Most of the comments about my dad, after he died, went something like this: “What a sweetheart!”  I would respond outwardly with a forced grin and a nod, while repressing an impulse to growl, “Ugh!”  I hated that people thought of him as a sweetheart:  in part because it seemed condescending, and in part because I am jealous that no one ever thought of me thby at way.  Not that I want people to say that about me, I’ll curse you if you call me that, but jealous nevertheless.

When people call an old man a “sweetheart,” the implication is that he is cute, disarming, and slightly silly.  It suggests that someone is toothless and impotent, no longer capable of harming anyone.  It is like being awarded “Mr. Congeniality” at the Mr. Universe contest, an appalling alternative for a macho man, for my dad.

But they were calling my dad a “sweetheart” long before his dotage. He grew up in a southern culture, where people are all the time calling each other “sweetheart.”  The word is especially prevalent on the lips of aunts, waitresses, and nurses.  (It’s okay for a woman to say it, but if a man uses the word it’s kind of creepy.)  My dad was a sweetheart from the moment of his birth, due to an preponderant proportion of females in his family.   Add them up:  a proud mother, a doting grandmother, two adoring sisters, nine starry-eyed girl cousins, and six aunts who didn’t know any better.  He was an only son, the only boy cousin who lived locally, and he was spoiled rotten.  With such a fan club, word spread far and wide that a divine sweetheart had come to live among mortals.  He could do no wrong.

Had he acted like an ass, of course, all the nonsense about his being a sweetheart would have dissipated.  But the boy had charm.  He knew how to grin and please with ease. And then there were his extraordinary good looks.  Add it all up and there was no need for him to aspire to anything else, particularly anything that might distract him from all that good luck.  He was a cute kid, a pleasant teenager, and a carefree young adult.  Nobody cared whether his grades were any good.  He was God’s gift to women, relishing all the attention he garnered.  By a certain age he became that kind of sweetheart that stimulates romance and swooning.  And when finally he met and married my mom, his sweetheart status was set for life.  “Sweetheart” was always her preferred name for him.  Even when he angered her the most, he was still her sweetheart.  

In their marriage of 67 years, sweetheart became more than just a romantic term.  The defining accent moved from the first syllable to the second, and “heart” became the driving force of their mutual attraction.  “Sweet,” on the other hand, bloomed into a thousand variations and nuances, from super-sweet to bittersweet.  “Sweet” could refer to saccharine or pleasing or soft or calm.  For the two of them, “heart” became the dominant word in that compound expression.  The heart, center of desire and determination, loyalty and wisdom, courage and affection: their hearts became sweeter in the sense that an apple becomes sweeter as it matures.


Definition #3 of sweetheart: a beloved person.  
–from my fat dictionary  

Love changes us.  Being the recipient of love gives bloom to a different kind of self. Jesus had extraordinary powers and grace, not necessarily because he was divine, but because he was loved by the divine.  The turning point of Jesus’ life in the gospels comes when the voice of God notes the obvious, “This is my beloved.”  

Despite being a pastor, my dad wasn’t terribly religious or pious.  We never heard typical religious talk around the house.  He seldom shared his inner spiritual experiences.  But the one thing he did share was this:  he felt blessed by being beloved, and he was eager to bless others as he had been blessed. There is nothing trivial or superficial about definition #3 of “sweetheart.”


The worst thing that can happen to a young, immature sweetheart is to have four sons.  Competition! Distraction. Disrespect…  Unlike the rest of the world, strapping sons do not look at their fathers and see a sweetheart.  Instead they see inconsistencies, weaknesses, embarrassments, offenses…  Their memories are seared by the jostling, the clashing, the bullying… No father is perfect:  the absences, overreactions, and selfishness gets branded onto the psyches of the next generation.  Boys cannot conceptualize their fathers as sweethearts.  And they roll their eyes when anyone else does.        

My dad and I had a good adversarial relationship.  For many years, he competed by dismissing anything I accomplished, and I competed back by striving to excel where he was lacking.  The arena where we went head to head was in our work:  we were both pastors.  Since he went first, I had the advantage, and I was determined to be a better pastor than him:  to make my sermons more interesting, to become the better scholar, and to be a more effective leader than him.  I learned to steady the boat better than him, becoming smoothly political in leading a congregation.  He, on the other hand, was always “accidentally stepping in it” politically.  I learned to rock the boat better than him.  After all, Jesus was a revolutionary, overturning the tables of the money changers.  And so I became much better at disrupting my superintendents and bishops and supervisors.  I spent the first 20 years of my ministry competing with my dad.  

