Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death of a Cowboy

Peppy Jack McKinney died on March 18, 2011. He had an unusual name. He lived an unusual life. He was an unusual father.

Dad was an honest-to-goodness rodeo cowboy. He won his first prize money in a roping when he was just nine. He was one of the best high school and college ropers of his generation. Then he roped professionally until his body finally betrayed him in his early fifties. He was happiest on a horse or traveling across the country to a rodeo.

My father had a wardrobe that would make any gay man envious. He had closets full of beautiful shirts, expensive boots and belts with shiny buckles. Before he left for a rodeo, he would spend hours in his bedroom laying out his wardrobe. He took matching colors to the border of ludicrous. He believed it was important that his outfit match the color of the horse he rode.

He was a man of style and charisma. What he wasn’t, though, was a man who cared much for his wife and three sons. My parents divorced when I was eleven and Dad ceased to be a presence in my life.

In my teen years and young adulthood, I developed a strong resentment towards my father. I was bitter about the way he had treated my mother and his seeming lack of interest in me. More damning, Dad’s bigotry became more and more obvious as I got older. He would say terribly offensive things about people of color. Homophobia was not a word he would have understood, but it was a sin he committed regularly. It would be an understatement to say I had little respect for him.

In the course of time, I came to believe my father would never change and I needed to let go of my bitterness towards him. I did this for my sake, not his. I made little effort to stay connected to him, and when we did speak, I worked hard not to let his offensive remarks get to me. My soul declared an emotional ceasefire with Dad and I simply stopped expecting anything from him other than what I had always received.

Then, just a few years ago, something unexpected happened. My brother, Jim, did the most courageous thing anyone in our family has ever done. He came out of the closet in his mid-forties.

Jim’s initial inclination was not to tell Dad that he was gay. He feared, as did I, that our cowboy father would react out of his deep-seated homophobia and reject Jim. This prospect worried him greatly, because whereas I had long given up on a connection with Dad, Jim had worked hard to stay in relationship with him over the years.

In time, though, as Jim came out to the rest of our family and his large circle of friends, he decided it was inevitable that Dad would learn of his sexual orientation. He decided it was best that he be the one to tell Dad the truth. I cannot fathom the courage it took for Jim to have that conversation knowing all that was at risk.

What came next is the one great thing my father ever did for one of his sons. He accepted his gay son. I cannot say that he understood or liked the fact that Jim was gay. I simply know that he accepted him and because of that one surprising act he forged a much deeper bond with Jim. For the first time in my life, I was proud of my father.

At Dad’s funeral I offered a prayer at the end of the service. Here is what I said:

In death we are confronted with endings.
The end of breath.
The end of time.
The end of our best intentions of how to use our breath and time.

Words we wish we could have said or heard go unsaid and unheard.
Things we wish we could have done or experienced go undone and unexperienced.

So, we pray for your grace as we are confronted with Dad’s death.

Give us the grace to celebrate all that was good in him and about him,
and the grace to let go of the rest.
Remind us that your reconciling touch
can reach across the endings of breath, and time, and best intentions.
Bless us with your strength as we move between the celebrating of life,
the letting go of old hurts, and the contemplating of what reconciliation can be in your Kingdom.

And now, O God, as Dad approaches that last great round up, may he feel:
the warmth of a big West Texas sun above him,
the power of a strong horse beneath him,
the comfort of a gentle breeze behind him,
and the certainty of your healing love within him.

When my homophobic cowboy father accepted his gay son and told him that he loved him, a powerful reconciliation began. It gives me hope that such healing can happen in other families. Thanks, Dad, for showing me at the end of your life that there was more in you than I ever believed possible.


  1. Thank you, Jack. A heartful morning meditation for many seasons of life. -CFM

  2. Beautiful, Jack. I wish that my father had been able to get to that place of acceptance in time to speak it. I am comforted--in part by stories like yours--by the sure knowledge that he did get there in the next life. Thank you.



About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology