Three weeks ago, a friend and co-worker invited me to do a study together using Henri Nouwen’s book “Discernment.”
My friend had discovered Nouwen while doing some reading for a project he is working on here, and he was captivated by the Canadian mystic priest. I had been familiar with Nouwen, because he had such an influence on Brennan Manning, and my love for Manning is well documented here. Brennan quoted Henri often, and I followed that reading with some skimming through his works as well.
This is the first of his books I have ever actually endeavored to read through. I am enjoying it tremendously. Nouwen was a pilgrim, as we all are, but more willing to reveal his struggles and stumbles. I would admit that his Catholicism sometimes causes me to re-read a section, and think it through, and make sure it doesn’t conflict with my moderately Protestant theological bent. I have yet to read a selection and think, “Now that I can’t abide…”
Yesterday, after reading chapter two of this book, Nathan and I talked through the discussion questions at the end. We both found ourselves pausing at one question:
“Can you name persistent challenges in your life that keep you in need of discernment and guidance?”
Nathan asked me the question first, and my answer seemed to flow out of me, almost catching me by surprise. It was something I knew, deep in my heart, but had never verbalized. At least not to another human being. I think I may have prayed about this problem of mine, privately. But that I can recall, my friend Nathan is the first person I’ve ever said these words to.
I told him that, looking back on my life, I struggle with trust. I don't place my trust in God. For as long as I can remember, I have taken care of myself. When I was 7 and played Little League for the first time, the registration fee of $15 was too much for my parent’s pockets. It’s not that we didn’t have $15, because we did. We were very lower middle class, but we weren’t poor. It’s just that where I was concerned, it wasn’t a priority. It was always like this.
My mother and father never married, and I was raised believing that my mother’s husband, whom she married when I was almost five, was my father. There was no connection, no bond. In fact, the emotion I felt most deeply toward him was dread fear. I was afraid of him. Not respect…dread. I thought he’d snap one day and take out whatever it was that made him so mean, on me.
So, the next year, when Little League dues came around, I’d already been saving. I cut grass for a couple of my neighbors and I earned my own money. I bought my own baseball glove that way too. I’ve owned five baseball gloves in my life and none of them had any sort of emotional attachment. My stepfather never gave me any of them, and other than one time that I can recall, we never had a catch.
I have no memories of a father-son relationship. Neither with my step father, and obviously not with my biological father. He doesn’t recognize me as his child and desires no relationship at all. It is what it is, and I’ve dealt with it as best I can and refuse to give it anymore of my time and energy.
But this lack of a father-son bond has produced some sweet and sour results. On the one hand, I knew, very early on, that nobody was going to help me. Not in any of the things that a young boy, or later a man, could use help from his dad with. There was never an encouraging voice on the sidelines at any of my sporting events. Never. Not once. There was never a dad, in the backyard, teaching me the curveball, or showing me how to change the oil in a car. I stopped even asking him by the time I was about 9 years old, and being a smart kid, I researched those things and learned for myself.
It made me industrious and gave me a broad set of life skills. I absorbed the essentials of manhood from other boy’s dads. I learned how to really shake a man’s hand, from shaking the massive, garden-shovel-sized hand of Harry Flohr, a pillar in the church I grew up in. I learned about working on cars from the guy across the street and from Ken Winward’s dad, Ken Sr. who races an alcohol dragster, and who welcomed me into the gang when I was still in high school.
I learned from my coaches, and from the dads of my friends, how to be manly, how to treat a lady, when a joke was going too far, how to keep your word. I learned from Bob DuHadaway and Poppa John Iorizzo, how to be a good dad. Thankfully, I was surrounded by enough good, decent, men of character, that what I needed to know about being a man, and about being a father, I learned. But there was one thing that none of them could show me. One thing that no other man on earth could teach me except my dad, and he simply decided never to do it. And this one thing has crippled me since as far back as I can remember.
I don’t know how to be a son.
The Bible makes constant reference to God being our Father. The Lord’s prayer -Jesus’ model for prayer for his disciples—begins with the line: “Our Father, who is in Heaven…” Paul talks about the “Spirit of adoption, by which we call God our Abba” (The Hebrew equivalent for “Pappa”). David writes a single line in Psalm 31:6 that says, “Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” “Make your face shine…” is a wonderful Hebrew alliteration. It means to smile at, or to “beam with pride.” David was saying, “Look at me with beaming pride. Let the very sight of me bring a smile to your face…then move on my behalf.”
It’s what God’s face surely must have looked like, that morning at the Jordan when Jesus was baptized, and the sky was torn open, and God’s voice boomed: “This is my much-loved Son...He makes me happy!”
I have never seen my father smile at me. I don’t know what it looks like to see pride for his son radiating from his eyes. I’ve never felt his arm on my shoulder. I’ve never heard him say “I’m proud of you. I’m proud to just be your dad.” I’ve never brought a smile to his face, simply by being myself in his presence. This is the basis of the truth I spoke to Nathan yesterday when I told him; “I don’t know what it’s like to be a son.”
Just now as I typed those words, hot tears came to my eyes. It’s true, and it has shaped my life from as far back as I can recall. I have no idea what it feels like to be someone’s son. I have never rounded the bases after belting a homerun and seen my dad in the stands, slapping another dad on the back and saying: “That’s my son!”
There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Invincible” where Vince Papale is playing in his first home game as an Eagle. His dad and some friends have gathered in Max’s Bar, where they all went for beers and pool. Vince’s dad’s name was “Kingie” and he was a tough, hardened man, played brilliantly by Kevin Conway. Kingie loved his son, but in that hardnosed, post-WWII way of another generation. There is a scene where, after Vince makes a tremendous play on a punt return and scored a touchdown, Max, the bar owner, walks over to where Kingie is sitting at the bar and says; “That’s your boy, Kingie…” Conway’s character smiles with the sort of pride and love that those hardened men of that generation tend to stuff down deep inside them. It seldom shows, but when it does, it is an amazing thing. Kingie is teary-eyed and can only shake his head and acknowledge the immense pride in his boy…now a real Philadelphia Eagle.
I’ve never known that. I’ve never had my dad tell me I was a good man, or a good dad, or call to offer advice. We’ve never shared moments as a father and son. I have no archetype with which to formulate a prayer life, and approach God as a loving, benevolent Father. Those words are meaningless to me. I can’t find an emotion in all my life history that resembles that. Nothing from which to draw a similarity and say “Oh…it feels like that.
I don’t know what it feels like to be a son.
I think that I call God “Father” because He says He is, and because I at least know how to be a dad, and oftentimes I simply assume that He’s just like me…only better. Surely this sells Him short, but I have no idea how to change the image I have in my head. I’ve never been someone’s “little boy.” I can’t even imagine it.
There is a consequence to every action, every decision. My father’s decision not to be my father, and my stepfather’s decision to marry a woman with a child he could not love, resulted in a man who does not know how to be a son. This is the prism through which I view God and it has marked my life of Faith from the moment I first became a believer.
I don’t know how to change it. I don’t know how to battle the voices of doubt when I pray “Father God…” I don’t know what sort of emotions I am supposed to feel when I come to Him as a Father.
Because I don’t know how to be a son.