And then sometime in the 1990s he was serving a church where a core of people wanted to get rid of him.  Year after year they would try to get the bishop to send them someone better than my dad.  Dad was crushed, disoriented, losing heart.  We took long walks together.  For the first time in my life I was conscious of his pain.  And in his pain, my eyes were opened, and I saw everything good about him as a pastor that had been so invisible to me before.  I saw how much he genuinely loved people.  I saw that being a sweetheart wasn’t just a surface thing, it was rooted in love, divine love residing deep within him.  The love in his heart was particularly fierce and devoted to the people who were on the margins of the church.  Having spent the first part of my ministry trying to be so different from him, I determined that I wanted to spend the rest of my ministry being more like him. 

I could have learned that lesson earlier, but I didn’t.  In a father-son relationship, there is a time for reconciliation and imitation, a time for peace.  But there is also a season for the necessary angst and anger, rebellion and revenge, competition and confrontation.  We had to go through the hard times before we could make genuine peace.

I was only in the first year of my ministry, a freshman in college, an assistant pastor in a church down south.  An awful thing happened seven months into that year.  It started with accusations that my senior pastor had raped a 21-year old man in the congregation.  The leaders of the congregation were less concerned about the rape and more concerned about having a homosexual in town.  Their behavior disintegrated into the insane.  On the other hand, the superintendent and the bishop made excuses for the pastor and never took the accusations seriously.  The whole situation was an unmitigated mess.  I loved that church, and I loved those people, and I loved being a minister, and I was horrified because I’d never seen people act with such foolishness and evil, and I was outraged, and I was stuck in the middle of it all, and I felt heavy responsibilities for the flailing 700 member church, and I was only 18.

We were told the superintendent was having a nervous breakdown and so the bishop would direct things from Springfield.  He gave the pastor a promotion to a larger church up north, where he would indeed rape another young man, within the year.  

For our suddenly disintegrating congregation, the bishop directed a retired minister, living in a nearby nursing home, to be chauffeured in to preach on Sunday mornings, for two months, until a new pastor would arrive.  Meanwhile, I was given responsibility to preach every Sunday evening, do all the pastoral care, and oversee all the boards and committees.  

The church’s wounds were never acknowledged or addressed.  It was quickly back to business as usual, under a new pastor.  I couldn’t tolerate the arrogance of the new guy, and so I resigned my position right before the holidays, a 19-year old college sophomore by then.  

When I went home during school break to be with the family, my dad asked me if I wanted to preach the Thanksgiving sermon at his church.  And I did.  Of course, I was still furious and wounded because of all that had happened in the church I’d just left.  So in that sermon, I got it all off my chest.  I blasted the people congregated before me: for all the meanness, hypocrisy, and stupidity that I had seen down south.  And when my sermon was over, I felt pretty good.  All that was left at the end was to go home and await my dad’s appreciation and praise.  My oratory had been powerful and stylish.  I thought he would finally compliment me in my choice to be a pastor. He too had faced meanness and stupidity in his congregations from time to time.  He would surely be glad that in my sermon, I’d shown him how to handle sin.

When he got home, he saw me standing at the kitchen table, walked up to me, stuck his finger in my face, and said very slowly, in a soft, white-hot voice:  “Those were my people.  I’m their shepherd.  I will never let you speak to my people again.  They’re MY people.  You’re no pastor! A pastor’s only job in a sermon is to show people how much God loves them.”  And he walked away.  

And it would be years before he would let me preach to his congregation again.  In time, I came to fully know how much of himself was in that reproach.  He had a heart that had matured in his identity as a pastor, a heart that yearned to shepherd whatever sheep wandered into his field.  

John Smith’s heart was open to roosters, pigs, and ponies.  It delighted in dreams, displays of strength, and roguish surprises.  But the sweet part of his heart was all-in for his family, his friends, his neighbors, his parishioners. The beloved one was a sweetheart, and the sweet heart made all of us in his life beloved in return.