The first portion of this story, written in italics, is from my memory. The second half, written in normal script is a reflection on how my perception has shaped my life since then.
It is around 1978, maybe ’79. My family lives in a small Suburb North of Detroit between 14 Mile Road and 15 Mile Roads. My dad is in the yard gardening. My younger brother and younger sister and I are in the yard playing. It is early summer.
A guy in a black muscle car turns from the side street onto our street and guns his engine. His radio is blaring ACDC or Kiss or some metal band like that. As he zooms past our house, my Dad aggressively shouts “Slow down!”
And time slows … and slows … and … almost stops. The moment I frozen and I feel frozen, powerless to move a muscle.
The guy flips Dad the bird.
“Do it again and I’ll break it off,” my Dad shouts.
The ACDC guy in his muscle car slams on the breaks and jumps out and up and up. I see his thick mop of dark hard, black t-shirt, sloped shoulders, barrel chest and large gut. If this guy didn’t present as such a slacker, he could be a linebacker. He’s got to be 6’2”, 250. To my 9-year-old eyes, he looks like a bruiser, a real giant.
And my Dad looks like a shrimp. He’s 5’10”, 170lbs soaking wet.
I look at the bruiser and at my Dad, and I am scared. I think, ‘my Dad is going to get killed, right here, right now.’ I am shivering, trembling with fear. A moment ago, I was carefree, playing with my brother in the driveway. Now I am so scared.
My Dad doesn’t miss a step. He grabs a shovel and marches right up to ACDC guy. Dad sticks his finger in the bruisers face. I don’t hear the conversation. I just hear a sound that is far more powerful and intimidating than this tough guy, this Gene Simmons wannabee. It is the sound of my Dad’s raised voice. That sound typically ends whatever naughty behavior I am into. Now that sound is unleashed on this clown who races through residential neighborhoods. Dad is animated, mad, and he has a shovel. The bruiser’s slouching shoulders slouch a bit more as he tucks his tail between his legs, lowers his head, and drives away slowly.
I do not know the exact year of these events. I do not have any way of verifying the factual accuracy. What I am sharing, in narrative form, is my perception of what happen and the pictures painted by my memory are cloudy. I am not affected by what actually happened. It was about as insignificant as an event could be. There were words exchanged and it was over. I shaped by my perception of it all and how that perception was a part of a larger narrative I was writing, a narrative that produced the lens through which I viewed the world.
How did that event affect me? First, of the thousands or millions of experiences big or small that I have forgotten, this one I remember. Why? Why did this make such an impression? I know exactly why. I was scared out of my mind. And my Dad wasn’t scared at all.
I have not researched the conventions of grammar, but I don’t think the word ‘dad’ is to be capitalized. It is a role, not a proper name. But in my story, it must be capitalized. If my story were written down on a page, the writing would be across a page with my father’s face filling the page. He was over everything.
By this, I do not mean that he was tough or abusive or anything like that; in fact, it was the opposite. Sure, my dad spanked, and until I was an adolescent, I was afraid when he did. But far more often, Dad was a source of fun and love and safety. For every spank there was 1000 tickled and not the tickle of the torture variety but of the fun variety. My Dad laughed with his kids – a lot. And we laughed with him. I could go to sleep at night without fear because the dragonslayer was watching my house.
Recently as I reflected on the incident with ACDC guy, what it meant to me became clearer. Because Dad was fearless (in my eyes), as long as I was under his protection, I could be fearless. My home was a place of safety not only for me, but sometimes for kids from homes less stable than mine. I had friends who would come to our house because our house was the stable, safe place. However, looking back now, I realize that all that time I was internalizing something, although I certainly was not aware of it then.
It looked to me like the Dragonslayer was saying to the Dragon, “Get the hell out of my neighborhood and don’t come back.” And the dragon sheepishly looked to the ground, kicked the dirt, and mumbled, “Yes sir.” That’s how it looked to my 4th grade eyes when Dad confronted ACDC guy. That is how I understood what I was watching.
Deep within me, I fell into a dilemma. I knew as a boy, I would grow into a man. I had my model. Until I entered adolescence, God lived in my home in the person of Bob Tennant. Only as I entered manhood, did he begin shrinking. There was a slow almost imperceptible change. Dad became what he always was, just a man. I began seeking God apart from my parents (both of whom represented God for me in my young years).
However, as I think back to that day when I watched him intimidate the dragon, I realized I needed to someday become a man myself. There would come a day when Dad was not around and I would have to be the one to face the dragon and slay the dragon. I was scared, but being scared is not allowed because my Dad was never, ever scared, or so I thought, I can’t do that. He was not scared, at all! I am too scared. I can’t do it. Admitting my fear made me ashamed.
Any time in my life I have felt fear that has transferred to self-loathing. Indiana Jones is never scared. Jason Bourne is never scared. Captain America is never scared. Dad is never scared.
And there was born in me, an evil loop.
Devil: “A man does great things. Rob, to be a man, you must do great things.”
Rob: “But, I can’t. I am scared.”
Devil: “Your Dad is never, ever scared.”
Rob: “I know, but I am. I do get scared.”
Devil: “Then, you’ll never be a man.”
