Greg was at the podium about to finish his “My Hero is___________” speech. And that was a good thing. His sophomore year classmates didn’t seem to give a hoot about his sorry little speech about why Douglas MacArthur was his hero, which he really wasn’t.
“And that is why Douglas MacArthur is my hero,” Greg said as he grabbed his notes and made his way to his seat amid sparse applause, the kind that only bored teenagers can muster.
Greg was only too happy to be done and sat down to yuk it up with his buddies who were sitting near. There would be only one reason to listen to the next person to give their speech and that would be to see if he could inflict a little pain to its presenter.
Rudy Matthews was next and a darn good target. He stepped to the front of the class. “I’m Rudy,” he said. “And my hero is my dad who died when I was two years old. He left me this.”
A chill went through Greg’s body. His heart started to race. Rudy held up a well-worn piece of paper and Greg couldn’t take his eyes off of it.
“This is the letter my dad wrote to me before he died,” Rudy said. Rudy read different parts of the letter, which stated things like how sorry he was that he couldn’t be there to take Rudy to the park or teach him to play baseball or tell him he loved him every day. Rudy’s dad told him how to be a man, how to make an honest dollar, what to look for in a wife, how to look out for his mom and sister. His dad was talking to Rudy. Better yet, his dad was teaching Rudy. The letter was his father.
Greg looked longingly at the letter that was for the most part, out of view. So he looked at the corner that was protruding over the top of the podium. “A letter all about his dad’s love.” Greg thought as tears began to roll down his cheeks. He didn’t know it, but everything in Greg’s life had just changed.
Greg’s dad died of heart disease when Greg was two. The young Greg understood that his dad was never coming back but somehow his body and soul simply never gave in. His dad’s death stayed with him like a low-grade fever. In everything he did and in everything he saw, he found himself looking for a touch from his dad.
His older brother was always said to look just like his dad. Pete and Repeat, they called them. When Greg saw that his mom had stored the old cast of his brother’s hand high on the closet shelf, little Greg got on a chair and nearly killed himself trying to climb to it. Day after day he would put his hand in the cast just so he could see if somehow he could feel his dad.
All the men of the neighborhood would gather around a TV to watch a game where men with helmets would run into each other. “Oh, your daddy loved football!” they told him, and gave him a jersey. When they booed at the TV, so did Greg. When they cheered, Greg did too. When he found out that kids could play football on junior teams, he begged his mom to let him join. He hoped that if he ran into other boys while wearing a helmet, he might feel his dad.
But everyday after practice the other boy’s dads would come to pick them up. “You gotta hit him right in the chest and drive him back,” the dads would tell their sons. Or, “You gotta be tough and never give up,” they would say. What a powerful thing football was to dads and sons. Such enthusiasm they had. The dads seemed so proud as they walked off the field together to go home. The sons were proud too. Usually the dad had his arm around his boy’s shoulders. It turned out, football just made Greg feel all the more empty.
When he would play war with his neighborhood buddies, he loved getting as dirty as possible. Greg wanted to go home and tell his dad all about how they would advance against the enemy and how some of them would take shrapnel to save their brothers-in-arms. But his mom hated guns and didn’t want to hear anything about war. Soon Greg just gave up trying. He would lay in bed at night and just think about all the things his dad might say. Way to go, Greg. That’s a good soldier. How brave my little guy is. I’d want a man like you in my foxhole.
When Greg turned 16, he bought an old VW bug. When it broke down, Greg felt the loss of his dad in a profound way. He was looking under the hood in bewilderment when a friend drove up the driveway across the street. Greg immediately shut the hood so that his friend wouldn’t know that he didn’t have a clue on how to fix his car. Greg slumped near his car feeling a wave of shame that he had no dad to show him what to do.
So he ventured to the VW parts store to find a book. He found a book entitled, “How to Fix a VW. The Complete Guide for Idiots.” Greg thought he was an idiot so it was perfect. Now for the other how-to: how to buy it without anybody noticing. At a moment when he thought the fewest people were near the cash register, he took the book and laid it upside down on the counter as if it were a girlie magazine. When the clerk picked it up, he said for all to hear, “How to Fix a VW. The Complete Guide for Idiots. This is the first book I bought when I had my first VW.” He immediately felt all eyes were on him. He had never felt so embarrassed in his life. He ran through the rain to his car and climbed inside shaking from the shame. Not having a dad to show him how to be a man was too much to bear. “Dad,” he cried out. “Why did you leave me?”
