I have been blessed with an amazing father and father figures throughout my years. And while every man sits under the influence of his father (good or bad), I know that I would not be who I am without their influence, and by God’s grace, I am thankful. But in less than a 4 year period of time, my father, my mentor, and my father in law have all passed.
I have written much since Thom Duncan passed in 2012. Truly a great, talented, Godly man, “Sam,” as I affectionately called him, was amazing. An accomplished pianist, interior designer, floral designer, teacher, and pastor, Sam had more gifts than most collections of people could hope for in a span of generations. When he died, I could not remember 5 arguments between us, though the few that came to mind were memorable. I was corrected by him countlessly, but the arguments were either rare or have faded from memory. In an amusing re-telling, one of our more serious conflicts was resolved by theologian RC Sproul when I convince RC to say hello to my dad from the PCA General Assembly floor from a cell phone. Sam was an amazing father in that he wanted so many things for me but allowed me to pursue them at my own pace and with little meddling. When I was ordained as a pastor, it was one of the happiest days of his life. At his passing, I could only look back and reflect on his unwavering love and approval of me despite my many sins and flaws.
In 2013, my mentor, Terry Traylor, passed. He was the closest to Superman as any man that I ever met. Wise beyond his years, respected by nearly everyone he knew, and ridiculously strong (physically and spiritually). While I wouldn’t have been a Christian without my father, I definitively know that I would not have been a pastor had not Terry confidently said, “I think you should be a church planter. Let’s get you into seminary.” Terry gave me ear anytime I needed despite his insane schedule. He gave me wisdom, often without even realizing that he was giving it (and without me even realizing I was receiving it). Like my dad, I had few conflicts with Terry, though the few were epic. Unlike my dad, his death was sudden. 24 hours prior to his passing, I had a lunch and a bull session with Terry that was filled with his usual big laughs and big wisdom. At his funeral, all I could do was confess that I didn’t deserve a father figure like him. Even in death, Terry displayed grace.
And on New Year’s Day of this year, my father in law, Jack, passed. Now, Jack and I knew how to fight, but we also respected and loved each other. While Sam and Terry entrusted me with mission, Jack entrusted me with his daughter, my wife, Amy. Because of that, I have to think Jack had more faith in me than the others. There were times we wanted to strangle each other, and on Christmas Day, I literally had to chest compress him back to life after a heart attack. But just like Sam and Terry, I know that I would not be a pastor without Jack’s influence. Soon after meeting, he encouraged the bible study I was leading to come under his church’s accountability. He asked me to lead worship in singing at his church alongside Amy. He loaned me countless books, and I do not have a number of the John MacArthur tapes he gave me. Even his funeral inspired me. I walked away thinking, “I want to be more Godly.” His passing hurts as it turns the page onto yet another stage of my life, as well as my wife’s. She could easily write, “I am a fatherless daughter,” as she shared similar relationships with all 3 men.
So, at the young age of 45, my formative mentors have passed. Others are beginning to take their place, and I am growing into the role of being father figures for younger men. To my dread, I pray that I can father the young men who marry my daughters.
But my true comfort is this verse from Galatians:
Galatians 4: 6 Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
No believer in Jesus is fatherless. In fact, the fatherhood of the Christian is inseparable and more intimate than any earthly relationship. Our faithful brother, Jesus, has made us children of God, and the Spirit of God moves in our heart (my heart) to cause me to cry out, “Abba Father!” – the most intimate name of God of all. And now, because of that inseparable security, we live not as slaves to sin or this world, but as heirs to God.
Thank you Sam, Terry, and Jack. I know that I am the man that I am and that I am set on a course that is far more joyous and great than any other that I would have chosen.
What value would there ever be in any book whose introduction is longer than the story itself? Well, believe it or not, this is not a marketing ploy. I pray this book is engaging and affecting to the soul. It is succinct purposefully to make a point.
