It was dark by the time I arrived. Dinner had already been served and the nursing staff had settled my dad into bed. He was resting but not quite asleep. The lighting in the room was slightly dimmed, and I approached the bed in silence. As I gazed down upon the weakened frame of my 85-year-old father, a lifetime of experiences were flashing through my mind like an old movie. The emotions within me were welling up as I reflected on the journey to this point in time.
Knowing this was my last opportunity, and aware it was also the climactic moment I had worked towards for some 20 years, I reached out to Dad. I cradled him in my arms, my cheek warming against his own. This precious moment was a suspension in time. I kissed Dad on his cheek, and uttered words that expressed the fullness of my heart at that precious moment: “I love you, Dad.”
It was the first time in my life I had told him that, and as events were to transpire it was also the last. With a final, reluctant look, I turned and walked back to the car park. Alone in the darkness, with only the stars as witness, words will never be able to capture the overwhelming flood of emotions that were privately expressed in the darkened silence. Dad died a short time later. I would like to think he died knowing the genuine love of a son.
Father’s Day can be a very sensitive time for people, depending on their experiences with their father, and as a father. Everyone has a dad. Some may have never met their biological dad; others may have wished they never had. There are many who have grown up knowing only love, grace and gentle guidance from their dads; others have had mixed experiences, perhaps dads who were loving yet severe in discipline and punishment. Father’s Day can be a day to be celebrated with love, or it can be a day when all kinds of negative feelings and emotions are brought to the surface.
In the Christian faith we wrap around Father’s Day the ultimate truth that God is our heavenly Father, while acknowledging that if our earthly experiences of our dads have been negative and painful, then it is likely that we will translate these experiences into our perception of what God is like as our heavenly Father.
In my own case, things were never great between myself and my dad for most of my life. I have every reason to think that God is an angry, distant God, a God of discipline and punishment. However, I don’t.
Out of respect for my dad, I can only say I was the one who lived disrespectfully towards him well beyond my teenage years. I even came to blows with him at age 16, and from that moment grew further apart from him, until I was 33 and commissioned as a Salvation Army officer (minister). During one of my early sermons, God spoke to me to say that I cannot love God and preach the Gospel and hold enmity toward my dad in the same heart.
Not long after this, I drove with my family to Canberra where Dad lived, with the intention of building a loving relationship with him. I made that journey again and again, each time doing and saying the kinds of things that at first were unnatural and uncomfortable, but as the years passed became easier. Actually, I never saw much change in Dad, but I knew God was changing me. After 20 years, and with Dad in his final weeks of life, I managed the courage to finally reach out and tell him that he had a son who genuinely loved him.
Father’s Day for me is still filled with a mixture of emotions. Firstly, I still wish things had been different, not only for me, but for my mother and my five siblings. However, while my own life experiences will never change, the way I now view them has changed significantly. Dad was a product of a generation of men who generally didn’t show affection towards other men. Men didn’t hug men back then and my dad didn’t hug his boys. He was also a product of a generation which knew much more severe discipline than my own generation.
I tried hard in the end years of Dad’s life to understand the influences in his formative years. I got the impression that his life was influenced by difficult circumstances with his own dad who was not home much of the time.
When I set out to love Dad in my adult years, and to discover insights into his formation as a father, I found grace and forgiveness nourishing the spots where otherwise there might have been lingering pain. In becoming a better son, I found that grace and forgiveness were having a more dominant influence in my memories of Dad.
Secondly, Father’s Day is a time for me to reflect on my own life as a dad. I have four adult children, and three grandchildren. From the outset, I had ambitions of being a great father. Now that I’ve had many years to reflect, I would be the first to say my role as a dad has been far from perfect.
However, I can see that as I made the journey to becoming a more loving and understanding son to my own dad, my life as a father to my own children also transformed. In loving Dad I never saw much change in him, but in loving Dad as an adult I can see I have matured and become more gracious to my own children.
When speaking at men’s groups, I often say that to be a good father is to learn to be a good son. This has been true for me. As I responded to the prompting of God’s voice in my life to build a bridge of love to Dad before he died, by God’s grace I have matured as a loving father to my kids.
Finally, this journey has opened up the most wonderful maturing in my understanding of God as my heavenly Father. As I extended grace and forgiveness towards Dad, I learned to understand a whole lot more about the love and graciousness of my heavenly Father.
I repeatedly examined the pictures of God as Father presented in the Bible, possibly the greatest being the word picture created by Jesus in the story of the prodigal son in Luke chapter 15. Here is the story of a father who was hurt deeply by his son when the young man effectively told his dad he was dead to him, demanded his inheritance and left the family to have a “good time”. When he spent all his money and the good time eventually turned bad, the destitute son’s last resort was to go home, knowing that he deservedly would not be accepted back into the family.
But the picture painted by Jesus is the picture of his own heavenly Father’s nature of love and grace toward us all. The undeserving son is spotted a long way off, and the grace of the father is such that he runs to greet him, asks for no apology, and restores him with every privilege of the family.
On Father’s Day, this is the truth we can all experience — an ever-present Father God whose nature is grace beyond measure and who loves us unconditionally despite our flaws and failings. He restores us to his eternal family, just as if we have never been unfaithful to him.
Although your experiences of your earthly father may not have been all they could have been, perhaps this Father’s Day you can begin to experience the grace, truth and love of our wonderful heavenly Father.
Colonel Kelvin Alley is the leader of The Salvation Army Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands Territory.