For the Fathers
“Standing there made me feel like a father. Except, the lives of the kids who were my friends made me hate the term.” Definitely one of my favorite (and, possibly, my most favorite of all) characters, Ash, said this in the book “The Character.” I kind of empathize with him. I don’t like Father’s Day, and wasn’t all that excited about it.
Until, that is, VBS this week.
Over the last couple of days, I’ve seen FB posts concerning the upcoming holiday, Father’s Day. Some have been very tender and sentimental, some have expressed regrets and sorrow that their fathers are now in heaven, some have even been kind of humorous. Frankly, I’ve skimmed over the majority of them. Honestly, I was trying to pretend that the national holiday didn’t exist. Sure, I loved the idea of thanking Joe for being a good father to the girls. He deserves it. He loves them, and they know it, and that’s important. But, Joe aside, I could do without this particular holiday. It has the nasty habit of making me feel like a lot of people do at Christmastime: alienated, sad and, well, different.
I don’t have any tender stories of my father. I don’t have any good memories. I don’t have any memory that I can point to and say, with certainty, “yes, that’s what a father should be like.” All I had were fictional characters I created, and one impressive high school teacher who treated me with care, to point to and say, “I think that’s what a father should be.” Still, just because you don’t know what the heck the Hallmark card means, doesn’t mean you’ve never longed to understand it. In fact, Christmas is painful to some because they want to feel the connection to other people that happy carolers feel. Likewise, Father’s Day is painful to those without fathers because we’ve always wanted to feel the fatherly love that seems so evident in others’ lives.
This has been a whirlwind of a week, a Vacation Bible School experience that will go down in the history of Christ Church Nashville and the 400 (that’s right, FOUR HUNDRED) kids and 150 volunteers whose lives were touched by it. The theme was Joseph: Journey from Prison to Palace, and we day an archeologist came, went (rather timidly: he was scared of the dark) into a pyramid, out of which he pulled a new gift that God gives us. On Monday, it was Hope. Then came Special Abilities (talents). Then it was Wisdom. Yesterday was Forgiveness. Today, quite appropriately, was Family. At the end of today, a mass alter call was preformed and 400 kids ran down to the front of the church so that one of our pastors could lead them in The Prayer. It was quite moving. It was quite touching. And, in me, it sparked a flame.
It made me remember things.
On Wednesday nights, I lead a truck load of kids in a class that explores their imaginations. Well, two fathers came up to me. One of them pulled me aside to explain that his son had been “badly hurt” and that is why he is “so timid.” I was told to “feel free to push him” and “make sure he participates” because it would “help him.” Then I saw that son, who is in the fourth grade, grab his father around the waist and hug him. The second father pulled me aside to ask me more about the class. He explained that he and his son are just “trying out the church” and that “so far, it’s been good.” He explained that he wanted his son to “have some friends.” He, too, hugged his son and, like the first boy, this one, a fifth grader, strongly hugged his father. The affection between the two boys and their dads was undeniable. I saw the same thing in VBS: multiple dads coming to get their kids, their kids happy to see them. One of my pastors pulled his daughter up on stage because it was her birthday. I’ve worked with the little girl and I know how deeply she admires and loves her dad. I know that her love is returned. And Joe interacts with the girls in such wonderful ways: the love is tender, real and precious.
It makes my heart weep.
I couldn’t be more thankful that all of these kids, around whom I am surrounded daily, have the affection and genuine love of their fathers. I couldn’t be happier that they will probably never fully grasp the gifts of courage, strength and confidence that is being imparted to them, simply by having a loving father. But, there are moments, like on Father’s Day, that I typically feel the void in my own life strongly.
I once felt compelled to tell someone, “I DO have a father. His name is God.” I’ve always known this. It is why I asked Him to hold my hand when I was young. It is why, when I sing songs of praise, I sincerely mean it. It is why I went on a search in my young college days to follow Him, even when that meant regularly attending services in a denomination other than my own. I’ve always known that I have a father. I sometimes wish that there could have been a physical figure in my life that I could have known as a real father. And it’s hard, on Father’s Day, not to dwell on the scars left from my childhood. It’s hard not to think about what could have been, what I’m sure God wanted instead of the reality that became mine and my sister’s. The truth is, though, that a father is a father not because he is a physical human being who can be seen every day.
A father isn’t a father because he helped conceive you. He isn’t a father just because you learned to call him “Dad” or “Daddy.” He isn’t a father just because others told you he was. He isn’t a father just because you were expected to obey him. He isn’t a father just because of any of those reasons. No, what makes a father is the characteristics that he chooses to show his children. Being a father is about commitment, it’s about going outside and playing ball with a child. It’s about doing the work and sitting down to read to a child, or to help a child with a homework assignment. It’s about putting your child first and yourself last. It’s about deciding what kind of legacies you want to leave behind. It’s about deciding not to under-estimate your children, deciding to treat them with respect. I remember, once, my uncle reprimanded my cousin. My cousin was told to go sit in time out. Time out equaled the number of minutes that he was years old. After the timer went off and he was about to be let loose, my uncle stooped in front him, asked him to tell him why he’d gotten in trouble, told him that he loved him, gave him a hug and then let him up. Words can’t convey what a picture that left in my mind. My cousin may not ever realize it, but that was love. My uncle was demonstrating love: he treated my cousin with enough respect not to just use his authority to punish him, but cared enough to explain why and make amends.
Fathers do that.
