It is often true that people form their views of God by looking at their fathers. If our earthly father is thoughtful and kind, we tend to see our Heavenly Father that way. If our dad is angry or uncaring, however, our picture of God can easily become marred with black streaks that obscure his goodness. Scripture tells us that every family bears some imprint of the grace of God, however faint. As the apostle Paul said, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.”
In the case of S. Morris Guthrie, the man whose name I am privileged to bear, today I’ve been asked to share what kind of a father he was. As we look briefly at this very important aspect of his life, I think we’ll gain a better grasp of not only what our Heavenly Father is like, but how Morris Guthrie both experienced and exemplified God’s grace in the long course of his life.
In a lot of ways, Dad was often a man of actions, not words. One way he fathered us was by example, giving us quiet lessons we are still applying today. His devotion to Mom was legendary and ever-growing. When the Swindal house burned down in the 1950s, Dad showed love and maturity beyond his teenaged years, coming day after day to help his devastated neighbors rebuild—and, no doubt, to get to know Irene better. It was the start of a partnership that lasted six wonderful decades.
Just over four years ago, however, Mom had her brain infection. We all saw how Dad put everything in his life aside to help her heal and return to normal health—often to his own physical and emotional detriment. I marveled at his total commitment—some might call it obstinacy—on her behalf. Dad gave up everything—golf, walks around the block, adequate rest—so that he could be sure Mom was getting all she needed. The nurses at Duke told our family, “We’ve never seen a man like this; we didn’t know they made men like this.”
This utter devotion continued after Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dad laid it all on the line for his beloved Irene, tenderly seeking her good at great personal cost.
In this he lived out Paul’s great command in Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” What an example Dad has given his children of Christ-like love for our mom!
Dad loved his children, too, of course. This was a love that was demonstrated in concrete actions more often than it was spoken—although in recent years I was graced to hear three specific words from Dad with increasing frequency: “I love you”—and I know he loved all of you as well. When his daughter, Gina, had her bout with cancer, he tenderly and consistently drove her to her treatments. He displayed the same compassion when Mom’s mother died.
Such love is truly God-like, for, as the Apostle John said, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
God gave Dad that love, of course, and he shared it with us, in ways big and small. I can’t even begin to count the number of times he brought us donuts on the weekend, blended orange juice slushies for us, supplied us with Charles Chips, gave us what we wanted from the Sears catalog every Christmas, or shared walks with us at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge—small but consistent acts of kindness that spoke volumes. One year, he and Mom hosted a young, disadvantaged girl from the inner city—another act of love.
When we were kids, Dad gave Mike and me special nicknames. I was called “Catfish”—I don’t know why!—and Mike was “Chief,” or “Big Chief Wahoo.” In recent years, Dad had started calling one of his grandsons, Michael John, “Chief.” When his grandfather died, MJ said that one of the things he would miss most was that there would be no one to call him “Chief.”
Dad and Mom always worked hard to instill in us a sense of our family roots. When Gina, Mike, and I were young, they were careful to make the long drive from Delaware down to Mount Olive every summer. Getting to know my grandparents during the long, hot days, hearing the chickens cackling and the roosters crowing, tasting the good Alabama cooking, driving the tractor, and rocking on the porches gave me a sense of peace and belonging that I have come to see as God’s precious gifts.
Mom and Dad stuck with their principles, too. Despite my disability, they refused to baby me, and they tried to include me in all the activities of the family that I could handle. They didn’t make a big deal of this, wanting me to see my inclusion as expected and normal. It was an unspoken lesson that has stayed with me all my life.
While I remain undeniably disabled, I try not to let my condition—which I see as temporary—define who I am. I am a person made in the image of God who has a disability, not simply a “disabled person.” Once after I got up to speak in front of my church on Disability Awareness Sunday some years ago, a friend told me she was confused about why I was on the platform—because she didn’t view me as a “disabled person” at all. That’s how Mom and Dad wanted it all along.
There were, of course, plenty of disappointments and heartaches along the way, for me and my parents. One time when I was raging in the bathroom about the supposed unfairness of Dad taking Mike to play tennis and not me, Dad heard me. Now being an athlete himself, Dad probably knew what the outcome would be before we ever stepped on the court—but I didn’t. Yet as Dad kindly and gently hit the tennis balls my way, it quickly became apparent that tennis would never be my sport—I simply couldn’t move and keep up. Yes, it was a crushing disappointment for me, but I never really considered what it did to him. Now that I’m a father, however, I think I know some of the heartache he must have experienced for his child—an echo of the Lord who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.