And ironically, this sentence took me more time than some of my prior books (that may not be a good thing). But this all came together while thinking through several recent, revealing events (more on that in a minute).
When you read this sentence, you will discover that it is themed around a hurtful father. Thankfully, I can say that theme is not my story, but it is much of my life. As a pastor, there is almost no greater wound that I see must be addressed than the family wound. So many people spend their days with the echo of their father’s mocking words in their ears or the memory of his disapproving glance in their minds. Men and women, even children, are so often driven by a need to either disprove their father or to disdain him, and so much wreckage lies between.
These truths became heightened in the past few months, and ultimately moved me to start writing, after watching two very different cultural tent poles.
My wife loves “Gilmore Girls”, and I joined her recently on a Netflix binge. In the series, Lorelai Gilmore works to establish a life in the attempt to distance herself from her disapproving mother and father. All the while, there are hints that she would love a random, “Well done.”
In one poignant scene, she returns home with her ex-boyfriend (the father of her daughter) for dinner with her and his parents. Awkwardness and pleasantries abound until his parents accuse Lorelai of ruining their son’s life and derailing his chances of going to college. Finally, Lorelai’s father stands up to defend her. This appears to be the moment in which Lorelai has dreamed.
Afterwards, there is a powerful scene where she goes to thank him, but this moment hurts her all the more. He wasn’t defending her. He was defending the family name. She defeatedly slinks out of the room knowing that she will never win her father’s approval.
Oddly enough, the other cultural tent pole that spurred my thinking came by watching “Christmas Vacation”. In one famous scene, Clark Griswold spends the day decorating the house so that they can have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since…well, you know the line.
So, as Clark prepares to turn on the Christmas lights, he brings the entire family out to see his creation. He plugs it in, and nothing happens. There is a wonderful clanging symbol of side-effect in the background that perfectly summarizes his feelings.
Clark’s father-in-law, Art, responds by saying, “I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was.” Clark is crushed. Yet, he is not going to give up.
Finally, Clark gets the house to light once his wife realizes that they needed to flip a light switch. The entire neighborhood dims as Clark’s home takes off in light.
Clark is proud.
Clark is triumphant.
However, Art comments that the lights don’t blink. Clark resigns with a, “Thanks for noticing.”
Seeing these images pushed me to attempt to articulate the pain of many.
Thankfully, this is not every person’s story, but a Father’s words are powerful. His words of affection are restorative. His words of pain are damning, and the efforts to heal the lack may take a lifetime.
That healing is my joy to proclaim as the Gospel of Jesus declares an ending from the Heavenly Father of, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
Those words are desperately needed and hopefully attractive. I hope you search them out after this reading.
Ah, the stubbled father who thinly hides behind the humor of personal arrows and laughs at the wounded’s cry for dignity, delegating it to sensitivity.
A Final Word…
As I was wrapping this project up, I began the Amazon research necessary to have it published. I then discovered that there is a wonderful movement surrounding the single sentence expression. I found there brave men and women seeking to articulate what is or what has been in their hearts.
This tiny tome is not part of those works as it was created in complete ignorance of those efforts, but it is a contribution of sorts as I hope it is a collection of words with which many will resonate.
Ultimately, I pray this sentence is redemptive in that it will free up someone to understand their own heart and move towards reconciliation either earthly or heavenly.
Sam and I rarely fought. Even as a kid, I don’t remember any face to face screaming matches with Sam. As adults, we were respectable, and we dealt with our few disagreements peaceably.
Except one time. I was probably thirty-five at the time.
We had a family member struggling with alcoholism. Sam and I disagreed about how we should approach that family member. I saw it as a Gospel issue, as in, “The Gospel teaches us to do this.” Sam saw it as a law issue, “We need to teach this lesson.”
I don’t cast it that way to say I was right and Sam was wrong. That was just the way we were approaching the situation, and looking back, I think we both had valid points.
