This is the introductory chapter to my latest book, My Two Fathers: Things My Earthly Father Taught Me About My Heavenly Father. You can only purchase a copy at this location – www.my2fathers.com.
I’m not sure I can separate my earliest memories of my father from my earliest memories of God. For most of my life, they were the same.
That might sound shocking to some, and I expect to be questioned by a few people for making that statement, so I probably need to explain. When most Christians envision God, they conjure up an image of Jesus only bigger and more (more of what I’m not sure). We’ve all heard that Jesus was God embodied within a man; He was God in the flesh. It stands to reason that God must look something like Jesus, only older since Jesus referred to God as His father. That’s probably why many people’s image of God is an old man, kind of like George Burns in the movie, “Oh, God.”
If you want to be more politically correct, you will come up with Morgan Freeman from “Bruce Almighty” or Whoopie Goldberg in “A Little Bit of Heaven.” When I was a young kid, we didn’t go to the movies or watch TV, so I didn’t have any help with understanding God and what He might be like other than what I was told and saw with my own eyes. Kind of like a baby kitten adopted by a mama dog, I grew up thinking God was like the one who cared for me and provided my needs.
That might be a good enough explanation for the first four or five years of my life, but there had to have been a time when I finally wised up and realized my father was nothing like God. Once I read enough of the Bible and understood the true qualities of God, I would cast aside such childish thinking—but I never did.
As I near completion of the seventh decade of my life, my declaration is the same—the person who taught me the most about God is my father. Every experience I’ve had with God has been seen through a lens of what my father taught or showed by his life. That doesn’t mean my understanding of God is warped. I hope to show you throughout this book that my earthly father provided a thorough and healthy view of my heavenly father.
It has been understood for a long time that all of us are influenced by our earthly father when it comes to our concept of God. Church reformer Martin Luther commented how it was difficult for him to pray the Model Pray that begins with “Our Father…” He testified that it was hard to see God as father because his earthly father was “stern and unrelenting.” Many people have been drawn to God by their father, and many more have been driven away from God by their father.
There are as many different relationships between fathers and children as there are people. I understand that. I’m also fully aware that when it comes to my personal experience with my father, I am a person of great privilege. I won the lottery when it came to fathers.
Many grew up with an absentee father, or an abusive father, or a weak father, or one who was simply a jerk. If that is you, I encourage you not to put down this book. You will not be better served by a book written by someone who lived your same experience. In fact, this book is probably more important for you than others. Let me explain.
It was July 4, 2000, and our family was gathered at Glorieta Conference Center. At the time, I worked for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and they planned an appropriate week of activities. Glorieta was a special place for our family. Many summers, we spent a week there. It doubled as a vacation and conference time. Our three boys were there often enough to know all the hiding and adventure places. Since the conference center was located in the Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico, exhausting opportunities for adventure was impossible.
On this particular year, much of my extended family was there for the week—both my brothers and their families, along with my parents. Since it was Independence Day, a special evening picnic was planned. Not only was good food provided, but we also sang a few patriotic songs, prayers were offered for the nation, and all the veterans present were recognized. This is the part I especially remember.
During the evening, they singled out veterans who served in the different branches of the military. As they asked for former Marines to stand and be recognized, I steadied Daddy’s folding lawn chair as he pushed himself to his feet.
As he aged, it was more and more difficult for Daddy to stand up straight, but on this particular occasion, he was as tall as I remembered when I was a kid. Daddy’s size was something that always impressed me. I don’t know if it was because I was so small and weak, but I considered him to be the strongest man around. As young children, I remember both Linda and me trying to arm wrestle him, but we could never even move his strong right arm.
It is not surprising that when it comes to remembering and honoring his life, strength is the first thing that comes to mind. Not only did Daddy stand strong, but he was the source of strength for so many other people.
Daddy was in the Marines and fought on the island of Iwo Jima. His service was a matter of pride for our family, even though he never spoke about the experience. We were never able to forget about it because Daddy suffered significant wounds and eventually lost his right leg as a result. He never allowed the missing limb to slow him down for most of his life, but this particular night at Glorieta came as he was getting older. At seventy-five-years, he was frequently looking for an easier way to do things.
