Why Brother George became to some of us the father we longed for
When the men returned from World War II, they were changed. Their lives, already forged by the Great Depression, were put on hold to fight the war in Germany and Japan. To deal with the brutality and cruelty of war, these military men disengaged their emotions, did their duty, and got the job done.
When they returned, few of these soldiers talked much of the war. They simply wanted to get on with their lives. Most of the men came back as good providers, committed to duty, honor and sacrifice, but emotionally withdrawn. They related to their family and kids in the same way that they had to act towards the harsh realities of the Great Depression and World War II – with loyalty, patriotism, and modesty.
The need for affirmation, self-esteem, and the expression of feelings were concepts born on another planet for many of these veterans. Many didn’t know how to open up and discuss things on an emotional level. Heart-to-heart conversation was not their strength. They were a “can do”, “shape up or ship out” generation who loved their families, but didn’t know how to properly express this in the new social context of the late 1960’s and beyond. In fact, they woke up late in that tumultuous decade and discovered that the values of the world had changed around them. Kids had emotional needs and expectations that they simply never thought about when they were growing up.
It was this kind of father to whom I was born in 1959. My father was an excellent provider, faithful to his wife, and the words of divorce was never heard from his lips. He did most of the home and car repairs himself, brought home a good paycheck – rarely spent money or took time for himself, and usually took a leadership position in our Boy Scouts and Little League activities.
I know my dad loved me. However, other than the standard “love ‘ya” mumbled at the end of a phone call (usually in response to my initiation) or one time when he was tipsy – the only time, as he handled alcohol well – he never told me directly. I remember one heart to heart talk he had in advising me to change my college major simply because we had so few of those talks. When I dated in high school, I had to figure it all out myself (do I kiss her now or do I walk her to the door?) because he never expressed this kind of personal interest in my life. I was growing up and becoming a man without anyone to guide me.
My mother was a compulsive controller. It wasn’t a matter of if she would get her way, but when. Her control was on the most trivial of things. If we withstood her in any way, she would yell at us, hit us across the face, or use any other technique at her disposal. I remember times where she wouldn’t talk to me for days. One friend commented to me later in life that he always thought it odd that my room was always so stringently tidy – almost the feel of not being lived in. It was because I would never even think of rearranging my room in the smallest of ways. In all my years of growing up, everything was placed – down to the wastepaper cans and Kleenex boxes – exactly where she wanted it placed and woe be onto me if I even thought of moving it.
I am not against parental control over their kids. However, parental wisdom tells us that as kids begin to grow into the adolescent years, they need to be taught how to make choices and embrace the consequences. Adolescent choices on some activities, hairstyle and length, posters in their room, dress statements can be a healthy way to allow for natural self-expression and responsibility provided they are under parental oversight.
I rarely had these choices. My clothes were always from the discount sales. While my friends were wearing flares and bellbottoms, I was wearing the stovepipe “where’s the flood?” jeans no one else wanted. While everyone else was growing their hair out, I showed up with a business haircut done by my mom.
My mom wasn’t doing this to be cruel. Her reasoning was based upon the European immigrant ethic of thrift. However, my point is that I grew up in an environment where I was constantly told that I had no valid choices of my own and that my opinions do not matter. Therefore I came to believe that there was no way I could enact change in others.
My father never intervened in the matter or came to our protection. He worked long hours and spent the evenings watching television. Real conversation was something we rarely saw in my home. When my father and mother did come in conflict (for she was controlling to him as well), my dad would sometimes blow up in anger. Mom would hold that grudge for years. Dad would cool down after a short time and submissively try to make things up. In short, if I disagreed with mom (and in some cases, my disagreements were valid as she had me doing some silly things) there was absolutely no advocacy for me. Ultimately, I had to stuff it and submit.
This environment affected me greatly. First, it taught me that my opinions were not valid and that I should feel guilty if I disagreed with someone in authority. Today, when I sense verbal conflict approaching, my mind still goes blank and I feel an incapacitating feeling of panic.
Second, I developed a great deal of internal, private anger. I used to cut lawns in high school and I remember many times pushing my lawn mower around the neighborhood feeling like an exploding volcano while I plotted about how I was going to run away from home if I could get up the courage. But, the courage never came because deep down I felt that my opinions were not valid and the fault all lay with me.
At times, I would lose my temper and yell in rage at my mother. Like my dad, I would cool down and feel guilt ridden about being such an awful child who could not get along with my own mother. I was always to blame.
Dad, again, never intervened. On occasion, if I screamed too much, he would grab me and tell me that he would punch my teeth in if I didn’t shape up. But, he never taught me conflict resolution (thankfully, he never punched my teeth in). He never showed me how to negotiate with mom. He never protected me from the mom who was always right and everyone else was wrong.
When I became a Christian, it was a lonely journey. My discipleship took place by reading books. Religion was an especially taboo subject with dad. One day I summoned the courage to wear a “Jesus” pin on my shirt – popular during the Jesus Movement – and you could feel the tension in the air. Events in his Jewish upbringing hurt dad. As a result, the one thing that was the most important in my life, I couldn’t talk with him about. When I did, he simply blew up and bellowed, “I took a comparative religion class in college and know all about religion!”
