Growing up, I thought my family was like every other family and then I learned that we weren’t. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning:
I was born in the summer of 1953 and my mother told me several times that she felt that God told her I would be “special.” So, on Easter Sunday 1954, she was baptized so that in her own words “she could be the best mother that she could be.”
My dad, grandfather, and great grandfather were alike: The all had substance abuse problems, all were adulterers, and none were Christians. And even though my mother was baptized, she had never trusted Christ as her personal Savior.
My mother did take me to church and Bible school until I was old enough to go on my own. Thankfully, I did trust Christ when I was eight years old, but I never matured spiritually.
I was definitely a first generation Christian.
I often say that my mom was a “Kool Aid” mom. I could always bring someone home for supper or to stay the night. She sewed my clothes, was always smiling, always made birthdays and Christmases special, and was always in the audience when I was on stage, on the court, or on the field.
An Angry Dad
On the other hand, my father gradually became a man with a “hair trigger” temper, an abusive personality, and a serious problem with alcohol. He neither told me nor showed me that he loved me. The way he yelled at me, cussed me, hit me, and belittled me caused me to question his love my entire life.
I could never please my father no matter what I did. If I scored three touchdowns in a football game he would say, “You know that on the first play of the second half if you had cut to the right instead of the left that you would have scored again?” If I got a 99 on a test, the highest grade in the class, he would say, “Why didn’t you get a 100?” I could nevermeasure up to his standards.
My dad ruined every Christmas of my entire life! Again and again, like a child he would give my mother a list of what he wanted for Christmas. If he did not get everything on his list, or if he did get the item but it did not have the right features—he would yell at her then pout for days.
When I was nine, my sister and I were old enough to have saved some money of our own. So we used it to buy Dad several hand tools, wrapped the gifts ourselves, and couldn’t wait for Christmas Eve to give them to him. When he opened the gifts, he looked at us and yelled, “What am I going to do with this junk!”
His anger extended to outsiders as well. My father repeatedly humiliated my friends and demanded their apology for any perceived infraction of his rules. It was embarrassing and I knew when they were at my house, they kept a watchful eye on the clock to make sure they were gone before Dad got home from work.
Then I found my voice, and I’ll never forget the day: On a Saturday afternoon in October of 1967, my dad hit me for the last time. I told him that if he ever hit me again, he would never see me the rest of my life. Dad punished me by not speaking to me for the next eleven months.
As I grew bigger physically, I became the center of the home—protecting my mother and sister from my father’s verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. When I left for college and was no longer present to protect Mom, her mental health deteriorated, culminating in two admissions to a mental hospital and psychiatric care for years. My freshman year in college, my sister was admitted to the hospital at least four times. The doctor said it was due to stress caused because I was no longer home to protect her from my father.
There were times when I would receive a call that Dad was drunk, throwing things, beating my sister, etc. and I would make the 164-mile trip home from college or a date to intervene.
I had left home to attend a private university, to study to law, and pledge the number one fraternity on campus. My dad sent me off to college with the following three “Life 101” philosophies:
(1) You can’t have a good time without alcohol.
(2) To get ahead in life, you must have important friends.
(3) It takes money to make you happy.
I was living in a fraternity and there was alcohol and lots of it. I was doing well on point one of Dad’s philosophy of life.
In the fraternity, there were important people. I was living in the same house with the #1 debater in the United States in 1970, another guy was the #1 debater in the United States in 1971, three of the four guys who set the national high school mile relay record, a guitarist who played the lead on a 1971 Grammy Award-winning song, and everyone was all-state this or all-American that. I was doing well on point two of Dad’s philosophy of life—important friends.
Everyone in the fraternity came from a family with money, so I was also doing well on point three of Dad’s philosophy of life.
But the question I kept asking myself was, “If I am doing so well on what is important in life, then why do I feel so empty inside?” I tried to talk to some of the guys I lived with about the turmoil in my heart and they laughed. I resolved not to make that mistake again! I felt like the loneliest man on earth.
One evening, the unrest in my life and lack of direction from God boiled over. In frustration, I threw an empty beer bottle against the church next door and it broke on the children’s playground. Then I really felt horrible!
During spring break my roommate invited me to go with him and several others to South Padre Island, Texas, for the week. I really wanted to go, but instead I worked several days then returned home to see my Christian girlfriend.
It would be one of the most important decisions of my life.
