Occasionally, people ask me how a guy could go from having a 1.8 GPA in high school (and graduating 734th out of 740) to becoming a college professor in just ten years time. I’m always glad to answer the question because it has implications for the way we raise our children and for how we view eternity.
My failure as a high school student was almost exclusively due to my arrogant belief that I was such a good soccer player that I could simply skip college and go straight to the pros. That arrogance was fueled by a couple of coaches who tickled my ears with exaggerating assessments of my ability. But I should have known better. In retrospect, my goals (no pun intended) were way out of proportion with my ability.
At the start of my senior year, I suffered a serious injury to my Achilles tendon. I tried to play through it but was simply unable to make the team. I had to undergo surgery in October to repair a partial tear of the tendon and to have a bone spur sawed off of my heel. It took years to recover. My athletic career was finished.
I somehow managed to stumble through my senior year and graduate. When I finally did, my father gave me a gift I did not deserve. It was an expensive 12-string guitar. I was such a bad student that I didn’t even deserve a gift certificate to K-Mart. The guitar was undeserved and I accepted it with deep gratitude.
My dad also gave me another gift for graduation. It was the gift of a second chance in school. Given my grades, there was not a university in America that would accept me. But Texas had a law that said junior colleges had to accept high school graduates, regardless of their grades. So my dad graciously allowed me to live at home and attend the local junior college (San Jacinto). But there were two conditions: I could only take ten hours and I could not hold a full time job. Dad wanted me to take it slow and get back on my feet again, academically speaking.
Dad’s “take it slow” approach worked. At the end of the first semester, I had completed ten hours with a 2.7 GPA. It wasn’t great but it was an improvement. So Dad complimented me on the improvement and urged me to increase my load to 12 hours during the spring semester.
At the end of my second semester, I had lifted my GPA to 2.9 with twelve more completed hours. Dad again complimented me on my improvement and urged me to increase my load to 15 hours when I returned for my second year.
At the end of that crucial third semester, which was my first with a full five-course load, I had lifted my GPA to 3.0 with fifteen more completed hours. Dad again complimented me on my improvement and urged me to increase my load to 18 hours.
At the end of my fourth semester, there was more success and steady improvement. I had lifted my GPA to 3.1 with eighteen completed hours. Dad again complimented me on my improvement. He also reminded me I was only seven hours away from an Associate’s degree. He then did some homework and found that if I transferred to his alma mater, Mississippi State University, I could transfer hours back to San Jacinto to finish the two-year degree. Furthermore, as the son of an alumnus, I could get an out-of-state tuition waiver, which would save us enough money to allow me to join a fraternity. There was no way I was turning down that deal.
After I went off to Mississippi State, went through rush, pledged Sigma Chi, and moved into the fraternity house, something strange happened. My GPA shot all the way up to 3.4. In fact, I was probably the first man in the history of America higher education to raise his GPA while living in a fraternity house. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. But my grades were high enough to enter graduate school.
When I approached my dad about going to grad school he was enthusiastic. In fact, he told me that since I had lived at home for two years and saved him so much money, he would be glad to help me out financially. I took him up on the offer and finished the program with a 3.9 GPA. By that point, I had decided to pursue a PhD and become a college professor. That meant at least three more years of school.
When I told my dad I wanted to get my doctorate, his response was memorable: “Good luck with that, son. Your mom and I are broke. You’re on your own!” But actually I wasn’t on my own. I had been practicing on that guitar dad gave me for high school graduation. In fact, after six long years of practice I was good enough to earn a living playing music. So I called my friend Shannon Ruscoe with a business idea. He was a very talented singer who was also struggling to make a living in grad school at Mississippi State. Together, we formed a musical duo, which helped me pay for my PhD while Shannon studied engineering.
Eventually, Shannon decided to drop engineering and move to Nashville to tour as a back-up singer for some well-known acts. I stay in school and eventually graduated in 1993 without a penny of debt. The undeserved gift my father had given me had been worth the expense. It generated enough money to take me all the way home on my very long academic journey.
Whenever I tell people the story of how I went from the bottom of my class to being a college professor in ten years, they immediately recognize the hero of the story. It isn’t me. It’s my father. In fact, the story calls upon us to consider the essential characteristics of a good father. I think there are three:
1. A good father has perspective. Whereas the child sees only the things that are in front of him, the good father has a long-term plan.
2. A good father is also personally involved in our lives. He wants to communicate with us, to have fellowship with us, and to be a part of our everyday journey.
3. A good father is a provider. He not only wants to know our goals but he wants to help open doors for us to get us across the finish line and take us all the way home. He’s like a good clean up hitter emptying all the bases with a well-placed hit.
People often comment that I was lucky to have a good father when I was growing up. Sometimes they add that they were not so fortunate. Some even tell me stories of a torn relationship with their earthly father. Those stories are always tough to hear. But I always listen. And then I remind them of something I know to be true: Everyone on earth has a good father.
The statement I just made is very bold. That is why it is in bold letters. But it is also a true statement if the Christian worldview is true. There are many different views of the world but only one offers a view of our role in the world as children who are guided by a good father.
It is certainly pleasant to think that we all have a good father with perspective on our lives, who is personally interested in our destiny, and who will provide for our needs. But we should not believe in things simply because they are pleasant. We should believe in things only if the evidence supports them.
Last summer, while living and teaching on the campus of Summit Ministries in Manitou Springs, Colorado, I gave a lecture I had never given before. It was about finding your calling in life. I gave the lecture to six groups of students over the course of twelve weeks before leaving at the end of the summer. In the lecture, I touch on the themes I have addressed in the present column.
The night before I left Colorado, I picked up the phone and called my father. While I was on that call, I noticed that dad’s speech was impaired and he was having trouble organizing his thoughts. There was clearly something wrong with his health. The matter concerned me greatly. Dad was 81 years old and a lifelong atheist. I knew he had never considered the evidence for Christianity. For the first time in my life, I realized that his time to consider the evidence might be running out. I wondered whether I would have a chance to discuss the evidence with him.
My father’s condition deteriorated fairly rapidly. Fortunately, I was blessed with the opportunity to see and speak with him before he passed.
… To be continued.