I have to admit that Father’s day is one of those holidays that just barely beeps on my annual radar. I feel bittersweet on this holiday as I’m sure many out there can empathize. People like me see other families celebrating a generation or more of men in their family, leaving me feeling a bit detached. As with all illusions in life, there really are no perfect families. However, I will explain my circumstances and what has brought me to write this one and only piece on Father’s Day.
One of the strangest and most painfull memories of my early childhood happened on a cool Saturday morning. Right at dawn, before anyone else besides me was awake, came a knock at the front door. In Los Angeles, knocks on the front door at dawn are not so good. But we lived in a fairly safe section of town, relatively speaking. Still in my pajamas with the feet built into them, with the slipping of the plastic bottoms scratching across the hardwood floor, I shuffled with my mop of bed-head to the front door barely aware of what I was doing. I opened the door, looked up, and a man with a very serious face looked down to me and asked, “Is your father home?”
I didn’t say anything because I was now a little scared; this man didn’t smile or try to be kind at all, so I simply shook my head “yes”.
“Please get him”, demanded the now foreboding figure.
The sound of the plastic-bottomed feet of my PJ’s, now at the pace of maracas, came to a long, hissing slide as I reached the door to my parents’ room. I had to hold the doorknob to keep from going horizontal.
Dad knew immediately something was wrong when I told him there was a man at the door. He jumped up and threw a robe on, cinching it as he entered before me back into the hall with me now in tow. When we got to the door, I could hear a little whispering and my dad took his arm and pushed me behind the half-opened door.
What happened next left an impression on me for the rest of my life. I saw my father cry. More precisely, I saw my father’s heart break and it was awful. The man at the door had come to tell dad that his daddy was dead.
Maybe there are some John Wayne’s out there that can hold it together and take a loss with “dignity”, but what I saw made me feel vulnerable. What I saw made me fearful. The man and leader of the family had just lost it.
So I never really got to know my paternal grandfather. I never remember meeting him.
Unfortunately, the same holds true for my maternal grandfather. According to everyone involved, he was an abusive and despicable character. My grandmother had divorced him (really a rarity back when divorce was the very last option) while my mom was a teenager. The only time I met him was a day or two before my mother passed, in a hospital, with no way to process the reunion. It was awkward. But at the time, nobody cared about anything from the past or any old scars as each prepared for the death of a mother/daughter/wife. He had his own health issues, and having very little to say. He came in one day at the hospital and disappeared again into the backdrop of life, never to be heard from again.
Strange, people I mean…just so many creative ways to build walls around pain and unforgiveness. We are masters of disguising pain in so many faces. We hold onto it like a people proud of our scars, comparing our scars with stories as proof: proof of our right to stand in the face of pain and death; never really getting to know it, we hide it underneath the surface and tap into it when we need bitterness as an excuse or when we need an explanation for the wretches that we can be or when we just damn well need to cry.
When I turned 12 years old, another mile-marker was erected in my soul and again I remember it as clear as day. We were returning from a baseball game (I played 3rd base) and climbing a ridge in our Honda on the way back to the little farm house we were renting. We were now living in Springfield, Tennessee. I can still see the view out of my window as the following words were spoken by my mother: “Dad is not really your dad. Your real father left us when you were still an infant. Dad loves you like his own son, but we had to tell you at some point.” So with the trees racing by in my window and the immovable blue sky spread out like an indifferent spectator of a ceiling, these words bounced off the blue ceiling and landed soft as a breeze yet harsh as a slap in the face. The shadows of the passing trees cut the sunlight like a strobe-light, as though the words had come from the trees and shadows themselves.
Inappropriate as it may seem, I didn’t have a big reaction to the news; it simply did not compute. To say we had been living a lie would be harsh; to say that I was completely fooled would be fair and accurate. In my limited capacity to assess others’ motives, I cannot speak to the wisdom of waiting until the age of 12 to tell a child this information. I know they thought it was the best approach. Truth be told, there are no flawless formulas for dropping bombs.
I don’t want to wax philosophical on you, but these moments in life are accurately described as seeds; like little deposits of information that seem to prick our hearts when sown. We think we can bury the little seed deep down, but they grow into a cancer-like tumor that, if not dealt with, can rule our lives. And just like a seed takes time to germinate, push outward from the dark soil, become a seedling, and eventually mature into a plant that produces the same fruit, these moments start a chain-reaction. It is almost too perfect an example…scary really.
So over time, the seed sprang forth in my heart, I was unable to recognize its evil potential, and I became detached and restless. I retracted into my private pain sometimes on purpose and sometimes completely unawares. I am a creative guy, so you can only imagine how ingenious my various faces were: the quiet, mysterious loner, the rebel, the “life’s a bitch and then you die” attitude, and of course, the Herman Melville (Melville wrote “Moby Dick” and according to his biography, at one point he got so angry with God that he stood on a cliff during a violent storm and shook his fist at God…basically calling Him out. For younger folks, the “Herman Melville” would best be described by what Captain Dan did on Forest Gump’s shrimp boat in the movie “Forest Gump” when he called out God in a storm).
