On Sunday, we had the privilege of hearing from a panel of dads. Pastor John Marshall, along with two of our elders, Trevor Schenk and Jim Fuhrer, shared with us about their experiences with each of their fathers as well as their experiences parenting their own children.
These three men all had really good dads. Dads who weren’t perfect, but still modeled God’s love to them. Dads who lived out their faith. All three identified that their dads didn’t really talk about their faith with their kids–they shared their faith in their actions. Whether it was the way they respected others and spoke encouragement, their consistency and strength of character, or their hospitality to anyone who needed a place to stay, all three lived out their faith in front of their kids. And these sons that we heard from–they noticed.
Jim said, “What you know is articulated through what you do.” He went on to say that kids are quick to spot the inconsistencies. They see hypocrisy. He encouraged us to notice the way that God demonstrates pursuing his kids–and to pursue our kids in that same way–in words as well as in action. He talked about the importance of dads telling their daughters, “You’re beautiful” and telling their sons, “I”m proud of you.” I think the exact words may differ for each child–every person is wired uniquely and may need to hear something different. Regardless of the wording, what Jim was encouraging dads to do was to speak to the places of longing in their children’s hearts. To speak truth into those holes we all have that, if not countered with truth, become a breeding ground for insecurity, shame, fear, and all forms of hidden pain. For me, the best thing my dad could say to me–whether in words or through action–is, “You matter. You’re significant to my life, and I have space for you.” What is it that your heart would most love to hear from your father?
John vulnerably shared that, while his dad lived out what he believed, he can’t recall hearing the words “I love you” from him very many times in his life. He wasn’t sure his dad loved him. He identified one time that he did hear these words. They were the last words his dad spoke to him before he died nearly two years ago. The impact of those three words on John’s heart was felt throughout the room as he shared about that moment through tears. John needed to hear his dad say, “I love you.”
Up to this point, we’ve looked at the importance of both words and actions when it comes to being a dad. We’ve heard about three really wonderful fathers from three men who are also wonderful dads (and granddads) to their own children and grandchildren. None of these men are/were perfect, none have/had all the answers. But they all love God, and they’ve all done–and are doing–their best to reflect the heart of God to their children.
As I type these words, I am so aware that what our panel presented is, unfortunately, not the norm. It is not common to hear about so many dads who parent well and lead their children this way. There are many of us who can’t quite identify with this experience, many of us whose dads created chaos rather than stability, and left us doubting God rather than trusting him. Rather than modeling the love of God to their children, many dads instill in them the fear of God by painting a picture of anger, judgement, and criticism, or maybe one of apathy and abandonment.
If your experience with your father–or as a father–was (or is) more like what you just read than what our panel shared about, please keep reading…
While our panel of dads shared many wise and honest points, there was one line that hit me harder than everything else they said. It was a response to the question, “What is your biggest challenge as a dad?” The answer we heard from Trevor, the youngest of the three dads, is one that I know I’ll be wrestling through for a while. Trevor has two young sons, currently one and four years old. He answered the question with these words:
‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”
His words hit me hard. They led me to a trail head for a path I was (and am still, honestly…) resistant to travel. The path is rocky and steep. It’s dark and shadowy and a bit mysterious. It’s full of memories that could cause me to slip and fall and bleed. It’s a path I don’t want to take–and I don’t have to. I could walk right past the entrance and move on. I could find another trail–one full of butterflies and wildflowers, one well-marked and well-lit.
I don’t want to take the rocky path. Because it might cultivate compassion that I don’t want to have for a person that has wounded me deeply, and continues to do so…
The Holy Spirit delivered Trevor’s words into the core of me. It felt a bit like a sucker punch, the kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you a little panicky as you gasp for air. I resisted immediately, because, well, self-pity feels better than self-emptying love. And anger can feel like power and control in situations that otherwise leave you feeling small and insignificant.
I wanted to stay in the anger. I told God that.
But even as I wrestled, I knew that this would be the next page in my story. God was inviting me deeper, into a place of compassion, grace, and forgiveness through Trevor’s words. Would I take his hand and let him lead me onto this rocky trail in front of me, the one called “Ian”?
