I titled this “Being a dad is a marathon”. It’s the greatest race. I should probably parenthetically suggest that I’m on mile 14. I’ve got a long way to go. Dads are vital to kids’ development, as we all know, and the absence of dads is what’s scarring society.
Let me pray first. “Father we love you. We thank you for the institution of fatherhood. I’m grateful for it, never having perceived or conceived that I might be a dad. I thank you for all that entails. I thank you for the struggles of fatherhood. It’s a privilege to be a dad. It’s a privilege to be a husband and now a granddad. It’s an amazing thing and it’s a privilege to know you are our ultimate Father. Thank you for that. Because absence that, my life would have been a lot different and I think different would have meant bad. I thank you for the dads here, for the men that stand in the gap every day for their kids. I pray for the dads here, recognizing even though distance may prevent as much interaction with our kids as we want, they’re still our kids. I don’t care if they’re married or whatever they’re doing. They’re still our kids. Lord, we love you and we thank you for today. I pray that the things I say today are not my words but yours in how you’ve impacted me. In Christ’s Name.”
I’ve been married 38 years. I’ve known Kelli for 41 years and I’m 61, so I don’t know what that math means, but it means stability. I think that is a critical element to a lot of this. I’m going to tell you about some influences I’ve had in my life- some likely and some really unlikely. Absent my heavenly Father, for a period of time, I didn’t have a father.
I don’t think there’s any greater role on earth than being a father. I’m convinced of that and there’s not a day I don’t look forward to receiving a text from Whitney who’s our oldest – 33, got three kids, my son-in-law’s an associate pastor – where I’ll get up, look at my phone, and it will be my daughter: “Dad, I love you. Have a great day”. Or my daughter Hillary leaving me a voice mail in her big gushing voice: “Dad, I love you. Have a great day” It makes me melt. It makes me melt do say it.
I do I have a regret, I’ll admit. I didn’t have a traditional father-son relationship, which I’ll unpack in a minute. It’s a void that I’ve had in my life. Men have filled it. Bill has been an unbelievable model and mentor to me. Marshall Edwards has been a great friend and my father-in-law who turns 87 in a few months has filled a lot of the gap. There’s still a little bit of a gap there because my real father and I never got along, for reasons you’ll understand as I go on.
I’m going to chase through chapters of my life with you as it relates to fatherhood and I’m going to leave out some pieces, but I think you’ll get the gist. There’s a verse in Hebrew 12:9 that says “Moreover we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live?” I can honestly say for a long time I didn’t respect my earthly father. My dad was probably my greatest influence in my life in sort of a backwards way. Not for the reasons you’d expect. He did the diametric opposite of what most of us in this room would do.
He passed away 30 years ago and I still haven’t completely reconciled with everything there, I confess. It’s something I think about and pray about and there’s still some emotion surrounding that, which I’m glad because when he passed, there wasn’t a whole lot of emotion. My dad was married 4 times, died at 57. He might have been married 14 times had he lived longer. He was fired from a number of jobs. My mom said that he had a job for every year they were married. He made a million and lost a million. He borrowed money that I knew he never repaid. I won’t belabor, but he was really tough on my mom. I saw some things that kids shouldn’t have to see. I knew he’d had numerous affairs. I didn’t really realize it until I was in my teenage years and came to realize that a lot of the travel he was on was not appropriate travel. I think he regarded my brother and I only when it was convenient. You say from all of that “What did you learn?” Well I do just the opposite. I feel pretty good about it. He was an example and I often wonder why the Lord placed him in my path because he seemed to have a pretty miserable existence. Was he my sacrificial lamb? I don’t really know and I am still searching though all those reasons and thinking back. A lot of those memories fade.
I have to tell you, in 1984 Kelli was pregnant with Whitney. My dad had remarried for the fourth time. I was in Dallas and my dad called me and said “Let’s go to lunch”. I always felt like my dad wanted something from me. There was an ulterior motive. Remember Jojo’s on Beltline Road next to LaQuinta? I remember it like it was yesterday and it was 30-some years ago. I remember we ate lunch and my dad looked at me and said “I need to borrow $5,000”. This was 1984 so $5,000 may have been what I had in the bank. It was meaningful money. I spilled a glass of tea. I was shaking so bad. I was scared to death.
