When I was around ten or twelve, my parents switched me from junior football (which was supposed to “toughen me up”) to junior baseball because my mother was convinced the other much larger football boys were going to break my bones. I was bad at football. And baseball. And sports. But I played. I tried to be good to please my father, and I tried to convince myself I liked it.
One time, I was playing third base for this team and the inning was going on forever. I’m sitting there in the hot sun feeling miserable, praying no one hits the ball toward me, my mind wandering to the clouds in the blue sky, when I realize that I have to urinate. Really, really badly. So I start doing what kids do when they’ve got to pee. I start swaying, sliding, and bobbing like some drunk at a ska concert. Squeezing my legs together. Grabbing at myself.
But the inning keeps dragging on. Two outs and the count goes 3-and-2 and I’m just begging for this guy to strike out. Nope. Foul ball. Foul ball. Then a hit. Then a rally. It was bad. I see that my coach is noticing my situation from the dugout. And I’m gesturing that I need to come in—pointing down at my groin with my fingers, tomahawk chopping toward the dugout, and the like—probably the most convincing baseball signalling I ever did. He’s just shaking his head no, pushing both palms out toward me, yelling silently for me to “Wait” and “Hold on.”
Finally, I gave up. I just let it go. Right there, in front of everyone, standing in the infield for all to see, I pee my pants. And it really does feel so good. But then, of course, a dark and shameful shade of gray starts spreading out from where God split me like a time-lapsed expansion of the Roman Empire. And my teammates start noticing and covering their smiles with their baseball gloves. And the other team is laughing from their chain-link dugout. And I’m pretty sure I should get the K for striking out the next batter, who just couldn’t be expected to hold it together anymore.
So the inning finally ends, and I sort of waddle trot to the dugout past my coach, whose face is red with shame and/or anger. And my dad meets me there.
To his credit, he calmly though quickly walked me to the bathroom and rinsed my pants with water from the sink so that they were completely dark gray rather than pee-pied. There and back, he suffered the looks of the other fathers whose sons were obviously far superior to me.
But I still remember his face, the face I saw at the entrance of the dugout, even today. It told me, “I know this is who you are. But I wish it weren’t. God might as well have given me six daughters.”
The “Girly” Boy
A little (more) background.
I have four older sisters, one younger sister, and no brothers. My Dad still beams remembering the day I was born. I was still trailing my cord when the OB lifted me up and exclaimed: “Praise the Lord! Our prayers have been answered! It’s a boy!”
I’m sure my Dad, whose father hadn’t really been around for him, imagined all the things he would be able to do with his first and only son: playing ball, going camping and hunting and fishing, wood-working, yard work—you know, typical guy stuff. My father would be the father to me that he never had.
But it became apparent early on in my life that, though I might have been an answer to prayer, I was not the answer anyone had expected. Or even wanted. To my father’s great shock and disappointment, I was a complete failure as a typical boy. And I was the only kind of boy he ever got.
I was not tough or strong. I didn’t care about sports and couldn’t understand why people did. I enjoyed fishing for the quiet time to think, but I preferred reading in my room (or on the porch if people would leave me alone). I have never liked getting dirty or eating with my hands. I was (and probably still am) prissy, whiny, needy, and feeble—a “girly” boy, whatever that means.
Compounding my already “unmasculine” nature, I grew up with five sisters, my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother—a household of women. My dad was out of town or at work a lot while I was growing up. So I inadvertently adopted some “feminine” habits of inflection, posture, and demeanor. In fact, most everyone outside my family suspected that I was a homosexual and told me so regularly.
Throughout all of this, my father’s great and palpable disappointment in me was a constant. I wanted so much to please him, but I wasn’t good at being the right kind of boy to the kind of father he wanted to be.
Realizing I could never be the son my father wanted me to be didn’t stop me from trying. I did my best in sports. But I also expressed interest in theology. In becoming a preacher. Or a great theologian like Greg Bahnsen—my childhood’s version of Babe Ruth. I don’t know if it’s something I wanted or something I wanted to want for my father’s sake. But even then, everything turned out wrong. When I asked probing questions on philosophy or theology to my father, it seemed like he would take it as insubordination—like I was attacking him. I wasn’t trying to attack him. At least at first. I just wanted to learn, and I naturally assumed that my father could teach me. Until he really couldn’t anymore.
Then I started realizing he felt like I was attacking him because, in a way, I was. He had forced me to play sports to please him, so I would try to force him to debate lofty points of theology to please me. I grew to want to compete with my dad where I could beat him, in other words. And I grew to despise and resent him, as I focused on my strengths and on his weaknesses. And my father did the same. He viewed me as undisciplined, undependable, haughty, and weak. I viewed him as inflexible, boring, sheep-minded, and touchy.
And our pride, mixed with our narrow and exclusive valuations of each other, resulted in a toxic, broken relationship that festered for years. I wanted to shame him, even if it meant I would have to tank my life to do it. I didn’t want to succeed. Because I didn’t want him to take the credit for my success. I didn’t want him bragging to the other fathers about how successful I was, as if he had had anything to do with it. I was paralyzed. I didn’t want to be like my father at all. But I had no idea what I did want to be. As much as I resented him, the onerous pressure of my father’s expectations still ruled my life.
The Steady Man
Fast forward a few years, and I’m living in California, pretty much pouring my life down the drain. And I meet Vanessa, the poor woman who married me. She wasn’t a Christian when I met her (far from it), and it’s a long story I’ll have to tell you sometime, but she became a Christian while we were dating—without me realizing it. When she became a Christian, I was drawn back (almost from covetousness of her joy) into the faith of my youth.