When I met Wes Cohen and Tom Vessey at Orange Coast College Assembly book table in 1978, I discovered my way out. The Assembly represented something that I had become very interested in – following Jesus. It also represented my coming of age and finding my own identity, or so I thought.
People who study marriages have recognize that we are attracted to traits in our spouse that is new and refreshing. The boyfriend in My Big Fat Greek Wedding was attracted to the girl’s loud and unusual Greek family because his family was so boring.
On the other hand, we are also attracted to things in our spouse that are similar to our families. First, because the similarity gives us a comfortable feeling of familiarity – being at “home”. Second, because it allows us another chance to deal with unfinished business from our past that still dwells in our hearts.
My attraction to the Assembly followed this marriage model. I was attracted to the traits in the Assembly that were the opposite of my family. Since my dad was Jewish and I was raised nominally Catholic the religious expression of my upbringing was going to mass once a year and lighting a candle during Passover. Discussions of God, theology and the Bible were nil and I hadn’t the slightest idea of who Billy Graham was.
The Assembly was a contrast with its call to committed Christianity. Joining this group represented commitment to Jesus as well as rebellion towards my past. I was involved in something my mom and dad “just didn’t get” and there was nothing they could do to stop me.
I was also attracted to the Assembly because, oddly enough, it was so similar to my past. It felt like home. I remember the very first Sunday in 1978 when I first laid eyes on Brother George as he continually bounced out of his front corner seat taking charge. My exact thoughts were, “I can see that he’s in control” and that he reminded me of my mother’s cousin who was a very outspoken, dominating individual. Many, who came to the Assembly for a short time, saw problems and never came back. I saw George’s control, his unyieldingness towards other’s opinions, his propensity to make those who disagree with him out to be foolish and insignificant, and his constant emphasis on personal guilt and self-doubt. But, unlike others, I initially did not make the connection that anything was wrong with this. Since it was similar to what I grew up with, it made me feel oddly at home.
I was also attracted to the similarity of the Assembly to my family because of my internal, emotional, need to deal with unfinished business. My dad never communicated masculinity to me. I grew up feeling like the underage elementary school kid I was who wore silly clothes and was the last one picked on the sports teams. Deep down I believed that mom was always right, I was a worthless dirt clod for thinking otherwise, and that everyone out there was like mom and dad. There had been no man to answer the questions in my heart – in every boy’s heart – “Will I make it? Am I adequate?”
There was the hope in Brother George that I could be affirmed. Here was a man who exuded authority, confidence and vision. His message – God wants reality, not religion – fueled the renouncement of my past and brought me hope that I too could be a follower of Jesus. His was the affirmation I longed for. If I fully committed myself to the cause, I would hear the words I had never heard from my own father – “Son, I’m proud of you. You have what it takes. You’re going to make it.”
I have to believe that my case was typical. How many leading brothers had a good relationship with their fathers? For that matter, how many did you know who actually had parents – we certainly didn’t hear of them or meet them. And why was it that the bulk of the Assembly so easily bought into the family-alienating practices such as the “no Christmas gift” rule, the activities during major holidays and the priority of meetings over family? How many of us joined the Assembly with mixed motives – partially to follow Jesus, partially to run away, and partially to make up for the deficiencies in our own fathers?
The truth is, relatively few agonized over leaving their father and mother for the gospel sake. After all, before them every Sunday stood one who could be the father they needed. It was much easier to run away to our new spiritual family than to face the dysfunctions of our biological one.
In our search to answer the “why” questions, (Why did I get involved in the Assembly? Why didn’t I see the problems sooner? Why was I so attracted to Brother George?) we may have to consider our upbringing. George is indeed to blame for being an improper role model for the impressionable children we were. We are to blame for some of the choices we made as well. But, have you considered that the reason the Assembly became an attractive half-way-house for us, with George at the head of the table, was because our fathers did not adequately prepare us for real life? We found ourselves as adults with so many basic questions unanswered that we clung to the first one we saw who seemed able to show us the way. This is why we embraced his ready-made world-view and deeply craved his paternal affirmation.
My mom died in 1984 and my dad passed away in 2000.If there was to be affirmation, the time has passed. The questions of adequacy that were deep in my heart as a young man were answered other ways through other men and life experiences. Younger eyes look to me as I walk the role of father now.
Our fathers may have failed us – some due to no fault of their own. But our imperfect fathers are only approximations of our perfect Heavenly Father who will not fail us. Christians believe that it is unconditional grace by which the Heavenly Father brings us from rebellious sin to being an adopted child in glory. It is on that final day, he will take us personally and individually and say what we have always longed to hear, “I’m proud of you. You have what it takes. Well done.”
Dave Sable was involved in the Assembly outreach in Huntington Beach from 1978 to 1982 and then the Fullerton Assembly until 1990.He now lives with his wife Loretta (Swenson) Sable and two boys in Deep Gap, NC. He may be reached at outdeep at yahoo dot com.
Exposing Spiritual Abuse: How to rediscover God's love when the church has let you down, by Mike Fehlauer, has a chapter on "Toxic Love," about the excessive devotion of people looking for a father-figure, and two good chapters on positive and negative characteristics to look for in a pastor.