I’m CSPC Young Adults Pastor Mike Ford, and I’ll be preaching Sunday. This is how God’s enabling me to live deeply.
“It was the most humiliating public moment of my life. I was in 7th grade, playing in a big AAU basketball tournament; lots of people in the stands. I was called for a foul & naturally, as an educated 7th grader, needed to inform the ref regarding his mistake. As I started explaining (or, um, arguing) my case, the gym got eerily quiet. I turned around & saw my dad on the court angrily power walking in my direction. His face bore the scowl I knew all too well. He grabbed me & took me through a huge pair of open double doors into the hallway. He starts throwing me up against the wall, banging my head up against it, pushing me in the chest: ‘You want to talk to someone now?’ The whole crowd was watching but trying not to look like it. I remember shutting my mind down, forcing myself not to cry. After the game, he tells the coach I’m not playing the rest of the year because I can’t keep my mouth shut. Years later, when I was in seminary, I brought this memory up with him. ‘Mike, I’ve thought about that moment,’ he said. ‘Every time I do, I just think I did what was right in the moment.’ That’s a window into my relationship with my dad. I grew up in the Midwest with three siblings, doing normal things like playing sports, hanging out with my buddies, & eating too much stuffed crust pizza. But I also lived two different lives. My home was loving & Christian but also legalistic with a lot of rigidly enforced rules. Early on, I learned it was best just to agree with my dad- if you didn’t, bad stuff would happen. That meant at home & church, I was very reserved, hardly talked at all- I had to hide who I really was. The real me was High School Mike- outgoing, fun, someone who partied. I was two completely different people. Excited to go to college, my dad told me, ‘Unless you go to a Christian school & play football, I won’t pay for your education.’ Well, Wheaton College was where my whole family went (including my parents & older siblings) so I read between the lines & followed in their footsteps, becoming a fifth generation Wheaton football player.
Freshman year at Wheaton – yikes. I was lost, didn’t know who I was, & wanted to please everyone I could. Most of all I wanted to please my dad, & playing football was the only way to do it. Wheaton made me sign something saying, among other things, I wouldn’t drink. But my signature turned out to be a lie. I just felt so stuck. I found a group of people that would party; students affectionally dubbed it The Underground Wheaton. Not my greatest moments. I was searching for something, someone. My roommates were great guys but around them, I completely hid all this. So I kept living this dualistic life I’d started in high school. By my sophomore year, I just didn’t want to play football anymore. I played safety and during two-a-days we had this hitting drill and I just remember thinking that I didn’t want to hit the guy in front of me. I just wanted to sit and talk. Not a great mindset for a football player! Plus, I’d broken my ankle & knew coming back would be an intense grind for something I didn’t have a passion for. I realized I had to get out of there. I called my dad and told him I was quitting. (I was more afraid of calling him than telling my head coach!) My dad said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to forgive you for this.’ I felt rejected but I can’t say I was surprised. His response might have crushed me if not for something else happening in my life.
While all this was going on, I’d taken a Christian thought class where I came across Romans 5:8. The verse really struck me- like I was reading it for the first time: We are still sinners, but Christ died for us! I’d been living two lives, so I felt guilty all the time. The fact that Jesus knew about my two lives, still loved me, & died for me was radical. Honestly, it still is. God was getting hold of me, opening my heart to the gospel. And things started to change. Football had been one of the main ways I was able to please my dad. Now, I couldn’t do that. It forced me to ask, ‘Well, who am I serving? What am I doing here at Wheaton?’ I transferred to the University of Missouri, where I could get in-state tuition. I suddenly had to pay for everything, so I worked around 35 hours a week in order to pay my tuition & bills. Plus, I was attending classes full time. I felt exhausted but free. God used this time to grow me & mature me & began to integrate the different parts of me into a whole person. There was no contract to sign & no one was checking on me. My faith became my own. I met my sweet wife. Additionally, God used a campus ministry leader to walk with me & mentor me. I’m grateful for his patience & presence. Can’t do this Christian life alone!
As part of my growth in spiritual maturity, it was important for me to talk with my dad- to see if maybe we could work through the past & make some progress. We got together at good ole’ Jason’s Deli. Classic place for a father-son reunion. He felt so uncomfortable, like, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ He did not want to talk at all. Again, not surprising but frustrating. Why did I have to be the one who kept pursuing him for a relationship? The convo didn’t go well & I left still longing for his approval. It took my many years of adulthood to realize that you can’t make someone love you in the way you want to be loved. Sometimes it is what it is. There never was a real turning point in our relationship. He died of pancreatic cancer three years ago. I went up all the time to help him go to chemo, get him dressed and undressed. Sacred, humbling, confusing moments.
