Five Lessons from My Five Fathers

Dad and meFather’s Day was a couple of days ago. While I was blessed with a wonderful father, I also found myself thinking of a few other men who were like second dads to me. As I thought of these different men, each of them had one particular quality that dominated my thoughts; and that characteristic became a life lesson for me. Here are those five lessons from my five dads:

  • Be committed (Leon Cavitt) – One of my very best friends in my teens and twenties was Danny Cavitt. It wasn’t unusual for Danny and I to come rolling in around 5:00 or 6:00 AM… to go to bed. While we might have slipped in unnoticed in many houses, there was a 100% chance that Danny’s dad, Leon, would be up. Not only would he be awake, but there was only one place you would find him. Every single morning, Leon got up at 5:00, got his Bible, and sat down in his recliner to read and pray. It didn’t matter, either, that many of those early mornings when we drug in at sunup were Saturdays, when he didn’t have to work. His devotional time was an appointment he never missed. I never heard Leon preach a sermon, teach a lesson, or even quote a scripture to us; but the single most indelible memory I have of him is seeing him through my blurry, blood-shot eyes sitting quietly in his chair reading God’s word. What commitment!
  • Major in hospitality (Bill King) – My very first friend was my neighbor, Scott King. One of the really cool perks of our friendship was that his dad owned a motel on Lookout Mountain. On many Friday evenings, he would take Scott and I up to the motel on the mountain and give us a motel room for the evening so that we could climb around the rocks and do all the things you might imagine two 10 or 12-year-old boys would think of with a hotel room at their disposal. Scott’s dad was a high-ranking bank executive who had lots of irons in the fire between his job at the bank and owning two motels. Here is what I remember most about Mr. King, though: every Friday, he would take the two of us to a restaurant called The Albert Pick (which had the most amazing bread ever!). Then, on Saturday morning, Mr. King would make biscuits and gravy for us. I am sure there were a million things he needed to do more than have dinner with two preteen boys and cook us breakfast, but he never made me feel like I was an imposition. Instead, he always made me feel welcome. I am sure Bill accomplished lots of great things in his life, but I remember him most for making me feel welcome and important – like another of his sons.
  • God answers prayer (Bob Blazier) – When I was just starting school, our church got a new pastor named Bob Blazier. His son, Bobby, and I became almost instant buddies (I say “almost instant” because the first time Bobby came over to my house it earned me a spanking – but I’m not still bitter…). At any rate, Bobby and I are still best friends and his parents are still my second parents. Bobby’s dad was from the country, and you could tell it in his speech. He occasionally made up words during his sermons, and he had not had the opportunity to pursue the advanced degrees that many ministers receive. The puzzling thing to many people was how in the world Bob, with some of his seeming limitations, could be such a terrific preacher. He was (and still is) one of my very favorite teachers and preachers. While others may have been puzzled, I knew his secret. You see, Bobby and I would often run and play around the church during the week or on Saturdays when it seemed to be deserted. However, many times there would be a sound coming out of one of the Sunday School rooms. It was the sound of Bobby’s dad praying. He would go into the classroom, close the door behind him, and spend hours crying out to God. Therefore, every brilliant Sunday sermon was a life lesson in Paul’s declaration that “I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me.”
  • Live life with a chuckle (My uncle Richard) – When I was in school, I used to ride the bus to my aunt and uncle’s house in the afternoons until my mom got off from work to pick me up. Beth and Richard had five kids of their own, which meant there was usually lots of noise and chaos, fussing and fighting, running and jumping, doors left open, and sounds of things crashing to the ground. Add to that the unique form of disruption and destruction that I brought and it was a scene that could have made Mother Theresa try out a new vocabulary! My uncle Richard had this amazing ability to take it all in stride. He could disarm the most stressful situation, whether it was teenage daughter angst and hormones, or his son and I playing tackle football in the living room, with humor and an easy-going attitude. When I sort through all my memories of Richard (or Papa, as we called him), he seems to have a sort of a bemused smile on his face in every situation. How great would life be if a lot of us took ourselves a little less seriously?
  • Integrity matters most (my dad) – I have always known my dad loves me and would give his life for me. That being said, when I was young I used to kind of wish he were a little different. Some of my friends had cooler dads. Others had richer dads. Still others had Santa Claus for a dad. My dad wore socks with shorts and sandals… colored dress socks. He had a pocket protector and one of those retractable key rings on his belt. He wasn’t particularly athletic and didn’t care all that much for sports or hunting, fishing, camping, etc… As I got older, though, I began to realize that my dad gave me the greatest gift any dad could give: he gave me a good name. I have never once in my entire life had to pause when someone asks me if I am Donald Lance’s boy and wonder why they are asking. Someone could tell me my dad was rude to them, and I might believe them. Another person could say that he was kind of distant or cold to them and I would probably buy it. However, if anyone told me that my dad lied to them, I would double over in laughter. My dad goes beyond the category of honesty into the brutally honest, “I don’t believe I would have said that” category of truth-telling. One of my sisters once suggested that he mark something on a medical form about having the privacy laws explained to him, just to expedite the process and he looked at her like she was a Martian who had just entered the waiting room. The mere concept that he would mark something that wasn’t true seemed absolutely alien to him. Therefore, it was no surprise that when I sold he and mom a car, the bank to whom we submitted their credit information called the dealership right back and asked, “how many would they like to buy?” There is no greater gift he could have given me than a reputation that is above reproach (what I have done since then to sully it is a subject for a different blog…). To this day, my dad lays his head on his pillow every night knowing he has nothing in his past from which to hide. What an amazing legacy.

