It was an ordinary small-group Bible study. At the time, Robert Lewis was pastoring a church in Tucson, Arizona, and one night he asked a question to stimulate discussion among the couples in the home study: “What is something that you would like to believe God for in prayer, but you just think it’s impossible?”
Each member answered the question, and then it came to Robert, “You know, I think it would probably be impossible for my dad to become a Christian,” he said.
Robert’s father Thomas, pictured here, had lived his life without any interest in religion. Robert had explained the gospel to him twice, but each time, his dad wouldn’t even talk about it. “I’m not saying God couldn’t do it,” Robert told the group, “but it just feels hopeless. It seems almost impossible to pray for.”
The evening concluded with prayer for these “impossible” requests.
You won’t believe what happened next.
Something was missing
But let me back up in time first to explain the circumstances a little better.
Robert likes to say he “grew up in a modern family before it was modern.” During his childhood in Ruston, Louisiana, in the early 1950’s, Robert’s mom and dad got up each morning and headed off to work. Thomas Lewis sold insurance, while Billie, pictured below with her three sons, worked for a law firm (where she became the personal assistant to the lieutenant governor and then to a state senator). While other children were cared for by full-time moms, Robert and his brothers spent a good part of their early years with live-in maids who cleaned the house, washed the clothes, and fixed the meals.
Robert never doubted his parents loved him, but something was missing. His dad was never the type to show affection or approval. Robert never heard the words, “I love you,” or “Great job.” And, both his parents were so busy that they didn’t have much time for three small boys who needed daily encouragement and attention. Perhaps that’s what fueled Robert’s drive for achievement in school and athletics as a high school and college student … he was searching for the affirmation he didn’t much receive at home.
Still, Robert never thought his family was different, that is until his dad started drinking heavily. By the time he turned 10, he knew something was terribly wrong in his home. Mom and Dad just seemed to yell at each other all the time. As a teenager, he was frequently embarrassed when he brought friends home and found his intoxicated father stumbling through the house.
Christmas Eve often became a memorable disaster. His dad would usually drink himself through the holiday season. Although they couldn’t be described as a religious family, Billie always wanted to gather the family for some religious observance such as reading the Christmas story. But it never seemed to work out. Tensions would rise, the drinking would start, and then the screaming began. Three frightened and confused boys sat watching as Christmas collapsed in chaos.
Caught in the middle
Robert wrestled to understand what both his parents were feeling. It seemed to him that Dad wanted to do what was right, but Mom never seemed to think of him as anything but a failure. Dad wanted to escape his troubles through alcohol, while Mom looked for support from her sons. It worked with Robert’s brothers, who usually sided with her in these disputes. But when Robert tried to explain to his mom what her husband was feeling, she would say, “You just don’t understand.” He tried to help both his parents and often ended up being the “enemy” of both.
He does have some good memories. He recalls those infrequent fishing trips with his dad, when it was just father and son all day on a peaceful lake. His father could be such a delight when he was sober.
And then there was that one autumn evening that, decades later, remains a magical memory. The leaves were changing, the air was crisp, and both parents were in a good mood. Thomas was outside burning leaves while listening to a high school football game, and Billie was inside frying those oysters Robert so loved.
There was just something so good about that moment. This is how our family should be, Robert thought. Yet, even then he knew that it was just a moment in time. It was not the way life was going to be.
Each of the Lewis brothers chose different paths in life, but each had to cope with the common wounds of their childhood. The oldest was a talented artist and a corporate lawyer. He eventually chose an openly gay lifestyle. But that ended tragically in 1990 when at age 44 he died of AIDS.
The youngest brother majored in Asian history, but chose not to pursue a career there. Instead, he decided to “drop out of everything” and move to the mountains of Wyoming to hunt, fish, and search for himself. In the years to come, he would eventually find his answer to life in a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ.
Robert, meanwhile, grew up with a lot of anger and resentment which became an asset to him in two areas—in fights and on the football field. He was mean.
But he was also fortunate, because when he was 15, one of his coaches took a unique interest in him. This coach stepped in and gave Robert much of the affirmation and encouragement he didn’t get from his own father. He kept telling Robert, “You’re a leader. You can do it. You can make decisions. You can be somebody special. I believe in you.” Such encouragement worked wonders.
