The usual phone conversation with my brother, Mike, involves a give and take of playful insults and off-color humor as a prelude to whatever else we need to discuss. On May 19, 2010, there was no humor. Mike was all business. In a bracing tone that caused me to unconsciously harden my stomach muscles, he asked me if I was alone. After he determined that the coast was clear, he quickly got down to the business section of the call. “Dad died this morning.” Like a twin-engine plane, circling an airport, it took two or three more passes for those words to finally land within me. While I was still finding a place to store this new information, Mike continued, “It looks like he took his own life.” This second piece of news instantaneously pushed me down into the seated position. I knew that one day my aging dad would die…just not like this.
In the first few days after his death, while trying to make sense of this peculiar brand of chaos, it occurred to me, that the macular degeneration that dad had suffered for the last several years of his life was an apt metaphor for a much deeper disability. Just like the macular degeneration that limited what he could see in the last years of his life, my dad suffered from a kind of emotional and psychological macular degeneration through all of his adult life. Even as a young child, I would observe my dad’s emotional and psychological vision problems in action. Frequently, he would take what he thought was a well-placed step. But, plagued with his particular brand of vision problems, he would run headlong into someone, or something that would cause one form of chaos or another.
Almost three decades ago, I came to an awareness that I had internalized some of my dad’s chaos. This awareness led me into a process of healing that included counseling, spiritual direction, Twelve Step work, praying, and journaling. With assistance, I developed a vocabulary, and a kind of filing system that helped me make sense of my dad. Gradually, I learned that I had to mourn the dad I wished for, so that I could accept the dad over here in the real world—the dad with emotional macular degeneration that often prevented him from seeing me.
In the last twenty years or so, the fruit of this work showed up in a really satisfying relationship with dad. Through clear boundary setting on my side…and a willingness on his side to always bounce back to me…we eventually got to see the best in each other. In the last several years of his life, I came to imagine that his eventual death would represent a kind of victory lap for the both of us to celebrate what we were eventually able to enjoy with one another.
This Sunday’s Gospel selection was the classic Prodigal Son Parable. Like other stories that merit the label, “classic,” if you really listen to it deeply enough, it will walk you into some important territory of your own life, and ask you to wrestle with some very intimate, vulnerable truths. For example, how many of us have been the stay-at-home brother or sister, watching in pain, as a prodigal sibling creates ten different types of chaos for a family? What does it mean for an authentic Christian to forgive 70 x7 times in these circumstances? Or perhaps you have gone prodigal for some section of your own life, and had to find your way back home? What caused you to go prodigal? What does it mean for you to come home again?
At one snapshot in time three years ago, this story confronted me with my own father-son story that had more to do with a father whose limitations frequently made him seem prodigal to me. Somehow, the chaotic way that my prodigal father left this Earth, brought me back to the chaos of how he had lived significant sections of his life. It was as if his suicide took hold of the filing cabinet of my psyche, and pulled it over. Painful memories from the past, long-ago filed away, came spilling out. They were suddenly present to me again. Like an episode of “Rocky,” or “The Terminator” the grief work that I thought I had conquered “was baaack!” In a strange way, my dad’s death challenged me to set out on another, deeper journey of self-discovery.
After a few months on this journey, a familiar memory surfaced during contemplative prayer. It had to do with the life-changing time when God showed up in my adolescence with a fire hose of unconditional, affectionate, fatherly love for me. But what came next surprised me. I found myself getting in touch with how, shortly thereafter, a series of wise, balanced men came into my life, one-at-a-time. Each in his own way, these men provided me with mentoring, friendship, and a rudder to steer my life, so that the son of a prodigal father did not have to remain prodigal himself.
This cluster of reflections, brought me to the healing insight that I have never been fatherless, and I am not fatherless now. Over the years, God attracted so many godparents to me. Through their affection, humor, wisdom, and enjoyment of me, I have been fathered by the hand of God himself. This kind of knowledge, I have found, can create a profound sense of homecoming.
Who have been the unofficial God-parents in your life? Whose mature love has formed and shaped you into a better version of you? Do you know how to reach out and ask for a mentor to help you on the pathway?