Learning From My Father -- A Review

LEARNING FROM MY FATHER: Lessons on Life and Faith. By David Lawther Johnson.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.  151 pages.

           What life lessons can a preacher’s kid learn from his father?  That is the gist of this book by David Lawther Johnson, an attorney and CEO of a company that seeks to support scientific and bio-tech initiatives.  Johnson is a business person with political experience, but he’s also the son of a Presbyterian pastor.  The lessons passed on from father to son have made an impact, and we are the beneficiaries of his report on those lessons.

            The book is based on letters that were written by father to son during a crucial time in Johnson’s life – while away at college.  These letters helped form him spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and personally.  As a pastor with son now a young adult, I hope that he will have derived a few lessons from me.

            The lessons focus on matters of faith and living that faith in public.  He begins the story with the death of his father – the last lesson.  But over the years other lessons had been shared.  He writes that the lessons shared in these letters touched upon topics such as God, Christ, Christianity, faith, good and evil, and he “found his words to be both affirming and helpful” (p. 9).  They were, for Johnson, “an essential Christian lesson plan,” and he offers what he learned to us, the reader.

            The lessons offered are strong, thoughtful, deeply spiritual, but rooted in tradition.  They are neither conservative nor liberal; though certainly mainline (his father was a Presbyterian pastor who had graduated from Princeton Seminary.  A sense of who his father was and the lessons taught can be found in the second lesson (chapter 3) entitled “leaping to faith.”  Johnson offers that there are two kinds of Christians – hospice Christians and hospital Christians.  For the former, faith offers a shelter, a place of safety, where the certainty of salvation is ever present.  He notes that this approach to faith is by design self-limiting” and “can be enviably self-fulfilling.”  That is not the kind of faith that his father professed or passed on to son.  The other kind of faith – hospital faith” is messier.  Such Christians may hold strongly to their beliefs, but with a measure of doubt.  In this way of being Christian, “faith involves not clarity but activity, giving rise to a constant barrage of assorted efforts” . . . where such believers work on what they believe (p. 37).  He describes a very relational vision of faith, where God is encountered in engagement with others and the world itself.  It’s not always safe, but the benefits are great.   He talks about love, self-indulgence that leads to sin – or the failure to live “richly and faithfully.”  He also received help in dealing with the question of evil, noting that his father stayed away from easy answers, offered guidance on the question of eternity, and more.

            The seventh lesson is entitled “Showing Up for Work.”  This chapter offers a good way of engaging the conversation about religionless spirituality. He grew up in the church, saw it at its best and worst, and yet has stayed within the church.  He compares it to showing up for work.  You participate even when you’d rather not.  He notes that there are many obstacles and predictions of the demise of the church, but he’s also convinced that the church offers something that is found few other places.  In a related lesson he speaks of the difficulty of sharing his faith witness – he has no problem talking about just about everything else, but faith is difficult. 

            From the example of his father, and the messages found in these letters shared with him as a young man, he was enabled to fashion a faith and a life.  Now, we’re the recipient of these lessons.  What I appreciate about the book is the evenhandedness and the honesty present.  In many ways this book has a devotional intent, but I think it might have the greatest impact on men, who often struggle to express their faith.  Many books written for Christian men come off encouraging a macho sense of being, but there’s nothing of that here.  I think it will also encourage fathers to reach out to their children and share lessons on faith and life.  It’s not that women won’t enjoy the book, but I think men will be especially blessed by it.

            When you read the book you discover that Johnson had political ambitions – even running for Senator in Indiana (he lost).  He has friends in high places – but in a time of political polarization, it was good to see on the back cover blurbs from a conservative Republican former governor of Indiana (Mitch Daniels) and a liberal Democrat E.J. Dionne.  And Dionne sums up the book well, when commends the book for being “eloquent, deeply moving, quietly passionate, and wise.”  I think you will find this to be a gentle but provocative spiritual read.  Enjoy!  I did!


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