10 Unforgettable Lessons on Fatherhood

In public, my dad was one of the great pastors of his generation. He served most notably for twenty fruitful years at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, where John and Noel Piper worshiped during their Fuller Seminary days. Dad and John were dear friends.

In private, my dad was the same man. There was only one Ray Ortlund, Sr. — an authentic Christian man. The distance between what I saw in the New Testament and what I saw in my dad was slight. He was the most Christlike man I’ve ever known, the kind of man, the kind of father, I long to be.

In no particular order, here are ten lessons on fatherhood I learned from watching him, each lesson living on in my life from memories of his care for me.

1. He was never too busy.

My dad was a busy pastor, but he was never too busy for me. When he felt he hadn’t had enough time with me, he’d say, “Hey Bud, want to skip school tomorrow and go down to the beach?” It didn’t take me long to agree to that! So off we went. We surfed and talked and had fun together. The next day he’d write a note to the school to explain my absence, and when I took it to the principal’s office they always marked my absence “Unexcused.” I guess the reason didn’t count with them — a father wanting to catch up with his son. But dad didn’t care. I mattered to him. And I knew it.

2. He was a Bible man.

My dad was wholeheartedly devoted to Jesus. On my seventeenth birthday, he and my mom gave me a new Bible. In the front he wrote the following:

Bud,

Nothing could be greater than to have a son — a son who loves the Lord and walks with Him. Your mother and I have found this Book our dearest treasure. We give it to you and doing so can give nothing greater. Be a student of the Bible and your life will be full of blessing. We love you.

Dad
9/7/66
Philippians 1:6

When I read that, I knew my dad meant every word of it. He was a Bible man, and the blessing he wrote about was obvious in his own life.

3. He praised God.

As a kid growing up, I didn’t need an alarm clock most mornings. I woke up to the sound of my dad singing in the shower down the hallway. Every morning he sang heartily and cheerfully this hymn:

     When morning gilds the skies 
     My heart awaking cries

         May Jesus Christ be praised

     Alike at work or prayer

     To Jesus I repair
         May Jesus Christ be praised

Many men are hard to read. I have no idea what they stand for. But I never wondered about my dad — what he cared most about, what he was living for. Never once. At all. Not even a little. He did not take a keep-a-low-profile approach to life. Jesus was too wonderful to him. He praised the Lord throughout his life, in public, in private, in a clear and winsome way that could not be ignored.

4. He cheered me on.

My dad set me free to pursue God’s call on my life. He guided me in appropriate ways, of course, but he did not fearfully cling to me or hope I would always live nearby. Just the opposite. He urged me to follow Christ anywhere. Now and then he’d make this speech: “Listen, son. Half-hearted Christians are the most miserable people of all. They know enough about God to feel guilty, but they haven’t gone far enough with Christ to be happy. Be all-out for him! I don’t care if you’re a ditch-digger, as long as you love the Lord with all your heart.”

He was not impressed with worldly success and going to the right schools and all that pretense and bluff. He wanted something better for me, something I had to find on my own. But I never doubted how urgently he desired for me a clear call from God on my life. And I did receive it, partly because my dad didn’t intrude himself into it but cheered me on as I followed the Lord myself.

5. He had a real walk with God.

I remember going downstairs early one morning and walking in on my dad in the living room. There he was, on his knees, his face buried in his hands, absorbed in silent prayer. He didn’t know anyone else was up. It wasn’t for show. It was real. My dad had a real walk with God. It never occurred to me to wonder if Jesus was the Lord of his heart and of our home. Dad loved the gospel. He served the church. He witnessed to our neighbors. He even tithed when he couldn’t afford it. He set the tone of our home, and our home was a place of joy, honesty, and comfort. Jesus was there.

6. He taught me theology in the backyard.

One day when I was 11 or 12, while we were doing yard work outside — I can’t remember the context — my dad stopped, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You know, Bud, before time began, God chose you.” I was floored. Almighty God thought of tiny me? Way back then? I felt so loved by God. Years later, when I became aware of the doctrine of election as such, I had no problem with it. I loved it. My dad had begun my theological education in my boyhood in the course of everyday conversation.

7. He loved us when it wasn’t easy.

My mom told me once that dad had a practice as he came home at the end of each day. He worked hard throughout the day and he came home tired. So as he walked up the back steps, before he reached out to open the back door, he would lift a simple prayer to God, “Lord, I need some extra energy right now.” And God answered that prayer. I never saw my dad walk in with no positive emotion to give. Instead, he’d walk over to my mom, kiss her with a huge kiss, and then turn to me and say, “Come on, Skip, let’s wrestle!” And we’d go out to the front room and wrestle on the floor and tickle and laugh and have a blast. The moment-by-moment reality of God in my dad’s heart gave him energy to love his family when it wasn’t easy.

8. He helped me love the church.

The fact that dad was a pastor made me “the preacher’s kid,” obviously. Every now and then well-meaning church people said foolish things to me, as if I had to be perfect or superior or something they expected. So dad said to me once, “Son, when people say things like that, they don’t mean any harm. But it isn’t fair. They don’t realize that. I want you to know, you can ignore it.”

Dad had high standards for Christian living. But he was wise enough to know that a ten-year-old follows Christ in a way different from a forty-year-old. He was realistic and compassionate. He made allowances for me to be a Christian kid. And he is the primary earthly reason why I love the church today. He wisely showed me how church life does not need to be oppressive.

9. He lived his faith simply and practically.

Dad showed me how to walk with the Lord in practical ways. For example, here is a statement he settled on as his own daily path:

My Morning Statement of Faith

I believe that today:

  1. God is sovereignly directing my life as I yield myself to him, and that he loves me unconditionally, and I love him and put him first in my life.

  2. Christ is my Lord and Master, and I seek to abide in him and do his will immediately and exactly.

  3. The Holy Spirit is my friend, teacher, and guide, who will open and close doors today and fill me with himself to make me an effective servant.

  4. I now commit my wife and family to the Lord, who loves them as well as others I love. They too are in his sovereign care.

  5. I step out in bold faith and relax in the Lord, and enjoy this day given to me by him. I trust him to use me today.

It’s simple, but valid. Dad exemplified how to make daily Christianity accessible and practical.

10. He told me ministry isn’t everything.

Being a “preacher’s kid” was sometimes difficult, as I mentioned. But more than offsetting this difficulty was my dad’s love for me and my admiration for him. I adored him. I still do. Even as I write this, I choke up. I miss him so. Being the son of a godly pastor was a sacred privilege given to me as a gift from God himself. My respect for my dad and his personal attractiveness — the real Christianity I saw in him, the beauty with which he served as a pastor even when he suffered — the personal impact of it all was that I grew to revere the pastoral ministry. And today I am rejoicing to be a pastor myself. Which brings me to my final scenario.

Early on Sunday, July 22, 2007, my dad woke up in his hospital room in Newport Beach. He knew it was finally his day of release from this life. He had the nurse call the family in. My wife Jani and I were far away in Ireland for ministry that day. We didn’t know what was happening back home. But the family gathered at dad’s bedside. They read Scripture. They sang hymns. Dad spoke a word of patriarchal blessing and admonition to each one, a message suited to encourage and guide. He pronounced over them all the blessing of Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24–26).

And then, quietly, he fell asleep.

Later I asked my sister about dad’s message to me. It was this: “Tell Bud, ministry isn’t everything. Jesus is.”

My dad’s dying words summed up his parenting and his whole life.