- Written by Margaret Bernhart
“My father passed away this morning.” As I wrote these words in an email to some friends who had been praying for him and my family, I was still in shock and disbelief. Though it had been a year since Dad was given the diagnosis of terminal cancer and the sad challenge from the surgeon “to get your life in order,” I struggled to comprehend a world without a father who was bigger than life. Dad was a man of strong character. He was known by many for his kindness and integrity–a rare commodity of having the same public persona as he did at home. He not only loved his family, but delighted in us. We never doubted that we were more important than his practice and the patients he so passionately enjoyed. Somehow the pleasure he felt being with his children transformed going on rounds at the hospital into a special time just with Dad that usually ended with a treat at the hospital’s cafeteria.
Wesley C. Bernhart, MD (January 5, 1920 – April 3, 2003)
My father had faults, one in particular his temper. It could erupt quickly after a long day when met at the door with the latest broken household item or having to negotiate a fight between two of his four children. Yet, he was humble enough to allow his family to joke about his overreactions.
One such event transpired with my brother, Frank, when we were downstairs watching television. He discovered the novel approach of dislodging the knob that changed the channels so his younger sister could no longer disrupt his television viewing pleasure. Plaintive whines and arguing escalated into cacophonous shrills and wails of agony until my father came stomping down the stairs, ire flying, having had enough of the ongoing discord. As Dad approached the television set he found us paralyzed, overcome by his fury and large frame. He made the mistake of asking what was wrong which sent both of us into a flurry of verbal mayhem with screaming and fingers pointing. This only intensified my father’s distressed rage, resulting in him shouting, “Stop” and simultaneously striking the top of the television set with his fist. The force of his blow was greater than the plastic veneer covering the top of the console. It shattered into pieces, leaving a gaping hole exposing the tubes and wiring. Silence shrouded the house. Instantaneously the two warring factions became sibling cherubs who decided that compromise was far better than quarreling. Eventually my mother cautiously descended the stairs to view the anarchy and destruction. She said little, but her disbelieving peeved expression told all three of us that we could have found a far better way of resolving this conflict. The television set continued to work for several years, but from that moment on it was adorned with a seasonal plant chapeau which hid the hole, but not the memory of anger out of control. The event became the brunt of countless family jokes–a badge of honor so to speak that none of our anger ever escalated to the degree of “Dad and the television set.” The plant on the television became a delightful reminder of Dad’s humanity and eventual humility as this humorous symbol became the hallmark of deep remorse for him. Dad was a teachable man and eventually faced the ugliness of his rage. His brokenness led to change when one day he walked down the isle of his church and sat on the front row. He confessed to his pastor his problem with anger and asked for help from God to tame what he couldn’t manage himself.
My dad told me a number of years later that he changed that day. Never again did his anger carry the same degree of volatility. I can attest to that transformation. The legacy my father leaves is immense, forever etched in my heart. Opportunities abound in the life of every parent to leave a heritage of both strong character and lessons in how to honestly and courageously struggle with their humanity.
All parents will wound their children. It’s a given due to the curse of living outside Eden. Yet, it is a rare gift to model encountering the enemies of our heart and how to struggle well. The redemptive lessons are immeasurable and the impact substantial when parents exhibit strength that is counterbalanced by humility and honesty. Children need strength that offers structure, the protection of limits and the ability to rest in something larger than themselves. There is no question that children will see their parents fail. The real question is whether parents will acknowledge their flawed humanity and thus affirm to their children that what they see is indeed true. Children’s sponge like hearts soak up far more from what they see and experience than from what we tell them. They come into this world incredibly perceptive, yet they lack the ability to properly interpret a situation. Growing up in a home where children are told white-lies such as mother or father is sick, when the truth is they are drunk, or that mom and dad are not upset at one another, when their seething anger is displayed by cold distant silence, robs a child of their inner compass that is nurtured through validation. This can cause them to be more suggestible, prone to make poor decisions and open to falling prey to dishonest people. A home that endorses honesty with wisdom cultivates a more accurate perception of right and wrong and stronger sense of self in children.
The repercussions of seeing a parent’s weakness and sin that eventually leads to honest appraisal, repentance and change is not only a powerful life-lesson, but one that offers a taste of the gospel to young hearts. Research tells us that a child’s perception of God is inexplicably linked to their early parenting. If a child is raised in an authoritarian home where strict rules are emphasized at the exclusion of tenderness and understanding, a child will be more prone to see God as one focused on rules and punishment. A permissive home that errs on letting a child get their own way will see God as more passive. An environment that offers structure with forgiveness and grace prepares a child to understand that they are loved for who they are and not just for what they do. They will be less drawn to find their identity in the cruel taskmasters of and performance orientation and perfectionism. Modeling that promotes honest evaluation of attitudes and behavior in an atmosphere of forgiveness and love will prepare our children to leave home and enter the harsh realities of life. It is in their daily lives where acuity in evaluating situations and others’ motives with a heart for reconciliation can be lived out, always at the risk of relational chaos. Is not the gospel about truth that unsettles and love that stuns?
The legacy of my father’s indelible lessons display both the imprint of God and humanity’s depravity. His willingness to allow me to see into his heart is not just glimpsing a man with strong character or a struggling sojourner, but an opportunity to see the glorious wonder of God. For all of this I am forever grateful.