I never met my real father…ever. At one point, there were several family members, myself included, who tried to find my real father but to no avail. To be honest, I didn’t have and still do not have a burning desire to know my biological father. At one point however, I did want to at least meet him and talk to him so I could calibrate magnetic north on my genetic predispositions. What flaws do I take ownership of and which do I get to blame on him?! That’s harsh and only partially true. Really, I wanted to know what kind of man he was and if we shared some traits, good and/or bad.
When my stepfather, whom I always have and always will call “dad”, was stricken with cancer, he was all I had left of a father-figure or male role-model. When he passed, I erected yet another mile-marker on the road, like an ebenezer in the valley of the shadow of death constructed of unpolished stones to worship the god of the mountain, the mountain of sorrow.
At some point, it was all just too much and I began to eat the fruit of bitterness that had grown, been fed, and perversely cherished in my own heart. The best way to describe this time in my life is to compare it to being a ship lost at sea in a storm. There is no horizon to relieve the seasickness, no stars to look up to for orientation, and no lighthouse to guide me back to the shore of sanity. In retrospect, I see how important it is to have a frame of reference, a benchmark, or a horizon; however flawed or unreasonable the promise of solid ground, it beats being tossed around in a dizzying dance of madness!
People who still have parents and grandparents need to understand something: it doesn’t matter how good or bad you think your relationships are with these people in your life, you lose part of who you are when they pass. If you doubt this statement, you will always get another chance to test its veracity. A less than lovely shore and horizon is better than no horizon at all. Sometimes people in our lives can be lighthouses, a way to help find our way back, but inevitably you will be the lighthouse for another…whether you like it or not. And the cycle continues.
So as I see the honor given to fathers and the fellowship folks share at Father’s day, I am at one point detached and on the other point in awe. I ask myself, “What would it be like to enjoy a holiday dedicated to arguably the most important influence in a man’s life? What does it feel like to admire and love a father?” Families can and do get destroyed; it is a fact. And the stark reality is that family is the framework (oftentimes a patchwork) of our lives. You can paint a pretty picture on the outside, but without the foundation on the inside, we risk our destruction when false foundations are washed away in life’s storms. I speak from experience. And without a doubt, I know someone is reading this with tears welling up in their eyes because they know of what I speak.
So my perspective of Father’s Day is one that has been radically changed over the years. But regardless of the season of life Father’s Day finds me, my reaction to it is always one of general confusion. Even as a Christian, I struggle to find any comfort or significance in celebrating a father that I never knew, a stepfather that left a wake of grief behind him, or celebrating myself as a father now. It does one thing though: it reminds me of the ultimate mile-marker in my life. That mile-marker is the true altar and celebration of when I put the ax to the tree of bitterness, when I let the deep roots of self-pity be painfully extracted from my infected heart, and when life as I had known it would be put to death. I remind myself every year about this time that I am unbelievably blessed to have had such a wreck of a father-model.
So far, I have taken you on a journey…my journey. The intent is not to make you feel bad for me or to take you on a cathartic family vacation with me. My goal is to give you a true definition of where I was. My life changed but how the change happened is more important than the present state of affairs. Before I continue, I must confess that I am at present one of the most blessed men on planet earth. I am not trying to sound haughty or prideful; I am simply stating facts. The blessings that I enjoy are more than I can actually take in; they just keep flowing. My wife and children are incredible gifts from God, but there’s more to the story. I am not wealthy, I am not famous, and I am not even considered remarkable by the world’s definition of a man. The reality is that the blessings that I enjoy are spiritual in nature, the blessings are a result of passionate relationships, and the blessings I enjoy have no end, for they are eternal in nature.
In the darkest moment of time for me, I was shown a truth. Like a treasure hunter that searches his entire life for the one thing that would make his heart beat faster, give him victory, or usher him into better times, I found what I was looking for…or what I wasn’t looking for.
I had always struggled with seeing God as a father. God to me was at best indifferent and at worst cruel. I simply did not have a paradigm that made a “father” appealing. On top of that, I was confused as to why or how God had let the world go to shambles around us. I knew about God, of God, but I think I missed the formal introduction or it was inadvertently washed from my mind.
The epiphany came when I realized that no matter how hard we fight it, we are defined by ourselves. It is our one true choice. That sounds simple, but it is a very deep well. You see, life’s circumstances and the world’s influence can’t define you; it is your reaction to these things that define you. To blame life and its pain for what ails us is a cop out. If you believe the lie, you lose before you begin because you are going the wrong way. One step down the road of blame is actually two steps away from truth because you lose the day to have walked in truth. The ultimate cop out is to blame God; this is the atomic bomb in the enemy’s arsenal.
