Reflections on the Death of My Father
Carson Wayne Bird, father of Chad Bird, died on October 31. He was eighty-one years old. At a small, family gathering on November 4, Chad spoke these words to his mom, sister, and the other family members of Carson, who gathered to mourn and remember this beloved child of God.
A couple of years ago, Dad and I were sitting at his table in the den, a fire blazing in the fireplace. The shelves were lined with Quarter Horse Journals and equine pedigree books. On the wall hung a collection of spurs and pictures of his horses. And on his writing table lay the journals he had penned, along with his well-worn Bible.
The room was a window into this old cowboy’s soul.
We were talking about a book he was reading by Elmer Kelton. This was unusual. You see, I had grown up thinking that Louis L’Amour was the only Western novelist worth reading. His books were in my Dad’s hand almost every evening. As I began to read them, they too shaped my imagination. But now Dad was reading Elmer Kelton. Why?
Literary critic was not on his resume, but my Dad certainly had a perceptive insight into the difference between these two authors. He said, “You know, in L’Amour’s novels, the main characters are always heroes, superhuman kind of men. But not in Elmer Kelton’s. In his stories, they are just ordinary cowboys. Plain men, just like us.”
He was right on target. In fact, in an interview that Kelton gave a few years before his death, he said, “I have often been asked how my characters differ from the traditional, larger-than-life heroes of the mythical West. Those are seven feet tall and invincible. My characters are 5-8 and nervous.”
When you’re a boy, or a young man, maybe you need L’Amour’s characters. You need a Logan Sackett, who can get shot five times, carry two wounded men over a mountain, kill twenty outlaws with a pistol and knife, and still get back to camp to drink several cups of coffee and, of course, kiss the most beautiful woman in that neck of the woods.
When you’re a man, however, when you have a little bit of life under your belt, you gravitate more toward the guy who is 5’8” and nervous, who saddles his horse in the morning and goes out to repair a bit of fence. He struggles with the same fears and disappointments and moral flaws as everybody else. He’s just trying his best to live a simple life, love those around him, help out neighbors in need, dream small, with not the slightest interest in fame or fortune or all the big and sparkling things of the world.
Dad was an Elmer Kelton kind of man. He was living what St. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, described when he said, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Dad himself said that his greatest aspiration was “to own a little land, raise horses, and have a good family.” He got all three. Twenty acres a few miles to the north of Shamrock, TX. A string of mares and studs and geldings through the years. And a good family, all of us here, all of us whose lives have been enriched, in ways both small and great, by the man who realized that bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just bigger.
I suppose Dad realized, through all those years of attending church and reading through his Bible, that our Lord Jesus Christ is the God of the small, the God of the ordinary. Oh, to be sure, he made the vast expanse of the heavens. He hung the sun and moon and stars and crafted this huge planet that we call home. He is certainly a powerful God who knows how to do big.
But when it comes time to really get down to business, to do very important things, God begins in such small and ordinary ways that it almost always seems as if nothing will come of it.
He didn’t choose some rich, powerful young woman in the hierarchy of the Jerusalem priesthood to be the mother of the Messiah. He chose a common, teenage girl who lived in a backwater village that would make our little Texas town seem like a metropolis. Mary was just one more Jewish girl, probably known by no more than a hundred people in the world. Yet it was she that the Lord chose, a common, ordinary girl, to be the one who carried in her womb the baby upon whom hung the hope of the world.
How would anything great come of something so small?
And for the first thirty years of our Lord’s life, he was just Jesus, son of Mary, thought to be the son of Joseph, who grew up attending synagogue, learning the stories of Abraham and Moses and David, singing the psalms, and acquiring the skills of a carpenter and stonemason. Jesus had callouses on his hands. Most likely, every neighbor in that tiny village of Nazareth thought Jesus was just another Jewish boy, teen, then young man.
In other words, had Jesus grown up, not in Galilee, but on a ranch in the Western plains, he would not have been the hero of a L’Amour novel.
So how would anything great come of something so seemingly ordinary?
And even after our Lord’s ministry, when he finally did become a big deal, working miracles and wowing crowds by his teaching, he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death as an enemy of the state. Now nobody, nobody, who watched Jesus being crucified was saying, “Now this is a great day because there, on that cross, hangs God in the flesh, revealing his glory, reigning triumphant from that Roman cross.” No. Everybody, friend and foe alike, thought, “That’s the end of him.” Even his own disciples hung their heads in disappointment.
God began in such small and ordinary ways, even with our salvation, that it seemed as if nothing would come of it.
Until. Yes, until Jesus stepped forth from that grave, lungs breathing again, heart beating again, a smile playing on his lips because he had just reconciled the world—including all of us—to his heavenly Father. God began small. God began ordinary.
He is the Lord of the mundane, the overlooked, the secret sanctity of small things.
This is the Lord in whom Dad believed, the Lord with whom he is now at rest. While he was here with us, Dad was a holy man of ordinary things. Those twenty acres were his little square of the kingdom of God, where Dad served as husband, father, granddaddy, neighbor, friend. He loved Mom. He raised me and my sister, Rayna. In ways small and great, he became the means by which God used his hands and feet and lips to help, encourage, and pray.
A man’s life is not measured by the results that we see but those that God sees. We might see a grain of sand but our Lord sees a mountain. What appears to us as ordinary is part of the extraordinary plan of God as he moves the life of this world toward its climax in the return of Jesus.
Dad was part of the plan. In his ambition to lead a quiet life, he was secretly and quietly used by God, in that life, to plant seeds that will grow into trees, to influence lives that will influence still others, and—to speak personally—to make sure that I, his son, knew what a father’s love looks like, that I might tell others of the love of our heavenly Father.
There’s an old country song by Tanya Tucker that says, “When I die, I may not go to heaven, I don’t know if they let cowboys in.” Well, Tanya, they do. And the cowboy that we love rode into that paradise this past Monday afternoon. He rode in because the Lord in whom he believed lived and died and rose again for him.
There he awaits the day when our Lord will return, raise Dad’s body from the dust, glorify that body, and create a new heavens and new earth where you can say the words “heart attack” and nobody knows what you’re talking about, where dirt will never cling to the gravedigger’s spade, where life and joy and peace never end.
On Monday, Dad joined his mom and dad for a grand reunion. He was embraced by his grandson, Luke. But most importantly, he basked in the glory of Jesus, who welcomed him with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome home.”