It’s nice when people like you.
And even a fledgling rock n’ roll singer gets a lot of opportunities to feel liked — with the billboards, the bright lights, the applause, the cheers and the money. My dad enjoyed the way he was able to get people to like him during his concerts, but he knew Elvis did it best. People obviously liked the guy. Even though it was 3:30 in the morning when dad and his band drove up to Graceland, the place was swarming with fans trying to get a glimpse of “the King.” At the theater later that night, Elvis was surrounded by members of the “Memphis Mafia” — people whose lives revolved around him.
But the one interaction dad had with Elvis caught him off guard. Elvis went out of his way to see how dad and his band were doing and to ask if he could get them anything. For a guy in his early 20s, seeing the “king of rock n’ roll” offer to serve him was humbling.
That act, dad later understood, was just a glimpse of the sacrifice the “king of the universe” made when he became a man and reached down to serve. As a singer, dad knew how to entertain people so they would like him. But his life started to make more sense when he shifted his attention to loving others.
Reading the lesson of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), dad realized that serving others in love is one of the ways God commands us to love Him. That calling gave dad a clear purpose for the first time since leaving his music career. He captured his thoughts in what became one of the first of many Christian songs he eventually wrote:
Sad and disheartened, I thought I had failed
Compared to my old friends my future looked pale.
All my big dreams of success and fame were all dead
And I felt I was nothing, until Jesus said:
“I was in prison, and you came to me.
I was that hungry child you helped to feed.
I was that lonely one you came to see.
As you did it to others, you did it to me.”
So here’s my advice for those who’d be great
Just do as Jesus said, be a servant and wait.
For that great day’s soon coming when Jesus will see.
He’ll say as you did to others you did it to me.
It was a calling dad couldn’t get out of his head — seeking out people who were lonely, hungry and in prison and loving them as if they were Jesus. Because of that conviction I spent my childhood hanging out in nursing homes, prison’s visiting areas and our church food bank.
It’s also what led us out of the comfortable church we grew up in, into what I always thought of as an “emergency room” church. The church dad started was filled with former alcoholics and drug addicts, broken families and lots of people who had never quite fit in.
Often I wondered what the heck dad was thinking when he invited yet another not-so-normal person to church. Didn’t he realize there was nothing that person could do for him — except maybe hurt his reputation or take advantage of him?
I eventually realized that it didn’t matter to dad what they could do for him. It didn’t even matter if they liked him in return. That attitude gave him the ability to do something people didn’t always expect. He could give them a big hug while stepping on their toes — meaning he could show people love while also telling them the difficult truth about God’s expectations for their lives.
Dad’s commitment to share love and truth to everyone he met — man or woman, black or white, young or old, healthy or handicapped — made our church something of a recycling center where people whom others had given up on surprised all of us.
Dad’s biggest challenge hit close to home.
My parents had three boys: Shad, myself and Shawn. While Shad grew up as a blend of each parent, I took after mom’s side of the family and Shawn took after dad. Midway through Shawn’s teen years, dad’s pattern started to repeat itself. A son who grew up in church and knew God had plans for his talents, Shawn decided he wanted to go his own way. Only this time it was worse. Unlike dad’s restrained rebellion, Shawn went overboard — losing himself in a world of drugs and alcohol.
My parents were worried. They loved Shawn, but time after time he took advantage of their mercy and grace. By 21, he was out of control. Dad and mom knew they had to show tough love. Catching him at home one morning, dad looked Shawn in the eye and said, “I love you and I want to help you, but if you won’t change the way you’re living, you’ll have to find another place to live.”
When my parents returned home later that evening, Shawn’s room was empty.
Dad sat down on Shawn’s bed. Thinking back to the time when he took off on his own, he remembered it was his mother’s prayers that kept him safe and eventually brought him back where he needed to be. Through tears, he wrote this song:
They walk away smiling but a tear runs down your face.
They’re young and innocent and the world can be a mighty cruel place.
You don’t want them to stay babies; you must let them grow.
You cut the apron strings, but heart strings just won’t let go.
Pray angels around them. Ask God for a guard.
Ask Him to protect them and somehow touch their heart.
The nest now is empty. You’re hurting I know.
Pray angels around them and then let them go.
