The Father’s Love

This past summer, rummaging through a table of used books, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It’s her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, a modern-day Daniel Boone who lives on a thousand acres of pristine land in the hillbilly country of the Appalachian Mountains. He has made himself an expert at everything he puts his hands to, which is mostly recovering ancient ways of farming and building and cooking and concocting remedies from tree bark and forest plants. I had not, until reading the book, heard of Eustace Conway, though he’s something of a legend, nor had I read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert, though she’s a well-known writer.

But I was captivated from her first sentence: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”

Thus begins a tumbling, wheeling, radiant portrait of a troubled and prodigiously gifted man, equal parts tyrant, visionary, romantic, adventurer, entrepreneur and utopian dreamer. He can drive a real estate deal with snaky cunning and hard-fisted resolve, then write sheer mush to yet another idealized woman for whom he’s fallen hard, then lose himself in some grand ambition to make or remake history. He wants to save America from itself – its flabbiness, laziness, ineptitude, wastefulness, consumption – and teach everyone to live free and wild. But his own compulsiveness keeps him in a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration.

Eustace is a complicated man. Many influences shape him, and much about him remains a mystery. But one theme that Gilbert returns to over and over is his relationship with his father, Eustace, Sr.. Eustace has never lived up to his father’s impossible, inscrutable expectations. Repeatedly, through childhood on, he’s tried in every way to make his father proud, and in every way has failed. When Eustace, Jr. was still at home, Eustace, Sr. had three modes of parenting him – scowling silence, withering mockery, and pummeling lectures. A typical tirade: “You are stupid. I have never met a child more dimwitted. I don’t know how I could have sired so idiotic a son.”

Never has the man reversed his verdict.

Eustace has been in every inch formed by this. He’s spent his entire life trying both to escape his father and to win him. As Eustace’s fame and influence and skill has grown, as he’s been sought and admired by more and more people, he’s remained the boy desperate for his father’s approval, crushed by his father’s contempt. In many ways, he’s accomplished so much because he’s been damaged so deeply. His success – his perfectionism, really – has been a massive gesture of compensation, a thing he’s used to try to fill a void that has no bottom. It’s been his lifelong and mounting effort to hear just one thing: You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

Three things emerged for me reading all this. One is a deep thankfulness for my own father, now gone 20 years. Though my relationship with him was strained at times, he was a kind and good man, with a generous heart, and I never doubted his love for me. After his death, I found among his treasures all the tacky or homey little gifts I ever gave him – a metal key chain with his initials crookedly stamped into it, a wooden letter opener made from black oak and ash, and somesuch. I held them and wept.

The second thing is a fresh resolve to be a good father to my three children. To speak words to them that are kind, and true, and hopeful. To call them to be their best selves, but never impose on them my own version of that. To tell them often that I love them. That I am proud of them.

The third thing that emerged is renewed wonder at God’s love. My favorite memory of my own father was a Saturday in June 1976. I had just turned 16. We rose early and drove through the Fraser Valley, outside Vancouver, looking for a U-Pick blueberry farm. We never found one. But the whole day we talked, and laughed, and sang. We had lunch together in a 50’s style diner. We arrived home late afternoon, empty-handed but full-hearted. When I think of God’s fatherhood, I always think of that day: the gift of his sheer presence. He gives many good gifts, but always, with all of them, he gives himself.

Perhaps had Eustace Conway known a father like that, he wouldn’t have had the drive to succeed. Or maybe he would have, but with it also the capacity to enjoy his success, and yet not to define himself by it.

I want to succeed. I want my children to succeed. I just hope that what gets any of us there is not someone’s impossible, inscrutable demands, but this alone: the father’s love.

Confessions of an Imperfect Sabbath-keeper

 

Pentre-cwrt

Pentre-cwrt

My wife and I and daughter Nicola lived in Wales for 4 months, in winter and spring of 2012. Sarah, our other daughter, joined us for the last few weeks (alas, our son Adam was unable to get away from work). It was part of a sabbatical that the church I was serving then graciously gave to us.

We had been to the UK before, on brief visits, but my haste on those trips, trying to cover much ground and take in many sights in slivers of time, reduced my experience, and my subsequent memories, to blurry fragments. That’s the irony of trying to see too much too fast: it often renders everything forgettable.

Our time in Wales was different. It was a lingering sojourn. We traded houses, and vehicles – and even churches – with a pastoral couple who were just beginning their retirement. We had only met them, through a mutual friend, via email (and then face-to-face, for 30 minutes, at Gatwick airport in London, where we quickly exchanged greetings and keys). View from Kitchen windowTheir home sat high on a green hillside overlooking the endlessly twisting Teifi River and, beyond that, the tiny stone village or Pentre-cwrt, a place even most Welsh people are stumped to locate on a map. The house bordered a sheepfold, and every morning when we stepped into the kitchen to make our coffee, a dozen or so plump and skittish ewes, sometimes a haughty surly ram, then later in spring a few spindly and curious lambs, stared at us through the window, though scattered at our first greeting.

It was magic. I think of it now – I thought of it then – as my season in Narnia. The days unfolded with unhurried ease. I learned to drive under the speed limit. Life’s slowness, its stillness, its deep quiet, made us, not drowsy, but fully awake. The stillness enhanced everything, made each colour brighter, every sound sharper, all movement more dramatic. Looking back on it now, almost 4 years later, I remember almost every walk we took, meal we ate, conversation we had, drive we drove, church service we attended, visit we enjoyed, with photographic precision. It lives inside me vividly.

