Stories of fathers and sons are often the stuff of myth and legend. They are universal, and they tend to crack the armor I have carefully built around my heart. They always have.
Almost twenty years ago, when I was about 30 years old, I read this in the first chapter of a book by Randall Balmer called Growing Pains: Learning to Love my Father’s Faith. And when I read it tears immediately leapt into the corners of my eyes and ran down my face:
In 1961, we lived in a parsonage next to the church out in the farm country of southern Minnesota, and there was nothing in the world more important to me than baseball. One day my father returned from town with a plastic bat and ball. “Let’s play ball,” he said. I couldn’t have been more excited, in part because I knew, even then, that my father had no interest whatsoever in sports of any kind. I recall vividly what happened next as though it were yesterday. After swinging wildly at a couple of pitches, I decided to let a few go by. Somehow, even in first grade, I had learned enough about baseball to know that four balls constituted a walk and, perhaps to save myself the embarrassment of swinging and missing more pitches, I elected to draw a base on balls.
“Well, what’s the point of all this?” my father huffed. “If you don’t swing I’m just wasting my time.” He tossed the ball in my direction, turned, and head back to his study.
We never played ball again.
Maybe everyone’s armor is pierced by stories of fathers and sons. Or maybe it’s me. I know this—two things, actually.
1. Somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that the way for me to be loved was to be good and to be smart. And I tried really, really hard. I’m not saying my parents taught me this, but that’s how— as a boy and a man— I understood love to work for me. That’s the kind of love I wanted and sought after. This way, I could even have a sense of accomplishment for being loved! Love for being good. Love for being smart.
2. My dad moved out when I was 12. I don’t know all the reasons why, and I know, more than ever, that it was surely complicated and deeply painful for him. It was deeply painful for me, too.
Stories of fathers and sons tend to make me cry.
In all my years of preaching, it’s no surprise, then, that I was drawn to Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. Somewhere along the way I got the idea, from Barbara Brown Taylor, I think, that it is really the story of the prodigal father. Most of us have grown up calling that story in Luke 15 that Jesus told about a man and his two sons the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But it’s not. Jesus doesn’t begin his story by saying, There once was a man who had a father and an elder brother….
There once was a man who had two sons, he says, letting us know whom the story is really about. It’s about a father who loved his two children with an extravagant love that overpowered everything else.
The prodigal father loves both of his sons, don’t you see? The younger one’s recklessness cannot deflect his love, and neither can the elder one’s righteousness.
And that, to me, that is heartbreakingly beautiful.
There is a short story by Ernest Hemingway called “The Capital of the World.” It tells the story of a Spanish father and his teenage son. The relationship between this father and son became strained and eventually shattered. The rebellious son—whose name was Paco, a common Spanish name—ran away from home. After some time, his father began a long and arduous search to find him.
As a last resort the exhausted father placed an ad in a Madrid newspaper, hoping that his son would see the ad and respond to it. The ad read:
PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY. All IS FORGIVEN. LOVE PAPA.
As Hemingway tells the story, Tuesday at noon in front of the Hotel Montana, there were 800 Pacos, all waiting for their fathers. The authorities had to muster a whole squad of police to contain the crowd.
My dad, who died a little over two years ago, was someone who
loved me and my brothers deeply,
was proud of us and supportive always,
was sarcastic but tender-hearted.
We all thought he was funny; he really made us laugh. He was organized, always making lists and notes on yellow post-its.
Available to us.
He helped us all in many, many ways over the years — with financial things and in countless other ways.
He liked to buy and sell cars, so he was always our go-to person when we needed to do that. He actually knew absolutely nothing about cars. When he was looking at a car they would open up the hood, and he would study what was under there with a lot of knowing looks and concerned expressions. But he knew nothing.
He wasn’t exactly a work-on-the-car or handyman type of person. What I learned from him was that if you bought a bike at Target you could pay the guy who works there $50 to put it together for you.
He always did our taxes. He was trying to retire from doing my taxes for several years, but I always asked him for one more year, because keeping records is not my strong suit, and I didn’t think a CPA who was not my dad would put up with my liberal arts major approach to record keeping. It was true. I tried to use a for-hire CPA the next spring after my dad died, but that was never going to work. I had to learn to do it myself on Turbo Tax.
My dad loved to sing. He sang at least once at every church I was ever pastor of. When I became Pastor at Broadway Baptist Church, he was always asking me when he was going to get to sing a solo. If anyone could ever sing at his own funeral, he would’ve wanted to do that.
He was a big personality and a character and kind of liked the spotlight but also didn’t think he was important and didn’t take himself too seriously.
He was a good friend and father. He had really good relationships with his daughters-in-law. He was often kind of sparring with them.
He was a really good grandfather; he took great, great pleasure in his grandkids’ accomplishments. I know in my case, he was so happy that we had moved closer so he could go to Sam’s and Ivy’s games in high school.
Despite all of these good things, my dad was someone who wrestled mightily with guilt and grace. He carried a lot of guilt around with him for the mistakes and bad decisions he had made in his life. He was often trying to atone for past sins in one way or another.
After he died, I found in his Bible some notes he had from teaching a Sunday School lesson or Bible study about ten years ago. Predictably his subject was the struggle to accept grace and forgiveness. At one point in his notes he wrote: “For many years I carried the guilt and shame of everything on my shoulders and in my spirit. I can’t describe the burden I carried.”
Near the end of his notes he wrote: “A few years ago I asked God to help me remove this guilt from me.”
He always struggled with allowing the grace of God to remove guilt from him.
I think that’s why he loved to sing the gospel song “I’m Free.” I heard him sing this song many times. He would sing it with great gusto. I can hear him singing it now. The chorus is:
I’m free from the fear of tomorrow,
I’m free from the guilt of the past;
For I’ve traded my shackles for a glorious song,
I’m free, praise the Lord, free at last.
When we were leaving his hospital room for the night on that Tuesday after he had been in the car accident on Sunday, we knew the next day was going to be a decision day of sorts, and it was. It was the day we removed him from the breathing machine, and he died within minutes.
So on that Tuesday night, I felt like I wanted to say something before I left. I felt like I had one thing to say that he needed to hear — that I wanted him to hear. I said, “Hey Dad.” I patted him on the hand and spoke into his good ear. “Hey Dad. You did good. We are OK. You did good.”
Thinking about it now, maybe I was , even at the very end, just playing into that old lie that being loved is about doing good and that if you do good enough, everyone will be OK. Maybe I was telling him what he wanted to hear. Maybe I was telling him what I wanted to hear.
I know I was struggling with what to say about this the last few days as I was writing this. But it was in a conversation with my wife last night that I realized this:
What if those words—”You did good; everyone is OK”— are understood not as an accomplishment or achievement but as a promise and gift?
“You did good”—a gift and promise.
Who you were and what you did with your life was good. You are released from the burden of trying to make it so.
“Everyone is OK”—a gift and promise.
You and the people you love the most are OK and will be OK. You are released from the burden of trying to make it so.
One more story of a father and son that pierces the armor around my heart: Jesus came up from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
You are God’s beloved son. You are God’s beloved daughter. With you God is well pleased.
The universal longing for this kind of primary, unearned love and acceptance is, ultimately, I imagine, why stories of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, too, are the stuff of myth and legend. It’s why they make us cry.
This is the deep promise of God for my dad and for me, his son—and for all of us:
We are OK and will be OK. We have done just fine. It is enough.