I went home and told Kelli and she sobbed for hours. She said “Your dad is going to end up on our front porch. This is the worst thing in the world”. And I had a choice to make that I don’t think a 30-year-old should have to make. I knew he wasn’t going to pay it back. If he’d just said “Will you give me $5,000?” that might have been a different story, if he’d been honest with me. I had a choice to make. I thought about it; prayed about it. I could either have a relationship with my dad or my wife. It couldn’t be both. She just could not handle that pain or that fear. It was really just fear. Maybe I’m just a callous son of a gun. I called my dad and said “I never want to see you again. You lied to me. You weren’t intending to pay the money. I don’t ever want to see you again. I’m done. We’re done.” I had a choice to make. That was spring of ‘84.
In the spring of ‘88, his fourth wife called me and said “your dad’s dying” so I saw him a few times before he passed in 1988. It was platonic at best. I feel like if I had met my dad on the street we would have said “hello” but probably wouldn’t have had a relationship. We had zero in common.
I lay that out because all of this shows that there was somebody there watching over me. I had the propensity to be just like him. I didn’t emulate him, but that was my model. I had to believe there was something more and something better. I knew that the Lord had better.
And I’m not saying that I’m completely over it. I had a little bit of a pity party going on that I just kissed my dad off, so now what? What do I have? Who do I turn to? My family had become very estranged over the years because of the divorce. My mom got remarried. My dad was off doing his thing. My brother and I had really grown apart. So, when I hearkened back to the verse I read you about human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them, that isn’t true for me. He didn’t discipline me and I sure as heck didn’t respect him.
I’m going to read you something from another testimony that I’ve given. It says “In this all out match against sin, others have suffered worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through. So don’t feel sorry for yourselves if you’ve forgotten how good parents treat children and that God regards you as his children. My dear child, don’t shrug off God’s discipline but don’t be crushed by it either. It’s the child he loved that he disciplines. The child he embraces, he also corrects. God is educating you. That is why you must never drop out. He is treating you as dear children.” When he said “never drop out”, I had dropped out. “The struggle you’re in isn’t punishment, it’s training and the normal experience for children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We praise our parents for training us and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God’s training so we can truly live? While we were children, our parents did what seemed to be best to them” – And maybe he did do what was best to him. Maybe he had a different paradigm he was looking at things through. Maybe the best thing he could do was distance himself from me or put the hand up because he knew how bad an influence he could be on me. “But God is doing what is best for us, training us to live God’s holy best. At the time, discipline isn’t much fun. It always feels like we’re going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely because the well-trained find themselves mature in their relationship with God”.
What he did probably drove me closer to the Lord in sort of weird way. So that’s been my greatest influence as a dad. The second piece is the anticipation of being a dad. I was scared to death of being a dad. Was I prepared? I said my father-in-law was a great example. My wife grew up in a great home. Her sister and her parents are still alive. They’ve been married 67 years. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law doesn’t know where she is right now, but she’s still alive. So, I sought a lot of guidance.
Something that really struck me is a friend of mine’s wife, a few months after we had Whitney in ‘84, came up to be and said “I’m so proud of you”. I said “What do you mean?” and she said “I thought you’d be the worst dad in the world. I thought you’d be horrible.” I said “Why do you say that?” Because she saw an older me, and I’m not saying that I’m not still brash and arrogant and can get in people’s face, but she saw a side of me that wasn’t fatherly, that wasn’t nurturing. And there was a change that I can only attribute to the Lord.
I read voraciously and I have to contribute a lot of kudos to James Dobson helping me to prepare for childhood, prepare for daughters, I’ll tell you in a minute about preparing for adolescents. And I mean, I didn’t just do book learning, but I was determined not to be my dad, so I was on a sort of crusade. On one hand, I was revolting against the father that I knew, that I didn’t think modelled well and I was trying to merge that with what the Lord wanted of me. I was trying to reconcile the two so I was in a bit of a conflict.
