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, Missouri. 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.
The forgotten commandment
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.” I based it on the fifth of the 10 commandments: "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12). It's the only commandment with a promise attached—if we honor our parents, we will experience God's blessing.
As I spoke to those teens and talked about ways they could honor their parents, I realized that I was touching a raw nerve. Like all of us, they all desired a strong relationship with their parents. Some enjoyed such a relationship, while others felt distant from their parents and struggled to connect emotionally. Still others had such difficult relationships with their parents that the command to honor them presented a challenge of immense proportions, a major step of faith.
Of all the commandments, this one may be the most mysterious and, perhaps, the most ignored. I've realized that we have failed to train our youth (and also our adults) in what it means to honor their parents. It is as though the fifth commandment has become the “forgotten commandment.”
Over the years as I've spoken to youth and to adults about honoring our parents, I've 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.
Words of honor
If you are a parent, you've probably had at least one of those difficult moments when you say to yourself, "Some day my children will thank me for that!" Your parents probably had the same experience. So here's my question: Are your parents still waiting for you to thank and honor them for what they did well in raising you?
There are many practical ways to honor your parents—by talking to them regularly, by sending them notes and gifts, by spending significant time with them. But I'd like to tell you about a practical and powerful way to honor your parents—by writing a tribute. If you take the time to do this, it has the potential to change your family.
I just wish I had thought of this idea sooner. My father died in September of 1976 of a massive heart attack. There were no warnings, no goodbyes. 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 service. 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. Hard working. 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.
A written document
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.
Here's what I wrote:
"She's More Than Somebody's Mother"
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 three-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. Another time she tied him to his bed because, when he was five years old, 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 six-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."
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.
My only regret in regards to Mom’s tribute is that I mailed it to her instead of giving it to her in person. Years later, Barbara wrote a tribute to her parents and then read it to them. 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 touches something deep in the soul. I began to see that there really was more to this command to honor parents than I realized.
As you approach an anniversary, a birthday, Mother's Day or Father's Day, or the Christmas holidays, consider the possibility that the best present you could give to your parents would be the gift of honor. Below you will find examples of tributes that others have written as well as links to additional articles on writing a tribute to your parents.
Wherever you are in your relationship with your parents, I encourage you to write a tribute. It may be one of the most profound, mysterious, and incredible experiences of your entire life.
Examples of tributes:
Adapted from The Best Gift You Can Ever Give Your Parents, by Dennis Rainey with David Boehi, FamilyLife Publishing, 2004.