Fathers exude confidence, but also tenderness. They show no self-pride towards their children. They do not attempt to buy their love. They do not harm them physically, sexually or emotionally. They recognize that children are important, that they are human beings, and they never forget that their actions today can create either the foundations of success and confidence or nightmares and invisible scars. They have power, but they choose not to abuse it. Their goal is to become the child’s mentor, not warden. They want to laugh with their children. They want to discover the shapes of clouds. They know better than to make promises they have no intention of keeping.
In short, they love their children.
When we celebrate Father’s Day, we celebrate the fact that a great number of fathers are leaving these wonderful memories and legacies behind for their children. We celebrate the greatest Father of All, and His sacrifice, which symbolizes the unconditional love that fathers are supposed to possess. Statistically (and in my personal experience), mothers are more adept at understanding and displaying these traits to their children. I know, however, that there are some adults whose mothers failed to act as mothers should. Way too many children have been the victims of a parent, either mother or father. For these children, days set aside as special, days set aside in remembrance of the parent who hurt them, pour salt on open wounds.
But I think that’s because we’re forgetting something important.
Though sometimes not as children, most of us have experienced the gifts that fathers should give us. My mother gave above and beyond. She wasn’t just a mother, she was really a mother AND a father. My high school teacher wrote me a letter, hugged me when he saw me, smiled recently with pride when I took him his copy of “The Character”, and genuinely treated me as though I was important, as though I were more than just a name on an attendance sheet. I had other teachers who allowed me to read my books aloud in class. One of my teachers gave the approval for me to skip every Friday’s class so that I could teach a third grade class French. When I attended synagogue, one of the musicians cared about me, and made sure I knew it. Other men in my life have made me feel important, cared for and loved. Joe makes me feel safe enough to cry when I need to, important enough to professionally edit my books and provide feedback and cool enough for him to sit with as I belt out the latest Sugarland, Keith Urban or Tanya Tucker tune. God holds my hand when I ask Him to, and He answers my prayers. I’m not talking to thin air. He guides my actions and leads my hand to verses that seem written especially for me. In Him, I know I can rest, and find peace for my tired heart. No, these examples are not of an earthly father which many across the nation will celebrate on Sunday. And no, I am not in search of a substitute father.
Six years ago, with the birth of my daughter, I was given a new reason to appreciate Father’s Day. Breathe was born and Joe earned the title of not only friend for me, but father for my children. He displays the attitude and positive love that make him truly a father, instead of only a biological family member. He deserves credit. So does everyone else who takes time to care, to laugh and play, cry and console, educate and learn with and from a child. You see, my point is that, even though maybe in different ways, I, too, have experienced the gifts that fathers are supposed to provide. There are plenty of people in my life, who can rightly claim authority status, that have taken me under their wing and lavished on me love. They are part of the reason why I’m not completely crazy. And their gifts of compassion, education, tenderness, affection and love are what I will celebrate on Father’s Day.
The truth is, we all have. Whether we have earthly “fathers” or not, we have experienced people in our lives who moved us, who seemed to reach a hand straight through our hearts and transform us from hurting, sad and confused souls to happier, peaceful and comforted beings, who have taken our hands and pulled us one step closer to the greatest Father of all. Maybe these individuals do not have children of their own. Maybe these individuals aren’t even men, but women. Either way, if they’ve shown to us kindness, tenderness, compassion and care, then we are left with a choice. We can either choose to shy away from Father’s Day, to wrap invisible but strong arms around our hearts, in hopes of blocking the pain or we can choose to celebrate and honor the character behind any good father, choosing to remember and honor the people who HAVE reached out to us with those powerfully positive bands of love to lift our spirits. We can choose to believe that it is a day that we can’t overcome because we have no father, or we can choose to walk around it by looking for the people who have enriched our lives, be they fathers or not.
Our country set aside this one day to celebrate the special gifts that fathers give. If we don’t have a father, if we have never had one, we can still choose to use this day to remember, and thank, those who have acted in the place for us. Is there still a void? Sure there is, because we’re human. Is there still pain, are the scars and the memories, still there? Sure they are. But life is about opportunities and choices. It has been my experience that when we choose the road that seems the hardest, when we wipe our eyes and lift our heads, when we use our minds to find a way to combat the pain with joy, when we choose to think of the good instead of the bad….our hearts find greater peace. And, simultaneously, WE become a blessing to others. And where there is good, there is God.
May all the fathers out there who are genuinely do their best to impart tenderness, care, laughter and play, respect, compassion and love to their children with creative and devoted hearts—-God bless you. You are giving gifts that you can’t even imagine to your children. Gifts of confidence, strength, courage, independence, self respect and more. Thank you for recognizing your children as the miracles of God they are. Thank you for loving them as God intended. May you be blessed.
For all those men who maybe aren’t fathers but are teachers, Vacation Bible School drama actors, football coaches or family friends who take the time to play with the children you’re surrounded by, thank you. Thank you for acting as a father. You may not (probably don’t) realize it, but you are leaving the same legacies that faithful fathers leave. You are providing love to hearts that desperately need it. Every kind word, warm hug and attentive ear you so easily give to the children in your life leaves behind a child that much closer to peace and happiness. Thank you for filling the void. There is a motto that I try to live by. It goes like this: “Somewhere, someone is watching you.” Thank you for instinctively sensing this, and being careful of the legacy you leave. Despite the scars, despite the nightmares, despite the pain and the shame left by my earthly father, I choose to look instead at the men who have carved niches of love onto my heart and thank you instead. Happy Father’s Day.