Finding Father

One Man's Journey to Discover Paternal Significance

Month: August 2013

Reconciling The Past

It seems that one of the most difficult things to do is to shake the mistakes and failures of our past.  From the time we are children, we are taught the right path to take…the moral road…the “high ground.”  And yet, something about our humanity drives us in the opposite direction. While there were plenty of people who told us that we had better stay on that straight and narrow, not too many taught us about personal responsibility and the consequences that come from our choices.  If they had, then we might have not made as many mistakes as we did.  The memories of some of those mistakes of adolescence are still as fresh as the day we made them.  They are too easily remembered and extremely difficult to erase from our minds.

There are those who would say, “Get over it!  Quit living in the past!  Move forward with your life!”  All of those mantras are valid and applicable.  However, because our brains store every bit of information of our existence, our past will always be a part of who we are.  I am of the opinion that one is better off facing the past – reconciling it and learning from it – than he is by totally ignoring it.  Even though there is emotional anguish attached to both approaches, the latter seems to hold the risk of a deeper, more pent-up anguish that may be manifested in all sorts of self-destructive ways.

For some of us, our worldly education began early.  Mine began on the “mill hill,” a slang term for the village where we lived.  Most everyone in our village worked at the local cotton mill, living in the small cookie-cutter houses that were owned by the mill.  Mill hill children were rough and tumble, and we learned to fight and cuss at a young age.   While kids in the city spent their afternoons playing on swing sets and merry-go-rounds often purchased with taxpayer money, we were playing cops and robbers in a smelly old ditch where the local laundromat emptied its soapy water.  As I think back about that, I wonder what toxic chemicals we may have been exposed to, but back then, that thought didn’t even cross our minds.  Mill hill kids played wherever there was dirt, whether it was under the neighbor’s house, or on our makeshift football field on the hill.  Among mill hill pals, camaraderie was tight, conversation was course and manners were unrefined.  By the time a mill hill kid graduated high school, the list of his sins and transgressions would easily outnumber the inventory of note pads Nelson Bradshaw had on the small shelves in his general store.

Many of us, however, were fortunate enough to have someone in our household who was a church-going Christian, who would make sure that our filthiness would somehow dissipate through a bit of spit and shine.  For me, that person was my mom.  Rattled by the loss of my dad, humbled by the kindness of a local Pastor, she began taking us to his nearby church.  At an early age, we were presented with the stories of God, whose love for us was far greater than the sins we had committed. Even in our youth, we learned that, with the decision merely to believe and obey, our lives could be totally transformed by the power of this love – old things could pass away and all things could become new.

I made the decision to follow Christ at a very early age, and the memories of that night are still very fresh in my mind.  Throughout the years, the new paradox for my life would become my love for God and my desire to serve Him versus my love for gratifying my flesh and my desire to serve it.

Life without a father leaves behind a huge hole in your soul that you attempt to fill with all sorts of things.  For the fatherless, the attempt to satisfy the enormous need for affirmation and significance sometimes takes you to some unhealthy places.

As I grew into my teenage years, the gravitational pull toward the latter became more intense, and in many areas of my life, I experienced what Jesus meant when he said, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”  As many young adolescents do, I “sowed my wild oats,” and I made many life choices that were, in hindsight, unhealthy and self-destructive.  Some of those choices still haunt me even today, and the guilt from some of the decisions of my past life still lingers in the confines of my soul.

The truth of the matter is that our past does not define us, no matter how vile the sewage ditch that we played in while growing up.  A person cannot change his past, nor can he know what the future will hold.

The one gift that a person has is his ability to choose.  And right in the here and now, we can make a conscientious choice not to let our past mistakes dictate who we are.  Sure, we will have to live with their consequences, but we have the ability to choose how we will respond to those circumstances.

The choice that I make daily is to believe in a Heavenly Father who loves me at my worst and at my best – whose unconditional grace and love are big enough to cover all the mistakes of my past.

 

You Can’t Put In What God’s Left Out

One of the challenges that all children face is finding what they’re good at doing.  A good friend of mine always reminds me that we have to play the hand that life deals us.  Many of us would love to hold the ace of spades when a jack of hearts may be the best card that we have.

My brother was born with the innate, natural inclination toward sports; I was born with the love of watching them.  I have always been fascinated with the game, but unfortunately, did not have what it took to play the game.  Not to sound pouty about it all, but this definitely was one area where a father figure would have come in handy.  Not that my brother was unwilling to teach me the fundamentals of athletics, but the truth is, you just can’t put in what God’s left out.

littleleagueMy first athletic experience took place when I was 9 years old.  Our church sponsored a little league baseball team, and had a long-standing rule that any member of the church who tried out for the team automatically made it on the roster…which was great for me.  I wore the uniform with pride!  Unfortunately, I spent most of my three-year career “riding the pine pony” and keeping score for the team.  One thing that God did put in me was a predisposition to understand math.  On the day of the last cut, the coach would always say to me, “I’ll bring you the scorebook tomorrow, Kenny.”  I did more than keep score; I kept stats for the team.  I even learned how to calculate ERA for pitchers and batting averages for everyone.