Thankfully, having a wife like I do in Kelli keeps me grounded and she’s patient with me, Lord knows. She was a levelling influence. Through the first pregnancy, it really turned into excitement. It’s funny, I’m looking at Whitney in the nursey and my father-in-law comes in and puts his arm around me and says “Well, boy, you’re not going to be at the baseball fields” because he knew how much I liked sports. But that was significant. This was a guy who had clubbed feet that he had fixed at the hospital in the 1930s. He has one kidney and he was born deformed. He played football at Poly Highschool in Ft. Worth. He’s a tough old bird. But he’s been there for me. He’s 87 years old, lucid as ever. He’s been great.
The first lesson I learned about being a dad, first hand, was my daughters were already smarter than me the minute they were born because they had me wrapped around their little finger. From that day forward I realized I was leading from behind. My wife and I planned that I would do the early morning feedings, and that really helped me out. That was the most amazing thing. I recounted some of those experiences at both of their rehearsal dinners, things that I had never told them. I was saving those for that time and it was a blubber fest at both rehearsal dinners because I remembered the things that happened during those 4 AM and 5 AM feedings like they were yesterday. When I talk to young dads, I encourage them to participate in the motherhood side of things too. Don’t just participate in the fatherhood side. Nurturing is not just mom’s job. She had the baby in her womb for 9 months. They know each other already. They might recognize your voice, but you’ve got to get to know them. It’s one of the best things I did and I still remember it almost 34 years later.
One of my concerns was “did we treat them the same?” and I think we did. We have two tough daughters. Whitney is sweet and pleasant and meek and Hillary’s in your face. So I think back and my brother and I were as different as night and day. One thing that really helped me out a lot was being a youth counselor at the Methodist church we were attended. I got to work with kids from their confirmations through their senior year and when I was done, my oldest daughter had turned 13, so that was nothing but providential. One thing we did that’s worked well for us through now is I took them both on Dobson’s recommended adolescent weekend. Greatest thing in the whole world. It ratified our relationships. It gave me the courage when my daughter Whitney was 17, while she was studying – now she’s a pretty girl –I went up to her and I said “what do you think guys think about you?” and she said “well I’m nice and I’m sweet”. And I said “Absolutely not, don’t hate them for it. There’s hismones and hermones going on. This is what they’re thinking, so don’t provoke it.” And I was pretty graphic when I explained it to her. But what allowed me to do that was when she was 12 years old, we went on this unpacking weekend for three days in Austin, TX with James Dobson about how to deal with teenage kids and to this day I assure you they both remember that weekend, they both have the letter I sent them to set up that weekend. And that’s what given us, at almost 34 and almost 29 years old, we can talk about anything. Sometimes I say “Go talk to your mom about that that’s a little TMI”.
Being a grandad
But being a granddad, there were a lot of lessons learned. I can’t share them all, but I can tell you that the most gratifying thing is when my daughters seek advice from me. I feel a little bit confirmed. Now with grandkids, my oldest daughter asks me to teach my four-year-old grandson things. She’ll say “Dad, I want you to show him this. You showed me this and I want you to show him this.” That feel really good because I’ve been careful not to emasculate either one of my sons-in-law who are terrific. I’ve learned a lot from them. One is an associate pastor at a church and he has a love for the Lord and a love for people. I have another son in law that I’ve known since he was 7 years old. They didn’t date. They were like brother and sister and one day they figured it out and they’ve been married four years. So, I’m a privileged man in that regard. I’ve got sons-in-law that model for me. They’re better men than I’ll ever hope to be. I’m anxious for my youngest son in law to be a dad. He’s chomping at the bit. I think that’s probably next year.
I don’t like to give lots of advice, but as a dad and a mentor to young dads, I have two two-word phrases: “Love them” and “be there”. Forget the rest. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, but those are the things that matter most to me.
Have any of you read this book? Grace and Truth Paradox? When we’re young, we’re more concerned about the truth, holding people in account with a lot less grace. As I get older, I notice I’m more about grace. I’m accountability but I don’t snap like I used to. I think this is a great book for dads to read because how you deal with your kids – if they do something wrong, you can tend to deal with them out of anger. You can: “I’m going to hold you to account, but I’m not going to do it in a particularly graceful way.” This book is convicting. Christ was as equal measure of grace. I was on this pendulum of truth and now I’m on this pendulum of grace. He was right here. We don’t have the capacity to be that, I don’t believe. I probably should have exercised a little more grace as a dad.
So that’s most of me. And the most important stuff to me is my kids.