These were the words that greeted my brother and me as Dad came home from work each afternoon.
We were latch-key kids from around third grade on. We’d let ourselves in after walking home from the bus stop, head down to the unfinished basement, and glue ourselves to the idiot box until Dad got home. We were not to disturb anything in the main part of the house. If we checked the mail, we’d get whipped with a belt—God forbid we might lose something between the street and the house! After we got our first microwave, if we burned popcorn, we’d get dressed down like a Marine in boot camp. If we didn’t get our chores done or made too much noise while our parents were around, we’d get a good dose of “You sorry, rotten, sons of b**ches” or “good for nothin’ turds” or, his favorite, “you’re not worth the powder and lead it would take to blow your brains out!”. That sort of crap is tough on an 8-year-old.
Growing up a short, pudgy kid in a lower-middle-class family (with a mom and dad who both loved weed more than you) already had a way of making you feel like an absolute turd. Having a dad who told you just what a turd you were while he threatened to cave your head in for saying anything he doesn’t agree with is the icing on that sh*t cake. I grew up watching everyone else be smarter. Better looking. Better athletes. Better people. Just plain better. Meanwhile, I knew I sucked. I was told again and again that I didn’t measure up. That any success I had was a fluke. That my own lazy/shifty/worthless nature would soon kick in and I’d be a failure or a letdown. So why even try? Why even open my mouth?
Along with the affirmations above, one of dad’s most used lines was “One word. One more f***ing word, and I’ll bounce your head off that wall! Now, shut up!”
This from a guy who took my short, stocky frame, scaled it up to 6’2” and fueled it with bitterness and anger. Let me tell you, rare is the day that I have ever “shut up” when ordered to. But rarer still were the days I didn’t shut up by his command. Some kids dream of being in the NFL, or being doctors or lawyers. I dreamed of a day when I didn’t have someone screaming at me and telling me what a piece of sh*t I was.
Going through the awkwardness of adolescence with absolute certainty that I was worthless manifested in a few strange ways. I learned to be a comedian. I found out that if I could make people laugh they would accept me. I thought if I was funny enough they might overlook my worthlessness. I also seemed to seek out danger and risk whenever possible. I always figured, who cares if I get hurt or killed, I have nothing to lose. After all, if Dad got really worked up he’d hit us with some variation of “I oughtta stuff you both in a gunny sack and throw you off of Clay’s Ferry Bridge.”
For those of you unfamiliar, Clay’s Ferry is a very tall bridge near Lexington, Kentucky, where I was raised. That’s not what you need to hear as a kid—that your dad wishes you were dead, and he’d like to have a hand in it. I kept seeing all of these crappy 80s movies and sitcoms about fathers and sons being best pals, going fishing, and working on cars. I thought, yeah, and if that kid gets his hook tangled or brings the wrong socket, he’s gonna get his ass handed to him. The dads on TV took their kids to church. My dad took me to Raven’s Run Nature Sanctuary so he could walk around stoned in the woods.
Church wasn’t a part of our life growing up. We despised “church people.” We didn’t really know any but we just knew they were all holier-than-thou phonies who would judge and look down on us. We made fun of them. We avoided them. Outside of the obligatory Christmas service with Granny, I hadn’t ever darkened the door of a church. I didn’t know any church people and had no clue who God actually was. I was utterly convinced that all of it was total BS.
It turns out God knew I couldn’t stand church people and that I wasn’t about to go into a church just because some nerdball youth pastor in a pair of pleated Dockers said it would be good for me. Instead, he sent the woman who would become my wife. There weren’t very many things that she could ask me to do that I wouldn’t at least try. It took about 12 years of her trying to get me to go before I found one I could trust. And that made all the difference.
My dad told me I wasn’t worth the effort it would take to end me. The Dad she introduced me to says I am worth dying for. I learned He is all about building me up instead of tearing me down. Here’s the thing I discovered: Words matter. Lies stick. Fathers have power. God can redeem anything. He can be the good father yours never was.
These days I lead an experience for men called MAN CAMP. The mission statement is “MEN. TOGETHER. MEETING GOD.” We’ve had 10 camps in the last four years and hosted over 15,000 men. I have never experienced anything more incredible in my life. Marriages have been saved. Fathers and sons have been reconciled. Unimaginable grief and sin have been released. It’s been the hardest and most wonderful work I have ever done. My dad’s words are still in my head somewhere. I’m still worried I’ll drop the ball and everyone will realize how worthless I really am. But these days I have my Father telling me that, with Him, I AM worthy. That He is proud of me. That He knows about my laziness and all of my other junk and he is bigger than all of it.
We have our 11th camp coming up this fall. It turns out the land we’ll be using is in Central Kentucky almost directly beneath Clay’s Ferry bridge. That gunny sack may well have fallen right onto it. But instead of anger, grief, resentment and dead children, that land is going to be filled with men stumbling towards Jesus. Men searching for their Father. Men finding hope, redemption, and freedom. Men finding friends who are more like brothers. God has plans for us we cannot imagine.
Dad and I haven’t been close since he kicked me out of the house, again, the summer before I turned 18. But as I’ve gotten older, and closer to Jesus, I’ve been able to forgive him for how things went growing up. He hasn’t called me a “good for nothin’ turd” in a very long time. We usually don’t see each other face to face more than once a year. We don’t do holidays. We don’t talk very often and I wouldn’t exactly classify our relationship as “great.” But one of the most recent texts he sent me was ”Good for you! I’m beyond proud. I admire you.” That is the redemptive nature of Jesus, my friends. It is good. It is worth finding.
I wasted a lot of years hating myself because of the words my father spoke as truth over me. But my Father chased me down and showed me what Truth really is. I was too dumb to seek Him out. Don’t you be, too.
Check out MAN CAMP.