My batting average was the easiest to calculate…it was .000.  In the three years that I played on the team, I can only remember two instances when I stood at home plate with a bat.  Both times, we were winning the games by 10 plus runs, so the coach probably deemed it a safe move.  Each time I stood at the plate, my knees would shake and my forehead would sweat, as I watched three balls whiff by me in succession.  Those six pitches were all I ever saw up close and personal in my short baseball career.

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There were some perks, however, for being a part of the team.  I always received a trophy after the championship, and I got to go to Atlanta, Georgia several times to see the Braves play.  As an end-of-season treat, the manager and coach would take the team to the old Fulton County Stadium, where we saw some of the greatest players to ever play the game – Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose.  I would not take anything for those memories.

My baseball experience showed me fully what “God had left out.”  It would be some years later that I would discover just what “He had put in!”  What I would find would prove to be life-changing and destiny-altering.

“Drive,” he said!

vega

The very first car I owned was a 1974 Chevrolet Vega that looked something like this.  Mine didn’t have the custom wheels, but it did have the black racing stripe down the middle.  It was a hand-me-down from my brother, who wrecked it and had it patched up with bondo.  If you poked your finger hard enough, you could easily poke a hole in the body.  The front door wouldn’t shut all the way, I had to stick a wet towel to wedge it shut.  The hatch wouldn’t close either.  If I turned a sharp right curve, the door on the driver’s side would fly open!  If I happened to hit a bump in the road, the hatch would fly up!  It was a piece of junk.

All of my high school friends who may be reading this blog will remember the Vega.  Whenever I drove into the school parking lot, some of my friends would throw rocks at it.  They wouldn’t do it maliciously – they did it to pay tribute to me, in a way, because they knew that I knew it was a piece of junk and didn’t really care.  They would also honor me at the end of the day by putting many of those rocks in the back hatch….might as well, since it was always open.  When school was over, I would tear out of the school parking lot and hear those rocks rolling back and forth in the back.  Those were the days.

The demise of the Vega came one afternoon when I was rounding a curve in McAdenville during my senior year of high school.  The right front ball joint snapped and the whole body of the car collapsed, locking the wheels and sending me into the median.  I called a tow truck to come get me out of the ditch and I asked the guy how much he would give me for the car.  He said, “Fifty dollars and a free tow.”    I said “deal.”  It wasn’t the way I pictured the Vega days coming to an end, but on the bright side, I was fifty dollars to the good.  However, the Chevrolet Vega was not the first car I had ever driven.

Here is a picture of the first car I ever drove in my life…

mom and car

I’m thinking this had to be a 1959 Chevrolet station wagon.  Now I wasn’t born in ‘59, but I know my mom had this car for several years.    I was probably 5 or 6 years old.  We were visiting my aunt who lived about a block away from us.  All I remember hearing my mom say was, “Well, I guess we’d better head to the house.”  So I immediately took out the front door, and all by myself, opened the door to the car, pulled the gear shift down into neutral, and off I went, coasting down the hill to our house.  All I remember is my mom, my brother and my aunt frantically running after the car to stop it before I had a wreck.  The funny thing is that I don’t remember getting a whipping for that.

In most families, it’s the dad who has the honor of teaching the children how to drive when they come of age.  I really can’t remember who taught me.  I know my mom had to take a crack at it at some point.  But I think for the most part, I was a self-learner.  I definitely know, when it came to driving a car, I was a self-starter.

Grandpa Spencer

My grandpa holding me and my cousin (I am not the one in the dress and the bonnet)

My grandpa holding me and my cousin (I am not the one in the dress and the bonnet)

Another source of tremendous encouragement and support came from my mother’s family, the Spencer’s.  The Spencer family has always been a close-knit bunch.  All of my aunts, uncles, and cousins have been, and still are, such a significant part of my life.  My Grandmother Spencer passed away before I was born, leaving my granddad, Thomas Boyd Spencer, as the patriarch.  Grandpa Spencer was a crusty codger, a very straightforward, unassuming man who earned his stripes as a soldier in Europe during World War I.  He learned how to make much out of little, providing for his wife and six children through the hardships of the Great Depression.  Like most everyone in our family, Grandpa Spencer made his living in the local cotton mill and raised vegetables in the garden behind his house.  One of the many things I remember about him was his two-day beard stubble, with which he would often tickle us.

