Laughter fills the air, as a group of people young and old gleefully gathers around a tall figure expressively singing about such things as how one hippopotami can’t get on a bus (because, of course, one hippopotami is two hippopotamus), and laughing all the more as he then demonstrates the correct method to remove peanut butter from the roof of one’s mouth.
That figure is my father. Tall, with what hair he has left graying at the temples, and with keen green eyes, my father is the picture of reserve and respectability; until, of course, you see his long frame stoop to form a snowball from behind a snow fort as those eyes twinkle with an almost adolescent glee. But which comes more naturally? Is he engaging and outgoing? Or is he reserved and reflective? Though many see only the former, as his son I see more than first meets the eye. Born just outside St. Louis, Missouri on September the 16th, 1950, my father was the youngest out of four children. Properly named Richard, he was quickly dubbed “Little Richie”, and was referred to as such in all but the most formal occasions.
Small for his age, “Little Richie” was also extremely shy, so much so that, as my Dad would later recall, he would “blush at the slightest glance” in his direction. Though he had a sharp sense of humor, his bashfulness would often interfere and the thoughts he would otherwise share he kept to himself. Still, young Richard lived a care free, happy life, unaware of any financial struggle. His father worked at the local cement plant to support his family, and brought just enough to make ends meet. “We were poor, but we didn’t know it at the time”, he told me with a chuckle. He, with the rest of his family, was raised in a small country house on the outskirts of town. Not exactly living in the country, they nonetheless raised a few chickens for eggs, and an old Guernsey cow for milk, as a way of supplementing their income. Upon graduating from high school, my father attended college at Southern Illinois University with a major in Geography and a minor in Art. Why Geography? “I don’t enjoy getting lost.” he deadpanned. “Plus, it was a lot easier than Physical Science.” While there, my father also got involved athletically by running track. Having long since out grown his size disadvantage, his six-foot two-inch frame easily loped around the track, as well as running cross country over the open field.
One thing he still had not outgrown, however, was his shyness. This shyness, and a fear of public speaking was severely put to the test one day, during a “Peace Rally” that was being held by the student body at the school. This was during the early 70’s, when the “peace movement” and war protestors were sweeping across college campuses all across America. My father, being curious, had stepped inside the auditorium where this rally was taking place. There he stood and listened as various students got up and spoke on how they should go about bringing peace in their time. As my Dad related to me later, “As I stood there, I felt an urging from the Holy Spirit to go there in front of all those people and witness to them about Jesus, the true bringer of peace. This was completely against my nature at the time…”
Nervously, he made his way across the long auditorium to where the microphone was, and haltingly gave his testimony about the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. A far cry from the life of the party at this point, he was booed and heckled off the stage and out of the assembly room. However, as he dejectedly made his way out to his car, a man who had heard him speak and had followed him out of the building stopped him. “I appreciate what you had to say.” The man said. “I wish I possessed the nerve to do what you did.” My father tells of how he continued on his way, only now with a much lighter step and rejoicing and praise in his heart. His strength was not in the sway of his own natural dynamism, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. It was through this authority he had overcome his natural bashfulness. That, to me, is who my father is.
Looking back, my father told me that “There were two things I vowed I would never do: I would never be a teacher, and I would certainly never be a preacher. So, I ended up doing both.”
Sure enough, after much thought and serious prayer, upon graduating from college my father became the science instructor for the high school at the Kansas City College & Bible School, and accepted the position of music minister and associate pastor at a local church. He often would relate about how on Saturday nights he would pace up and down in his backyard, wondering how he could get up in front of everyone the next day.
One thing that my father was always very serious about was his relationship to God. This, above all else, has led him to become what he is not naturally, extroverted and outgoing, as God has guided him towards a life of ministry and public speaking. Today, as the senior pastor in our zone of churches, he is well known for his way of putting people at their ease, socially. In the local grocery store, he cracks jokes and chats with the all of the employees from the manager down to the bag boy. As I look on, I smile to myself, thinking of the man that God’s grace has made. To me, my father serves as a model upon which to base my own life. Not because I too, am a closet introvert, but rather, my father serves as an example because of his commitment to following God’s call, no matter how far out of his comfort zone it may lead him.
That being said, of course I understand that everyone’s story is not the same, and that we are all created with a different set of strengths. However, based on my Dad I’d have to say that whether you are short or tall, outspoken or reserved, it really doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it’s what or who you have on the inside that is going to define who you are as a person.