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Fathers and sons

By Tom Greene

The following excerpt asks every man some compelling questions about his identity as a son, and as a father.

In almost every biography or autobiography I read, I can’t help but notice the role the father/son relationship plays in that person’s life. It’s huge. Sure there are those books by sons about their dads — Tim Russert’s Big Russ and Me or Jim Nantz’s Always by My Side. But there are countless other titles in which that thread, even in the background, proves vital. Always, that relationship with a father becomes a powerful shaping force, a foundation for all the accomplishments that merited the book in the first place.

My father’s influence on my life was and is enormous. I lived for that moment when he would tell me, “I love you, son. I’m so proud of you.” I can promise you, no matter how much you may be aware of your own limitations as a father, your son will look past every one of them and cling to those two phrases like priceless jewels. Yet, I remember hearing those phrases only once in my life.

Let me tell you that story.

I was raised in church. Our family filed into a pew every service at Faith Tabernacle in downtown Oklahoma City. From a very young age, I was taught the value of church and faithfulness to the house of God. But there was a disconnect between the front door of the church and our front porch. I don’t remember our family ever reading the Bible. We didn’t observe family devotions. We didn’t pray together outside of the perfunctory grace at meals.

While I never doubted Dad’s belief in Jesus Christ, his business and family relationships didn’t line up with Christian values. Dad was the son of a Pentecostal preacher. He was raised in a rigid holiness environment. He managed to hold onto the framework of a Christian confession, but the rigidity of his upbringing caused something in his spirit to rebel. Dad made sure our family heard the gospel. But the truly good news of Christ’s life-transforming power never seemed to break through to the pain in his heart.

Despite my love for sports growing up, I was not a good athlete. And I truly was an apple that fell some distance from the tree, because Dad was a naturally gifted sportsman. Try as I might, I felt I only embarrassed him on the baseball field. He, on the other hand, was a hometown hero in our softball league. Heaven pity the pitcher in the way of one of his line drives. I never felt I measured up.

Dad’s competitive drive was such it crippled his ability to take pride in my accomplishments, even my developing athletic ability in later years. In my junior high school years we began to play one-on-one basketball. I cherished every game. But the day I won was the last time we ever played.

High school gave way to college. I followed Dad’s advice and prepared for the business world by pursuing a marketing degree. And that’s when God threw me the biggest curveball of my young life. I was 19 and happened to be at church on one of those rare occasions when my parents were not with me. I never heard an audible voice. There were no claps of thunder. But then and there, God called me into ministry, and I wholeheartedly accepted that call.

Now, keep in mind we were a church-going family. My parents respected the local minister. They had always held our church fellowship in high regard. I’d heard my share of comments about our nation’s woes being the result of today’s rejection of our forefathers’ faith. In my mind, when I told my family of my encounter with God, I would be congratulated, even praised.

When I got home and told Mom, she said, “Why don’t you go on to bed. Maybe things will be better in the morning.”

This was not the open-armed welcome I had envisioned.

It took awhile for me to fall asleep. My whole life had been turned around. My dreams for the future had radically morphed. I approached the breakfast table the next day with some hesitancy. Dad was already there, his newspaper open. I wondered what Mom had told him. But he wasn’t volunteering anything.

Every awkward moment between us seemed to shrink in comparison to the discomfort I sensed in that moment. Finally, between his bites of toast and nervous glances at the headlines, I struggled to express what had happened to me the night before. I waited for his reply. A word of encouragement? At least a neutral acknowledgment?

“I always wanted better for you,” he finally said. No rancor. But I felt my stomach take a dive with his gently piercing disapproval. “You’re already in college. You’re getting a degree that will get your foot in the door in any number of companies.” A pause. “You should complete your degree so you have something to fall back on when you fail in the ministry.”

My relationship with Dad continued to suffer strain. When Mom died of cancer soon after that, he became embittered toward church and ministry. As my own ministry developed, he found it impossible to overcome that bitterness and take joy in my work. He would never have said so, but it was clear he wanted to see me fail, to somehow justify the failure he perceived in the church through my mother’s death.

When I was elected district youth director in Oklahoma, it was an incredible day for our family. Pam and I felt confirmation of God’s will and blessing. We gratefully acknowledged the recognition of our peers. But one person could not rejoice with us — my dad.

I would be a wounded man today had not God worked His marvelous grace into the relationship between Dad and me. But, isn’t that true of all human relationships? Isn’t it true that every parent-to-child, husband-to-wife, friend-to-friend and relative-to-relative bond you can name can only truly thrive in God’s grace?

Let me tell you that story.

Dad died in August 2004. One of the greatest moments of my life was when God allowed me to visit with Dad in his final months. He lived in a nursing home struggling with a fading memory and weakening body. God answered prayer when for five minutes in one of my visits Dad was suddenly restored to his right mind.

Only five minutes, but in that five minutes we connected. We shared some of the most pleasant conversation. I led Dad in a prayer of personal faith in Jesus Christ. The bitterness of losing Mom melted from his features. He looked into my face with a warmth and love I will carry to my grave. Before he lapsed into renewed silence, he raised his head toward me.

“I love you, son,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”

That was the single, clear affirmation I received from Dad in our lifetime together. But what an effect that moment has had on who I am to this day. And that moment was made possible by God’s grace. As a son, I tried to reach points in life where I felt I didn’t need Dad’s affirmation. But everything I was doing was not only to please God, but to somehow give my dad a reason for joy, a reason to feel that gentle swell of loving pride. There, in that little room, God broke through and made that longed-for moment a reality.

Perhaps your identity as a son has been a painful one. Maybe your father seems so far above you that you believe you can never make him proud. Or, perhaps you ache from the wounds of a father who would try to pull you down to the same mistakes that have ruined his life.

If you are blessed with a godly, loving dad then you have something of immeasurable value, something far too few of humanity’s sons enjoy. Don’t squander that blessing. Never take for granted your dad’s legacy. Determine that you will build on it.

Whatever measure of pain your relationship to your earthly father brings you, or whatever measure of joy, I hope you can catch a glimpse of a Heavenly Father who would embrace you. Jesus told His disciples after His resurrection, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).

Imagine that — Jesus, the Son of God, telling you and telling me we can share in His ultimate sonship. There are no favorite sons in the kingdom of heaven. By God’s amazing grace, purchased with the blood of our Elder Brother, we can turn to our Heavenly Father and be immersed in His perfect and undying love.

An excerpt from National Men’s Ministries Director Tom Greene’s recently released book, The Game Isn’t Over (Onward Books, 2009). The National Men’s Ministries Leadership Conference is Feb. 5-7 in Branson, Mo. 

TOM GREENE is national director of Men’s Ministries for the Assemblies of God. For more about Tom visit

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