My Dad was a dog lover. Knowing this fact, and for therapeutic purposes, mom acquired a dog for Dad in 1999. The “min-pin” runt was named “Buster.” Because Buster wormed himself into Dad’s affections by taking advantage of a very sick man, I never trusted Buster. Buster never saw himself as the family dog as he manipulated Dad into treating him with son-ship status. My own children were roped into his scheme as well, referring to him only as “Uncle Buster.”
Dad taught us that trust is earned, never given. Buster never earned my trust. During the final days of Dad’s life, Buster stayed right on Dad’s lap, except when he ate dinner, or the door bell rang, or the letter-carrier walked to the door, or any other excuse to be distracted from his purpose. I guess the family rumor hit me hard; word has it that Buster deceived Steve out of the birthright and blessing, which means he receives a double-portion of Dad’s possessions . . . which I’m not sure how he’s going to run the table saw, jigsaw, and other power tools?!?!?!
What Buster didn’t know was that he was just the latest in a string of dogs who were recipients of my Father’s affections. From Dad’s first dog he owned when he was 16 years old (a part German Shepherd, part Kish-hound named Kish), to Patches (our family dog given to Steve when he was 10), to mom’s poodle (Mon Ami, who loved Dad more than Mom), dogs have always been an intrinsic part of Dad’s life. Even as a teenager Dad trained dogs for obedience by teaching them how to obey, fetch, heel, and stay. Can you imagine with the five of us kids tearing through the house, Dad must have been thinking, “It was so much easier training dogs than children!?” Maybe, with all this talk of dogs, it’s not all that surprising that when Dad went to work, he gave twenty-nine years of his life to a company named after a dog.
What the dogs in Dad’s life represent is the character he portrayed throughout his own life: loyalty, steadfastness, and faithfulness.
SIN IN THE BIBLE: PEOPLE WEREN’T ALWAYS FAITHFUL
Hebrews 11 is often known as the great chapter of faith. Here the author of Hebrews provides a list of people whom he claims lived by faith. One by one the roll-call of faith is announced: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Israel.
However, the struggle to see these people as faithful people creates dissonance when we read their entire story in the Old Testament. Why, some of these listed weren’t always faithful. Instead, they were downright ungodly, undeserving, and unfaithful. One by one we could note how they were characterized by their own weaknesses, flaws, and sins.
Noah got drunk off the vineyard he planted. Abraham lied about his relationship to Sarah, not once but twice. Isaac’s perception of reality failed when he blessed Jacob instead of Esau. Jacob devoted most of his life to deceiving those he loved; having reaped what he sowed, his wives picked up the deception game from him. Moses assumed credit for providing water from the rock that God granted, which prevented him from entering into the Promised Land. Almost without saying, was it because they were “faithful” that Israel wondered throughout the wilderness for forty years?
Yes, one by one you can find, and without much effort, character flaws, shortcomings, self-centeredness, and in certain cases clear contempt for God. It leaves one to wonder how these people can be characterized as “faithful.”
SIN IN THE WORLD: WE ARE NOT ALWAYS FAITHFUL
The tension to reconcile Hebrews 11 with our own meager faith is a tension often felt. We usually fall into two extremes. On one extreme, we’re blinded to our own faults. Like the dog that laps from the toilet bowl, then licks your face and wonders why you’re so mad, we minimize or trivialize every wrong we perform. Our choices and actions aren’t that bad. Certainly, they’re not as bad as (and we can easily find a more evil person to justify our behavior). King David’s reaction to Nathan’s story in 2 Samuel 12:1-7 acts as a role model in how one embraces this perspective.
On the other extreme, we maximize our every wrong deed. Like a dog who cows at a rolled newspaper because he’s been beaten so many times, we magnify every wrong or character flaw we possess. We describe ourselves as the worst people in the world. 1 Timothy 1:16 is our champion verse as we believe faithful Christianity is defined by how awful we make ourselves out to be. In doing so we fail to understand the argument Paul is making, the context Paul is writing, and the grace that God works in us.
My father felt the tension in his own life as well. While we his children crowned him our hero, he reluctantly wore the crown. If you were to ask him, he might have told you that he worked far too many hours for Greyhound, and did not spend enough hours with his family. When he was at home, he might say that he was task oriented instead of family oriented. He could have told you that the spiritual driving force behind our family was Mom, not him.
If you were to associate Dad’s name with those mentioned in Hebrews 11, he might say that God, looking for great faith in him, was like Charlie Brown desperately seeking after a faithful dog and never finding it in Snoopy. We recognize this fact, because we aren’t that faithful either.
GRACE IN THE TEXT: THESE MEN ACTED WITH FAITHFULNESS
With the tension in place, the Hebrews’ writer has no desire to gloss over peoples soundness, shortcomings, and sin. He does not deny or ignore them. He is, though, highlighting moments of faith. He’s drawing our attention to the time(s) when these people got it right.
Abraham did leave his family and home to venture to a land he never saw; he dwelled on property he never owned while believing his descendents would posses the land. He clung to the promise of having children, even though in his seventies when God called him, he was childless.
Isaac and Jacob, whose healths were failing in their old age, embraced the vision their father Abraham had for their families, for the land, and for God.
Moses gave up the association with the royalty of Pharaoh’s household in order to associate with the enslaved people of Israel. While the former offered wealth, pleasures of sin, and ease of living, the latter guaranteed mistreatment, disgrace, and abuse. He saw in the latter a hope that made the choice more valuable than the former.
True, the nation of Israel struggled more times than not in their relationship with God, but they did cross the dry riverbed of the Jordan River to claim their inheritance.
