When Fathers Fail

“I would run up to him, punch him in the chest, and tell him I hate him for not being there for me.
And then I would hug him and tell him that I love him.”
India had no idea what she was teaching me.  It was a warm, summer day and we were driving back from a Tigers baseball game.  I had the privilege of attending a game (while paid) along with four teenage girls from a residential group home. While I did that, my coworkers were in a meeting to hear that they would have to apply for their own jobs.  Not hard to see who won that day.
India had been very nervous – extremely nervous – as we approached Detroit and the stadium.  Her mother lived in Detroit and she did not trust her mother.  Even though her mother did not know we were going to this game, the very possibility made it hard just to walk from the van to the stadium.  But all went well and after the game I began asking a few questions: “What do you think you would have done if you had seen your mother?”  And then I asked the same question about her father, a person India had not seen in nine years.
Her statement above told me volumes that I had never fully realized before.  Your father is always your father and your mother always your mother.  I worked in the child welfare system, and I still was living in the lollipop and gumdrop land that imagined another person could simply fill a role where another person was absent or failing.  Adoptive parents or foster parents – or even me – they could just fill that role, right?

“India, what if you were adopted by a family and they loved you, what would that be like?”
Oh, that would be amazing.  I’d probably ask them all kinds of questions and hope they didn’t get freaked out because I’d want to be around them all the time.”
If you have worked with other people’s children, or been a foster or adoptive parent, you know how amazing that experience can be.  You know the love you can give and receive in that relationship.  Keep doing it.  But it took me years until India’s five-second comment made it sink in: God’s design is on purpose.  The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God.  That same design is passed on through us.  We leave our mark on our children because God left a mark on us.  It’s a marvelous pattern that we can’t explain.  Every parent-teacher conference that I attend leaves me amazed at how my children have traits of mine that I never taught. We carry our parents in us.
And that’s why India, even after not seeing for her father for more than half of her life, wanted to hold him and be held.  To love him and be loved.  She wanted to connect with her image-maker.

I pressed a little more.
India, what if you were adopted by a family, and they knew EVERYTHING about you and still loved you,
what would that be like?”
“Oh.  I think I would just…cry.”

India had just rocked and confirmed my view of God in one tiny conversation that I will always remember.  We fail as children.  Often.  We fail as adults.  All the time.  And there a nagging question in her minds, “What now?”  Children like India usually didn’t feel like they had a clean record by the time they met me.  In fact, they came with case files detailing why they were not with their parents, broken foster care placements, troubles in school and the community, medicine they were forced to take.  It’s a miniature prison record of all of their wrongs.
But what was any different about her than squeaky-clean me?  What about the car I crashed, the van window I smashed, the jerk I was in school or to my own family?  I didn’t have a written record like India, but I knew exactly what she meant. My father knew my failures, but certainly not all of them.  And my father is a pretty amazing man, but I noticed his failures too.  He did not walk with me 24 hours a day, tell me about every obstacle I would face, give me all the right answers. Even as an independent, strong-willed, know-it-all teenage boy, I still wanted the cheat sheet to life.
It just doesn’t work that way.

Shane Claiborne, in his book The Irresistible Revolution, makes a bold statement that there is no one who is truly fatherless, they just haven’t met Him yet.  They haven’t met THE Father, and we need to help with that.  He is pointing back to that design – that all of us are made in God’s image.  The challenge, of course, is that earthly fathers fail.  That can make it really hard to talk about God as Father.
Father’s Day is great, especially with social media.  People send texts, phone calls, post happy pictures and kind words and you get that warm, fuzzy feeling for a while.  You know what happens next?
And fathers fail.  We don’t talk about it much.  Well, we do, but not with much grace.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a day when I thought, “Boy, I sure parented perfectly today!  Can’t wait to do that again tomorrow!”  As a divorced father, the weight of that hangs on me every day.  The last bit of rope on a fraying marriage was that I didn’t want to do THAT to them.  But I did.
So where’s the grace?  The grace is in India’s words.  The grace is in knowing that no one is perfect.  My father has been around for every one of my days and married to my mother for 48 years and I can still spot his mistakes.  But I am loved and I love him.  He is my image-maker and I am his image-bearer.  He shaped, as many fathers do, my image of God the Father.  But he’s not God.  My dad doesn’t know all of my mistakes, not even close.  I don’t know his.
But God does.
And God is that adoptive parent who is running and calling to us to fall into His arms.  God is that one who would make India cry.  To take all the hurt and the pain and to love us right back.
The Shack is a powerful and controversial book because of what it does with the image of God the Father, or “Papa.”  Papa first appears as a woman to the main character, Mack.  Only later in the book does that change and do we learn why – Mack’s father was not a good man.  That had hurt Mack’s relationship with God.  How can God be good when fathers are so bad?  Most of us have stumbled over that hurdle.
There is brokenness all around.  Fathers fail, even the ones who are present every day.  And tomorrow is Monday.
But what if there is someone who still knows all about your failures and still loves you?
Good news.  There is.  Even and especially when fathers fail.
Happy Father’s Day.