If you’ve followed the ministry of Focus on the Family with any regularity over the past few years, you’ve probably heard me talk about the difficulties I encountered growing up—especially as they relate to my alcoholic father, who essentially abandoned our family when I was very young. That painful experience impacted and shaped my life in profound ways.
Unfortunately, my situation is not unique. Millions of kids today grow up without a father in their lives. The implications of this “fatherlessness epidemic,” as it has been called, are grave for our nation, our world, and for upcoming generations.
At the same time, I’m thankful that there are still inspiring, uplifting examples of godly fatherhood out there. We need those examples more than ever! I’d like to share one of those impactful stories with you. It comes in the form of a few brief reflections written by Dr. Albert Mohler, whose own father passed away recently. As you may know, Dr. Mohler is President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a renowned author, speaker, commentator and blogger who also happens to be the vice chairman of Focus on the Family’s own Board of Directors.
Whether you had (or have) a great bond with your dad, or, like me, your relationship with your father was almost nonexistent, I believe you’ll find Dr. Mohler’s words moving and encouraging. I don’t want to get in the way of the very personal and vulnerable thoughts he shares, so without further delay, here is Dr. Mohler’s tribute to his father.
The Gift of a Father: A Son’s Testimony
The call came early in the morning, and everything was changed. My father, Richard A. Mohler, Sr., a rock of stability in my life from the moment of my birth, had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and was dying. I had just talked to him two days before, and he was, as always, happy to talk to his first-born son. We talked briefly and I promised to call back soon. I would never hear my father’s voice again.
Even as I rushed to reach my father’s bedside, knowing that he might well die before I could even see him, one thought came to me like an overwhelming tide – I will miss my dad with an unspeakable sense of loss, but I am so thankful to have had the gift of a father I will so dearly miss.
In the end, I was able to join my mother and sister and brothers for the last two hours of my father’s earthly life. There was no hope of recovery from the bleeding in his brain. This man who had been father and friend to me was passing into eternity. I held his hand and recited Scripture to him, speaking truth into ears that may no longer have heard.
“You ran your race well, Dad,” I said. “You finished your course. Now you will be with Jesus, who has prepared a place for you.” I knew that was true, for my father had trusted Christ for all things, and had lived by his faith that Christ had died for his sins and had been raised from the grave as the declaration of his victory over sin and death. My father was safe in Jesus, and so I could let him go. But I have never known a harder moment than watching my father leave us.
Lessons from a Father’s Life
My father was a child of the Great Depression and World War II. He worked hard all his life, and he honored God in his commitments. He and my mom were married when they were very young, and I came along as their first-born child shortly thereafter. My mom, a nurse, stopped working the day I was born in order to stay home and raise their children. My father worked as a salesman in a paint store before starting to work in the grocery business, where he was to stay for almost 40 years.
My father was devoted to his family. We lived in a tiny little house in Lakeland, Florida and stayed there as my sister was born and two little brothers came along. We then moved to a slightly larger home and the sedan was traded in for a station wagon. We took family vacations like millions of other families – with a station wagon stuffed with kids and a camper following behind. Restaurants were exotic places saved for very special occasions. But, we were together, and that was a point.
There never was a moment when I did not know with full confidence that my father loved me, loved my mom, loved my sister and brothers, and loved us all together. He worked hard so that we would have what we needed, and so that we would never feel insecure or unsafe. He provided and he protected. He was handy with tools and strong. He could fix just about anything, and he hated to ask anyone for help. He did what dads did – he got things done and he made things happen. The right things. The necessary things. The things dads did when no one was watching and when the kids were sleeping. The things dads did because they had to be done.
He assembled bicycles and built tree houses. He could make a swing out of a burlap sack filled with moss from an oak tree and he knew his boys would be thrilled to ride far higher than a mom would appreciate. He took me camping and fishing and taught me how to operate a boat.
My dad would talk to himself when frustrated. I knew to clear the area when a certain look appeared on his face. He was compassionate and understanding, but he was a disciplinarian who believed in rewarding what was right and correcting what was wrong. He was never unfair, never harsh, but never permissive. I knew that misbehavior had consequences, and I learned that obedience was to be unconditional.
Dad taught me to work, and I owe my work ethic to his example. He got up long before it was light and worked hard. The day I turned 14 he had me obtain a work permit so that I could work with him on Saturdays. That quickly expanded to afternoons and breaks from school. I learned to work hard and to find satisfaction in a job well done. I also learned about human nature working alongside him in a grocery store. “Customers are divided between those who thump a cantaloupe and those who don’t,” he said. I observed his statement to be true. Eventually, I could predict the customer who needed a hands-on experience with produce.
In retirement, my father gave himself to young people, fashioning a new career as a Sunday School teacher, church youth leader, and surrogate grandfather to a host of middle-schoolers. He was, as one teenager said, “the oldest middle schooler in the room.”