Robert received a football scholarship to the University of Arkansas. A neck injury prevented him from reaching his athletic potential, but something more significant happened during those college years when he was introduced to Jesus Christ as his Savior. “I saw in Jesus Christ someone I could entrust my life to; someone who would not leave or forsake me. In Christ, I found stability and direction.” After graduation, he attended Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon.
Like most children of alcoholics, Robert was taught from an early age not to feel and not to think about the family’s problems. He coped by burying his feelings, and denying the reality of his family’s dysfunction.
But as he grew into adulthood, and lived on his own, Robert started looking more realistically at his parents. He began to realize just how much he missed as a child. But he also realized he had to make a choice: He could blame his parents, and seek revenge by criticizing them or isolating himself from them, or he could move toward forgiving them. He could play the role of victim, or he could take responsibility for the rest of his life.
He didn’t want to deny the pain and hurt he felt, but he knew he couldn’t wallow in it, either. One side of him wanted to lash out with anger, and another side knew he would only hurt himself by doing so. He realized he needed to give Christ all that pain, and rely on Him for the strength and love he hadn’t received as a child.
Somehow, he began to look at his parents through a different filter. For years, he had focused on what they’d done wrong. Now married and a parent himself, he saw how his own children didn’t notice many of the good things he did for them. It dawned on him that he had forgotten many things his own parents did right for him as well.
Within hours Robert’s world changed
And that brings us to Robert’s “impossible prayer” during his small-group Bible study in Tucson. In the next 24 hours God answered that prayer in ways Robert couldn’t imagine.
That very night, Robert’s parents got into a terrible fight at their home in Louisiana. Thomas was drunk and decided to leave the house. Billie, afraid to let Thomas drive, grabbed his shoulder. Thomas brushed her away, slammed the door, and drove away in his car.
What he didn’t know was that, when he brushed his wife’s arm off his shoulder, she stumbled backwards. And as Billie fell to the floor, her neck hit a marble coffee table and was fractured.
She lay on the floor, unable to move. Fortunately, a phone fell off the coffee table when she hit it, and when an operator came on the line, Billie somehow forced out enough words to let the operator know she needed help. She was rushed to the hospital, where she was to remain—with steel pins implanted in her skull to support her broken neck—for three months.
Thomas stayed out all night, and never even came home. Some friends found him at his office the next morning, and when they told him what had happened, he was so shocked that he suffered a major heart attack on the spot.
All this transpired the same night that Robert’s small group prayed for the “impossible.” Robert didn’t learn what had happened until the next morning, when a doctor called and said, “Your father has had a major heart attack. You need to come, because he’s probably not going to live.” Robert quickly called a long-time friend to tell him he was coming home … and that’s when he learned what had happened to his mother.
Reeling from those two blows, Robert boarded a plane in Tucson with a heavy heart. Would his dad live? Would his mom? What was God doing?
He arrived in Louisiana that night, and drove immediately to the hospital where his father lay in intensive care. And as he walked up to his father, an amazing conversation began to unfold.
Thomas, groggy from medication, had a fuzzy look in his eyes. “How are you doing?” Robert asked.
His dad replied, “Well, I’m not doing too good. I’ve done a horrible thing.”
As Thomas began describing what he’d done to his wife, Robert realized his father was so medicated that he didn’t recognize his own son. He thought he was talking to a doctor.
Then, as Robert listened with wide eyes, Thomas said, “Let me tell you about my three boys.” He talked about where each of his sons lived and what they did, and then he got to Robert. “He talked about what a good son I was and that he was really proud of me … that I was pastor of this ‘big church’—he exaggerated here—in Tucson.”
For the first time in 30 years, Robert was hearing those words of praise that a son needs to hear from his father. It was another magical moment—a father giving his son the gift of acceptance and approval.
As they kept talking, Thomas grew aware of who Robert was. Tearfully he confessed what he had done to his wife. “I’ve done a horrible thing,” he cried. “I need to go to hell.” Robert had never heard his father speak so directly about eternity, and without even thinking he replied, “Dad, that’s where you’re going to go if you don’t come to the place of forgiveness in Christ.”
“What do you mean?” Thomas asked. And for the next hour Robert explained who Christ was, and why He died on the cross, and how his sins could be forgiven.
That night the impossible happened. Thomas ended years of independence and rebellion by praying with his son, confessing his sins, and asking Christ to forgive him and come into his life.
