I judged him pretty harshly for that. I wanted to be a father so much, almost more than anything else, and I couldn't understand how anyone could just walk away from such a gift.
One day, he got the phone call. His oldest son who lived far away in a big city down south had been shot and killed on the street. My friend was dry eyed and ghostly as he told me the few sketchy details the boy's mother had shared with him. "When are you going down?" I asked. "Nothing I can do there," he answered, shaking his head numbly. It wasn't as if he didn't care, exactly. It was more like he knew that a moment, a lifetime had been missed and that there would not be a second chance.
I got a glimpse of how that felt on a day, weeks later, during a poker game at the table in the back of the tour bus. We were on a country road, on our way to some little college someplace, and we passed a cemetery. As is so often the case, there was a lot next door where stones were sold. For some reason, we both looked up from our cards at the same time. There, by the side of the little two-lane road, we saw it. A granite stone, smaller than the others, cut into the shape of a teddy bear. Grotesque. I heard him whisper softly, "Oh, no. No." My friend put down his cards. Folded. Walked away from the table. I judged him a little less harshly after that. He should have been there for his son. Seeing that stone, so ridiculously inappropriate for the inner city tough guy his oldest had grown into, must have touched something in my friend. A memory. A dream. A hope. I don't know. We didn't talk about it at all after that. But I saw a big man cry that day. Tears of shame and of loss for an opportunity that would never be coming back. I believe that at that moment, my friend would have willingly traded places with his son. Laid himself in that grave and put his boy on the bus, laughing, drinking, singing songs and playing cards and enjoying playing Shakespeare to a different town every night.
And that is the insane, radical vision of God that Jesus offers: not a king, or a cosmic force, but a father. When Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer, he prayed "Our Father," but he used the word abba. It's the word tiny children use to address their dads. The closest English equivalent is "Daddy."
A cynic might read that and think it's just one more example of the way religion infantilizes us and tries to keep us helpless as children under the authority of the church. But they've never seen what I saw that day in the back of the bus. My friend didn't want to turn his son into a child again. He just wanted him to live. He should have done more. It took the boy's death to teach him that. He had lost the chance to be that boy's "Daddy." Jesus' message on this Fathers' Day is that God does not pass up that chance. God does not walk away. And God suffers with us, God does what no human father could ever do... God takes our place. God dies so that we can learn to love before it is too late.
That is the lesson of Fathers' Day, to me. I remember ugly ties and walks in the woods and hard lessons taught with gentle firmness... but I also remember sacrifice. My earthly father was willing to give everything for his children. In doing so, he was a minister to us from our heavenly Father. Nobody could have ever loved me like my Dad did. And I loved him so much that now, almost 20 years since his death, my heart still aches to remember him.
And Jesus says that's the kind of love the Creator of the universe has for me. Like the preacher said, "Ain't that good news?"