A childhood memory: waking up in the pre-dawn winter hours to the muffled thrumming of my father’s car warming up in the driveway. In my mind I can picture the clouds of crystalline exhaust illuminated by the back porch light. I would lie snug in my bed and listen to the sounds of my father preparing to go to work: his step (the heaviest in the house) in the hallway, the jingle of the dozen or so keys on the big ring on his belt, the clink of a coffee cup being set down on the counter; finally the closing of the back door to mark his passing. It was familiar and unremarkable, and I would go back to sleep.
When I awoke again my mind was filled with my own thoughts and plans for the day. In this time my father owned his own business and was rarely home for supper. My brother and sister and I would eat with our mother, and go about our evening routine. I would often be in bed again when I heard him return. There would be the sounds of my mother frying him a steak, and of talking; their voices distinct, but not the words. Sometimes the tone was obviously my mother reciting the sins of the day, and if they were heinous enough, we would be summoned from our beds for the promised retribution of When Our Father Gets Home.
As a father now myself, I understand how this had to have been as unpleasant for him as it was for us.
During this time our father was a seldom seen force in our lives, operating outside our understanding, toward ends unknown. We would see him mostly on Sundays, and there was a feeling of awkwardness as if none of us were quite certain about how we should act. And yet there was always food on the table, a comfortable house, and clothes for every season, even though we gave little thought, or saw little connection, to how these things came to be.
It wasn’t until I was 11 or 12 and old enough to go to work with my father that I really started to get to know him, and learn what a just and wonderful man he was. I admit he never seemed to be at a loss for things for me to do: pick up rocks and litter, sweep the drive, clean the restrooms for the rest of the workers and the guests. As I learned more about how to please him, my responsibilities and privileges grew. I came to know the special feeling of joining him in the early morning while everyone else was asleep as we got ready to go to “our” work.
I realize that not everyone has had that kind of relationship with their father. There are men I’ve come to know well who I have ministered with who have horrific tales of growing up with their fathers – if the father was even around at all. But let me tell you something I have learned: the way I got to know my father is very similar to the way that I came to know God the Father.
In my early days, God, like my father, was an unseen presence operating just at the edge of my senses. I knew He was out there, but I didn’t know the connection between Him and the blessings in my life. My family would take me to church on Sunday, but just like with my own father, this was strange and uncomfortable, and I wasn’t really sure how I was supposed to act.
I’d hear the sermons and see God as some Great Hairy Thunderer, appearing suddenly to mete out some punishment and then disappearing until the next time, just like my father did when we had to get out of bed those times. Looking at it now, I see how much like a priest or minister my mother was. She was the contact between us kids and my dad, giving us a picture of him as she communicated his rules and assignments, waiting on him in the hours when we were asleep and oblivious. I knew of him, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with him until I began to align myself with the things that were important to him – in the same way my personal relationship with God developed.
And just like starting out with my father, I started out with God by doing the little things. Picking up, helping out, cleaning toilets. As I learned – and continue to learn – how to please Him, my responsibilties have also grown (though there are still opportunities to pick up, help out and clean toilets).
When I was a child, it never occurred to me that my father ever thought of me during the day or into those long night hours. Now I understand that what he did he did for me and my brother and sister, so that we could have security and an education and the things he thought we needed to be successful in our lives, whether we noticed or understood his sacrifice or not. I have peace knowing that the decisions he made were, if not always the best, were always his best.
Likewise it never occurred to me that God ever thought of me, or had a plan for me. How he must have waited in anticipation for me to recognize the sacrifice He made for me, the gifts he gave me, the security He gave me, the future He gave me. Ultimately, the job He gave me.
And while He has shown me how my relationship with Him and with my father have been similar, I know that His plan for me was unchanged, regardless of what my father did or didn’t do. Perhaps my childhood experiences were better than some people’s and worse than some others. I could ask, “Where would I be today if I had grown up with a father like one of the men I mentioned earlier had? Where would he be today if he had had my father? Somehow or another I think we’d be exactly where we both are today, side by side, doing what we’re doing, not in spite of our fathers but because of Our Father Who Art in Heaven.
Don’t let bitterness, anger or frustration at what you had or didn’t have growing up hold you back from what God has – even if (especially if) your natural father is long dead. Don’t say, “Well, he made me this way,” when He has made you to be the light of the world. God the Father has a plan for each of us, something to impart to us, and something for us to impart to those coming after us. Listen for His footsteps, watch for His blessings, get up early in the morning and meet Him. There is much work to be done.