My abject blindness concerning Vanessa’s nature and value caused me to start re-evaluating my view of other people as well. What else had I missed in my myopic pride? I made a personal commitment that I would try my very hardest to elevate the importance of any strengths I could find in other people, especially when I did not share those strengths. This commitment extended to my father, bitter as I still was concerning him.
To my shame, I thought it would be so very difficult to find things to praise in my dad, since he was obviously such a monster, right? Yeah. Not so much.
My father has woken up around 5:30 am (give or take) every day for forty years. He has been committed to the same wife for over forty years. He has worked for the same company for around forty years. He has been a member of the same exact church for its entire life of about forty years. He is unimpeachably generous with his time, with his energies, and with his money. He is more hospitable than anyone I have ever heard of. He is dogged, persistent, punctual, loyal, hard-working, iron-willed, polite, faithful, and unswerving.
None of his single actions are necessarily massive in themselves. But when you add together the increments of a myriad faithful days, you get monumental results. My dad has certainly moved mountains. He has just done it one shovel-full at a time.
Before this, I had looked at him as having the foolish consistency that was “the hobgoblin of little minds.” But that was a self-serving assessment, wasn’t it? Of course I would disparage consistency, because I could not achieve it. I sleep in. I miss deadlines. I bounce around. I’m moody. I’m unscheduled. My criticism of consistency started to look like nothing more than sour grapes. I wanted to continue thinking of myself as the prototype of human perfection, in need of no one else, so I downplayed the importance of strengths I saw in others. I figured that if I could not possess those strengths, perfect as I obviously was, those strengths must not be at all valuable or important in the grand scheme.
But then I realized that throughout all my failures, my father had still been there for me. He had never abandoned me. I had resented him every time for bailing me out of my job losses, my drop outs, my fail outs, even my arrests—but he had still done it every time. I had never thanked him or valued him for it, because I thought he was just covering my failures to protect his own reputation. Maybe he was somewhat. But he also could have protected his reputation by cutting me off completely. He never did.
Thoreau preached independence beside Walden Pond, believing himself self-reliant because he had planted a few bean stalks—never admitting to himself or mentioning to others that the bulk of his real sustenance came to him in a daily basket from Mrs. Emerson. My father was my Mrs. Emerson. And in the spirit of Thoreau, I never saw that his thankless service was far more important and more profound than my philosophical crowings.
The Greatest Gift My Father Ever Gave Me
So I was learning to appreciate my father after years of toxic, debilitating resentment. That was my state of mind when my father gave me the greatest gift he ever gave me.
I had decided I wanted to marry Vanessa, but I figured my parents would have some major reservations about it. They had never met her. She was a new convert. I was notorious for making rash commitments and not following through. So I didn’t tell them about her. I wanted them to meet her, so I asked them if I could bring “a friend” with me on our family trip to Florida. I did not tell them that this friend was a girl. Or was my girlfriend. Or that I wanted to make her my fiancée then wife. If I remember correctly, my sister Charis gave my parents the real scoop, but by then Vanessa already had a plane ticket from California, so that was that. I was and have been such a conniving coward.
On this very trip, while most everyone else was splashing around in the Gulf and soaking in the sun, I was sitting alone on the bed in the basement room of my father’s beach house. And my father came in and said, “Son, we need to talk.” I had heard that phrase from my father many times over the course of my life, and it had never portended good things. It usually meant, “Son, you’re in trouble.”
But then my father started talking. I don’t remember his exact words, but they went something like this:
Son, I need to ask your forgiveness. With all of you kids, I have wanted the best for you. I have wanted each of you to turn out a certain way—to believe certain things and live a certain way. And none of you have turned out the way I wanted.
But recently, I have come to realize that what I wanted for your lives and what God wants for you are two very different things. And I have had to repent to him of holding on to my own desires when he clearly has something else in mind.
And I need to ask your forgiveness. Please forgive me for pressuring you to be someone that God has not called you to be. Please forgive me for placing my desires for you over God’s. I don’t know exactly what God has in store for you, but I know it is far greater and far more amazing than anything I could have imagined.”
My father is a great giver of gifts, but his humble repentance in that room that day was the greatest gift he ever gave me. I had always felt like a child before that time. That was the first time I ever felt like an adult.
After he finished talking, we cried together for a little while. I don’t remember if I repented to him of my bitterness. I probably didn’t, knowing myself. Then he left the room, in my eyes at once a magnificent man.
Usually, we think that the greatest benefit of forgiveness accrues to the one who is forgiven. We perhaps don’t consider how much blessing there is for the forgiver. The resentment, the bitterness, the pressure, and the expectations that had crippled me for most of my life melted away as soon as I forgave my father. I’m still finding the hidden wounds where the salve of mutual forgiveness needs to be applied.
A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children. And, having kids myself now, I realize that the gift my father gave me that day he also gave to my children. Most of my children are not like me, and I am tempted to praise those things in my children that are more like me and to criticize or dismiss those things in my children that are not like me. I am tempted by my flesh to force my children into the form of my own image, to use their successes as a reflection of my greatness and glower over their failures as a personal affront.
But when I consider my father’s greatest gift, it helps me to free my children from having to suffer under my low and fleshly bar. I don’t want my children to grow up to be like me. I want my children to grow up to be like Jesus. And Jesus and his plans are far bigger than I am.