Father’s day is usually a tough day for me. It’s not so much that I don’t have anyone to celebrate it with because certainly there is my grandfather who’s been the father-figure I’ve needed. But it’s more so because I still have a lot of bitterness pent up towards my dad. The fact that he simply was never there when I needed him just gets under my skin sometimes. Occasionally it hurts because I start thinking that I don’t have any value as a person. Why else would the guy take off? And even though this is a lie – I know I have value – I sometimes find myself believing it and it hurts.
This last week I went down to Trinity Lakes with Cross Training, the athlete’s ministry for U of O. As is usual for retreats, there was a guest pastor who gave several messages. Darrin Ratcliff is an amazing speaker. His messages were passionate, funny, and really animated. Instead of speaking at us, he interacted with us by asking us questions and building his messages off of our answers like a good professor. One of the most helpful things, though, was his story. He also never knew his father, is the only brown-skinned person in his entire known family, and wrote a letter of anger to his dad.
Some months ago, about five or six, I wrote a letter to my dad telling him that though I’ve hated him for his lack of fatherhood, I’ve forgiven him. But when I was talking about this with Darrin, the pain reemerged. I’ve expected certain things to recur and resurface as I move forward in my life because there is so much that I never learned from my dad that I’ll probably have to learn from others or on my own. Like dating. But while we were hanging out on the top deck of a house boat in California, the tears returned. I thought of Shawn Phelps – my friend from high school – and his suicide. It reminded me of my own suicidal thoughts and why I had them, which brought me back to the wounds inflicted by an absent father.
For the first two nights on the boats, I cried myself to sleep. Thinking through what I’ll have to teach my kids, how I never learned it the way we’re supposed to, and how I’ll probably never truly know the other half of my genetic roots was all too much. Each night I was so warm that I was sweating in my sleeping bag, but because of what my heart felt, I was shivering.
The tears were different when we worshiped the second night. They were from pain, yes, but mostly from an amazing realization. Some of us have actual dads to thank, appreciate, and celebrate today. Others, like me, don’t. But, as Darrin emphasized to me during one of our conversations, identity isn’t defined by genetics, but by relationships. Unlike many people today, I don’t know my genetic roots. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know my spiritual roots. Christ died for our sins, yes, but also within His death and resurrection, He bridged the gap between man and God so that orphans would no longer be without a father. By His blood, we have a new identity that transcends our man-made family trees and social structures. This identity isn’t one that leaves us when we enter the grave; this identity is eternal.
I don’t write this to receive pity; that’s the last thing I want. I write this to the orphans like me who have spent many nights thinking they’d be better off dead, thinking that they will never really be loved because their fathers weren’t there, and who have strained and struggled throughout school to find identity. No matter who your biological father may have been, God created everyone. God created your father’s father, and his father, and his father, all the way back to the first man to ever walk the earth. And if He has created every man, woman, and child, then certainly He must be the Father to all.
I let Darrin read the letter I wrote to my father and there were many elements that he said were exactly the same for his situation. He asked me to email it to him when I got home and so I did. His reply email was very brief, merely thanking me for sharing it with him and that it was awesome to meet each other. And instead of saying “God Bless” like I had to him, he said, “Remember the Resurrection.”
The cross is powerful because it rids me of the punishment I deserve and yet didn’t receive. And the resurrection is powerful because, essentially, it gives me the Father that I don’t deserve, but yet have received. I have someone to call dad. That just breaks me. This Father, unlike mine, will not abandon me; instead, He’ll guide me. He’ll hold my hand while I cross the dangerous roadways of life; He’ll comfort me on scary nights; and He’ll teach me what I need to know so that I could pass it along to my children. What my father passed along to me was the knowledge of how to be a coward and abandon ship when things get difficult. But my new Father, my real Father, has taught me how to grip my shield of faith, how to wield the Sword of Truth, and how the most powerful weapon we have isn’t our strength of arm or body, but our strength of heart and spirit.
Last night I wept once more as I prayed. Knowing what day was approaching and recalling all the scary, painful moments I’ve had was overwhelming. And what I felt as I prayed was no longer bitterness towards my biological dad, but rather the love I receive from my real Dad. Tears of sorrow and joy were shed last night; sorrow from the pain inflicted by an absent father, and joy from the loving care received from the present One. The retreat I went on last week was powerful because it revealed to me the wounds that are being healed by my true Father. I no longer have to wonder or care about who my biological dad was; I have a Father to celebrate today.