You walk back to the house. Go sit in their empty room.
Their laughter is gone now and the whole house is quiet as a tomb.
You hope they don’t outgrow their faith like toys they’ve left behind.
There’s just one thing to do now to bring you real peace of mind.
Pray angels around them … (repeat chorus).
Mom and dad didn’t hear from Shawn much over the next couple of years, but they kept loving him, praying and waiting.
Shawn filled in the details of that time in a letter he wrote three years later:
Four months ago I was ready to end my life. I was an alcoholic, drug-ravaged, sin-filled derelict running from everything I knew was right. My live-in girlfriend was gone. My job was barely enough to supply my drinking habit. I lived in an awful place. All the glamour of the infamous life in the fast lane had turned into a private hell on earth.
I rarely ate. My once athletic build had been reduced to 110 lbs due to a 7-month bout with coke. Once a straight-A student and aspiring artist with a near genius intellect, I fought to carry on simple conversation. My brain was burnt by years of pot and any other drug available. Sleep was rare; I usually just passed out for a couple of hours then started all over again. I had to bum a ride or walk — a DWI had taken my last piece of pride. I had no respect left. My family was the only sanity left in my shattered world and I ignored them for the most part.
He goes on in the letter to say that he finally reached a point where he decided he wanted to live again. He then describes how he came to live with me near the Christian college I had attended. He kept his guard up for a while in a town filled with “holy rollers.” His letter tells how he fought stubbornly through “sermon after convicting sermon” until one speaker finally broke through and he ran to the altar. “The prayers of family and friends for 10 years had finally been answered,” he explains.
Shawn has had ups and downs since that time, but he’s never been close to the low that my parents’ tough love helped bring him through. Last year, he reached another milestone my parents had been praying about for years. He announced he was settling down and getting married.
He and his fiancée Kellie planned a November wedding. When I visited with them and the rest of the family last June, dad was growing weak from nearly two years of congestive heart failure caused by diabetes. In October, he told Shawn, “I’m holding out for your wedding, but I can’t promise you anything after that.”
Shawn’s wedding was on a Sunday and dad started the morning where he had for the past 26 years, in the pulpit delivering a sermon. He seemed full of strength — speaking loudly, using bold gestures and walking all around the stage.
That afternoon, he smiled with pride as he performed the wedding ceremony. At the reception, he entertained his grandkids and danced with my mom. She was amazed at dad’s energy, asking him, “Are you really feeling better or are you faking it?” He smiled and said, “I’m faking it.” Despite his pain, he was celebrating a lot of answered prayers.
Some of us were a little worried how the reception would turn out since Shawn had invited all of his old, wild friends. To our surprise, his friends lined up to talk to the preacher. Dad’s unconditional love for Shawn had apparently made quite an impression on them. These were guys whose dads never seemed to get the balance right — they either spoke the truth but forgot the love or confused love with “tolerance” and forgot the truth. His friends respected a man who got it right and went out of their way to hear him lovingly speak truth to them.
The much anticipated wedding proved to be one of our family’s best memories. Late that night, the wear and tear of the day caught up and dad was checked into intensive care. Over the next few weeks, his home and hospital room were filled with a steady stream of people he had touched over the years. Right up until the end, he worked hard to give each one a little bit of truth and love. His last words for our family were labored but clear: “I love you.”
When Shawn spoke at the funeral, he talked about the breadth of the love he saw dad spread around him: “No matter where dad went,” he said, “he would run into people and he always took the time to share some of the seemingly endless reserve of love he had stored up inside him.”
But you could tell what impressed Shawn as much was the depth of dad’s love for him individually. “He loved his kids, each of us in a different way, I believe,” Shawn said, “but just as strongly, and in the way we needed it most.” He ended, “I love you daddy. Thanks for hanging around to put me and Kellie together. Thanks for being everything a dad can be. Thanks for loving me.”
It’s nice when people like you.
But dad showed me that you can have a greater legacy than just being liked. Reflecting on the low attendance of his dad’s funeral, I recently heard a speaker ask “Where were all the people dad worked so hard to impress?” The people that packed into the church for my dad’s funeral weren’t there just because they liked him — they were there because their lives changed as dad loved them.
Copyright 2004 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.