Five great fathers in my life; five great life lessons! How blessed I am this Father’s Day.

A Different Type of Courage

A few days ago, I had the privilege of singing in the funeral of a lady I have known all of my life. For me, Mary Lee was a bit of an acquired taste. As a boy, I sometimes didn’t know how to take her personality. I always loved and admired her husband, Gilbert, who was a hero to me. He had been an Army Ranger, and not just any Ranger, but one of the most famous group of US Rangers in all of history. He was one of the men who had climbed the ropes up the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day in 1944. Gilbert’s great courage was clear and unquestioned by anyone who knew his story; however, Mary Lee possessed a different kind of courage that wasn’t as readily apparent. While it takes great courage to leave behind the familiar and strike out into the unknown, Mary Lee proved it also takes tremendous courage to be the one who stays behind.

While Gilbert sailed across an ocean to face the enemy of our country, Mary Lee stayed behind waiting, wondering, and praying. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a young bride as the first reports of the bloodbath at Normandy began to come in; yet Mary Lee waited, wondered, and prayed. As the moments became hours and she didn’t know if Gilbert was alive or dead, she waited, wondered, and prayed. When the news reached her that her husband had been seriously wounded and she was half a world away, she still waited, wondered, and prayed. Through the months of Gilbert’s physical recovery, Mary Lee stayed by his side. Through the years of emotional and mental struggles to put the past behind him, Mary Lee stayed right beside him.

My memories of Mary Lee begin a little later, but they begin with my earliest recollection of going to church. Mary Lee was a charter member of my home church, which began in 1949. The very first church service I ever remember as a child, Mary Lee was there. When I left my home church to become a pastor, 47 years later, she was at the last service I attended. Thousands of people had come and gone from my church over those 47 years, but not Mary Lee. When she passed away, at 94 years of age, she was still a member of that same church. She had been through a dozen pastoral changes, numerous style changes, and lots of changing faces; yet, still, Mary Lee stayed. She complained sometimes (well, actually, fairly often) when things weren’t done in the way she preferred; yet, she stayed. As a pastor now, myself, I have learned to appreciate people who might not like everything you do, but they stay by your side. That is an increasingly rare trait. Most of Mary Lee’s friends moved on at one time or another. That didn’t make them bad people, just different from her.

I am part of a generation who changes jobs often and changes churches, spouses, and locations quite often, too. Again, this doesn’t necessarily make us bad people, but it does make you notice someone with the courage to stand still through all of the change going on around her… to dig in her heels and stay through the good and bad times.

Styles of worship and music changed at our church; still, Mary Lee stayed. Her husband passed away a few years ago; Mary Lee stayed. She was one of three sisters, who remained close through the years. In fact, after all of their husbands had passed on, they were like the three musketeers sitting together in church and riding together wherever they went. Both her sisters passed; still, Mary Lee stayed behind.

While facing death certainly requires courage, so does remaining behind and putting the pieces of life back together without those we love. Through the war, through the many changes of life, through the loss of most all of her generation, Mary Lee waited, wondered, and prayed. However, last Wednesday, her waiting ended. Last Wednesday, her wondering became certainty, and her praying became face-to-face conversation with her Savior.

The single, most defining memory I have of Mary Lee is the sound of her laugh; and last Friday, as I sat in her memorial service, I just imagined heaven was filled with the sound of her laughter. She was laughing at how old many of us had gotten, since she was no longer old. She might have also laughed at how sad some of us looked for her, when she was happier than she had ever been; and she was laughing thinking about how much she looked forward to telling us all “I told you so,” (and you know she would love that) for she had been right: right about everything – Jesus was Who she thought He was. God could be trusted, and good things certainly come to those who wait… those who have the courage to stay.