It is hard to comprehend the amount of courage he possessed as he and his fellow Marines stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. On that seemingly inconsequential dormant volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he suffered a loss that forever changed his life and impacted the lives of everyone who knew him. A mortar blast led to the eventual amputation of his right leg and one of the defining moments of his life.
More than three years in and out of the hospital, a tragic automobile accident in downtown Amarillo, a tornado ravaging their home just a few days after my sister’s birth, the emotional struggle of dealing with the devastating effects of polio on his oldest son–none of these events deterred him, they only served to give him additional strength.
As Daddy and I sat together on that July evening, waiting for the sun to disappear behind the mountain, listening to the music, and watching people finish off the hamburgers and hot dogs, neither of us said much. However, at one point, he leaned over to me and said, “When I’m gone, I want you preach my funeral.”
From the perspective of hindsight, it’s clear what he was thinking. He was tired. Physically he was worn out from relying on the strength of only one leg for half a century. Emotionally he was exhausted from a life filled with numerous one-of-a-kind experiences that most of us never have. Sitting next to his oldest son, surrounded by much of his family, he was aware it was about time to say goodbye.
I wasn’t there yet. In response to his question, I quickly replied, “We’re not ready for that; you have a long time yet.”
The next few moments were silent as neither of us spoke. I thought about what he said and what he really meant, and I thought about my thoughtless reply. Before we finished the evening, I told him I would be honored to preach his funeral, and there was no one who would do a better job.
From that moment, continuing for the next dozen years, I began to write Daddy’s funeral sermon. I rehearsed thoughts when waking in the middle of the night or driving down the highway through desolate west Texas or sitting in a boring church service. It was obvious that one funeral sermon could not contain everything that needed to be said about my father. (You can read the eulogy in the Appendix.)
Daddy died on November 12, 2011, in the Veteran’s Hospital in Amarillo, Texas. We all knew death was imminent, but I was not able to be there. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t need to be there. I was not physically capable of making the trip from my home in Fort Worth to Amarillo. Several months earlier, after a year of whining and complaining by my mother, he moved her back to Amarillo, where they had lived before relocating to Fort Worth to be near the kids.
The day my brothers packed up my parents’ stuff in the U-Haul, I told Daddy goodbye, and as Sharon and I drove home, I told her that was the last time I would see him. It was. We talked on the phone frequently the next few months. He was ready to go. Because I knew how tired he was, I was ready as well, even though my heart was broken. When my brother called to tell me he had died, I sobbed out loud. I remembered the only time I had ever heard my father sob—it was when he received a phone call that his father had died.
I think about Daddy often. Sometimes I catch myself reaching for the phone to call him, to ask a question, or just to hear a reassuring voice. Frequently, when I look down at my hands, I don’t know why, but I see Daddy’s hands. Mine are not strong like his, but something about the shape of my fingers and the texture of my skin reminds me of him.
Perhaps the hardest thing about Daddy being gone is the loss of security he provided. It sounds terrible to say, but I always knew that if God ever failed me, Daddy would be there. He wasn’t in the habit of rescuing me, but he would if needed. He didn’t bail me out of problems, but he would if I ever asked. He didn’t lavish me with stuff; he didn’t build me up with bloated praise, but I always knew he would be there for me. To be honest, that made it easier to trust God.
When he was gone, it was now just God and me.
My whole life, Daddy prepared me for that eventuality. He taught me how to live, how to listen to God, how to learn from life, how to lean on someone for strength, how to leap into the unknown, how to lay burdens down, and how to love. He gave me everything I needed to be the man God wants me to be. I’ve often said, my goal in life is to be half the man my father was. Time will tell, but if I don’t reach that goal, it will be because I didn’t learn the lessons he taught.
In our final conversation, just a few days before he died, I asked Daddy if he was concerned about the outcome of a recent biopsy. Without any reservation in his voice, Daddy said he was not worried. Then he added, “Romans 8:28 has always been true.” And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
That’s why I began his funeral with that great passage from Romans. It’s also the way I begin the journey described in this book. God took an amazing collection of experiences from my father’s life and weaved them together to make something good. The following are the lessons he taught me.