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When I was a child, I never had any trouble believing in an absolutely loving God because I figured that if God was even half as amazing as my dad, everything would be fine. To be honest, I probably believe that still, even as I know it probably skates some kind of line of appropriate reverence.

Or maybe it doesn’t. My father would be the very first to acknowledge his limitations, but I do think that as even an imperfect image-bearer he gives praise to the God he serves.

Tomorrow, my father turns 81. And I’ve been hoping to use this space to try and celebrate the life of a good man. I stand in such solidarity (as does my dad actually) with #metoo and #churchtoo and anything that names and addresses toxic masculinity in all its forms. I know, too, that for far too many folks the image of a Father-God is one fraught with a complexity of terriblenesses.

At the same time, one of the supposed verities of literature is that the good guy is never as interesting as the bad guy. Literature is replete with awful men who are depicted as awfully amazing: Milton’s Satan, Byron’s Manfred, Bronte’s Heathcliff—and the list goes on. Of course, in Marilynne Robinson we’ve come some way to dispelling that cliché, but without Robinson’s skill (or the space of a novel) how can I give adequate testimony to my dad’s four-score years?

Admittedly, the bare outline has interest: a child raised in the wildness of 1930s/1940s Wyoming, a Vietnam veteran, a career Army officer, a witness to the Cold War, and a participant in some fascinating stuff. Whether working or retired, a life of service.

I could tell you of his generosity and thoughtfulness: how he sends me, his unmarried daughter, an anniversary present every year to commemorate my Ph.D. How he once gave his truck away because he thought a man in his church needed it more.

I could tell you of the ways he prioritized family over career in the choices he made: how he forewent certain advancements to stay with us. Even though he valued and enjoyed his work (and had many professional accolades), there was never any question that he most wanted to be with his family.

I could tell you of his encouragement: how I have so many memories of a childhood where compliments were frequent and affirmation constant. I have never had a single doubt that my father would stand behind me and be proud of me. How he is always ready with “I love you.”

I could tell you of his faithfulness and leadership to whatever church he has ever attended: how he gives his time and his resources, but also his commitment. The way he has worked to raise up new generations of leaders, to mentor and encourage young ministers.

I could tell you of his wisdom, his patience, his joy at life.

But even as I have searched for just the right words, I know I’m not doing any of this justice. The loveliness we observe in the best people in our lives is never easily conveyed. I suppose the trying is enough—and anyway, my father would always modestly (and no doubt rightly) give all the credit to Christ’s sanctifying work in his life.

This semester, I taught a lovely little novel by Elizabeth Gaskell called Cranford. The book’s main character, Miss Matty, is someone who has lived an unremarkable life in a small English village. But the novel concludes with these lines:

“We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”

This week, think about who in your life has made you better by being near. And then, tell them so, if it’s possible.

It’d please my dad so much.

Jennifer (age 4) and her dad

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

3 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    “…we are all of us better when she is near us.”

    I can’t think of a better compliment you could say about someone.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    So lovely. So grateful for godly, gracious, humble men.

  • Daniel Bos says:

    Your birthday blog prompted me to visit my former spiritual director to let him know how much better my life is because of my relationship with him.
    I hope your dad is pleased!

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