Not having a dad to show him how to be a man was too much to bear. “Dad,” he cried out. “Why did you leave me?”
That’s why, a week later, when Rudy walked up to the podium holding his dad’s letter, it hurt so much. “Why don’t I have a letter from my dad?” Greg thought. It left him feeling gypped.
In the months and years to come, Rudy’s letter was constantly on Greg’s mind. It had become Greg’s compass. He based all decisions against what he remembered the letter saying, with the deep sound of a man’s voice giving advice echoing around his imagination. The letter had become one of the most important things in his life.
Years later Greg met and married Sheryl, a lovely girl who brought a lightness to his world. But he soon began to feel lost because nobody told him how to be a husband. As a result, he wasn’t becoming a very good one. He tried to remember more of Rudy’s letter to draw upon the wisdom.
When Sheryl developed cancer, Greg prayed to a God he didn’t know very well and asked that He spare her life. The answer was no. Now a single parent, he did what the letter said. He took his daughter and son to the park every day. He taught them how to play baseball. And he didn’t let a day go by without telling them how much their dad loved them.
Greg began to feel a need to compensate for the pain. He found comfort in women. So Greg became a relentless chaser. One morning after yet another one-night stand, he arrived home, tired and disheveled only to be greeted at the door by his kids wearing pajamas and a where-have-you-been-again look on their faces. He tried to hide his obvious guilt by telling them that he had gone out early for a walk. He could tell they didn’t buy it.
Greg had hit rock bottom. He lost his dad, his wife and day-by-day he was losing the respect of his kids. He had nowhere to turn. He thought about Rudy’s letter. Maybe something in there could tell him what to do when you’ve reached the lowest point in your life.
Greg had hit rock bottom. He lost his dad, his wife and day-by-day he was losing the respect of his kids.
Through online dating he met a young woman who interested him. Only she was different. After sharpening his seduction skills on lots of women, this one simply could not be won over no matter what he tried. Despite his full court press, all she seemed to want to talk about was Jesus. It was downright maddening. But he was not going to give up trying. Maybe if he told her that he was going to church, she might start to warm up.
He decided to check out the Rock Church because it was huge and he thought it would be a good way to get lost in the crowd. One evening as he walked through the lobby he saw something he had never seen before. The men’s ministry was in the middle of a meeting and there were a couple hundred guys standing, singing and raising their hands. He stood just inside the doors and looked at the room as if he were looking at the Grand Canyon. It was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. But there was also the energy of the men as they worshipped—with the unusual sound of all the deep voices singing out. Greg stood in stunned silence. He closed his eyes and inhaled the masculinity he had always longed for.
When he sat down, he found that their meeting was coming to a close—and that they would be taking a five-week break for Christmas and New Year’s. “What?” Greg thought. “I finally find something that makes me feel good and I have to wait five weeks to get it back?”
Five weeks later to the day, Greg was the first one there. He sat down in the front row and with a nervous knee waited for the band to strike up the first song. When all the men rose to their feet, Greg did too. He did what he could to sing the songs and felt himself being taken away by a current. With his eyes closed he drifted away, carried by a chorus of male voices all singing the name of Jesus. It felt like his long exile in a frozen land was coming to a beautiful and warm end.
Then without meaning to—without even considering it, he felt his hands raise into the air. Then he felt the muscles in his left hand begin to tighten. He looked up at his hand and it appeared to be holding on to something. He looked forward and closed his eyes. He knew what it was. It was holding a finger. Just then a voice said to him, “Greg, I am your father and I have always been with you.”
At that moment, Greg was three years old again holding the hand of his dad. He fell to the ground and wept. As his soul reached out again for His touch, it was there. A strange peace came over him and Greg knew that he had finally come home.
In the months to come, Greg’s relationship with his Father began to grow. With his Bible in his hands, he read about a love that he had never known before. It was an intense, all-encompassing, eternal love that extended all the way down to Greg’s own heart and soul and dealt with specifics pertaining to Greg’s life. It spoke to him at his core. It was full of wisdom and promises. It told him how to be a man.
And that’s when he realized it. Greg not only had a Father, he also finally had his letter.