Through the years I have had many opportunities to lead studies on the Parable of the Gracious Father (Luke 15:11-32). Often I would begin the study by asking folks to describe their own fathers, and the quality of their relationships with their dads. I have come to realize that our experience with our earthly fathers goes a long way in influencing how we think of God as a Heavenly Father. And so the journey to a more accurate picture of our Heavenly Father must include a visit to our relationship with our earthly father. However, I have also come to respect the gravity of the question. You never know what stories you will hear. Some will blow you away. A few will break your heart.
Some stories will make you smile. I smile when I think of my father. I was terrified of his horrible temper. But unlike many Asian dads, he was also very affectionate and very demonstrative. As a child I always looked forward to five in the afternoon. I would keep my ears open to pick up the sound of dad’s car turning into the driveway. Papa was home and he would play with me or take me out. The story of my relationship with my dad is by and large a happy one. Some of you would have similar stories about your dads.
But I realize that there are many sad stories out there as well. There are dads who abused their children, physically, emotionally, or both. There are dads who deserted the family. There are dads for whom you were never good enough, who never showed that they loved you or that they were proud of you. There are dads who put you down all the time. Or who abused their wives, your mum, and so angered you deeply. There are dads who by their actions, crippled you and left you with incredible wounds. And if you are a woman, you wonder if you could ever trust a man again. Indeed I often hear more sad stories than happy ones. I still ask people to talk about their dads but I now ask the question much more tentatively, with greater respect for what I am asking. You never know what stories will emerge.
At a recent small group discussion someone remarked that she was glad for the stories in Scripture because it enabled her to connect the difficult story of her life with the healing stories of Scripture. It was an “ah-ha” moment for me, not that it taught me something new but that it was a powerful reminder of something I had always believed. We are defined by the stories that make up our life — and some of our stories need healing.
There is a growing appreciation for the fact that human beings are “storied beings.” As Joel B. Green writes:
… recent work in neurobiology emphasizes the capacity for and drive toward making a storied sense of our experienced world as a distinguishing characteristic of the human family. We typically explain our behaviours through the historical narratives by which we collaborate to create a sense of ourselves as persons and as a people. (“Narrative Theology”, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Kevin J, Vanhoozer, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, p.532)
But what if the defining stories of our lives are dysfunctional ones, broken stories that maim and cripple? We can heal them.
One of the most encouraging truths in a difficult world is that we have the freedom to change our defining stories. Broken stories can be restored, deficient ones replaced, and healthy stories identified and nurtured. (Daniel Taylor, Tell Me a Story, St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2001, p.124)
I don’t think we are called to deny the things that have happened to us. Instead we are called to embed the stories of our lives into the larger narrative of God’s unfolding purposes. No wonder the bulk of Scripture comes to us in narrative form. God is inviting us to bring the broken stories of our lives and connect them with His story so that we can find healing and meaning. The most horrible stories of our lives can become but chapters of a bigger narrative, one that has a good ending, a divine ending.
So how is/was your relationship with your dad? However it was, as a follower of Jesus, you now have a father in heaven who loves you very much. “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! (1 John 3:1 NLT) God is your father. This is now the primary defining reality of your life. And He will bring healing and meaning to all the stories of your life including the story of your relationship with your earthly father.
So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’ For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. (Romans 8:15-17 NLT)
This is now the adventure of our lives. Let’s live it.