Lessons from a Father’s Faith
Dick Mohler was a man of faith. My mother and father were both raised in the small Florida town of Plant City. It was then, like most southern towns, a city largely separated between the Methodists and the Baptists. My father’s family attended the First Methodist Church. My mother’s family attended the First Baptist Church, right on the next block. Their union was a demonstration of ecumenicity, southern style.
My dad took the lead in deciding to become a Baptist, and he was a Baptist by conviction. He would die shortly after being recognized as “Deacon Emeritus” by the First Baptist Church of Pompano Beach, Florida. He had served as a Baptist deacon for almost 40 years.
My father took his Christian faith with full conviction. My parents made sure we were at church for every scheduled event. This meant that the three great spheres of my childhood were my home, my school, and my church – and I seemed to spend about an equal time in each.
My father trusted Christ as his Savior and followed him as Lord. He made sure that his children were brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and he gave himself to the service of the church. He was Training Union director, back when Baptist churches had massive Sunday evening programs, with worship followed by Bible study. I learned to love finding him after the programs ended for the night, sitting with other men in the church office. It was like a boy finding the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem. I was so proud of my father as a man among men, a Christian among Christians. Like at home, my dad just made sure that the right things got done. Other dads did the same thing. My world was secure and I knew that our faith was at the center, not the periphery, of our lives.
On his last day on earth, a Sunday, my father was at church virtually all day long. He taught 9th grade boys in Sunday School and then served as deacon in the morning worship service. He then came back for a reception and stayed for fellowship. Then, he went home with my mom and they watched a television special on the Bible. Then, when my mom went to bed, my dad went to his study to prepare for a special discipleship program for middle-schoolers that coming weekend. Sometime in the night, with his Bible open on his desk, my dad fell to that horrible hemorrhage. That is how my mother found him. I think that is where he would want to be found.
My father was so proud when God called me into the ministry, and he rejoiced in the opportunities God gave me. At his funeral, the youth pastor said that he had received an email from dad prior to his arrival. In it my father said, “I know you know of my son. God has blessed him with a ministry of international influence. I am not my son. God has given me a burden for middle-schoolers, and I enjoy teaching them and being a friend to them. I don’t want you to see my name and be disappointed.”
Disappointed? The tidal wave of tributes about my father that came from teenagers was precious beyond words. During the visitation before his funeral, the room was filled with middle school students and older teenagers who came tearfully to pay respects to “the oldest middle-schooler in the room.” Christ has built his church on the lives, teaching, and examples of saints like Dad, who are there as a rock for those “little ones” who need to know that they are loved and appreciated – and who need to know the power of the Gospel of Christ as lived out in the lives of adults they can respect and trust.
I know that my father believed in all the promises of God, and he had trusted Christ as his Savior, and followed him faithfully as Lord. Who could ask for a better gift?
Lessons from a Father’s Death
That phone call set the stage for a major change in my life. One day I had a father I could reach on the phone. They next day he was taken from me. I lost a father, a patriarch, and a friend, but I did not lose him forever.
As Psalm 116:15 reminds us, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Dad is safe in Christ, and I know that God will be faithful to all that he has promised. As a son, my grief was massive, but not crushing. Why? Because I knew that God has better plans for my father than I could ever have.
We live in an age of epidemic fatherlessness. Millions of American children do not know their fathers, and thousands do not even know who their father is. Millions of others have fathers who do not give them the attention, love, protection, and discipline that they need. I did not deserve my father, but I am so thankful to have had him. I am so thankful to have had a father I will so dearly miss. This was God’s kindness to me.
As we rode with my mother in the limousine to my father’s funeral, I reflected on how thankful I was for a dad who had given me so much, who had so loved my wife, Mary, and our children, Katie and Christopher. Who was so devoted to my siblings and to their spouses and children. And yet, I realized how thankful I was that he would be missed by so many others as well.
My dad leaves an empty seat and big shoes to fill. He left us without warning, but not without hope. I know that my father is with Jesus, and that he finished his course with faithfulness. Now, my job is even bigger. The death of a patriarch means that another must take up his mantle. It will take many to fill his shoes.
More than ever before, I am thankful and proud to be named Richard Albert Mohler, Jr. My hope and prayer is that other men, reading of his example, will be determined to leave their own sons and daughters equally thankful to have had a father they will so dearly miss.
I want to thank Dr. Mohler for his openness in sharing these heartfelt reflections. He’s given us an intimate glimpse into a father-son relationship that is so sacred and so special that it is eclipsed only by the bond between God, our Heavenly Father, and His children. I will continue to think about Dr. Mohler’s words as I strive to be a godly father to my own sons—someone for whom Trent and Troy will one day say, “We’re thankful to have had a father that we’ll so dearly miss.” May we all aspire to that!