June 13, 1968 was one of those summer nights both forgettable and unforgettable. The only reason I remember the actual date is because it’s on the death certificate. That evening I do remember driving over to my oldest sister’s apartment in our turquoise Ford Galaxy. We looked like a typical 1960s family. My dad behind the wheel and wearing close-cut hair and those dark rimmed glasses that are now back in style. Mom sat shotgun, though I would not have called it that then. My other sister, older too, and my younger brother and I rode unbuckled in the back seat. We probably fought over who had to ride the hump. There was one of those funny, gimmicky songs on the AM radio. We sang along.
My dad dropped us off. I don’t remember saying anything to him. He drove off to his best friend Clyde’s house to work on cars. I never saw dad again, save several days later at his funeral.
My father’s sudden death from a heart attack pulled the world out from under me and left me hanging in a dark, starless void of emotional space that–still today–colors who I am.
During Lent we are exploring how God is made strong in our weaknesses. The main problem with this concept, finding God’s strength in human weakness, is that one then has to first face ones weakness. Me? I have many, mostly stemming from June 13.
As I wrote in my blog “Jennifer Aniston and Eugene Scott Reflect on the Fatherlessness Epidemic,” I’ve lived many of the statistics on what growing up without a father does to boys. I’ve wrestled with abandonment, trust, self-worth, failure, co-dependency, and more.
Can God fill such weakness with strength? God is an expert at such things. In my frenzied search for belonging and love, I dared call out to the God I knew nothing about and barely believed in.
The funny thing is God answered. “I will be a Father who will never leave you,” he promised. God has kept that promise. And based on God’s faithfulness, I was eventually able to leap into being a father myself. A flawed one, but one who is learning to trust God and pass that faith on to his own children.
God also turned fatherlessness and broken past into an aching desire to help others. You might call it a redeemed co-dependency.
I remember being at a training meeting for youth workers. The speaker asked each of us to stand if anything from a list he was going to read pertained to us. “Past drug addiction,” he said. I stood with many others. “Divorced parents.” More stood. “Lost a parent.” A tear pooled in my eye. “High school drop out.” I was already standing. “Abuse.”
He continued listing off areas of brokenness and loss. “Look around you,” he said at the end of his list. Nearly all 1500 of us were standing.
“Do you think it’s a coincidence that most of us here have painful backgrounds and lives? No!” Then he listed the statistics of how many kids were just like us. “God used your pain to call you into youth work,” he continued. “That is why you care so much for those kids no one else seems to. And why they relate to you so well.”
A collective shiver went through us. We had seen redemption.
Henri Nouwen calls this serving with a limp, from the story of Jacob having his hip broken while wrestling with God.
Years later, when I was going through another period of wrestling with God, a friend wrote and told me, “God never wastes pain.”
And it’s true. Now when I remember June 13, 1968, there is still sadness and grief. I miss my dad. He would love my children. And he would laugh that I did, as he predicted, wind up behind a desk. But that weakness, that pain, has not been wasted. God has filled it with his strength.
And for that I am grateful.
P.S. This blog was also published at tnc3.org/pascha-blog/