    Dedicated to the memory of Mary Lee Baugh

Two Men Named Goss

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Isaac Newton

This past weekend, I lost two long-time friends and mentors with the same last name. I met Charley Goss on the first day of seventh-grade football practice. He was the coach who I thought made us run too much and seemed to always call the name of the biggest guy on the team to come pulverize me in “bull in the ring.” He was also the history teacher who paddled me so often that I joked with his wife that I might stand with my back to his casket so that he would recognize me. I met Lari Goss about 20 years later in a recording studio. He was the big-name producer who made time to talk to no-name me.

On the outside, these two couldn’t have been any more different. Charley was a former state-champion wrestler and a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was a big, strong man with a booming voice. Lari was a smaller, quieter guy, who was a Grammy award-winning musician, producer, arranger, and orchestrator.

Inside, though, these men were very much alike. They shared two remarkable traits. First of all, they were both passionate about what they did. Charley loved athletics with all of his heart. He coached football, track, and wrestling. In his spare time, he refereed wrestling and even played on a softball team with me for a summer. Lari loved music every bit as much as Charley loved sports. I was once on a television show with Lari and the interviewer asked him what advice he would give to young musicians who might be watching. He said to love music with everything within you… to be willing to do it anytime, anywhere, and to be willing to do it for no pay. While it would take too long to list all of Lari’s accomplishments, one of the greatest facts about him was that he had done it anytime, anywhere, and often with no pay. For this reason, he had a presence in nearly every field of music. From working in the studio with some of the original members of The Atlanta Rhythm Section to arranging and orchestrating the Grammy Awards Show; from producing the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir to producing custom albums for fledgling artists, Lari touched nearly every genre of music.

The second quality these men shared was the one which impacted my life the most. While they were passionate about their respective fields, they were equally committed to mentoring the next generation. They both recognized potential in young people and did everything they could to help them discover every drop that was in them. I wasn’t a really good athlete, but Charley pushed me to run longer and faster, to try harder in class, and to become my very best. As I got out of school, he smoothly transitioned into a friend and encourager who always had time to talk to me as well as listen. To say that I wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much in the music field without Lari’s help is an understatement. He was the person who produced, and endorsed the first two songs that I ever had released on a record label. He also cared enough to tell me when songs weren’t good enough. In fact, he turned down 16 of the 18 songs I played for him (some of them in the first 30 seconds), before choosing two for that first recording. The music industry is full of people who owe Lari a debt of gratitude. For example, on the first album I did with Lari, he brought along a college student who was taking his class on orchestration. Lari had recognized his potential and begun to mentor him, so he allowed him to direct the orchestra during our sessions. That young man, who is named Bradley Knight, is now a well-known arranger and orchestrator in his own right.

Ironically, my best friend, who is a Grammy nominated producer and musician, can tell a similar story. He ran track for Coach Goss at East Ridge Junior High, and years later moved to Nashville, where the first person to give him a chance and hire him for a session was… (you guessed it) Lari Goss.

The world is a better place not only for having enjoyed the talents of these two men, but because a generation has come behind them that will do even greater things because of the impact of Lari and Charley. While you would have looked at them and seen opposites, I look at them and see the same face… the face of Jesus. I wonder how many people will pass into heaven in the next few decades and will make a point of looking up Charley or Lari (or both) just to say thank you.


The Three Crosses

Nearly every day I drive by three enormous crosses beside Interstate 75. As I pass by, I am reminded of the message that each of the three crosses speaks to me.

I am thankful for the middle cross for a thousand different reasons: it reminds me of a Father’s relentless love which refused to accept separation from His children. It speaks of the high price that was paid by my Older Brother to redeem me – of the unthinkable pain and humiliation that He not only faced, but embraced as the means of purchasing my freedom. It also causes me to rejoice in the fact that it wasn’t the final destination of my Savior; that the grave was opened, death defeated, and eternal life provided by the horrific torture of that cross. It reminds me that there is no obstacle I will ever face that can’t be defeated; no pain I will ever feel that Jesus won’t understand; and no length to which He won’t go to rescue me… again and again.

I am also thankful for the second cross, for it tells the story of repentance and forgiveness. It tells me that no sinner’s past is too bad, and that no lack of good deeds on anyone’s resume will exclude him from being forgiven. It shouts the message that as long as there is one breath left in your body, one beat left in your heart… even if the very last thought you ever hold in your mind is a prayer of repentance, Jesus will hear it and honor it. The second cross declares that it is never too late!