But let’s go deeper. We compare ourselves to others to assess our worth; whether it’s your father, your mother, your peers, a mentor, or even an illusion created by a collective conscience of pop culture. We all, as mere mortals, build our framework of life on the foundation of expectations, standards, or benchmarks. We mimic this inward model and that inward model is built on our understanding of who we are and what we’re supposed to do. The beauty of this particular epiphany is that we each get to choose a foundation to build upon, the foundation is the key.
We get to eventually choose, in a moment of clarity, who or what we will continue to build upon, or we can simply start from scratch. I am convinced that every person who has ever lived and every person who is yet unborn will get an opportunity to see life in a very clear light. All will get to the crossroads of life that is defined by a choice of whether to build on the foundation of worldly expectations or godly expectations. That moment of clarity may happen only as a passing thought while sipping a cup of coffee, it may happen while listening to a person talk, it may happen in the cold and dark night of loss, it may happen while standing on a mountaintop gazing down at the pristine creation that lay below, it may happen when you least expect it, it may happen at the least opportune time, it most assuredly will affect you, and it opens a door to redefine life. Some people have an experience, some people are haunted by the whisper of truth, some people do everything in their ability to make it go away, some hardly notice when wisdom slips in and out almost undetected, some search for it in all the wrong places, and some have sworn an oath to avoid it. The fact is this: you don’t have to search for clarity; it will find you! Your job is to prepare yourself to make a decision when the lights are turned on.
All that to say: I made a choice. The choice required me to allow someone else to define me, someone else to lay the foundation, and someone else to build the framework of my life. The choice required me to abandon everything I thought I knew. However impossible it seemed, I wholesale gambled on the choice to choose the foundation of Christ, the foundation of love, and the foundation of letting go of me and grabbing onto Him.
When a person comes to that moment of clarity, it is a choice to die to self and unashamedly admit that only one choice ultimately matters. We all have to count the cost: we count with the number of tears shed, we keep track with all the times we have been hurt, we count the cost of swimming upstream, the cost of not knowing our future or even being able to define it. It is an invisible, backward plunge of faith fueled by the possibility and belief that there will be Someone there to catch us…someone we have never really known. It is a leap of faith, mind you, not a dipping of your toes in the water. Nothing but full scale abandon will do. Many dip their toes and say they have been swimming, when all along they only fooled themselves. When the time comes, even if you are a “toe-dipper”, you will know it and be required to step out onto a bridge that you cannot see. Some get several, if not many, moments of clarity, but no one knows how many times the crossroads will appear around the corner. Thank the Lord that He is a God of opportunity, of mercy, and of patience.
So my life is defined now by my Father. All the baggage, family “curses”, and broken models have been substituted for the one and only Rock of ages. God reached down to me at my worst hour and invited me into a personal, intense relationship with Him. It all seemed like a fairy tale or an impossible dream. The fact is that I have found that only One keeps His word, only One can set the captive free, and only One can take a broken life and build out of the ashes. God is true to His word.
So when Father’s Day rolls around every year, I thank God that He stepped into my life to be the father-figure I so desperately needed. Now, I try (and fail often) to do what Jesus would do; I try to speak lovingly into people’s lives, I try to imitate a role-model that breathes life into me; and I am, in a cooperative way, building a whole new family legacy. We all take missteps every now and again, but God is quick to forgive and teaches us to do the same.
To the ones involved in my life, understand this and let it soak into your mind and heart. The only legacy I want to leave my children and their children is this: trust God, build on Him, and learn to seek God. Don’t celebrate me; celebrate your Father! When I have passed and moved on, I want my people to say that here is a man who loved God and loved people. That’s it. That’s all. The Lord has promised that if I will do ONE thing, then He will do the rest.
The secret to living in relationship with God is to abandon every model, let go of all your unforgiveness and bitterness, and don’t lean on your own understanding. You see, it is easier for a person like me who didn’t have the close relationship with their father, to choose the ultimate Father to model. So every time Father’s Day rolls around, instead of looking back and lamenting, I find forgiveness in my heart, joy in my heart, and a peace that simply cannot be put into words. But I had to share this to number one, let others know that there is a solution to what ails us, and number two, to let this serve as a record for my family. If I’m not around, hopefully this letter will speak to your heart and verify that the ONE choice in life is the choice to love God, let Him love you, and seek after Him hard all of your days. Everyone in life one way or another will fail us or disappoint us; but God will never fail you or disappoint you.
From a man who has been around the block a few times, in your moment of clarity when the veil is flung open, prepare yourself to enter into another dimension of reality…the ultimate dimension of the eternal and infinite. Father’s Day for me celebrates the Father of us all and makes my heart leap for joy that we all can be children of the living God!