My dad never hugged me or said ‘I love you’ growing up. (The only positive things he ever said to me were performance-conditioned, after I did something good in a game.) But we did have one powerful moment in his hospital room. He’d just gotten through a surgery and I was about to leave. Suddenly he put his hand up, gesturing for me to come over to him. (By this time, he weighed about 160 pounds -down from his normal weight of 235- & only had a month or two left to live.) I walked over to him nervously, thinking, ‘Oh, man, I think he wants me to hold his hand. He’s never done this.’ I hesitated, but eventually I reached out & held his hand, & it was the most awkward thing- his whole arm was shriveled down to about the size of my wrist. All he said was, ‘No son should see their father this weak.’ I didn’t know what to say. After a few seconds of silence, we let go, & I left. I went to a bar, got a whiskey, wrote a poem, & just thought about it. My first reflection came through the lens of that little boy in me who couldn’t protect myself from Dad: ‘Yeah, that’s right, you’re weak! What can you do now? Can’t hurt me with your arms like you used to!’ I was angry, protecting that little boy’s vengeance. But since then, as far as healing goes, I’ve come to look at that moment as a gift for our relationship. It was the one time I got to experience weakness or vulnerability with my dad. As a dad, you think you want to show how strong you are, but actually the most connection you’ll feel with your kids is in moments like that- moments of weakness. For me it turned a moment of awkwardness & anger into one of healing, & I’m grateful I had it with him before he departed from this world.
One more important part of my story. My wife called me one day to ask if I was still ‘all in’ on foster care. I began to tell her, ‘I mean…I think so…’ but before I could finish speaking, she said, ‘Okay, good, because I already said yes to a little boy!’ Yep. Marriage. So let me introduce you to Johnny. We took him home from the hospital five years ago when he was only 3 days old. (I changed his diaper first!) What I kept feeling the entire time was, ‘Don’t get too attached because this isn’t your child. Just care for him really, really well.’ The goal of foster care, after all, is reunification with the family of origin. I found myself withholding a lot in the beginning. I was present & held him all the time, (lots of late nights watching The Office reruns together!) but I couldn’t bring myself to say I love you. He was born with neurological complications because of his mother’s prenatal substance abuse. At around six months his mom dropped out of the picture (difficult family circumstances; no structure or support). So we began the process of adopting him & changing his name to Jonathan, which means ‘gift of God.’ And any withholding of love on my part was over. I still remember the first time I kissed him on the forehead! Johnny is an amazing gift who completely disrupts all our lives in the best ways. He has a lot of neurological issues, including epilepsy. Johnny doesn’t sleep. A few weeks ago, at 2 a.m., he was awake wrapping a present for his cousin! I’m like, ‘Johnny, this is really sweet of you [and he IS the sweetest kid!], but you need to go to bed.’ That’s just one example- I’ve also found him fast asleep on a couch cushion in the kitchen. It’s always an adventure. I think I’m way more gracious & patient with Johnny because I know his story- it enables me to see him through a different lens. This is one good thing the gospel does- it makes you curious about other peoples’ stories and gives you more grace for handling the ways they (like me!) are broken, which also brings me back to my dad.
Since the gospel changed my heart, I’ve become more deeply aware over time of my own failures & sins. That’s softened me & helped me to say, ‘Hey, maybe I should get to know my dad’s story. There’s a reason he was the way he was.’ And I’ve heard so many stories from my mom since he passed- none of which justify how he treated me but do help explain it. He also got the mess beat out of him as a kid. He never got love & approval from his own dad. I heard stories of how disappointed his dad was in him because he didn’t live the life his dad wanted. So the cycle perpetuated itself; hurting people hurt people. When I met Jesus in college, I made a commitment to not repeat the cycle. This is another reason Johnny is a gift: because I was forced to slow down & reassess everything. I mean, what really matters most in life, you know? What do I want my family to care about? God has used both my relationship with my dad & foster care to help me live deeply. The other big thing God’s done for me has been to gradually take away my days of living two different lives. I was always asking myself, ‘What does the person in front of me want, & how do I conform myself to that?’ A chameleon. When you do that, you fragment. It’s exhausting. Of course, we’re all human & I still struggle with that some. But now my heart is mainly, ‘Okay, this is who Jesus tells me I am. How do I let that security -who Jesus tells me I am- inform how I am in this situation?’ I’m going to be the same person in front of my family behind closed doors, the same person at work behind closed doors, & the same person who’s preaching. That integrated life means every aspect of my life is known by someone. There are no secrets. When life looks like that, you realize the things you originally wanted to hide when you were younger don’t have power over you anymore. Paul has this passage in 1 Corinthians where he says, ‘I don’t even judge myself. The Lord is the one who judges me.’ And so I mean this in the best way: I don’t need your approval. That’s how I feel, & it is so freeing. Ultimately, my job is to please the Lord, & He’s rescued me from trying to win the approval of my dad or anyone else.”