I lost my dad when I was fifteen. Technically, I guess I lost him earlier than that. My parents were divorced when I was eight. He was a drunk and a deadbeat father. Couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t go a week without causing a blow-up. The earliest and only memories I have of him are yelling matches, and pipe smoke rising in front of an old television with the opening credits of M.A.S.H playing too loudly. And then he walked out of my life. He died when I was fifteen, from lung cancer. He never even called me and told me he was sick, or to say goodbye. I always resented him for that.
For those of us who had these kinds of dads, this day is often hard. Everyone is celebrating their fathers when many of us feel like we don’t know a father worthy of celebrating. That, of course, isn’t everyone’s story. Many of you are blessed with great fathers, who loved and served and provided and protected. A grace. There is an interesting part of Christianity that we don’t often talk about as a culture: it’s that Jesus is the way to get God as father.
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26)
However you’ve been treated in life, by yourself or others, you have value. You have a heavenly Father.
You are loved. No matter what others say or infer.
This is a comfort and an inspiring reality to every human being, whether they had a good father or not, because it speaks to something primitive inside of us. Augustine said that in the end, the journey of the soul is a journey to find home. That, behind everything, is what the elusive want in all of us is. The reason we do what we do. Because maybe that next thing will bring me the satisfaction I am looking for. Maybe that next partner, that next hundred thousand, that next spouse, that next … you know. It’s all a pining for home. As C.S. Lewis once said, “These things are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they break the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
What are we ultimately after, other than the place, indeed the state, of having arrived? Not much. Home means rest, laughter, joy, peace, belonging. All the things we spin our wheels about, day in and day out. The reason behind the reasons.
And what part of home is more important than mom and dad?
Religion is a fickle thing. It calls us to sacrifice to find this peace. It asks us to give up. To die. To earn it. That if we are good enough, and strong enough, and smart enough to do this or do that, then maybe God will accept us into heaven one day. Maybe God will be a father to you.
If you’re lucky.
Make me proud, son.
But Christianity is different. It says that God called those who followed him his children, even when they were disobeying him. During the Exodus, when they were complaining and suffering and bringing nothing to the table, he parted the Red Sea and delivered them.
Out of Egypt I called my son, my firstborn. (Hosea 11:1)
In other words – and don’t miss this – he was a father to them not based on their performance for him, but on his for them. This was itself an echo of a time when God would send his own Son, Jesus, to accomplish salvation for humankind in the same way: not asking us to perform, but to accept his performance on our behalf.
And that’s how we get reconciled back to God.
That’s how we get God as Father.
How the estrangement ends.
You know what God the Father says from the clouds to Jesus at his baptism (the beginning of his ministry, when he hasn’t even done anything yet): “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
What a father.
What a dad.
But, some skeptics say, what kind of father sends his own son to die? That’s fair. It is a complicated question, but there is one way to look at it that gives me great humility. In his book The Evolution of God, the American journalist and author of books like Why Buddhism is True, Ronald Wright says:
“We can be pretty sure the Crucifixion happened, in part because it made so little theological sense…. As the iconic Christian verse John 3:16 puts it: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…’ And as powerfully as these words ring now, imagine their impact in the ancient world. Throughout history, gods had been beings to whom you made sacrifices. Now here was a god that not only demanded no ritual sacrifices from you but himself made sacrifices—indeed the ultimate sacrifice—for you.”
Sure, a more cynical mind may call this concept cruel, but I find in it the ultimate answer to life. Instead of us sacrificing our health, our time, and even our families in trying to finally earn the embrace and love of a good father, this God sacrificed for us, his most treasured possession – so that we wouldn’t have to. It’s him or us in the end. That’s the way the real world works. Especially back then. It was sometimes literally a matter of sacrificing your own child to the gods, so that you could be forgiven, or get rain, or whatever else you needed. And all of that, for now. We will see what tomorrow holds. We’ll see what else you love that the gods will demand from you.
Christianity says that God gave up his own son so that you might get a true and better Father. The thing we all seek.
I didn’t grow up in the Church. My family weren’t Christians. My dad was an atheist.
To know I am a pastor now may make him roll over in his grave. It certainly would make him laugh. Another thing I have no memory of him doing.
That all may be true. But there is a chance that I have that wrong. That in those years between him walking out, and finally passing into eternity himself, he too discovered the Father. And in that, discovered peace. That he found the home he had been wrestling to find all those years, amidst all the failures and trying.
Someone told me a short time ago that maybe I am mistaken about my father. That maybe he didn’t call me, even when he knew he was dying, not out of fear or cowardice or lack of love, but because he didn’t want to put me through the pain of orbiting around suffering and death and introductions again, just to so quickly say goodbye.
If that is true, then it means that in a way, he was courageous. He faced death alone, without me, or my brother, or his own dad at his side, because he cared for us. Because he didn’t want to put me through anything more. I often wonder about this, and have come to embrace it as quite possibly the way it all went down. Either way, I hope he found the Son, and in so doing, the Father. No matter who my dad was and wasn’t in his life, God offers forgiveness and status and ‘delight forevermore’ to anyone who is humble enough to admit defeat, and take on the role of ‘son.’ An apprentice to, and child of, God rather than being god himself. No one is outside this grace.
Why does God call himself Dad?
Because he was always that in relation to the Son – from eternity past, Christian theology says. But now it can be said of him in relation to the world too. Oh, the scandal and the joy to get God as our father.
Jesus said it from the cross.
‘Abba.’ (which means father in Aramaic)
For us. So we could say it from every cross we bear for the rest of our lives.
As one writer once said: “The son of God became a man, so that men may become sons of God.”
There is possibly nothing in human history, or human experience, more profound than this.