All these choices and acts, the Hebrews’ writer says, were motivated by faith. When God looked at these men (and women), he said those moments, when they acted on faith, weren’t just moments (as in our minds) but characterized their entire life (as in God’s mind).
GRACE IN THE WORLD: DAD WAS FAITHFUL
This moment, though, is less about Hebrews 11 and more about Dean Partlow. What my Dad did in his life is not nearly as significant as why he did it. Dad operated out of a mode dictated by a faith in God so that moments surfaced when he was characterized by faith. Let me share some of these moments with you:
- By Faith . . . Dad wrote letters to his college kids every week for over ten years, beginning in 1978 when Tim went away to college. The letters, written on three or four pages of a Steno pad, contained more than the week’s events, they were filled with Dad’s insight and humor. Our favorite comics were included in the envelope, giving us fifteen minutes of fame each week, as other college kids flocked to where we were to read the funnies. By the way, four kids in college did not mean four separate letters, but one letter by way of three carbon copies. To personalize the letter he wrote our names at the top of each letter, and then rotated the original letter each week.
- By Faith . . . Dad made God a priority in our family, because God was a priority in his life. Church-life was crucial as we attended Sunday mornings, evenings, and even Wednesday nights. The horn of the car to encourage us kids to hurry and load-up the car to get to church on time (never honked at mom) still rings in my ears today. I remember Dad sitting at the dinning table for 15-30 minutes each night with his NASB opened, colored pencils for underlining neatly lined-up next to his Bible, and the Sharpening the Sword notebook opened for study. For the past 10 years, you could hear Dad reading the Bible to Mom as they committed to reading the Bible in each year’s time. Dad sacrificed by sending us to Columbia Christian Schools. We could have had a financially better or easier life had we gone to Washington High School, but he wanted us in a Christian learning context where spiritual concepts and God’s Word were valued.
- By Faith . . . Dad loyally gave thirty years of his life to Greyhound Lines. He sold tickets, loaded the buses, and operated baggage and claims. He worked all hours and all days; we kids knew that when Dad was sleeping we were either outside playing or quiet as sleeping dogs. Knowing my own children, we could never have been that quiet. Dad wanted to drive buses, but driving took him away from his family. Instead, he settled for driving the bus for Columbia Christian’s sports teams.
- By Faith . . . Dad saw himself as the protector of his family. Whenever we kids went on trips, Dad made sure our luggage was loaded on the right bus; we even pre-boarded the pre-boarders. Who was always at the depot when our bus pulled back into terminal? Dad. His role of protector extended beyond the family. One day after school, when I was in the 7th grade, the biggest and meanest kid in the eighth grade was picking a fight with a classmate of mine. The bully actually had muscles, was shaving, and had chest hairs. He was mean. My Dad was parked, waiting patiently for the family to get into the car when he saw the fight. Fear reached out and gripped me as Dad got out of the car and walked over to the kid. I thought, “No Dad! He’ll beat you up!” I never saw a bully cow-down so fast as when my father had his finger thumping in his chest. Boy, I thought my father could have taken on Mohammed Ali.
- By Faith . . . Dad sacrificed for the family. Meeting Dad at the bus stop on Belmont was a treat greater than ice cream; Dad traveled on Tri-Met to free up the family car for the family. When Steve and Tim were playing JV and Varsity basketball, Dad would leave downtown, take Tri-Met to Columbia in time to watch Tim play ball. Between the games, because Mom was the official time-keeper, Dad would go out to the car and eat a bowl of cold spaghetti. Fol-lowing dinner, he entered the gymnasium to resume watching Steve play the Varsity game.
- By Faith . . . Dad married Mom and built his life around his relationship with her, despite the odds that a marriage forged between children of broken homes will lead to a broken marriage. They didn’t survive, they thrived. They embraced the concepts of Marriage Encounter and taught engaged couples the concepts they had learned. When Mom and Dad looked back on their journey together, they were seven months past the 46 year mile marker.
- By faith . . . Dad boldly, with a calming peace and animated humor, faced death. Dad’s failed health in 1995 only created a longing and homesickness never before felt. However, like Hezekiah, God brought healing and extended his health another six years. Dad used his healing as a testimony to God’s power, evident of the Christian t-shirts worn in hopes of sharing his faith with anyone who asked. He made sure everyone knew how the Giver of Life continued giving life to him. His faith became as vocal as it was vibrant. His prayers and Scripture readings intensified, as well as his desire to study more. Maybe what Dad saw was not death but life, for he believed the words of the little girl who told him, “it will all come back, it will come back; God and the rain will bring it back.”
What more can I say? I do not have time to tell you about his love affair with our parrot, Boris, or the enjoyment he had and brought by playing the guitar, piano, or . . . (can I confess this family secret now?) he even enjoyed playing the accordion. I could tell you about all of us playing baseball at the Big School or me trying to catch his sidearm, submarine pitches that ricocheted off the cherry tree. I do not have time to tell about Geronimo, Kitty Wampus, or Kao. Neither do I have the time to tell about our family outings to the Beaver Baseball games, when Dad wanted to leave after the 7th Inning Stretch to avoid traffic, or the ice-cream trips to DQ after visiting his mother and grandparents. I wish I could tell you about his favorite backyard cookout attire: plaid shorts, black dress socks, and black wing-tipped shoes that only highlighted his snow-white legs.
What I can say is that he has been commended for his faith and has received what has been promised. So tonight, when you go home and find a canine in your neighborhood, pat him on the head and draw inspiration to live by faith – if not from my father, Dean Partlow, then from those mentioned in Hebrews 11.
Jonathan A. Partlow is Pastor of Pennyrile Church of Christ in Madisonville, KY.