When I start to identify the father images I had growing up, I first have to go back two generations to a grandfather I never knew in person, who drank himself to death three years before I was born, but was nonetheless still a very present figure in my life. My grandfather on my father’s side was a navy man. He served in WWII and Korea. While still at sea during WWII out in the Pacific theatre, his first wife fell ill with TB and died in the hospital. He didn’t find out till a month later that she had even been ill. When he returned home, he evaded the pain and brokeness that he brought home with him. He became a playboy, one navy nurse after another… He eventually met my grandmother and they married. From that union came my father.
My dad does not talk about his childhood that often. For the most part, the bits and pieces my brother and I have cobbled together have come from our mother, relaying what she knew of the man before he passed. What I do know is that he was a harsh man. Emotionally distant yet quick to temper. And he carried wounds that never healed and that would only surface after he’d been drinking. This was the man that raised my father. In more ways that one, this was the man my own father became. My grandfather never talked about what he saw in the war, but dad remembers the nights he would sit in front of the TV, glass of gin in hand, watching a war documentary in black and white, silently crying. My grandmother, an equally cold and spiteful woman, never tried to understand and would write off the behavior with “Oh, he’s just an alcoholic.”
Despite his harsh exterior, there were cracks that showed in the brittle veneer. When my mother was in the hospital with a severe fever back in the 70’s, she recalls my grandfather calling her, drunk, and saying “You need to hang in there, because we don’t need to loose another one.” Even after all those years, the loss of his own wife to illness was still an open wound and he couldn’t handle seeing his own son having to deal with the same loss.
Growing up, my father was encouraging, but demanding. He was supportive but distant. He was generous but exacting. He was the disciplinarian with a heavy hand and harsher words. When his temper would rage, my mother would say, “Isn’t that something you’re father would do?” With that simple reminder, he would leave the room. After a time he’d come back, rarely with an appology, but subdued and more aware of his actions. The image I had of a father was of one who had to be tough, emotionally in control and always working to be the best at what he did. When he was my scout leader and even volunteering in the church, the example he set for me was to always give more to others than to your own son. Others were more deserving, or perhaps more in need than I.
That was the clear image I had of “father.” And when I was raised thinking of God as Father, I have to consider how much of that I expected God to be. When I was in school, I was the kid with glasses that liked to read. Needless to say, I was the butt of many jokes, the target for the popular kids. When I would come home emotionally or even physically beaten, my father’s response was “punch ’em in the nose.” Fight back. Stand up for yourself. Take it like a man. Of course the God I heard about growing up here in Bible belt was the same kind of Father. “The devil is after you, so you have to watch out! It’s up to you to fight him off.” “God has no mercy for those that give in to sin; you have to deserve God’s grace.” When I was left wrestling with faith in middle school and high school, I railed against God for leaving me on my own.
The entire time, God was there in loving presence, but because I expected him not to be, I never realised that Love was there. Because of the Father I thought God was, my image of the world was a place where God left us to be tried. Life was a testing ground to see who would be worthy of God’s love, not a place to experience Love in every moment. I was trapped in my spirituality because of what I thought God had to be and how I fit into that divine plan. Only after crisis hit and my internal world was eventually shattered did I finally discover that Love was there. Then I discovered that God wasn’t the “father” I was expecting him to be. It was a long and painful process in which I never thought to question this image I had of God. It had to be torn away for me to finally see through it.
The image of the exacting Father didn’t go away in one fell swoop. Later in college when I was going through discernment within the Epsicopal Church, I fell into old habits again. Forced to trust the priests leading the process, I was unable to see the terrible flaws in the system or recognize the abuse coming from two priests who were trying to act as psychologists and doing more harm than good. Instead, I felt God was testing me. Putting me through the ringer to see if I’d come out stronger in the end. Or maybe the emotional hell of that process was punishment I deserved. How often growing up did I think that whenever something went wrong in my life it was because I deserved it for some unseen “sin”? And there in discernment, being disected by two armchair psychiatrists without training, I was too ready to fall back on an unhealthy image of God instead of seeing the situation for what it really was.
Growing up, if something went wrong in my life, dad taught me it was probably my fault. How many denominations of Christianity teach this exact image of God? How is that at all a healthy relationhip of Love?
As I’ve grown older and matured and my dad as mellowed in his years, we’ve become friends. As I’ve learned to shed the harsh images I had of God, I’ve found a Loving creator that is with me in pain and that does not blame me for the hurt I feel but rather supports me through it instead. May I continue to discover the Loving Father who has always been there to comfort and support His child. Amen.