By the time I was in the picture, Grandpa was in his late 60’s, retired from the mill and spending most of his free time chewing tobacco and fishing.  As a matter of fact, it was my Grandpa who took me on my first fishing excursion.  I was probably 6 or 7 at the time, when he took my brother and me down to his favorite fishing spot on the Catawba River.  I noticed that there was a nice big rock, protruding above the water, about 10 feet from the banks of the river.  Being the adventurous young man that I was, I decided that it would be much more fun to cast my line from that rock.  So I waded out to it, climbed aboard and proceeded to throw my line out into the water.

I learned later that what happened to the line was called a “backlash.”  All I remember was that the force of that backlash was strong enough to pull my little body into the cold rushing river.  Panic immediately set in, as I labored with everything that was within me to keep myself afloat.  I had not yet learned to swim, so the endeavor to stay above water was a challenge.  As my head came up out of the water, I could see the blurry outline of my brother and my Grandpa on the banks of the river, looking on with shock and concern.  I just knew one of them would come to the rescue.

I believe it was at that moment when I came to an early realization of what self-reliability was.  My brother just stood there and my Grandpa proceeded to throw out his line in the water – a mad attempt to retrieve the rod and reel that had escaped the grasp of my hands and was now making an excursion down the river.  I wasn’t cognizant of his success of retrieving it, but I believe he was able to do so.  I was busy trying to save my life, and I did make a successful effort to pull myself out of the water and back onto the rock.  Eventually, I waded back to my Grandpa.

grandpainchairI don’t remember what he said; I don’t remember much at all about the aftermath of that experience.  All I know is that was the last time that I ever went on a fishing trip with Grandpa.   That did not mean, however, that Grandpa didn’t love me.  He loved me in his own, unassuming, mill-hill way.  I remember many beard-ticklings after that infamous fishing trip…many trips with him to Nelson Bradshaw’s local store, Bill Roper’s discount house and the North Belmont Cafe.  I can still see him in his normal evening pose, straddling that ladder-back chair, chewing on his plug of Apple Jack chewing tobacco and spitting into that big Number 10 can parked by the heater.

grandpa and familyMy grandfather’s journey with me would only last until I was 13.  He passed away in 1974 at the age of 76.  My Grandpa will always stand out in my mind as my first father figure.  As the father of a daughter who had just been widowed, he did his best to see that her two boys would have a man’s influence early in their lives.  I am grateful for the role Grandpa Spencer played in my young life.

Land O’ Goshen

Goshen ChurchIn the Old Testament, the children of Israel journeyed to Egypt because there was famine in the land.  Even though they were miles away from home, they discovered plenty of food and a very hospitable friend in Joseph, Pharaoh’s right hand man.  Pharaoh allowed Joseph’s brothers and their descendants to inhabit a land on the eastern delta of Egypt called, the land of Goshen.

In North Belmont, two churches carried the namesake of Goshen.  Goshen Presbyterian was situated on the east side of our village.  Goshen Free Will Baptist made its home on School Street, right next to the elementary school.  In the wake of the traumatic events of December 1965, it was the latter Goshen that turned out to be our family’s lifeline.

Imagine that you are out on a raging river, when suddenly the raft that you’re in tips over, sending you plunging into the rushing rapids.  As the current carries you down at a rapid pace, you are desperately and frantically trying to keep your head above the water.  Then seemingly out of nowhere, someone tosses you a life preserver ring with a rope attached.  You clutch the preserver with all your might, and the person on the other end of the rope proceeds to pull you onto the shore where there is security and safety.

While this analogy may be a little dramatic, that is exactly the way I would characterize just what Goshen FWB Church did for my family in the days following dad’s disappearance.    Our family did not attend this church at the time; however, my aunt and her family were very active at Goshen.  When Pastor Johnnie Floyd heard that my dad did not make it to the states and was listed as AWOL in Germany, he quickly came to the aid of my mother.  He helped her contact our local congressman, who started an inquiry on my dad that eventually led to his discovery.  Even though we were not members of his church, “Preacher Floyd,” as we would affectionately call him, treated us with the same respect and care that he did his own.  The benevolent actions of this church and its pastor made such a strong impression on my mom, that she recommitted her life to the Lord and became solidly active in the church.

Not only did my mom begin to attend church regularly, so did her two boys.  My mom made sure that our family fell into that category of being at church “every time the doors were open.”  We seldom missed, but we rarely wanted to.  We found true community there – a people who cared and a pastor who had a true shepherd’s heart.  Goshen was the primary reason that my mom had rediscovered her faith, and the catalyst for my discovering mine.

I remember being at church camp one summer when I heard the story of a God who loved me so much that He would give up His most prized possession – His one and only son – so that I might know Him as my Savior…my Father.  For a young boy who didn’t have a father, that message resonated deep within my soul.  It was there that I made my profession of faith, and would later be baptized at Goshen church.

