“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:3, ESV). Amen. Happy Father’s Day! [Happy Father’s Day!] This is the weekend of the year when we celebrate and honor our fathers, grandfathers, and stepfathers—the men who made us who we are. Father’s Day is a day for homemade cards from the kids sealed with a kiss, a day for gifts of funny neckties and new grilling gear for the BBQ. Father’s Day is a day to play ball in the backyard with the kids and catch up on that elusive quality time that is so hard to capture unless it is accompanied with quantity time. Father’s Day is a day to say, “Thanks, Dad!” and “I love you.”
But Father’s Day is not joyful for everyone. For those of you whose Christian fathers have died and gone to heaven, Father’s Day becomes another day on which to mourn and remember the hole left in your life by the departure of your father. Pastor Bill Hybels one wrote about the deep depression he experienced after the death of his dad:
“Several years ago my father, still a relatively young man and extremely active, died of a heart attack. As I drove to my mother’s house in Michigan, I wondered how I would continue to function without the person who believed in me more than anyone else ever has or ever will.
“That night in bed, I wrestled with God. ‘Why did this happen? How can I put it all together in my mind and in my life? Am I going to recover from losing my father? If you really love me, how could you do this to me?’”
Thankfully, Bill didn’t stay stuck in his grief. He found peace with God through prayer.
But many of us do stay stuck, turning our memories of our missing fathers into a kind of deaf and dumb idol that cannot hear us or answer us, and yet we continue to erect altars to it in our hearts, allowing our grief and guilt over things we wish we would have said but didn’t to take the place of God in our lives.
For others of us, Father’s Day tears open a different kind of wound. Many of us grew up without our fathers because of divorce or jail or simply because they worked too much and were never seemed to be home. We resent their absence in our lives and, like the walking wounded, some of those scars have never healed. We suck the blood and taste the salt of the wound, because at least it gives us something we can taste and feel from our fathers, something real. Because fatherhood is much more than just donating DNA.
Still others have never been able to escape from the shadow of the monsters that their fathers are. If you grew up with an abusive or alcoholic father, it is nearly impossible to number the ways in which your father disappointed you or wrecked your life. To say your heart is broken would be an insulting understatement. To say that you should just “snap out of it” and “put the past behind you” is like a sucker punch in your gut.
As a child of divorce, I grew up without a father’s regular, guiding hand and influence in my life. My dad was an Army chaplain always stationed far away on the East Coast and sometimes on the other side of the world in places like Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Despite long distance phone calls and flights as unaccompanied minors, my sister and I only got to visit our dad about once or twice per year. He was not very good about picking up the phone or sending letters, and our birthday presents were always late. Growing up, my father was always far away, not only geographically, but also emotionally. Not until I became an adult and entered college did I begin to have a better relationship with my Dad.
My stepfather Jim, on the other hand, was an overly strict and inflexible man who demanded we call him “Dad” instead of by his first name. I always felt like a traitor to my “real dad” when I obeyed this command and always resented Jim as a usurper of my father’s rightful place. During my high school years, I routinely got kicked out of the house for telling him that he wasn’t my father or for some other minor infraction. I spent months at a time living out of a suitcase and someone else’s refrigerator. Supposedly, I was a rebel son, although I was a model student—valedictorian of my class!—and our school administrators repeatedly called us into the guidance counselor’s office to investigate for child abuse and neglect.
Jim liked to pick on me (and others). When I was a little boy, he used to pick up the phone and pretend that my father had called to talk to me. I’d race to the telephone, take the handset, and eagerly shout, “Hi, Daddy!”—only to hear a dial tone on the other end of the line.
“Oh,” Jim would say, “I guess he didn’t really want to talk.”
As you may well imagine, I can relate to some of the paternal disappointment and regret that marks childhood for many of us. Father’s Day was never happy in my house. Not until Lisa and I had children of our own did I learn how to look forward to this weekend and enjoy the time with family.
