“I love you man” is an expression used in a 2009 movie by the same name. But for me, the phrase rings most true when I think of my father-in-law, Wil.
When we first met, he extended his hand and his heart.
“Any friend of my daughter’s will be a friend of mine,” he said without guile.
From that day, he’s never wavered in his promise.
He’s my mentor, and he’s my friend. So if you’ll forgive this short indulgence during the month we honor fathers, I want you to know him.
At 78, Wil still is a handsome man, standing 5-foot-10. With a full head of hair that prematurely grayed at 30, he doesn’t look a day older than 65.
He spends hours each week working in his yard or on the treadmill and maintains a fit 180 pounds.
Adding to his fitness routine, he often walks the half mile to church. It was on those walks that his neighbors began to see not just his physical fitness, but his spiritual fitness.
He considers his neighbors among his flock. He’s done their weddings, their funerals and visited their loved ones in the hospital. He asks nothing in return: not donations or church attendance, just friendship.
Nowhere do I hear his spirituality more deeply than during mealtime prayers. Avoiding clichés that express thanks for weather, beans and biscuits, his prayers erupt as holy poetry that continues his daylong conversation with his creator.
He studies his Bible for hours each week, not in a pious way that seeks to justify his actions, but in a way that seeks a genuine relationship with God.
He’s a Fundamentalist Southern Baptist pastor and wears the term “Fundamentalist” not as political, but as historical relating to seven core fundamental beliefs about Christ.
Still, he can be a stubborn man at times. He votes straight Republican and doesn’t mind telling you of his grave disappointment with the present administration. He favors traditional marriage and is fond of proclaiming that “Christianity is the only reasonable hope of salvation.”
But beyond his fundamentalism, Wil’s short on the negative aspects of the word. He’s a man who loves people more than he loves a fight. He allows people to see his struggles with faith. Currently, he’s struggling with God over the physical pain my mother-in-law, Darla, is experiencing.
Wil keeps his word in an intensive way. He makes his appointments months in advance, keeping even the most trivial ones with the diligence of a banker.
For the past 47 years, he’s kept his word to the people of Fairvale Baptist Church to be their pastor and spiritual leader.
His faithful leadership has produced missionaries, pastors, chaplains, marriage counselors, musicians and last, but not least, his daughter, Becky, my wife. And for even longer than that, he’s kept his word to his wife of 56 years to love and cherish.
In 1992, I lost my dad. He was 65. After the funeral, Wil sent me a sympathy letter that I still have. He followed it up with a phone call.
“I want you to know that I could never replace your dad,” he said with a wavering voice, “but I’m here to stand in his place wherever you’ll allow.”
A few days later, after collecting myself, I called him and accepted his offer to become my “earthly foster father.” It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.
Father’s Day isn’t until June 20, but Wil, you deserve an entire month.
I love you man.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.