I was a little apprehensive about the baptism, but not enough to cause me to get cold feet and back out.  We had to take off our shoes and socks, but kept our clothes on for the immersion.  I remember emptying my pockets and pulling out a pocket watch my grandfather had given me.  The deacon helping us asked me if I wanted to take it out and leave it so the water wouldn’t damage it.   I don’t know what possessed me to say what I said – it was obviously the acme of childhood ignorance – but I told him it was “watch proof” and that it would be all right.  He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Okay.”  The watch found its watery grave that night, but I came up out of the water, gagging, coughing and feeling fine.

From that moment on, Goshen became our spiritual sanctuary, and our home life reflected that.   My mom’s bedside became our family altar, with my mom praying with us and for us every night before bedtime.

In their land of Goshen, the children of Israel found peace and security.  When Joseph met up with his brothers, who had thrown him into a pit and later sold him into slavery, he made a profound statement. “But as for you,” he said to his brothers, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”  For our family, finding our land of Goshen meant that what had first been tragedy in our lives had now been turned into triumph.  God had thrown us a lifeline, and had created the first step in our family’s life to make all things work together for good and to bring purpose and meaning out of chaos.

The Mom Who Would Be Dad

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you…” – Isaiah 66:13

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There aren’t enough words in the English vocabulary to describe my mom and how she handled all the traumatic events that comprised the first eleven years of her marriage. By the time my brother and I were in elementary school, it seemed that we had some stability in the household, and that mom was carrying on with tremendous courage and strength. Much of that had to do with the fact that my mom was a child of the depression. She was born in 1920, so her adolescent experience was that of persevering and surviving on the bare essentials. The other had to do with her newly revived faith in God, which I will speak more of in the next post.

My mom had a steady hand of iron, and certainly knew how to use it. She made sure we didn’t get out of line, but was sometimes indiscriminate in her application of justice. One day when I was about seven or eight, my brother and I were following our mother’s order to pick up our belongings that were scattered around the house. There had to be some incentive for us to do it quickly, because I remember the two of us grabbing things and speedily putting them somewhere. The key word to note here is “somewhere,” for young boys are more concerned with doing things fast, rather than doing things right. When I picked up a vinyl album off of the kitchen floor, the quickest and most expedient place I saw to place it was… inside the oven. I never thought any more about it until that evening when my mom heated up the oven to bake some biscuits. The record was on the top rack, so the melted vinyl oozed and dripped on to the bottom rack and the heating element below. I remember her being highly upset and extremely perplexed, saying many angry things to me, but never spanking me for that nonsensical deed. On the other hand, I remember her wearing out my bottom after I told one of my neighborhood buddies that he couldn’t play my “darn” guitar.

My mom is, and always has been, a firm believer in the Bible. However I hold some of her scriptural applications somewhat questionable. As a teenager, I don’t know how many times she quoted the verse, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” to me in an attempt to motivate me to clean up my room. Whenever I became a little older and wiser, she tried to use that verse on me again. “Mom, that verse isn’t even in the Bible,” I said. Knowing the jig was up, and not about to relinquish her iron upper hand, she exclaimed, “WELL, IT OUGHT TO BE!!!”

Those who know my mom know her to be somewhat of a “cut-up.” She is notorious for dressing up in costume at various times, entertaining her fellow senior citizens at her church. She often sings for them, and on occasion, is known to break out in a yodel. When I was Youth Minister at our home church, I had her dress up in a hula skirt and entertain our youth group at a summer luau. She was such a good sport, loved to have fun, and was just as much fun at home as she was in public.

Mom Composite copy

My mom recovered from the loss of my dad incredibly well. After his passing, she moved us into a single wide mobile home on Boundary Street in North Belmont, where she has lived to this very day. She never remarried, so she had the daunting task of rearing two boys completely on her own. Mom was a beautician, by trade, and spent long hours at her beauty shop, making sure that we had the things that we needed.

In hindsight, we had very little. But at the time, we wanted for nothing. Mom still lives on very little, but fully believes she is more blessed than she deserves. She brought us up with the perfect balance of firm, authoritative discipline and strong, loving affirmation.

She is the greatest example of faith in God that I know, and at 96, she is still going strong, still attending her church most every Sundaymom 2010.   For over 35 years, she taught the Beginners Sunday School Class, and has always been a friend to children of all ages.

Because I am the pastor of a church in Asheville, I don’t get to see her nearly as much as I would like. Recently, I brought her to Asheville to spend the first Mother’s Day we have had together in years. I paid tribute to her in our Sunday worship service that weekend, and had the opportunity to say to her in person many of the things I am saying here. I closed that service with a video I made to the tune of Jimmy Dean’s “I.O.U,” a musical tribute he made for his own mother. Below is a link to that YouTube video:

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