11221328_sSmell is the only sense that does not make a brief stop at the brain’s relay station, the thalamus, before going to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that explains, reasons and rationalizes. Smell is unmediated, unfiltered; it hits the prefrontal cortex with a wallop. (Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, “Happy Days,” The Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2005)

I used to associate my dad with the smell of cigarettes. He smoked till his early fifties when a heart attack finally convinced him to stop. Unlike many Chinese dads, my dad was very demonstrative in his affections. He would readily ruffle my hair, hug me, and in many other ways let me know he loved me. His basic philosophy in life was that people should be happy and healthy. He worked as a clerk in a school. He said he knew his job didn’t pay very well but he liked the trade off — more regular hours so that he could spend more time with his children. I remember that around five in the afternoon, I would listen out for dad’s car coming into the driveway. I looked forward to his return. It meant he would play with me or take me out.

I remember dad putting me to bed when I was an infant. His favourite lullaby was Peter, Paul and Marys’ “500 Miles.” I would drift off to sleep being told that we were 500 miles away from home. (It’s scary. When you get older, your long term memory is awesome but your short term memory … well…) When I was sick he would rush me to the doctor and fret and worry till I was better. Dad also had a very quick temper. One yell from him and I would be quivering in fear. But he would feel guilty later and often take me out for ice cream.

Every Christmas eve, he would give me a special treat — he would carry me piggyback up the stairs and put me to bed. This went on till I was too heavy for him to carry. Dad passed on on October 15th, 2003. He finally succumbed to congestive heart failure and from diabetic related complications. As we approach another Father’s Day, I take time to remember dad (of course I never forget) and thank God for him again.

Of course dad wasn’t perfect. As we get older, we are more aware of our parent’s failures and shortcomings. But dad loved me and so when you tell me that God is a loving Father, I find that easy to accept, sans the cigarette smell. I realise that not all of us have this advantage. I have since learnt that not all dads are loving. There are absent dads, deserting dads, abusive dads, silent dads, never satisfied dads, never show that they love you dads, don’t know the real you dads, use you dads — all sorts of dads that make the idea of God as a Father, fearful, meaningless or just plain ridiculous.

That is why any attempt to understand the fatherhood of God must be based on the revelation that comes from Scripture and not from our experiences of our earthly fathers. But there is no escaping the need to understand our identity as children of God. A key reality of our life in Christ is that we are children of God and that God is our loving Father. “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1a NLT).

This Sunday I will be preaching from Luke 15:11-32. This passage is often called the parable of the prodigal son. I think it should be called the parable of the gracious father. The father is the main hero of the story. Here is a father who loves generously, respects his children’s decisions, gives them room to make mistakes, and celebrates when they learn and grow. I am particularly struck by the verbs in verse 20:

So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. (Luke 15: 20 NLT)

If actions reveal what is in our heart, here are the verbs:

  • “Saw him coming”
  • “Filled with love and compassion he ran to him”
  • “…embraced him”
  • “…kissed him”

If the father in the story is meant to tell us something about God, our God is one that loves us passionately. Indeed, now that I am a father myself, I can understand some of the dynamics of this passage better, even as I am aware that I fall so far short of being the dad that God wants me to be.

We are all driven by many needs and hungers. Like the prodigal son, we often think that our fulfilment lies in a far country, away from the side of our Father. And like the prodigal son, we learn sooner or later, and often more than once, that true joy and security can only be found in Father’s embrace.

I hate the smell of cigarette smoke. However when I get a whiff of it, I think of dad. And when I think of dad I think of God, a Father who loves me very much. Thank God I will never be too heavy for this Father to carry.