“I walked out thinking, This has got to be one of the greatest miracles I’ve ever witnessed, my dad coming to Jesus Christ and giving me the blessing on the same night,” Robert says, “It was an incredible story. And it all happened within 24 hours of a prayer that I thought God could never answer.”
Reversing the roles
As Robert’s mother recovered in her hospital bed, she began to hear a regular chorus from her family and friends: “Get a divorce.” No one thought Billie could possibly live with a man who had made her life so miserable, who had broken her neck. “You’ve stayed with this man far longer than you should have,” they told her. “How could you possibly stay married to him after what he’s done to you?”
Only one person urged her to stay married. Robert believed that something good could come out of this tragedy. For the first time, his father had humbled himself and repented, and Robert knew this gave a glimmer of hope to the marriage.
Robert drew up a set of requirements for his dad:
He would never drink again.
He would seek professional counseling for his drinking.
He would live outside the home for an entire year to establish a track record of sobriety and recovery.
He took this list to his mother and asked, “If Dad can do all this, would you stay married and allow him back into your home after a year?” She didn’t think it would happen, but she agreed to wait and see.
Then he approached his father and said, “Dad, you can either be responsible, or you can be divorced. I can’t stop the divorce because Mother can choose that. She’s got everybody on her side telling her to do that, but I will tell you that I’ve gotten Mom to agree that if you will live responsibly, she will, in time, receive you back.”
By standing up to his father and setting up conditions for the marriage continuing, Robert was, in a way, reversing the earlier roles of father and son. He was helping him take responsibility. And it worked—a year later, his reborn father, clean and sober, moved back home.
“Some people would say that my parents had a miserable life,” Robert says. “Well, they were inept in a lot of ways, and they certainly experienced a lot of pain. But when they finally had some help and some direction, they responded. It wasn’t a perfect end, just a faithful one.
“My mom often said, ‘I don’t want a divorce, but I don’t have any choice.’ I showed her how she could have a choice, and she responded to that. Dad was also given a choice, and he chose to not drink and to work his way back home. And I loved him for that.”
Writing a tribute
Eventually Robert moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and become pastor of my church. One Sunday morning Robert asked me to give the sermon and I took the opportunity to speak on the fifth commandment, about honoring your parents: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12).
By way of application I challenged the congregation to consider writing a special tribute to their parents—a formal, framed document thanking and honoring them for what they did right as parents. Even though Robert and I had developed a good friendship, I had no idea of the drama that surrounded his family and how he would apply this message.
A couple of years later, Robert found himself with an afternoon free during a retreat in Colorado. The idea of writing a tribute had been germinating in his mind, and now was the time to act on it.
Years before, he had confronted his feelings of bitterness, and had forgiven his parents. But now his parents were getting on in age, and he sensed he ought to put together something special for them—a document to formally honor them for what they had done right.
He sat in the ski lodge in front of a fire and began to write down some recollections from his childhood. And to his surprise, a flood of memories started coursing through his mind … the terrible moments of his childhood as well as the happy ones … all the anger and joy and sadness and longing. The explosion of emotion overwhelmed him; he thought he was just going to sit down and write an easy letter, but here he was crying and weeping as he never had before. People were staring at him—soon he had to return to his room.
For the next four hours, Robert released much of the pain he had built up through the years. “It’s hard to describe,” Robert says, “because I’ve always been more of a cerebral type. To have this flood of emotion was getting in touch with a part of myself that I didn’t even know was there. The closet door came open and all this ‘stuff’ flooded out. It was powerful and potent. And bittersweet. But it was also thrilling, because I felt the healing winds of freedom within me.”
When he was finished, he had written a document he titled, “Here’s to My Imperfect Family.” It may seem like an unusual title for something intended to pay tribute to his parents, but Robert felt he couldn’t paint a rosy picture of the past—his family was too honest for that. They knew the trials they had gone through, but at the same time, Robert wanted to remind them of the good things he had discovered in a fresh way.
A Christmas ceremony
He had the document typeset and framed, and on Christmas Day he and his own family drove down to Ruston. After all the other gifts were opened, he stood up and said, “There are a lot of things I’ve always wanted to say to you that I’ve not known how to say. So I’ve tried my best to put it into writing and I’d like to read it to you.”
