The scene is forever etched in my mind. It was August in Ozark, Missouri. I was 18 years old and about to leave home. In a few minutes I would drive off to my dorm room at Crowder Junior College in Neosho. And here in the driveway stood Dad and Mom about to face an empty nest.
For the first time in my life, I remember feeling an enormous sense of gratitude and appreciation to these two people who had given me so much of themselves and who had so fashioned my life.
As I looked them in the eyes, the emotion rose suddenly in my throat. I moved to embrace them. I swallowed hard, fought off the tears and said, with a breaking voice, “Mom, Dad, I love you.”
It is tough to admit that it was the first time I remember saying those words to my dad and mom.
It was the first time I had truly acknowledged the love and sacrifice they had shown in clothing, nursing, feeding, teaching, and raising me. For 18 years I had been, for the most part, a self-centered, ungrateful receiver of their love. That day, after 18 years of their serving me, I began the process of attempting to turn a one-way street into a two-lane highway. I began to take responsibility to honor my parents for who they were and for what they had done right in my life.
My parents’ humanity and their mortality became more and more real to me during college. I wrote some long letters to them expressing my praise and thanks. I also used every opportunity when I was home to look Mom and Dad in the eyes and tell them I loved them.
When I was working with teenagers, one of my favorite messages that I gave was titled “How to Raise Your Parents.” Actually I camouflaged the real message behind the title, which was “Honor your father and your mother … .”
As I spoke to those teenagers I realized that I was touching a raw nerve. Some had such difficult relationships with their parents that the command to honor them presented a challenge of immense proportions, a major step of faith.
Since 1970, I have worked with youth and families, and I have come to this conclusion: We have failed to train our youth in what it means to honor their parents.
It is as though the fifth commandment has become the “forgotten commandment.”
Over the next few years, when speaking to adult audiences on honoring their parents, I realized that God has something in this commandment that we are missing today. He wants to do something in our relationships with our parents that I can’t even begin to understand.
One young man handed me a note that affirmed the message of honoring parents. He wrote:
I appreciated your talk today. It brought back some memories I have about my dad that I would like to share with you. Every day that I can remember, my dad took me and hugged me and kissed me good night. Every night he verbally told me he loved me. My dad died four years ago when I was a freshman in college. I was with him the night he died. That night he hugged me and kissed me and told me he loved me, and I was too embarrassed to tell him that I loved him. He died of a heart attack two hours later after I went to bed. I remember standing over his body saying, “Dad, I love you.” But it was a couple of hours too late.
As I spoke about honoring parents, I would share practical ways to demonstrate that honor. But I began to sense there had to be something more substantive than a monthly five-minute phone call—more significant than a kiss or a hug, and more effective than a Mother’s Day card. Over time I began to discover—somewhat by surprise—what this “substantive honor” might look like, but I wish that I had known sooner.
Just a couple weeks earlier, Dad and Mom had visited us in Little Rock, Ark. After they left to go back home, I told Barbara it was one of the best times I’d ever had with Dad.
Two weeks later the phone rang. It was my brother telling me that Dad had died of a massive heart attack. He was gone. There were no warnings, no good-byes.
In the years that followed, I reflected on my Dad’s funeral. Sixty-six years of life were summed up in a 30-minute memorial. It was meaningful for our family, but it still bothered me a bit—it seemed too brief a remembrance for all he meant to us.
Dad was a great man. Impeccable character. Quiet. Hardworking. The most influential man in my life. It didn’t seem right that a man’s life could be summarized with such a superficial sketch.
I wondered, Did he really know how I felt? I had worked hard to express my love to him for several years, but words seemed so hollow. Had I really honored him as I should? I pledged then that I would not wait until Mom died to come to grips with her impact on my life. I resolved to let her know about my feelings for her.
What I had in mind had to be personal.
So I began working on a written Tribute to my mom. I jotted down memories. Tears splattered the legal pad as I recounted lessons she had taught me and fun times we had shared. It was an emotional catharsis.
When I finished it, I decided something was needed to set these words of honor apart from all the letters I had written in the past.
With Barbara’s help, I decided to have the Tribute typeset and framed, making it into a more formal document. I took the finished product and mailed it home to Mom.