Dad, as befitting his love, was also a generous giver—to us, and to others. Certainly he gave us his time—organizing family baseball on the weekends and attending swim meets and basketball games. Mike says that, to his knowledge, Dad never missed one of his games in high school or college, even when this involved driving all over the state of Florida. Dad was always sitting there in the stands when he came out of the locker room, ready to cheer him on—or yell at the opposing coaches or referees!
Once during a Boca Raton High School game, Dad’s “cheering” became so heated that his dentures popped out while he was seated on the top row, and they fell under the bleachers. Dad had to get up from his seat, make the long trek down to floor level, and retrieve them. When finally he returned to his spot, Mom had moved away to another!
Dad, as we all know, was also extremely generous with the resources that he and Mom had earned over the years. They took their calling to provide for us very seriously. When they came into some extra money, more often than not it went to us kids. He and Mom have had an open-hand policy whenever one of their children was in need.
Though Dad had long experience in the professional world, he never forced his advice on us—though at times I’m sure he wanted to—displaying real humility and respect. But when asked for his insights, Dad would give them, no holds barred. This fall, Mike asked for his advice on a pressing career matter, and, as always, Dad was carefully researching it before giving his answer. After Dad died, Mike was going through some of his papers, and on top of the stack was a sheet about Mike’s situation, along with his own notes.
Once, some years ago, I expressed an interest in buying their beautiful Buick LeSabre when they were done with it. Some months later, they called, saying I could have the car—for nothing. Others here have also experienced their generosity, which I see as a picture of God’s generosity toward us in Christ: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Such generosity does not happen without the prompting of our gracious God.
Dad was also, like God, a fierce protector of his own. Jesus said that it would be better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck and be cast into the heart of the sea than to cause a little one to stumble. Mom and Dad were fierce advocates on my behalf, making sure I had everything I needed when I was being mainstreamed into the public schools.
Once when Dad was out front of our split-level in Heritage Park, playing catch on Grendon Drive, a car went by really fast and Dad’s protective instincts kicked in. Instead of complaining about bad drivers, Dad fired his glove at the windshield, scoring a direct hit. When the surprised driver stopped, Dad gave him a short lecture in the street on safe driving around kids, before sending him on his way. That was that—message delivered. Both Mike and Gina also got the message and recall similar incidents in their own lives.
Dad’s protectiveness, of course, could also be very gentle. In recent years he would call Gina every day on her way to work, just to stay in touch and let her know he loved her. His grandchildren also saw his gentler side. Caroline and Katherine had hoped he would walk them down the aisle. Dad turned into a real softie with his kids’ kids. I remember during a family gathering when he told Andrew in his southern drawl, “You want some ice, Andrew?” It was a shock to me!
Looking back, I see signs of God’s grace and presence in many aspects of Dad’s parenting, but I’ll mention just one more for now.
We all know that Dad had an enduring love for God’s creation. He and Mom bought half ownership of an unheated beach house in Cape May Point, decades before the Jersey shore became fashionable! I can still smell the clams and butter, the sea air, still feel the breezes from the picture window overlooking the sand painted orange by the setting sun, still hear the call of the gulls, as well as my own footsteps on the road that went to the candy store. It was a terrific home away from home.
Somehow Dad always ended up in naturally beautiful places! I have no doubt that the words of the Psalmist would resonate with him: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
And of course he and Mom brought us to Boca Raton, land of palm trees, emerald waters, impossibly blue skies, and eighty-degree evenings! Then they bought a place on top of a mountain in the Smokies of North Carolina, followed by their dream home on Dataw Island, where Dad could fish and chase a golf ball around as much as he pleased. These were new places for our family to connect and grow.
Yet this service today reminds us all that such blessings, as wonderful as they are, are only temporary. One day, like Dad, we will leave them all behind. Exhibiting God’s love and grace, Dad gave his children a good and loving home, but we need a permanent one.
A famous journalist from a century ago, G.K. Chesterton, once observed that people are “homesick in their homes.” He knew that every time we lay our heads on our pillows at the end of the day, we lay them down in a foreign land. Our true home lies elsewhere, if we will but recognize it.
We are all here to celebrate Dad as a great husband, father, friend, and provider—and he was. We all saw reflections of God’s grace in his life, and we thank the Lord for his legacy. But ultimately we need something even deeper and more lasting than what Dad or any earthly father could provide. At this time of loss and grief over Dad, let’s recommit our lives to our Heavenly Father through his only Son, Jesus Christ.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told his disciples. “Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Thank you, Dad, for helping us to see the goodness of our Heavenly Father in the way you lived your life.
These remarks, in a slightly different form, were originally delivered in January 2013 at Dad's memorial service.--SG
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