To say that I miss my father deeply is to say that ocean water tastes slightly of salt. He died of cancer shortly before he would have celebrated his fifty-first birthday. He knew how to create something out of nothing. From swimming in the “crick” behind his
house to completing his PhD in music theory and composition, my father took the simplest of experiences and made them great.
The youngest son of a backwoods, small-town southern preacher, my dad knew even as a young man that his dreams lay outside the boundaries of Vanceboro, North Carolina. So he did what so many young men do when they long to see the world—he joined the Armed Forces.
Running from God when he left home, he soon discovered that God could find him even outside of Vanceboro. He discovered a greater desire and followed God’s call into the ministry. He spent the next 31 years weaving the tapestry of his life from the fibers of his greatest loves—God, family, music, and learning.
Nothing but God can fill the void created by my father’s death. But when I start to dwell on the loss of his presence, God reminds me to consider the gift of his life. He taught me the wonder of God and the wonder of learning, and he taught me that the two go hand in hand—to love God is to desire to know Him more.
However, despite my father’s many accomplishments, he was always frustrated with his physical appearance, especially his weight. He saw society’s physical image of a successful man, and he allowed himself to be dwarfed by this standard. Thus, he lost sight of what made him truly valuable. While my father was a talented musician, a gifted teacher, and a trustworthy man, he struggled to comprehend his inherent value.
Though words were seldom spoken, my father heard “voices without” telling him that he didn’t look the part of a minister. Seeing senior pastors validate men who appeared to be successful, and watching hiring committees choose staff based on physical appearance rather than on qualifications, my father heard the silent message loud and clear. A man’s image indicates his value behind the pulpit.
Even though my father’s genuineness drew people to him, he always shortchanged himself by thinking people wanted him to be someone different. One of his few inconsistencies was that he rarely modeled what he told me regarding the relationship between achievement and self-esteem. The only thing he expected of me was that I do my best. God would perform great works despite my weaknesses. However, I did not see this philosophy reflected in my father’s perception of himself.
Negative ideas about himself permeated my father’s speech, and I learned that same derogatory self-evaluation. After all, how could I find my appearance and achievements acceptable when the man whom I admired most found himself unacceptable?
With the word diet a part of my dad’s everyday vocabulary, I grew up thinking yogurt, grapefruit, and Tab were staples in any successful weight-loss program. And for every new diet program, there was a new exercise regimen to match. The only thing that lasted longer than my dad’s diet and exercise programs was his desire to lose weight.
Subsequently, I observed a troublesome element of my parents’ relationship: my father expected my mother to be guardian of the refrigerator and thus the guardian of his dieting destiny. I, too, found myself looking for someone to carry the burden of my weight-loss, someone who not only would help me lose weight but someone I could blame when I felt fat.
One day as my parents sat talking at the kitchen table, I marched resolutely into the room and announced that I wanted them to monitor how many potato chips I was eating. I was not overweight, nor were my eating habits excessive. I was feeling ugly and unlovable, and I wanted someone to help me change the outside of myself so I could love the inside.
Wisely, my parents refused. I promptly burst into tears and told them that if they wouldn’t help me, maybe I’d become bulimic or anorexic. Like my father, I thought that controlling what I ate would produce the body I wanted and the feeling of contentment that I longed for. And like my father, I was missing the point.
Although my father passed away before I began to understand the truth regarding self-image, he would have been deeply grieved to know how intensely his self-perceptions affected me. He thought his behavior affected only himself. But speech that tears down one person’s temple creates an atmosphere, and all who enter feel its influence.
What voices do you hear from without? Childhood peers whose taunts ring in your ears long after you’ve grown? A parent whom you could never please? A spouse who rarely tells you that you’re attractive and whose silence echoes off the walls of your heart?
Hearing the voices, we search for ways to silence them. The diet that works, the perfect exercise program, a makeover. Still, the voices linger, sometimes so loudly that we can barely hear the truth about ourselves.
Because our self-esteem is rooted in our spirit, our longings to know who we are in Christ cannot be answered by attempts to remake our physical beings. Such a pursuit never silences the voices and leaves our spiritual longing unanswered. Eventually, the voices from without are joined by the voices from within.