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Personhood Series-Fatherhood Redefined

“What is your earliest memory?” the psychologist asked me.

“My earliest memory is of my father holding me in his arms at a nude beach, and he was flirting with two topless women.”

“Do you remember how that made you feel?” he inquired, pen and notebook in hand.

“Confused, and angry,” I said, “especially since my mother was sitting there, helplessly watching with my little brother just a few feet away on the beach.”

My father abused my mother, emotionally and physically. I can still remember what the echo of his hand sounded like whenever it hit her cheek. I can still recall all the times that he told her that he wished her body were “tighter, like her sisters’,” and how my mom would never amount to anything. I can remember every dumb blond joke and the brokenness in her eyes. I can still remember the names of every prostitute that my dad brought around. I remember all of the times that our power was shut off and the pantry was empty because, rather than paying the bills and providing food for us, he was wining and dining women he had met at his favorite strip clubs. I can still remember the night that he told me that I wouldn’t have to worry about loving my mom anymore because he had found me a “new mom.” I remember the afternoon when my grandfather, in tears, told me that my dad had been shot by the very same woman who was supposedly going to be my “new mom.” And after he survived, forgave her, and took her back, I remember the Thanksgiving where she tried to run him through with a butcher knife. I remember being awoken by the commotion; I remember her lashing about and shouting obscenities on the floor as my dad pinned her down, seeking to restrain her. I remember that, even though she had done all of this to him, my dad still refused to call the police because he was so smitten with her. I remember the times that his other girlfriends did drugs in front of us. I remember feeling so neglected. I remember feeling so scarred. I remember feeling so dead inside. I remember all of the suicidal thoughts. I remember feeling like nothing in life mattered. No matter how much I don’t want to, Lord have mercy, I remember.  

Whenever people today say that they have a hard time calling God “Father,” I understand. The way you perceive your father really has a hand in shaping your whole worldview. The way family has been lived out for you in the past will most likely become the picture you carry with you into the future. Yet whether we view God as Father or not, this does not change the fact that he still is Father to us. He still provides for us. He is still concerned for us. He still sits and waits, yearning for his prodigal child’s voice to call him “Abba.”

Growing up, I had a youth minister who had lost his dad as a teenager. The loss shaped his whole perspective on paternity. The notion of “father” was a seething wound in his heart; a festering reminder of something very precious that he had lost in his life. Yet his faith redefined fatherhood for him. It wasn’t as though he no longer missed his biological father, but rather that his heavenly Father had filled the painful gap in his life. Many people in our church writhed in anger whenever he would call God “daddy” in prayer, deeming it immature and disrespectful. I am guessing that their notions of fatherhood were not coupled with the type of anguish that he had experienced as a child. I am guessing that they all had loving fathers, and never experienced the urgency to seek out the paternal comfort that our heavenly Father provides. Those folks may not have gotten it, but I did. It was one of the most meaningful aspects of my conversion experience–-being able to call someone “Abba” with sincerity.

Whenever the psychologist asked me how I had learned to cope with the events of my life, I responded, “God, and a redefinition of family.” Understanding that God truly is “Abba” to his children redefined fatherhood for me. Being adopted as a child of God is a matter of coming into a new paternal relationship, and a matter of coming into a new family, the church. This does not diminish the significance of family, but reveals that the family is meant to point to something bigger than itself.

Getting married and having a child has also provided a redefinition as well. There was a time when I really wanted to be a monk. Now, however, I can see God’s grace in denying me that calling. Had I entered into the monastic life, it would have been very hard for me to throw off a lot of my old views; to trade old familial notions for renewed ones. God has graced me with a wife and with a precious little boy so that I can gradually learn to forget to remember. In a very real way, God has allowed me to undo the past, to “redeem the time.” Notions of husband and father no longer are defined by the past, but by the communion that I get to participate in in the present. God not only has taught me how to receive paternal love (from him), but he has also allowed me to show it to my own son. I get to be for my boy all of the things that I wanted my father to be for me. I get to treat my wife in the way that I wanted my father to treat my mother. In all of the loving glances, and in all of the precious words, my wife is teaching me how to not remember anymore. The wonderful new memories that she has given me are pushing out all of the ones that used to cause me so much despair. God has given me, and has been present in, a marriage that has become like salve for my broken and wounded soul. 

Looking back upon my past, I can now interpret Christ in the actions of others as well. I can see how he worked through my grandfather, as he gave me the time and attention that my father wouldn’t. I can see how Christ worked through my stepfather, in the healing that his love brought to my mother, and in the patient stability that he brought to me in my time of anguish. They became for me icons of paternal care, worthy of imitation. Because of God’s mercy, I remember. I can also see how Christ was present in my mother, enabling her to endure against all odds, and to love in the midst of brokenness. My second earliest memory is of my mother, rocking me to sleep and reading a children’s Bible to me. I vividly remember the picture that was before me, that of David slaying Goliath with a tiny stone. Whether she intended to or not, her lifestyle taught me that prayer is that tiny stone, and it is enough to slay the giant of despair.  

How about you? How has God provided relationships in your own life that have been sources of renewal for you? Have you allowed the church to renew your understanding of family? Have you allowed God’s love for you to redefine the relationships in your life? Is God’s fatherhood merely a creedal dogma you recite, or a reality you participate in and are grateful for? When is the last time you not only have called upon God as “Father,” but have called upon him as “Abba?”

TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

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