Finally, I am strangely appreciative of the third cross, as well. While it tells a story of bad choices and a hard heart, it reminds me that God gives us the freedom to choose… even to choose to fail. God knows that compulsory love isn’t love, at all, and forced obedience is actually slavery. One can only truly love if he is given the option of not loving; and our obedience is a gift we can give to our Savior only because we can choose not to give it. So, while I wish that everyone would make the choice of the repentant thief, it is the right to choose that makes our worship pleasing to the Lord and our obedience a way to express our gratitude.

“looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2)

Kissed By A Rose

Yesterday, I got a rare opportunity. I was driving toward Nashville when I received a text message telling me that my former High School Choir director had unexpectedly passed away the night before. Being isolated in a car for the next couple of hours gave me a lot of time to reflect on my loss. You see, Rose Dover was not just one of my teachers in school. She was one of the handful of people who really helped shape my life.

As a pastor, I have had the honor of giving the eulogy for a number of people over the years. Even though there are many people who were closer to Rose and her family, and would be much more deserving of the honor than I would, I still drifted toward the thought: what would I say if I were asked to give the eulogy of this beautiful lady? My mind immediately connected to a woman named Deborah, whose story is in Judges 4 and 5. She was a judge over the nation of Israel. Before Israel had kings, judges were the leaders of the people. In fact, Judges 5:7 calls Deborah “a mother in Israel.” This was exactly what Rose had been at East Ridge High School for years.

In Judges, chapter 4, Deborah encouraged a fearful general, named Barak, to lead his army into a daring attack against what seemed insurmountable odds. Barak, like many of us high school boys and girls, didn’t think he had the goods to overcome the challenge. Ultimately, Deborah goes with him to support him and to help overcome his insecurity. Rose Dover did this for so many of us. She saw greatness in us when we often didn’t see it in ourselves… and, man, did she have to look hard to see it in some of us. While I imagine she had more talented students than me over the years, I might stand alone on the pantheon of her most challenging student. In fact, years later, I visited her home and she showed me her old paddle from school, which still only had one name signed on it… mine! She never gave up on me, though. In fact, she never gave up on any of us. I’ll just share one story to make my point. One day, during class, she was playing the piano as we sang. I decided to throw my music folder at the piano to startle her (don’t ask why this seemed like a good idea to me; many of my ideas didn’t turn out exceptionally well). At any rate, I threw it too high and hit her right in the face. Startle might be an understatement. She picked herself up (again, don’t ask how she got on the floor), and sent me to the principal’s office. Instead of complying, I decided to go to the cafeteria for an elongated lunch. When he had to come find me eating, you can imagine his demeanor. He told me that he was of a mind to suspend me, but, that right after she had sent me to his office, Mrs. Dover had gone into her office and called over to the principal’s office asking him to please go easy on me. During her years of teaching, she impacted thousands of kids, who could tell thousands of stories which, while not exactly like this one, would be just as meaningful to them.

As I drove on toward Nashville, I decided that I wanted to write about my feelings. Sometimes that is the place that I can best process my emotions. I was actually a bit surprised at how upset I really was over her loss. I hadn’t spent any significant time with her in decades; yet the feelings were raw and real. Then, a most wonderful thing happened. I received another message. It turns out that there was a mix-up in the earlier information. Another family in East Ridge lost a loving and I’m sure, wonderful mother and wife. She had the same last name and a son with the same name, so the confusion was easy to understand. While their grief is every bit as real as mine had been, my heart leapt. Rose was okay!

A few years ago, there was a song called “Kiss from a Rose.” Yesterday’s events brought me to the conclusion that I, too, have been kissed by a Rose. Too many times, I have delivered eulogies at friends’ or family members’ funerals that were full of words that I wished that I had told them when they were still alive. While it would be easy to breathe a sigh of relief and go back to life, here is that rare opportunity: a chance to say things that should be said. Things like: I thank you for never giving up on me, even when I must have frustrated you to death. Thank you for laughing along as I turned your well-planned rehearsals into shambles. Thank you for seeing potential in me that I probably would have missed; and thank you for calling the principal and telling him to go easy on me.

Today, I pastor a remarkable group of people, and I also lead worship. I spent a number years before that as a music pastor and during that time I directed a choir. These are positions that you helped me believe that I could fill. All over the country your former students are doing amazing things that you gave them the confidence to try. That being said, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to bite my tongue when I can’t get anything done because I can’t get singers to quit talking and musicians to quit noodling on their instruments. Many times, though, I remember you. Your patience and grace in those moments was remarkable. I don’t have nearly as much of either quality, but I just about always go from frustration to a chuckle when I remember the words you spoke to me, many times: “I hope that you teach one day, and I hope you have a student just like you!” Who knew you were not only a mother to East Ridge, but a prophetess, as well? Welcome back, Mrs. Dover. There are thousands of us who are blessed to have been “kissed by a Rose.”