading 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 pictorial definitions, you would find a copy of our family photo, that of my parents and siblings, by the word dysfunctional. But it would be a challenge to find the family photo. I don’t remember our family ever having one.
Ours was a home of self-inflicted poverty—alcoholism, abuse, anger – chaos. Most of the memories I have of my life as a child are traumatic and painful. I do not remember much joy or love, especially from my father.
We lived in 38 states by the time I was 16. During my early days, we traveled with a carnival. I remember playing with colorful 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 an honorable one. But, like all things, it can be performed dishonorably. My father was adept at opening new accounts and making sales, but he was not very good at account maintenance. We would often move to escape creditors and for him to find new clients. 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. My great-great-grandfather was a Christian and an astute businessman. But, instead of investing his life into 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. My grandfather, James III, learning the lessons from his father, dispatched my father to the best military schools in the States. My father would only come home on holidays. Growing up, I never met my grandfather.
So, the only lesson my father learned from his father was to live for himself. He did not invest in his children or his wife. Whenever an inheritance check arrived, he would splurge it on his latest hobby – electric trains, ham radios, photography, it was as if he were an overgrown kid. And at the end of his life, James IV had nothing.
Well, almost nothing. My father did have the love of this son.
I loved my father. And I have tried to honor my father. Some may wonder about my idea of honor after reading the paragraphs above. Others have asked how I could love a father who proved himself to be so unlovable. I do not believe we honor our parents by pretending they were something they were not. Some pastors, some ministry leaders, have fathers who exhibited honor and commitment. They learned lessons of courage from their fathers. How thankful they should be that they grew up in Christian homes. This was not my life.
However, I can state just as emphatically that I am also thankful. I am grateful for my father. No, he didn’t live Christ before me; he didn’t live faithfully or sacrificially. But, he did teach me. There were a few times when I experienced genuine kindness and insight. I will always treasure these. Such as the time I wrecked the family car with my father in the passenger seat. My father got out of the car, walked around surveying the wreckage, returned to the passenger seat, and told me to drive home. This action spoke volumes to me!
But, more often than not, I was able to learn from him the reality of the total depravity of man. I witnessed what happens when a family is not united in Christ. I saw the impact sin can have on generations. These were not warnings from a godly father; these were lessons from God, exemplified through curses lived out by a sinful father.
Through it all, I have come to understand that God is sovereign. I am confident that if it were not for His work in my heart, I would be a worse father and husband than my dad. God ordained that I would be born in the home 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 the family that is unshakeable. I want families to be united in Christ because I know the dark alternative.
My father disappeared for weeks before turning up in a hospital in Redding, California, near where he grew up. He clung to life for weeks as his lungs filled with fluid. Due to economic issues, I could not go to his side. But I could speak to him over the phone many times before he died. And 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 if I could pray for him. I pleaded with the Lord to heal my father, spiritually and physically. My father cried and said, “Yes, please, God, please.”
When I called back the next day, the nursing staff thanked me for my previous call to my father. They said he was restful for the first time in quite a while. The day after that, he entered into eternity.
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.
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 children. Rejoice in the wife of your youth.
Speaking of children, if any sons or daughters are reading this, I pray you are challenged as well. Here is what I pray you come to understand. You cannot choose your parents. And, unless you have been adopted, your parents do not choose you. But either way, God is sovereign; in His plan, you have the parents you have, their strengths and weaknesses. It is God who placed you in the home you have. I pray you are all in Christian homes with Christian parents. If so, you have riches innumerable. Thank the Lord for the parents God has blessed you with. The Lord knows what is best for you.
And, if you have had a parent like mine, understand that the Lord uses our sinfulness for His glory. You may not know it now, but in the future, I pray you will be able to see God’s Hand in all you have experienced. You will be able to recognize His love and protection, even amid the darkest valley. You will be able to see how the Lord used your trials to build genuine faith and resolve in your life. And I encourage you to pray that the Lord would save your parents. Honor your lost parents by making their salvation a priority in your life. Live Christ before them without compromise; share your testimony with them. And love them. Remember how unlovable you were, yet you were still adopted by your Heavenly Father. The divide between a holy God and us is infinitely more extensive than between a sinful parent and a Christian child.
I am thankful for the father the Lord gave me. And, right now, I hang on to our last conversation, praying that the Lord did indeed open my father’s heart to the Gospel. Should I see my earthly father in Heaven, I will again be reminded and rejoice in the reality of the true grace of Jesus—grace that covers all our sins. He can save to the uttermost. May the Lord use the testimony of my father’s life to expand His Kingdom.
Thank you, Father, for my father, salesman – and sinner – that he was. I trust Your plan.