The Bible says that all fatherhood is named for God (one of several possible meanings of the Greek word patria in Ephesians 3:15). If our earthly fathers are kind, caring, compassionate, slow to anger, and quick to forgive, then by extension we will view our heavenly Father as loving, forgiving, and protective. But the tragedy of our fathers’ failings is that they can negatively impact the way that we understand our heavenly Father. Our painful experiences with our earthly fathers can make us fear or doubt God. If our earthly fathers were neglectful or uninvolved, we might imagine God the Father to be distant, removed, and inaccessible. If our earthly fathers were abusive or unpredictable, we might view our heavenly Father as cruel, capricious, and wrathful.
But the Good News in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). By right of Baptism we are made part of God’s family. By faith, not good works, our sins are forgiven and we become children of God.
It doesn’t matter who your earthly father is or was, or what he did or didn’t do for you. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you have a new Father, a true Father: the heavenly Father. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). God sent his Son Jesus to become our brother in the flesh and die on the cross to save us from our sins. Now, by faith in Christ, we have God as our loving, forgiving, caring, protecting, heavenly Father. We are adopted sons and daughters of God. We are kids of the King!
And our status as heaven’s heirs has nothing to do with who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done. In a legal adoption here on earth, the child has no decision as to whether or not they will be adopted. The child does not choose her parents. She doesn’t do anything to earn their favor or approval. Her adoptive father chooses her and gives her his name as a sign of love and protection. So also with our spiritual adoption by our heavenly Father. We can do nothing to win God’s favor or gain his approval. We already have it because of Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Law. God no longer holds it against us that we missed the mark and failed the test of obedience. Jesus did it all for you! As one Bible scholar puts it: “We are sons by grace; He is so by nature.”
As a result of our Baptism and faith in Christ, God pours out the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” (Gal. 6:6). Because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, we call God “Father,” a word that means forgiveness and love. Even if you had the most wonderful earthly father who ever lived, God is still exponentially greater. And if you suffered one of the worst fathers ever known to man, God is infinitely opposite. The Bible says that God is “Father of the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5), and “as a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). Or, as Chris Tomlin sings in one of my favorite praise songs, “You’re a good, good Father/It’s who you are” (Good, Good Father).
Father’s Day is a good day on which to remember the Fatherhood of God and to celebrate the love of our forgiving, heavenly Father. We cry, “Abba, Father!” not out of fear or pain, but out of pure joy and gratitude for the grace of God. That is why I love the hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father:”
Children of the heav’nly Father,
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth,
And their sorrows all He knoweth.
Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.
More than any other, this hymn captures for me the essence of God’s character. Perhaps that is why it often brings tears to my eyes.
Now, as God’s children and heirs, we become like him through Baptism into Christ: loving, forgiving, and faithful in everything. So then, perhaps more than any other day of the year, Father’s Day is also a day on which to forgive our fathers for their sins against us—and to ask our children to forgive the wrongs we have done them. Our fathers may not have been everything we needed or wanted them to be. But God is. The same grace our heavenly Father shows us is the same grace he calls us to give our earthly fathers. Father’s Day is a day for peace and reconciliation, to let go of old hurts and to embrace the possibility of a better relationship in the future, to regard the endless stream of broken promises as so much water under the bridge and, instead of burning bridges, to reach out in mercy. Today is the day to pick up the phone and make that call that you have been putting off for months or years. Today is the day to say, “Dad, I know you did the best you could. Thank God that Jesus did the best for both of us.”
I am not a perfect father. I make mistakes. I’m not a “Super Dad.” I sometimes lose my temper when my sons misbehave (and son #1 does that a lot!), I often place greater priority on work than family, and, despite my best efforts to provide them with the love they need, I make mistakes that hurt them. No, I am most certainly not the best dad in the world. Neither were my father and stepfather or their fathers before them. But we live in the grace that our heavenly Father freely showers upon us. I repent of my sins and thank God for the do-overs. I apologize to my sons and confess my sins against them. There is nothing more humbling than saying you’re sorry to a 3 year old, but you need to do it. You just do. And at the end of the day, I pray at their bedside and bless them the best way I know how: by praying the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with those wonderful words, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of + the Holy Spirit. Amen.