But for the first time in our lives, we were barely speaking, and when we did, it was Mom saying, “Hey, don’t you want to speak to your father?” She would then hand the phone to Sam and force us to talk.
Well, I was off at my denomination’s General Assembly. This is when the teaching and ruling elders from across the country gather for worship, information, and some manner of business. Within my denomination is a pastor named, RC Sproul.
As Sam was doing research to interact with me over areas of theological disagreement in seminary, he began to read Dr. Sproul. Sproul made a huge impact on Sam, and in areas where I could not articulate certain theological positions well, Dr. Sproul could. In fact, any changes of conviction on Sam’s part were much more due to Sproul than to me.
So at General Assembly, I was walking around the vendor floor where a million books are sold. Standing in the middle of the walk way was Dr. Sproul. He was surrounded by about ten guys who were lapping up every word that he spoke. I took my place among the circle and waited. Eventually, the business of General Assembly renewed, and one by one, the sycophants all left.
Dr. Sproul turned to me as I was the last man standing.
Sproul has this amazingly gravel, smoke-tinged voice that helps give his wise words authorative weight. He realized that I had been standing for a long time and had said nothing.
So he asked, “Can I help you, young man?”
I told him that he could. I told him that my father, Dr. Thom Duncan, was an avid reader of his book and greatly enjoyed his writings. I then asked Dr. Sproul my favor.
“If I called my father, would you be willing to speak to him for a moment? It would mean a lot.”
He agreed, and I immediately called Sam on my cell phone. Surprised at my call, Sam asked if everything was okay. I said, “Yeah, everything is fine, but there is someone here who would like to speak to you.”
I handed the phone to Sproul, and he said, “Dr. Duncan, my name is RC Sproul. You must be really proud of your son here.” They spoke for maybe five minutes, and Dr. Sproul handed me back my phone.
When I returned to speaking with Sam, he had an excitement in his voice similar to a kid who got to meet their favorite football player. When I got home, we talked about the incident, and our tension was gone. We brought up the conversation about interacting with the sick family member, but this time, all of the tension was gone. We were able to speak in a way where care for the person was more important than winning the day.
Thanks, Dr. Sproul.
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The original piece was a self-portrait my father did years ago. It was a painting of a picture from his senior piano recital. In his passing, I uncovered and recovered the photo with which Sam used to paint himself. Both that photo and the first version of that painting were intensely black, dark and mysterious.
The painting came to me around my junior year of college. Sam was cleaning out his office and asked me if I wanted it. I of course did. But Sam warned that it was in bad shape and to be careful with it.
So here I was in my dorm room with this moody, dark painting of my father. My good friend, Jonathan Grauel, was also interest in it, and when he learned it needed restoring, he offered to adapt it, change it, reinterpret it. I jumped at the opportunity.
What resulted is this deep, rich portrait of my father that has been cared for and transformed through the deeply talented eye and hand of my friend.
I couldn’t imagine a better cover for this book.
Then I had another idea. I am a terrible graphic artist, so Jonny as I call him often works on my book covers for me. But this time, I wanted to surprise and honor him as well, but I lacked the ability to design a proper cover using this portrait.
Enter my other good friend John Brenton Phillips. John is also an artist and a friend from ECU like Jon Grauel. John and I were friends in our freshman dorm, but as life would have it, we lost touch for nearly twenty years. Then one day, John gives me a call out of the blue, we grab dinner together, and our friendship is rekindled.
When I ask John to take on the cover photo, he jumped at the task, and the result is nothing less than amazing.
So as you approach this book, the cover gives honor to my dad, the eye-popping color is due to my friend Jonathan Grauel, the graphics are the work of my friend John Brenton Philips, and the words are mine.
Sam brought together friends from across various backgrounds and a bunch of years on this one. I hope you enjoy the visual art as much as the art of words.
If you would like to explore Jonathan’s art more, you can find his online studio at http://www.bluestudioonline.com/, and if you would like to learn more about John’s graphics’ business, you can find them at http://waxingdigital.com/
Thanks to the so many who inspire and encourage me.
