Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Turning 31 With My Dead Father

This is a sketch I did of my dad in his flight suit in a fantasy
 I have of him walking away from the crash holding his helmet.

The Crash

When my dad was 31 he rode the back seat of an F4 phantom jet into the ground.

 They were flying so fast, the aluminum wings ripped through branches before the whole spine of the plane crumpled on impact with a south Arkansas hillside. Then the fuel exploded. I used to find charred pieces of the metal honey-comb wings hidden in plastic bags in the garage like the bones of some unburied family pet.

He was navigating. The pilot was flying. They both died, faster than they could do anything to stop it.

The Ruler

I turn 31 this month. I keep laying out my life alongside his like it were a ruler. How do I measure up?

- Married young: check

- Two kids in single digits: check.

- Found academics and people skills were a way to escape the narrow opportunities of the places where we grew up and engage a bigger world: check

- Blessed and cursed with an itch, an urgency and a confidence to explore and create that drives us to pick up and put down a thousand hobbies, skills, crafts and interests: check

To be clear, my father did not have much of a direct influence on my life. And yet I find so much about where he was and where I am the same.

The Ticket Out

For my dad the military was his ticket out of small-town USA (Magnet Cove, Arkansas). ROTC helped him pay for college but he joined the Air Force as a captain with his BA in education. He could read the maps and do the math to put the B52 bombers where they belonged. He progressed quickly. He flew secret missions to Turkey during the cold war --gone for weeks. His performance reviews are glowing. They speak of 80 hour workweeks for months at a time. Before long he was in the second seat of the F4, the predecessor to the F16.

For me the Church was both my ticket out of small-town USA (Mulberry, Arkansas) and at the same time the cord that bound me to it. I left home to study theology to prepare for "the ministry." I discovered a world of international globe-trotting sophisticates on a mission from God. They had not just traveled to but lived and even grown up in places I knew existed but had never seen. I began to feel a part of something grand and old and broad: the Global Christian Church. And yet I knew that this vision wasn't compatible with where I had come from: a small, rural congregation more suspicious and afraid of the world beyond the county-line than interested in meeting it.

Turning 31

I spent the better part of my twenties trying to reconcile where I came from with where I felt I was headed. I tried to make it work as an intern at the most progressive of the churches of their group. I lived in Indonesia and later worked as a hospital Chaplain, trying on different ways of being a minister of the gospel. I finished an MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary; a seminary I knew would bring me into conversation with America's Fundamentalist and Evangelical heritage and the many blooming flowers of the Christian tradition grown in the soil of a hundred different nations.

I've been working for Fuller for almost 5 years now --as long as my family and I have lived in California. I just started a new job for the school (perhaps more on this later) which will allow me to continue exploring what can happen when people from small places, where people and ideas are mostly the same, find ways of coming into contact with the broader world in the form of other people and both sides find themselves changed by the encounter.

I don't know what he would have done next had he lived --probably more of the same. He was moving fast on his trajectory. I don't know how he would have felt about the ticket I took or the choices I've made. We are all simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by those aspects of ourselves we see in others.  I don't know how a lot of the people who knew us when we were kids have felt about our choices to leave and explore a bigger world.

In the last year or so, I've come to realize that it doesn't matter that much to me what other people think about those things.

What does matter is what I think about those things because I am the one who will get up in the morning tomorrow and go on living them.

And I'm pretty happy with how things have turned out so far and the fresh possibilities that seem to keep unfolding before me to be explored.


  1. It amazes me the impact our dad's have on us, for better or worse, regardless of the amount of time we spent with them. Your post caused me to reflect on the 'ruler' I'm setting up for my own kids, how they'll go about measuring themselves to me as they grow. Thanks for sharing Matt.

  2. Branden, thanks for the feedback. It's humbling and terrifying. We are a part of where they come from.

  3. This was really great and insightful. Thanks, Matt.


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