Where Are You, Dad?
What do we do when life and the people we trust let us down and cause us pain? What do we do when we let ourselves down and cause others pain? Before we begin I need you to know that I have struggled to write this post. This Is Him is about looking at glimpses of Jesus to know Him better through story. My intent is to explore the way Jesus and the love of God show grace and kindness to imperfect people like you and I, EVEN THROUGH painful circumstances like abandonment and shame. People inevitably hurt us and we hurt others. More often than not we hurt others unintentionally, but that does not change the pain they feel. If my writing in any way minimizes a painful experience, excuses wrong doing, or induces shame I am very sorry and that is so far from my intentions. I ask for grace from you as I attempt to paint a picture of restorative kindness in action.
People inevitably hurt each other.
Once upon a time there was a beautiful blonde baby girl who grew up her whole freaking life not knowing if her dad gave a flying crap about her or not. He has not seen her in 27 years; he doesn’t send gifts or write cards; he has no idea what her life is like. If love is a verb, he has mostly failed to show fatherly love to her. At all. Let’s call her Raven.
Oops, I’m afraid that my own sadness, curiosity, and anger are woven into this story. Raven is my friend. I see the pain it causes not only her but dozens of my friends, family and students when a child lacks connection with one or both parents. I hurt when they hurt and it feels sad and personal.
Despite her biological father's lack of presence, love, or affection, Raven grew up to marry her husband, Michael, and together they have wonderful children. They have loved each other, stayed together, and forged successful careers. Raven is talented, loving, and makes a huge difference in our community. One of the best things about her is the way she faithfully shows up for other people in good times and bad.
Her father, on the other hand, not so much. She met him at her wedding and hasn’t seem him since. He was not there for birthdays, graduation, children’s births, or moving into their first home. She is a really great mom and wife. She is talented and athletic and will do almost anything to help someone else but he doesn’t know that. It seems he has no idea the depth of this person he helped bring into existence. Worse, there is so little evidence that he cares.
Her father is missing out on her beautiful life.
One of the next two paragraphs happened recently. You choose your favorite.
Recently an interesting thing happened. Raven saw a picture of her father on a fishing trip on Facebook and sent him a sarcastic text about the expensive boat in the picture. It was certainly nothing he didn’t deserve, considering she never received any financial support from him. No one would blame her for letting him know that she sees his vacation photos, the time he spends with his other family, and the way it seems like he tries harder with others than with her.
Her unsuccessful attempt to connect with her biological father sparked a fierce sense of protection in Michael. He could tell that his wife was upset and decided to find his phone number and give him a piece of his mind. Not surprisingly, the conversation became awkward and when her father got a little defensive, Michael couldn’t help but let some truth fly. It seemed highly overdue to point out the selfishness it must take to not acknowledge your own child. It had just built up too long and he hoped that a reality check might produce at least a small dose of remorse. Opening the valve that restrained his anger gratified the glaring injustice and when he hung up the phone, he knew that, if nothing else, he had said enough to dispel any misconception that this deadbeat dad has made the right choices. If it stung, too bad. Sometimes the truth hurts.
Recently an interesting thing happened. When Raven saw a Facebook picture of her father on a fishing trip, she sent him a congratulatory text to let him know she was happy to see the big fish he caught. When he didn't respond, Raven wasn’t necessarily surprised, but it sparked a frustration and sadness in her husband Michael. As a father himself, he put himself in his shoes and realized the ongoing tragedy as her father continues to miss decades of knowing an incredible lady and daughter, long after his relationship with Raven’s mother ended.
After finding the number, Michael dialed the phone. They talked. And Michael, because he understands the way shame can imprison us in the darkest jail cell, explained his hopes that the story does not end this way. From one father to another, without animosity, he urged Raven's father to reach out to her in some small way before it's too late for them both. The conversation, though difficult, was well received by a man who knew his son-in-law suspects that he is not a horrible person. Life and wisdom have taught Michael that good intentions buried under a pile of broken dreams and shame, topped with the sting of futility and nagging whispers that, “It’s too late!” and the lie that she is better off without him could leave a person stuck, even if they did care. He may always stay buried, which means that Raven may always feel unloved by him or die wondering.
I wonder if he knows how much he failed as a father. Then I realized-- of course he does. We all do.
All of us who are parents know our own faults better than anyone. The older our children get and the more I learn, the more times I have found myself longing for a REDO button. There are so many circumstances I would handle differently if given the chance. There are times I caused pain in my children and operated selfishly or out of ignorance, anger, fear, or sheer exhaustion. I am skilled at regret and it would be easy to author an essay of ALL THE THINGS I wish I would have done, not done, done more of, done differently, stopped doing. Sometimes I wish I could go back and do it all again knowing what I know now. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on regrets than all the things I did well.
But to not even get in the game? Just to tap out on a whole life? How does somebody do that and how is that ever okay? These are the thoughts I think and the frustration that I have. Though comparison can be the thief of joy, it can also be a tremendous comfort. There’s nothing like a bad parent to make the rest of us feel better about our own mistakes. I may not have been a perfect parent, but at least I was around. Self righteous statements that begin with “at least I…” are always comforting and put us a rung or two above others on the ladder of comparison. The truth is, we don't know why Raven's biological father has not been more involved in her life, but that doesn't change his value as a person.
Parents who fall short is not the story I want to tell. Failure and unmet expectations apply to every mother and father who has ever lived, including me. We do the best we can.
Reaching out in undeserved kindness is a story worth telling.
To quote one of my favorite authors, Jen Hatmaker:
Loved people love people. Forgiven people forgive people. Adored people adore people. Freed people free people. But when we are still locked in our own prisons, it is impossible to crave the liberation of others.
(of Mess & moxie page 78)
I was very moved by this display of love, mercy and friendship for a man whose daughter has missed out on knowing her father. Grace appeared and love conquered judgment. Despite the lack of love shown to his daughter, Michael and Raven have done nothing to shame him. The second paragraph was true. The first one I made up entirely. Michael didn’t know if reaching out to his wife’s birth father would change anything. But as much as he wanted it to be different for his wife, he wanted it to be different for a man who is really missing out on a special relationship. And that, to me, is a story worth telling. Michael and Raven understand grace because they have received it and believe in extending it to others. This is the heart of the church that Jesus loves. The church is not a building; it is people loving God and loving each other.
What exactly did Michael say when he made the phone call to his wife’s biological father? He explained that he entered carefully into this space. He wants this man to know his daughter before it’s too late, but knows that the situation is complex. He wants him to know the truth; his absence has hurt her and continues to cause pain. She doesn't understand why he doesn't pick up the phone or come to visit. But, she is loved. Nothing can separate her from the love of God and no child experiences the perfect love of a father through human parents. Michael doesn’t want him to believe that it is too late or that he is a loser or that his wife would be better off without the love of her biological father. If there is a chance that he is imprisoned by these lies, Michael wants to see him set free by the freedom that he has experienced himself.
Grace restores beauty from ashes.
My friends reminded me of the merciful love of our Father when we feel inadequate. Grace smoothes the rough spots and redeems painful situations into opportunities to express mercy and love to others. Grace heals our own pain and allows us to heal others. Without pain we could not experience God as a healer. We can’t know God’s provision until we have been in need. Once someone has experienced unconditional love, freedom, and forgiveness, they want others to experience it too. Grace is beautiful that way.
I love you. Jesus loves you more.