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At the age of five, my father sat down to a piano and picked out a piece of music by ear. He naturally had a gift and immediately became a child prodigy. We have a copy of his Senior Recital. It is insane to hear how talented he was at age eighteen.
Insanely talented. So talented that he eventually headed off to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He stayed there two years but returned because he wanted to get married to Mom.
Going forward, Sam could play any piece of music you put in front of him, he could pick anything out by ear, and he took great joy in teaching. Throughout my entire childhood, Sam taught piano.
He eventually designed his own method, created two piano books, and taught a host of kids how to play. And out of his five kids, you know how many learned to play?
One became a talented singer, two of us play drums, and I primarily play the guitar. But none of us learned to read and play music.
When I was seventeen, Sam gave me a very nice electric keyboard. At that point, I was playing drums and guitar. He said, “Listen, I know you aren’t going to take lessons, but can I show you just a few things on piano, and I bet you can play.”
With that simple approach, Sam showed me how to make majors, minors, and sevenths. He taught me how to do that with sharps and flats, and even taught me how to create chords. An hour later, he left the room, and I figured out how to plunk my way through the keyboard.
Looking back, that event amazes me. I’m sure he wanted me to know the piano as he did, but Sam also knew my interests were different. So he appealed to my personality, made both a financial and time investment, and taught me just enough to get me going.
I will never be a piano player like my Dad, but I can find what I need and muddle through if necessary.
Years later, when I brought my beautiful wife, Amy, to the house, Sam discovered that Amy was a brilliant pianist with over twelve years of experience. Sam’s arthritis was setting in pretty badly then, but Amy and Sam sat down and played the piano together many times.
It gave me great joy.
It gave Sam greater joy.
Amy felt assured in the family and grew in affection for Sam.
Sam’s talent today, and the avenues available for making and performing music would more than likely lead him down the road of recording and being a popular musician.
Instead, he played, performed, and taught in anonymity. But those who knew his talent were always amazed.
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Somewhere in the mid to late 60’s, my father packed up the family (I was not born yet) and moved to California. Reportedly, Dad did this for two reasons: my mother’s asthma would improve on the West Coast and Dad wanted to be an actor.
Hearing these stories and looking at the pudgy, balding man who told them, I always scratched my head.
Actor? Are you kidding me?
But he gave it a shot. Though he doesn’t have an IMDB profile, he did some modeling (???) and had a few gigs. But one of the things his agent told him was that he had to change his name.
Thomas Duncan was taken.
Thom Duncan was taken.
For a while, he went by the name Duke Duncan as we had an uncle who played pro baseball by that name, but his agent said that Duke was John Wayne.
So my father became Gordon Duncan for a period of time.
Legend has it, my parents were at a swanky dinner party one night, and over the course of the evening, Mom called him “Thom”, “Duke”, and “Gordon”. She couldn’t keep up.
At this point in the storytelling, Mom would always say that she was sure that everyone at the party thought she was some floozy that Dad picked up because she didn’t know his name.
Dad always smiled at this and kept telling stories.
Well, the acting career didn’t work out, and the Duncan clan moved back across America. A few years later, I was born. They named me Gordon.
I am my Dad’s stage name.
I’ve always thought of it as something pretty cool, but somewhere in my twenties, I realized that my naming was something that I needed to live up to and not just be nostalgic about.
Honoring my father meant honoring the name he gave me. It meant joyfully living out some of his dreams. Now, my father never pressured me into any job or endeavor.
Never. I mean it.
He didn’t place on me the “Be a pastor like me” or “Be a musician like me” or any of that. I was free to be who I wanted which is pretty rare these days.
But as I matured, and I saw God draw similar lines in my life like He drew in my father’s, I gladly walked in paths that my father frontiered.
I am gladly my Father’s stage name.
I ask God to enable me to honor both my heavenly Father and my earthly father in the doing.
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