We are quick to celebrate biological fathers on Father’s Day, and for good reason. My dad, Henere Valk, has been a good, good father. I’ve cherished the many father/son trips we’ve taken together, his special way of hugging my neck and shoulders, and his consistent support over the past decade for the public and challenging kingdom work God has called me to.
At the same time, Christians know Christ’s death and resurrection established a new covenant under which we now become a part of God’s family through spiritual birth. Biological fathers aren’t the only Christian fathers in our churches. We may have many spiritual fathers, including our biological father, who have nurtured our faith.
On Father’s Day, spiritual fathers without biological children are easily overlooked. They witness the holiday celebrations of biological fathers, and Satan’s lie strengthens in their hearts and minds: “If you don’t have physical children, you won’t make a difference.”
To push against that lie this Father’s Day, I want to share with you a eulogy for my late celibate bassoon teacher. It celebrates his spiritual fatherhood to me. I hope all those who lack biological children but have been faithful spiritual fathers are encouraged.
Tom—or Mr. Crawford, as students called him—was my private lessons teacher. Over time he also became a trusted friend and a spiritual father. I live in Nashville, so I had the painful privilege of visiting with him frequently during his last weeks at Vanderbilt Hospital, holding his hand, and pushing against the fears of every celibate Christian: that without children we would die alone and be quickly forgotten.
Tom and I spoke often about how Isaiah 56 captures this fear and offers hope. First God empathizes with the fear of celibate people without children in verse 3. God says,
“[L]et no eunuch complain,
‘I am only a dry tree.’”
Isaiah is a book of poetic prophecy, and the use of the word eunuch here has historically been understood as a promise particularly to celibate people without children.
So God is empathizing with the fear of celibate people. That because we don’t have biological children and because children are the key to family and a legacy and being remembered, we’re afraid we will be a dry tree. Fruitless. Useless. Left to wither and die and turn to dust.
But God offers a promise. Isaiah 56 continues:
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.”
God promises people like Tom and people like me a place of honor in God’s house. He promises many spiritual sons and daughters. He promises the celibate will be remembered long after he dies.
Thankfully, I don’t think Tom was without spiritual sons and daughters. I don’t think Tom will be forgotten. I think Tom’s life very much mattered.
Tom and I met when I was an arrogant eighth grader. After placing second chair in regional honor band, I wanted to take my skills to the next level. Everyone said Mr. Crawford was the best woodwind teacher in east Tennessee. He was the principal clarinetist in the Symphony of the Mountains and had a reputation for being strict and demanding.
Oh, and during our first lesson, he definitely knew I was gay. I mean, I fit all of the stereotypes. I was sensitive to beauty, nuance of sound, and emotions. I was talented and eager to please. I was particular about how I dressed. It must have been obvious to Tom.
But he never asked me about sexuality, and we rarely talked about boys or girls. Sometimes my male friends came up and Tom noticed my excitement. I mourned when my closest guy friend left early for college. He noticed that most of my friends were girls. Still, our conversations before and after lessons focused on school and God.
Tom never pried, but he did create space for me to make music and express myself without fear. I couldn’t talk about my fear or loneliness or shame or self-hate about being gay. But I could play the bassoon.
I got in the habit of swaying flamboyantly with my bassoon while playing. Some made fun of me, but Tom never corrected me. He knew I needed to sway.
He knew I needed to get lost in the music and find myself. He knew that playing the bassoon was the only time I wasn’t self-conscious. When I didn’t care who saw me indulge in the drama.
Music got me through high school in the closet in conservative east Tennessee. It kept me alive. While Tom might not have been an ordained pastor, he ministered to me in those music lessons. While Tom might not have been a biological parent, I count him as a spiritual father.
In 2015 we reconnected as I was gathering support for a new project of equipping parents and pastors to better minister to gay people according to a traditional sexual ethic, and I told him about my sexuality and that I was committed to celibacy. After that we shared a meal or talked on the phone quarterly.
Fast forward to April 2021, Tom was moved to the ICU at Vanderbilt. At the time Barbara (Tom’s sister) and the doctors were unsure of his trajectory, so Barb and I alternated visits. She spent a day in Nashville, returned to Kingsport (Tom’s hometown), and then I visited the next day for an hour or so.
When Tom was more lucid, we prayed the “Ministration to the Sick” out of the Book of Common Prayer together, and we cried.
“I love you, Mr. Crawford.”
“I know Pieter. I love you, too.”
As Tom’s condition worsened, I spoon-fed him ice, helped him drink Boost, and wetted his mouth with a water-soaked sponge. We spent most of our time sitting in silence, holding hands.
On the day Tom died, I prayed the “Ministration at the Time of Death” out of the Book of Common Prayer over him. Here’s how it ends:
“Almighty God, our Father in heaven, before whom live all
who die in the Lord: Receive my brother Tom into the courts of
your heavenly dwelling place. Let his heart and soul now ring
out in joy to you, O Lord, the living God, and the God of
those who live. This I ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Tom was a spiritual parent to many, his life mattered, and he didn’t die alone. It seems God kept his promise from Isaiah 56.
You see, in Matthew 19, Jesus speaks of celibate Christians who live “like a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom.” Jesus uses this word eunuch to signal that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection fulfill God’s promise in Isaiah 56.
In Jesus we now join God’s people not by birth into a Jewish family but by spiritual rebirth after accepting Christ’s gift of salvation. Thanks to this new covenant established by Jesus, a Christian who is celibate for the Lord, for whatever reason, can be a spiritual parent of many.
Tom, I hope you see the quiver-full of spiritual children you have in all of your students over the years. I hope you see the difference you made in our lives.
You shaped my sensitivities to music so I could express myself with beauty and honesty. You created space for me to share what I was ready to share when I was ready to share it. For many, your private lessons were a sacred space where those on the margins were particularly safe to deepen our appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation in music and explore spiritual questions.
Tom, thank you for the ways you fathered us, know that we love you and will remember you long after you are gone.
And goodbye, for now.
*You can watch a video of this eulogy here.
Cover image by Wes Hicks.