To be clear, my Dad never did this. Dad never, ever said to me, “You’re not man enough. You’re not tough enough. You’ll never amount to anything.” Dad did the opposite. Dad was the ultimate encourager. Dad always said to me, “You can do it, Rob.” I now am a leader in an institution (a pastor of church) that requires me to weekly do what many people fear greatly, speak in public (the weekly sermon). I am convinced that I am able to do this with confidence because all my life I have heard from both parents, “You can do it.” Both of my parents built me up and have supported me all the way. The imagined conversation above between Satan and me, and deep in my soul more real than imaginary, did not come from my Dad. He never made me feel ashamed of being afraid. He never said, “What are you, a baby?” I promise that I am not just denying his posture. My Dad was not perfect at all. He made mistakes. Shaming his kids was not one of them. My brother and sister would have to share their own perception, but I do not ever remember my Dad shaming me or criticizing me for being afraid. I remember my parents heaping encouragement on me. This shame based in fear came from my own perception of things.
A turning point happened years later. We had moved to Virginia and I was playing high school football. I was in great shape. My younger brother and my Dad and I would wrestle in our living room. I was physically strong enough to pin both my brother and my dad at the same time. My independence was bursting forth. Yet, psychologically, my Dad was still the man in that house, I still the boy.
Yes, I was a bigger and stronger boy, but I still grappled with the same dilemma.
Devil: “Oh, you’re bigger and stronger now. But still afraid.”
Rob: “Yes. The other wide receivers are faster and taller, and they’ve played more years of football than me.”
Devil: “Your Dad was never bothered by being smaller. He was army infantry. He was a war vet. He was a hero. You’ll never be one.”
Rob: “Hey! I am on the football team. Most guys my age aren’t even on the team.”
Devil: “Yeah, but you’re not a starter and you never will be. You’ll never be the man your Dad is.”
Rob: “Wait a minute! My Dad didn’t play football. He was never really into sports much. I am an athlete.”
Devil: “Tell yourself that when you get flattened in practice tomorrow. You’ll always be a junior varsity benchwarmer and everyone knows it.”
Rob: “Yeah. I guess that’s right.”
The conversation was different. I had things I could say back to devil. I could put football team member on my “man resume.” Later on I went through army infantry training and I put that on the “man resume” I was keeping this resume in my head. I never needed to write it down because I went over it almost daily.
I remember myself as a junior, about 5’ 9”, 170 lbs. I was playing free safety. The fullback had the ball and a full head of steam. He was 6’ 3”, 240 lbs. and he was coming. He got right in front of him and stuck my shoulder in his sternum, my facemask on the ball. A second and 4 yards down field later, he was down. I had tackled him! I felt like I had been run over by a truck, but I tackled him. “Good job, Tennant!” I heard the coach say. Every moment like that was me slaying that dragon, trying to fill my role as the dragonslayer’s son.
I am lousy long distance runner. My body hates that constant pounding on the pavement. I have never felt that “runner’s high.” However, in army basic training, I did complete the 5-mile run at the end of boot camp. A marathoner would call that a short day, but for me, I was once again reaching for the goal, trying to live up to being the dragonslayer’s son.
Now, I am a 44-year-old man, the father of kids aged 12, 7, and 5. I see how my children look at me, like a dragonslayer. I don’t see any point in trying to convince them that they don’t have to live up to a role. They will be controlled by their perceptions just as I was. I cannot control how they perceive things any more than my dad could control my perceptions. I need to do for them what Dad did for me. I need to be available through everything, all the good and the bad. I need to celebrate as our relationship changes through the years. My dad definitely did that.
I told him I’d be writing this. He recalled my high school years. He recalled coming to the realization that he could not control me physically anymore. From about 16 on, I was the strongest one in the house. Yet, something beautiful began to happen as the relationship changed. As I became an adult, my parents transitioned into the role of good friends. They are still parents to me, but now, they are people I simply enjoy being with. I know I’ll be encouraged and supported. I know they will help me however I need. I know they will love my kids. They are human-sized. And, as I am a pastor, they sometimes ask me questions about God.
I still struggle with feeling shame when I am scared. How can a real man shake with fear? Clint Eastwood never would! I still hear those voices. About two years ago, there were a series of break-ins in our neighborhood. For many nights, I lay awake wondering how I would response if an intruder broke in. Would I stay composed? Would I be quick enough to save my kids and wife? Would fear make me completely ineffective? I still hear the questions in my head and sometimes cannot sleep because of them.
Another question is even more important. Would I love the invader with the love of Christ? The tough guy action hero would never ponder this, but I know someone who might: my dad. As much as I built him up to be some kind of superman when I was a kid, I am so pleased to know as a man that he asks this question. He is just like me, a follower of Jesus trying to live his life as Jesus would live it. In that sense, I still want to be like him. Copying him on these lines, trying life a with-God life, is a good thing.
The lingering fears about a failure of manhood aside, I am in a healthier place now, a place that includes me being gentler with myself. I will never run a marathon or climb Mount Everest and that is OK. I will probably never jump out of an airplane or go scuba diving, and that is OK. The measure of my manhood from Heaven’s perspective is this: am I doing my best? Am I loving as Jesus loves?
The dragon to be slayed in my life is the dragon of self-loathing, self-loathing that starts with fear. That dragon is not yet dead, but definitely is mortally wounded. I need to stay turned toward God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I need to give myself grace. And, I need to give loads and loads of grace to the most important people in my life. There is no room for self-loathing in the giving of grace. And, in the midst of self-loathing, I don’t think it is possible to give grace. Only Jesus at work in me can kill the dragon. He, not my dad or any man is the true dragonslayer. I need him at work in me and I need to practice being his child by giving grace in droves, starting with those closest to me including myself.