Ian is my dad. Our relationship is complicated, and to catch you all up to where we are today would require far too many words. What you need to know, for now, is that I came into church on Sunday hurting and guarded and wanting to go back home. Because once again, my dad had broken my heart and left me feeling disappointed and invisible. I’m learning that anger is my go-to emotion when I feel unseen, because, as I said before, anger can feel like power and control. So that’s where I was as I listened to our panel.
‘The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a father is myself.”
Trevor’s words led me to a trail head called “Ian”, not “Dad”. A trail called “Dad” would lead me through the winding, treacherous journey back through our story as father and daughter. God was inviting me, instead, to traverse the trail of Ian’s story. That realization alone was enough to cause stress fractures in the walls around my heart. I know his story, and it’s tragic. One chapter from the story of his early years would be enough to soften the hardest heart… but, somehow, I’d forgotten that. I had locked all of that in a box and hid it behind the file cabinet of my own pain.
I couldn’t go there yesterday. I thanked Trevor for sharing and let him know that I was pretty sure I’d end up writing about how God had used his words. And then I left with my family to celebrate my husband and his dad.
I couldn’t run away from it today, though…
What if I applied Trevor’s answer to my Dad? What if I took the first step onto the perilous path of his life story with eyes to see and ears to hear what it was like for him? What if I opened that locked box and let the stories I’ve put away come into view?
My dad endured a childhood no little boy should ever have to face. The stories aren’t mine to share, so I will speak in generalities, but I assure you that the details would rip your heart in two. He faced abuse and abandonment. When he courageously stood up to protect his mother at the tender age of eight, the cost was his father, whom he never saw again. He endured poverty and a fractured, blended family. He endured spiritual warfare terrifying enough to break box office records in the horror category. The man who eventually ended up sticking around in his life was a good man, but he was a hard man who only softened in his later years. Despite the odds against him, my dad excelled in school and in sports. He found a love for God through the faith of his mother, a woman who shouldn’t have survived all that life threw at her–but somehow she did.
He wanted to be a pastor…
But then he found himself entangled in a “church” that preached patriarchy and a vengeful, angry God. It was a place that stripped young, hopeful Jesus-followers of their identities and manipulated them in a grotesque show of power and control that took the forms of spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse. This place broke him. And his brokenness broke his family.
His brokenness broke me…
And then it broke other families, too.
It’s still breaking my heart, and now the hearts of my own kids.
And I want to be angry…
But as I recall all he’s been through, all that’s made him who he is; as I think about what was modeled to him from every father figure he’s ever known, I have to acknowledge it:
My dad’s biggest challenge as a father is himself, too.
His shame, his broken little-boy heart, his fragmented history… How do you learn to be a father when that is the story of you?
As I exhale, my narrative shifts… Considering all he’s been through, he hasn’t done too badly. My saying that doesn’t mean he’s “off the hook” for all the pain he’s caused me and those I love. It does mean, however, that I can cultivate compassion for this man, named Ian. This man who, if I didn’t know him as my father, I would be devastated for. A man whose story is heartbreaking and woven into the person he is–the good and the bad. A man who, against all odds, has held onto hope and to God, and who brings a lot of good into the world. Acknowledging his story allows me to focus on his strengths and to see the good in him. And there truly is good in him–and in all of us. I get to choose what I focus on–we all do.
Maybe the biggest challenge we all face as human beings is ourselves. Maybe Trevor’s answer applies to all of us… Maybe it’s our own shortcomings, each of our file cabinets filled with our pain and disappointment, that get in the way of our loving each other well.
And maybe that’s why we all need the reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us. We wrote these words in our Mother’s Day post:
“…Wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God… Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet… There is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but as we commit these things to God,“he will bring life to it.” We are “a people of hope”, and God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.”
None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. (And stories we may have forgotten about…) His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.”
