It’s the third Father’s Day since my own father died. Long enough to forget that fact as I laced on my shoes and went on a cool morning long run. Short enough to feel a pang of remembrance as I ran past a young family walking to a Father’s Day breakfast at a cafe.
It was a two and a bit hour run, a longish one for a Father’s Day morning. I’d planned for it though. I’d gotten up early enough to be back for when my young lad woke up. He’d want to come and have a hug and a chat before we figured out breakfast. My daughter is in England at the moment, so it was kinda bittersweet. The house feels quiet without her because, well, she’s the noisy one!
She’s been away a month, but she’s only there for another couple more days. But she’s eighteen. Ready to launch. What’s it going to be like when she leaves our house for good, apart from quiet? We enjoy the quiet at the moment – me and Jill – but only because we know it’s a pause. Sophie will be back on Wednesday night and then the noise will close over the quiet like water over the Titanic. The quiet will sink – silently – to the bottom of our lives.
Declan’s card said that I was “the hippest dad around” (our neighbourhood is gentrifying fast, so that puts me just higher than middle-of-the-pack given the other funky neighbourhoods with better cafes and urban house designs in the next postcode). That made me laugh. It also said that the best thing was that I was his dad, which of course made me well up.
I’ve had a tortured relationship with Father’s Day. My own dad dipped in and out of my life, leaving it when I was 17, but coming back into it when we reconnected a bunch of years later. But he came back as “Dad” in name only. It never felt like that sort of relationship again. Not often at least. Too much had happened. We’d both changed a lot, and for me – at least – it often felt like I was fathering him through some things I wasn’t even sure he could see.
But I felt that fatherly concern that time I had a difficult relationship break up. He didn’t want to see me hurt. And I felt it most of all when I was wrongly diagnosed with a terminal illness. The devastation that he felt, upon the thought of my impending absence, was palpable. The flip-side, I suppose, of the devastation I had felt at his absence.
I spend several weeks in hospital shortly after for major surgery to sort it all out. I got the all clear. Weakened, skinny, in pain and emotionally wrung out, I asked Dad if he could pick me up on the day I got out, and take me home. It was a hot February day. He guided me gently to the car, helped me in, carried my bag, sorted out my medications and pain relief. I cried the whole way home. But it felt like this is how it should be between a son and a father.
Of course, in God’s kindness, God has never left me fatherless. And that’s not simply because of God’s own Father heart towards me. In fact it’s because of his own Father heart towards me that he has, down the years since Dad left, provided me with father after father to guide me where my own dad could not, did not. What does it say in James 1?:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
And that’s the gift of fathers to the fatherless.
So there was Jonathan. Big, beefy, hilarious, Pentecostal Cockney geezer – so far from my own Northern Irish, slightly repressed dad. Jonathan, who loved his family and loved Jesus and loved me enough to make me their lodger for a couple of years. I still remember being astounded as he laughed and farted his way through my life, pointing out Bible verses, reading long passages from the gospels, smoking a cigar over the Psalms and praying over me when I was down, his heart breaking when his own kids struggled.
And then Harry. I ended up back in Northern Ireland for a year, still struggling to figure life out, but there was Harry from Portadown Baptist Church, who’d take me on long bracing walks through the deep green Ulster countryside, riven by stone fences and shock-white sheep.
He’d talk about church, and about the struggles of parenting and about how Northern Ireland was so religious, but not in love with Jesus. And then we’d stop in at some Catholic housing estate on the way home, where Harry would drop in on some struggling families he’d met somewhere, somehow, and there’s be a sweet melting of the sectarian lines over a pot of tea.
Of course there’s my father-in-law Alan. He’s been a gentle presence in my life since I met him, which was before I actually met his daughter! He’s generous and funny. He sings old hymns at the top of his voice with a South African accent, and he’s one the rare people who beats me at Scrabble.
Years ago, we once had a sort of Scrabble finals play-off. The prize was a funky looking jacket with a fur collar that he owned that looked way too outlandish on him, but suited my slacker-generation Kurt Cobain look at the time. The look on his face when I won.
We saw him again yesterday when we celebrated my mum-in-law’s birthday. It strikes me that at 77, he was a mere year older than I am now when he gave that great speech on our wedding day. He’s been there half my life. What would we do without him? What will I be like at 77?
And Brian. I can’t forget Brian. A friend of Dad’s who’d come to faith later in life. In fact I still remember him walking up to Dad in the carpark of a church and saying “I just want to tell you that I’ve gotten saved.” And he had. And it changed everything. Brian was funny, gentle, super smart, and great to be around. His family too had put me up as a short term lodger. I’d get up early – as I always have – and there Brian would be, sitting in his easy chair, covered by a prayer shawl, petitioning his own heavenly Father for the salvation of his own boys.
And of course, Uncle Billy. Not really my uncle, but the closest to family we have. He and his wife, Maureen were Mum and Dad’s closest friends in Ireland and had moved to Australia to pastor a church. They then sponsored us out here themselves as ten pound Poms back in the day. Generous and clever and funny and living life as if the 20th century had not happened, never mind the 21st.
When they returned to live in the UK it hurt like a knife slice. But not, I imagine, as much as it hurt Uncle Billy when Dad left Mum. It nearly destroyed him. I still remember meeting Uncle Billy again on a trip to England about four years later. His exclamation of joy mixed with sorrow as he saw me again, I will never forget.
Billy has given me so much godly wisdom and advice – and love – and he has all three in bucketloads – which is just as well given he has three sons of his own. That Sophie is staying with Billy and Maureen this week just before coming home, tells you how much they mean to us – still.
So God has never left me fatherless. Never. Never, because he’s always been my Heavenly Father. But also never because in his grace he has given me shadows of the greater reality of Himself so many times and places.
And to be honest, that’s given me the chance to pass that on, to be fatherly to the younger blokes around me, especially those serving in ministry, some with fathers, some without, and some with tortured relationships to those who claim the title. Without those other fatherly figures to guide me in the tough times, I’m not sure how well I’d be at doing that. Goodness knows in these hard, increasingly hostile times, how much we need fathers to guide us.
And if all of that is the shadow, what of the reality?
And Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”