I knew she would like it, but I was unprepared for the depth of her appreciation. She hung it right above the table where she ate all her meals. There was only an old clock on another wall in that room—and that clock was no rival for my mom’s Tribute.
She shared it with family, the television repairman, the plumber, and countless others who passed through her kitchen. And now I share it with you. You can read my Tribute to Mom at the end of this chapter.
My only regret in regards to Mom’s Tribute is that I mailed it to her. Years later, Barbara personally read her Tribute to her parents. Seeing that emotionally poignant moment with her parents unfold at Christmas was unforgettable. I wish I had driven home to Ozark to read my Tribute to Mom—and to cry together with her.
The results of honoring my mom with a Tribute were so encouraging that I began to challenge others to write Tributes of their own. “Your parents need a tangible demonstration of your love now. Why wait until after they die to express how you feel?” I asked. I never presented this idea as a magic potion or cure-all for healing difficult relationships. Yet, as people began implementing it, I started to see that honoring parents with a Tribute touched a deep nerve.
There really was more to this command to honor parents than I realized.
I want you to welcome this process. The relationship between a parent and child is both strong and fragile. More than any other human relationship, your relationship with your parents has shaped who you are today. My guess is that, as you work through the process of writing a Tribute, you will learn as much about yourself as you do about them.
As I continue to examine the concept of honoring parents, my experience tells me that you probably fit into one of the following categories:
I have devoted one chapter specifically to those who have been abused. If you are someone who has been deeply wounded by severe physical, emotional, or sexual abuse by one or both of your parents, please read chapter 13 now. Then, let me gently encourage you to read through this book with an open heart and to ask God to show you how He would like you to respond. I have no desire to give you a burden that you are unable to face right now.
In the winter of 1984, I wrote my Tribute to my mom. From that time forward our relationship began to change. Increasingly, I returned portions of the grace and forgiveness she had given me a thousand times as I grew up. I found myself encouraging her and lifting her spirits more than I had in the past. I related to her as a peer and started to care for her needs rather than just expect her to recognize mine.
Here is the Tribute that hung over her kitchen table for so many years (my Tribute to my dad is on page 126).
When she was 35, she carried him in her womb. It wasn’t easy being pregnant in 1948. There were no dishwashers or disposable diapers, and there were only crude washing machines. After nine long months, he was finally born. Breech. A difficult, dangerous birth. She still says, “He came out feet first, hit the floor running, and he’s been running ever since.” Affectionately she calls him “The Roadrunner.”
A warm kitchen was her trademark—the most secure place in the home—a shelter in the storm. Her narrow but tidy kitchen always attracted a crowd. It was the place where food and friends were made! She was a good listener. She always seemed to have the time.
Certain smells used to drift out of that kitchen—the aroma of a juicy cheeseburger drew him like a magnet.
There were green beans seasoned with hickory-smoked bacon grease. Sugar cookies. Pecan pie. And the best of all, chocolate bonbons.
Oh, she wasn’t perfect. Once when as a mischievous 3-year-old, he was banging pans together, she impatiently threw a pencil at him while she was on the phone. The pencil, much to her shock, narrowly missed his eye and left a sliver of lead in his cheek … it’s still there. When he was 5 years old, she tied him to his bed because he tried to murder his teen-aged brother by throwing a gun at him. It narrowly missed his brother, but hit her prized antique vase instead.
She taught him forgiveness, too. When he was a teenager she forgave him when he got angry and took a swing at her (and fortunately missed). The most profound thing she modeled was a love for God and people.
Compassion was always her companion. She taught him about giving to others even when she didn’t feel like it.
She also taught him about accountability, truthfulness, honesty, and transparency. She modeled a tough loyalty to his dad. He always knew divorce was never an option. And she took care of her own parents when old age took its toll. She also went to church … faithfully. In fact, she led this 6-year-old boy to Jesus Christ in her Sunday evening Bible study class.
Even today, her age doesn’t stop her from fishing in a cold rain, running off to get Chinese food, or wolfing down a cheeseburger and a dozen bonbons with her son.
She’s truly a woman to be honored. She’s more than somebody’s mother … she’s my mom. Mom, I love you.