With his wife and four children standing by his side, Robert read his parents the following tribute:
Here’s to My Imperfect Family
When I think of family, I think first of you, Mama, and you, Daddy. I will never understand the forces that drew or held you two together all these years. Clearly it has not been easy. But then again, I have now learned that few marriages are. Each carries its own crucible. Reflecting back as one of your three sons, it’s not hard to say that our family was less than perfect. The “imperfect family” would be a much more descriptive term for our home. To be sure, we never had enough or did enough together. We fell short of many ideals …
Those things have little, if any hold on me now. Instead, I frequently recall “particular” things that are now forever embedded within me … things that need to be stated in writing for they are the secret successes of my imperfect family.
I am glad you never divorced. Today I do not think of a way out because you never got out. My children know about divorce from their friends but not from their family. They will grow up carrying permanency in marriage in their heritage; and though that in itself will not ensure success for them … it will help as it helped me.
I am more appreciative than ever for your sacrificial involvement and investment in me. I will never know them all, as my children will never know all of mine. But I do know some. Your presence at my school programs and Little League games is one. Responding to late night fever and upset stomachs and crises like the “chicken bone affair” … caught in the throat of a frightened third grader. I needed you, Mom, and you were there. I also remember the genuine compassion I received after being heartbroken that I stood and watched rather than starred in my first organized football game. And the hours you expended talking with me … exploring and surfacing my thoughts, feelings, and ambitions. How that helped!
I think of fishing at Kepler’s Lake with Daddy. Boy, was that fun! I still enjoy it every time I relive it. And thanks, Daddy, for saying “I’m sorry” when you wrongfully hit me in anger one day. You don’t remember the incident, I know, but I do. It’s deep inside me now … and it comes back to me every time I need to say those words to my children and my wife. Seeing that day in my mind makes that humbling process easier.
I owe both of you a thousand “thank you’s” … for Florida vacations at the Driftwood Lodge … for all the oysters I could eat on my birthday … for the constant encouragement during teenage years … for teaching me about inner toughness. I can still hear it. “If you can’t take it, you can always quit”… for struggling in December to give Christmas its real meaning. Mom, I get the picture now … for teaching Sunday school at Trinity … for traveling to all those ball games … for standing behind me when I turned LSU down … for saying “I love you” because I needed to hear it … for the new car in college (I know some of how that must have hurt now) … for not panicking when it seemed your son had become a religious fanatic … for letting me know the financial “ride” was over after college and I was on my own … for not getting too involved in shaping my direction …
There is much more, of course. Much more. I guess if I were offered one wish, it would be for one day of childhood in time past … when I could again be your little boy. It would be a crisp fall evening with the smell of burning leaves and a Bearcat game in the air. I would be outside enjoying the bliss of youthful innocence. Mom, you would be frying those oysters, and Daddy, you would be crooning out the words, “My goodness, gracious Toddy!”
So here’s to my imperfect family. One that fell short in many respects, but one whose love makes the shortcomings easy to forget. Here’s to the family that never had it all together but one just perfect enough … for me!
I love you,
Robert had to stop several times because of the flood of tears. He remembers seeing his dad sitting there with his eyes welling up, too. He couldn’t bring himself to cry, but it was obviously touching him deeply. His mom was stunned. She sat there, silently weeping with tears of happiness.
When it was over, they all sat there for a moment in sweet silence. They weren’t used to hearing such transparent words in the Lewis family. For the drinking years, they had stuffed their feelings and denied reality. And now nobody knew what to say.
The next day, the first thing Robert saw when he walked into his parents’ home was the tribute, hung in the most prominent spot in the house. It stayed that way until they died, showing the world that even though they had made mistakes in their lives, they had also done other things well. And in the life of at least one of their sons, all that was now being reconciled in love. “We all knew the imperfections and warts,” Robert says, “but, here in this tribute, my mother and dad had finally been honored for what they did right. And it was wonderful.”
That was December of 1985. Just nine months later, Thomas died of a heart attack. Yet for Robert, the pain of that moment was eclipsed by a deeper chorus of positive feelings.
Standing before his father’s open casket, Robert remembers thinking, There is nothing I wish I would have said to you, Dad, because I said it. I have no regrets. I am healed and, now, so are you.
“We can both rest in peace.”
Adapted from The Forgotten Commandment. Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Rainey, published by FamilyLife Publishing. All rights reserved.