I’m looking through one of my favorite books. Tomorrow I’ll read it for the third time. Maybe you wouldn’t be impressed with it, though I think everyone ought to dwell in it for a time. You’ll get to know a remarkable man and, methinks, you’ll get to know yourself a bit better, too.
The book is entitled Unspoken Wisdom: Truths My Father Taught Me (Augsburg, 1995) and the author is the late Ray S. Anderson, longtime pastor and professor at Fuller Seminary. The book touches me deeply every time I look through it, in part because I had the privilege of knowing Ray for many years.
Ray was the son and grandson of South Dakota farmers and became a farmer himself. He married Mildred, also from a farm family and happy to become a farmer’s wife. Little did she know that she would soon follow her husband to seminary, into church ministry, off to Scotland while he earned his doctorate, and then into the life of a professor’s wife. But then, Ray had no such ideas when they married. What he did know all his adult life was that those years of dirty fingernails kept him always tied to the land. Like a tree reaching for heaven, Ray’s roots were in the soil of South Dakota.
The book is about his father or, more specifically, about what kind of man his father was and how he had passed on his own character and wisdom to young Ray.
For example, he never talked to Ray about a theology of Sabbath but he never worked on Sunday. Ray learned the importance of Sabbath by listening to his father tell the operator of a threshing rig that, even though the job that season was could have been finished quickly on Sunday morning, they would wait until Monday. “I have never had to work on Sunday to get my work done, and I am not about to start now.” The extra day of paying the itinerant threshers and the animals (yes, the horses!) cost him more than the little bit of straw was worth (page 63). For Ray’s Dad, honoring God meant more than saving a dollar or two.
It never occurred to Ray or his friends that their fathers should be attending all their extra-curricular sports and activities. He learned his father’s love by being allowed to work beside his father, being gradually entrusted with more and more adult responsibilities. “Which is better,” Ray writes,”to have adults participating in the play of children or children participating in the work of adults?” How will we learn what it means to grow up if our role models just share our games?
I still chuckle over the story Ray tells about the time his father was boarding an unruly horse for a neighbor, who brought his son over once to try to ride the horse. The boy was petrified and didn’t dare get on the horse. To his horror, Ray heard his father say, “Well why don’t we have Ray take the horse out for a little ride and calm him down. Ray can do it.”
With words like that hanging in the air, of course young Ray had to get on (with a boost from his dad, since he was too small to get on by himself). The horse behaved fairly well until Ray turned him back toward the barn. Then he burst into full gallop and Ray held on for dear life.
Reaching the barn, the horse skidded to a stop, Ray went hurtling over his head, thinking while in mid-air that it was important to land on his feet. He succeeded and then put up a little bravado, saying in as calm a manner as the adrenaline would allow, “That’s a nice horse. It just needs to be ridden more.” But Ray never again went near that monster horse.
The lesson that became embedded in Ray’s mind and heart had nothing to do with the horse or the lucky dismount. Rather, he remembered to his dying day that his father had trusted him to meet a serious challenge. He never forgot his father’s simple affirmation, “Ray can do it.”
Some years later Ray’s dad drove him to the train station, where Ray boarded not a horse but a train and headed off for his part in World War II. All his father said at the station was, “Remember who you are, Ray. You’ll be all right.”
Story after story teaches us something of what it means to be a parent,to be a child, to be who we really are.
I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying and benefiting from this little book. Ray is worth getting to know.