Tonight we talk about fathers. We sit at tables with Bibles and books and a tiny bud of conversation blooms between reciting verses and memorizing verses and staring futilely at verses.
It begins because one boy’s dad helps him with his Bible study. I stop and tell him how special that is, and he says his dad works at home on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Across the table another fourth grader pipes up: “My dad is home every day.” He works from home, she explains, in a separate office in the house. He is always there.
Next to me, the kid staring at his verse just raises his eyebrows, nearly rolling his eyes. “I see my dad two days a week.”
“Saturday and Sunday?”
“No, wait. One.” His dad travels, so it’s not just the sort of daytime work we associate with fathers. He only sees his dad on Sundays.
And I think of my dad and the shape of him beginning at the age of them.
I have good memories of Proverbs at breakfast, a station wagon on Sundays, bits of Thomas the Tank Engine if we ask just right. I have vague memories of waiting for him to arrive on a Sunday morning, of counting up the days since I’d seen him last, of realizing that he never saw me compete, of understanding that I didn’t mind that at all. I don’t recall being either confused or resentful or aware of any sort of gap in my life. It just was. He was gone, and that was normal. I didn’t adore him any less; I just didn’t need him any more.
I look at my fourth graders. These three have fathers, as I do. How can there be both absence and presence, sometimes absence of heart and sometimes of hand, and what is the relationship between the two? I sit and realize, without unraveling the good things of my childhood, this: I grew up not consciously needing the presence of my father, for I trusted that he loved me and that I loved him and we required very little participation or gestures of love in one another’s lives for that to remain true.
As a fourth grader, I did not ask: does love require presence? But as an adult, knowing that our own fathers build into how we see and know God, then I realize this: I grew up not needing the presence of my Father, for I trusted that He loved me and that I loved Him and we required very little participation or gestures of love in one another’s lives for that to remain true.
I know our earthly fathers walk in the pattern of the heavenly one, and sometimes they stumble. Sometimes they actively and aggressively erase the soul and shape of what a father is meant to be. Sometimes they leave. Sometimes they stay and train up a child. Sometimes a stranger steps into the shoes that a biological father left behind. Sometimes a community comes to hold up the hands of a father who trembles and sometimes the community comes to hold up the child who has no father. Sometimes our fathers become our friends and sometimes we can see through their misshapen pieces to an image larger than them.
So I sit with my fourth graders in a church basement as we wrestle with Scripture and our own realities and I ponder the ways I know my Father both through and in spite of my own father. I sit stunned that His love took shape in presence that both overcomes and completes the imperfect love of my own. My father is not made less by the ways he did not or could not father me, but my Father is made so much more by the ways He does and is to me. My Father gave, that my father might give, and the ways in which he loved and was absent have given vividness to the ways in which the Father loves and is present.
“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.”
Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