These words are worth repeating, because we have to be reminded that our weakness is not something to be afraid of… and the weakness of someone else–even if that someone else is our dad or our mom–isn’t something we have to be angry about. We can choose compassion when everything within us would rather run the other way. Because the story doesn’t hinge on our parents, on our children, or on us. The story hinges on the father who is also mother. The father who is perfect and shows up brightest in our imperfections.
My dad isn’t perfect. There are wounds in my heart that aren’t healed, and may never be. But my Father is perfect. He is perfect in his love for me as his daughter, and he is perfect in his love for my dad, who is just as much his child. He alone can come into the broken and cultivate compassion rather than anger, if we let him. These words from a song we sang on Sunday keep running through my head:
My weakness is hidden within Your glory
Jesus, my strength is in You
The odds are against me, but You are for me
Jesus, my strength is in You
(Power, Elevation Worship)
The odds are against all of us. But we all have One who is for us. And his perfect parental love is enough to carry us from where we are to where we could be, if we trust him enough to take his hand and let him lead us.
As I read what Laura wrote above, my heart hurts for my friend, my heart hurts for Ian, and my heart hurts for all those who’ve struggled in their relationships with their dads. That is not my story. My dad is not perfect, but he’s fantastic. He was very free with loving words and loving actions.
I have no idea how many of my childhood hours were spent traipsing through the woods, catching tadpoles and crawdads in creeks, floating in a canoe down a river, walking together on trails, sitting in his lap while he read me books, even sliding down his cast when he broke his leg. He taught me, with words and actions, about God’s love, about prayer being listening to God as well as speaking to God-and we practiced that together. We memorized the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm together. When my mother died, he gave us permission to be angry and grieved honestly in front of and with us. When my life exploded in 2011, he was my confidant, my safe person, and gave wise and beautiful support and counsel without degrading anyone else. He will be ninety on his next birthday, and though his physical body is causing him a good bit of trouble, his brilliant mind, his gentle ways, and his love are still pillars in my life. I recognize that my story is a rare one. I am grateful.
Pastor John reminded us as he shared, that we weren’t comparing fathers and mothers and which parent is most important or has greater influence because both reflect the image of God and both are incredibly influential; however, he did point out that there is a weightiness that goes with the role of being a dad. Many times, the view we have of God comes from the view we have of our earthly dads. In my case, that’s a great thing. In the case of others, it’s not so great, which is why what Laura does above is so powerful. She began to remember her dad’s own story, his own holes, his brokenness, his story, and it led her to compassion for her dad. Again, not excusing or dismissing her pain, but adding another element to the story.
When I was in counseling a few years ago, the counselor’s office had ampersands (&) in various locations. One of the concepts that they reminded us of over and over is that life happens in the tension of the “and”. I’ve found that to be very helpful, and have an ampersand in my own house to help me remember. What does it mean to live in the tension of the “and”? Two seemingly opposing truths can be true without one canceling out the other. It’s both/and rather than either/or. I am a generous person and I am a selfish person. Both are true. I live in the tension between the two truths.
What Laura was doing in remembering Ian’s story, was adding the tension that comes with the ampersand. The ampersand helps us to cultivate compassion, even as we grapple with very real wounds.
Life might seem easier if everything was black and white. It’s not. We live in the gray. We live in the tension. One of my son’s friends, who has the authority in his job to hire and fire people, allows situations to go on for a while as he learns the story behind the story. He shared that he prefers to offer grace in the gray before determining whether to let someone go or not. I’ve adopted his phrase. Grace in the gray–not an easy place to be, not without wrestling, but maybe the best place to be in the many situations over which we have no control, which includes the parents we have, and the choices our children make.
So, as the child of a parent, as the parent of a child, as the “stand-in” parent for children and young adults to whom we didn’t give birth, as a success and as a failure, can we offer grace to ourselves and to others in the gray? That doesn’t mean that we stuff our pain. We have to acknowledge it. We have to deal with it. But it does mean that we see a fuller picture with a wide-scope lens acknowledging that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2a). There is always more to the story. Can we offer grace in the gray? If so, I think we may just be surprised to find healing in that place.