That’s also what Sabbath is meant to do. It slows everything down, and so brightens everything up. It creates space and time – a stillness – for us to linger, to savour, to notice. It is one day, rung like a tuning fork, that makes all the other days sing on key.

I wrote a book many years ago – actually, while I was on my first sabbatical, given to me by the same generous church that let us go to Wales – on Sabbath. It’s called The Rest of God. I wrote it when I was still a rank beginner, stumbling through my first clumsy steps, babbling my first garbled words. The book did well in spite of all that, and for the past dozen years I’ve been asked to speak often on the topic, treated as something of an expert on the matter.

The truth is, I’m still mostly in a rush. I still wrestle wild impatience. Most of my days still go by in a blur.

But it’s not all that. I’ve been keeping Sabbath, in at least some cobbled-up way, for 14 years now. And it’s made a difference. It’s making a difference. The weekly slowing has made more room inside me. I listen better. I notice more. I’m more curious, more thankful, more receptive, more generous. Admittedly, I’ve a good stretch yet to go. And other things, including painful things, have helped in all this. And there are some areas in which I’ve made, it seems, little progress – maybe even fallen backward. But generally, Sabbath has been for me a long obedience in the same direction, to quote Eugene Peterson (who was quoting, improbably, Friedrich Nietzsche).

I remember reading many years ago something by Henri Nouwen in which he described his hurt over a friend accusing him of insensitivity and uncaring. Nouwen admitted to these faults. His defense was simply this: Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry – but please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a man of prayer.

I still move too fast. Still listen poorly. Still grow impatient over minor things.

Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry. But please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a Sabbath-keeper.

Giving Good Gifts

Where has the time gone?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? …. you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children….”

(Luke 11:11-12).

 

My 3 children came home for Thanksgiving. Nothing makes me happier than having all of them under the same roof, even if only for a few nights. Of all the roles I play in the world – writer, professor, terrible cook, kilt-wearing, brogue-speaking, bag-pipe playing Scottish warrior (well, maybe not, but there’s always room for dreaming) – none is more foundational than husband to my wife and father to my children.

I wish I was better at both, husband and father. I have a decent idea what excellence looks like here. I just struggle to attain it. Like Jesus says, I know, despite the evil within me, how to give good gifts to my children. The same could be said of my relationship with my wife: I know how to cherish and honour her. But it seems to me that Jesus’ emphasis here is on the phrase “know how to.” Knowing how to do something does not always lead to doing it. I know how to change oil, too, and fix dripping faucets, and caulk and paint molding installed 2 years ago. But knowing how to do these things and actually doing them are not the same thing.

So my children come home for Thanksgiving, and I want to give them good gifts, heart gifts, soul gifts. And to some extent, I do. But honestly, my vision of the father I want to be and the father I actually am are still too far apart.

And that has me thinking about the Holy Spirit. When Jesus says that fathers, despite our evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, he isn’t really talking about us. He mentions us simply as a point of comparison. Jesus is talking about our Father in heaven:

 

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

 

How much more.

The whole point is that God always delivers on this request. God the Father knows how to give the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he never fails to give in full when we ask.

And that has me thinking about being a father to my children, a husband to my wife. There is a gap between my vision of these roles and my actual performance of them – between knowing how to give good gifts and actually giving them – but that gap is not closed by trying harder.

It is only closed by asking for more of the Spirit.

O Lord, fill me up.

From This to That in No Time Flat

My daughter Sarah graduates tonight.

The math doesn’t add up. It wasn’t that long ago we brought her home from the maternity ward, a dark-haired, swarthy-skinned, wide-eyed little thing, half polecat and half princess. She was already spoiling for adventure and hunting mischief. And it was quite recently she was a feisty tyke, all of four, ready to take on a whole gang of nine-year-olds in the park behind our yard because they’d snatched her brother’s toy. There must have been four of five of them, but her fury terrified them into surrender. And, goodness, it was only a week ago, maybe three, she got her braces on, and then quick-as-you-blink got them off again.

You see what I mean. How we got from “It’s a girl!” to cap-and-gown involved some insidious time-warp, where years folded into minutes. We went from this to that in no time flat. We never had a moment to catch our breath. We never had enough hours to savour the girl at three, and ten, and 14, and now. Already I see this season hurtling by, brilliant and swiftly fading as a falling star.

In early September, I’ll drive Sarah and Cheryl to the Victoria airport. I’ll kiss them both goodbye. I’ll drive back down to the airport four days later to pick Cheryl up. But not Sarah. She’ll be gone, off to school in Quebec. And so that kiss goodbye will have to last several months, and the one after that several months again.

And this will be the rest of my life.

I find myself unprepared for this. That’s pathetic, I know, because nothing could have been more predictable: children come into our lives, disrupt them terribly, make us proud and make us gray, and then walk away. This is as it ought to be, and hard, even devastating, when it doesn’t happen like this. But it takes more getting used to than I’ve gotten used to. I’m still thinking my 20-year old son is just gone for a spell, soon to return to resume life among us. I’m still rummaging for exactly the right words to speak at these coming and goings, trying to find my balance, get my bearings, handle my emotions.

I keep thinking, How can they manage without me? when I know the real question is, How can I manage without them?

But this consoles me: I’d rather all this be so than not so.

Happy graduation, Sarah. I’m proud of you. Keep your eyes on Jesus, your feet on the ground, and your heart wide open to truth and grace. Love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

And don’t forget to call your dad.