On the last Sunday afternoon of Spring Break 1972, I was driving back to college and listening to a religious program on the radio, something I had never done before. At that moment, God spoke to my heart and I began to sob uncontrollably. I stopped my car on the side of the road and promised the Lord that if he would allow me to finish that semester in college, I would serve him all my life.
God had given me a second chance, and I surrendered my life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ that day. My life has been positively different ever since!
If I had gone to South Padre Island and partied with the world, I would have missed the most important day of my life!
A New Beginning
The summer after my freshman year in college, my Christian girlfriend and I started attending a new church plant and for the first time in my Christian life, I began to grow spiritually. The missionary pastor took me “under his wing” and I am where I am today because of the Lord, my wife, and this missionary’s positive Christian influence.
It was a new beginning for me, but my parents had the opposite reaction. They were very unhappy with me when I got my life right with God. Dad tried to control me by not speaking to me again. One thing he did communicate clearly though was that the only way I could please him was to renounce Christ.
Two months later, my girlfriend and I told my parents we were going to be married. They never said much, but the next afternoon when I arrived home, my mother told me that I was no longer welcome in her home. Then she gave me a $9,000 itemized bill for 19 years’ worth of room and board, clothing, doctors’ bills, music lessons, and any other thing she could think of that she had provided for me over the years. She demanded immediate payment.
One month later, neither my girlfriend nor I could tolerate the stress any longer, so we decided to move up our wedding date from June to December. But my mother and sister told people in town that my fiancé was pregnant. The truth is that she wasn’t pregnant and wouldn’t be for another five years!
My parents gave no indication that they would attend my wedding. So when I left their home to go to the church for the big event, I thought that I would spend one of the happiest days of my life without my family.
And so, on Friday evening December 22, 1972, I married Debbie, the love of my life and the best Christian I know! (As a footnote, my parents did attend the wedding.)
Nineteen months later on Monday July 15, 1974 (my 21st birthday), I walked the aisle at church camp and answered God’s call to the ministry. My wife’s parents were very supportive of my decision, but when I told my parents, they did not understand. Once again, they were disappointed in me because not only had I not married the girl of their choice, but I also wasn’t going to be a lawyer.
Same Song, Second Verse
During the next seven years, the relationship with my parents was strained. They said a lot of ugly things and as a result, my wife cried herself to sleep countless nights. The truth is that I did forgive my parents and repeatedly tried to sustain a relationship, but it takes two parties to make a relationship work.
In May 1981, my dad came home at 3 a.m. and announced to my mother that he was leaving her for another woman. Dad then hired the most notorious lawyer in the county as his attorney and perjured himself on the divorce papers filed with the court. He told her that if she contested the settlement she would be left with nothing. I stood with my mother and was prepared to testify in open court that my father was, among other things, a liar.
Because the evidence against my father was substantial, he settled out of court just minutes before the hearing began. As a result of my actions, my father would not speak to me for the next ten years. Every year, I took my young boys to see him and he would not get out of the recliner to answer the door.
One week after my dad left my mother, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two weeks later, mom had surgery and began many months of treatment. However, God used some of the most trying days in my mother’s life to bring her to Christ!
Because of Who You Are
Dad and I did have a relationship the last eight years of his life but only because I refused to argue with him. Dad never did trust Christ as his personal Savior because he was “not going to let anyone tell him what to do.”
Dad died in June 1997 and his death affected me more than I could have ever imagined. There was the emotional part of me that missed my father and the logical side of me that said, “Jeff, what do you miss? The yelling, the bad attitude, the putdowns, the anger, the drinking, the beatings, etc.”
Confused, I talked to an older pastor about my feelings and he said, “Jeff, you miss your dad not because of who he was but because of who you are.”
Those seventeen words changed my life by reminding me that God loves me not because of who I am but because of who he is.
My mother died thirteen years after my father, and it was a sweet parting. I took care of her the last two years of her life, which were very good days. Mom is now living in heaven and I will go visit her soon.
My life experiences have taught me many positive lessons. I have learned that God can use everyone’s life experiences for his glory and the encouragement of other people. I have learned that God is sovereign and that he can use anyone who is willing to be used.
Forty-eight years ago, I pulled my car to the side of the road and allowed Jesus to radically change my life. I can honestly say that anything I may have suffered along the way pales in comparison to what I have received. Jesus Christ has given me both the desire and the power to become what I could never have become without him . . .
Which leads me to remind you that it’s not how you start—it’s how you finish.