This Sunday is Father’s Day. I know a lot of great stories about fathers. And I know a lot of people who wish they had had a great father to tell stories about—that is one of the difficulties of our time. We don’t seem to have quite enough involved and fully present dads to go around to all the families that need them! So this story is a good one to share at Father’s Day because it is not only true, it belonged to all the people in it who reached out in a loving way during a tough time…and it belongs to all who read it who reach out in kindness during tough times. And it reminds us that good fathering is more about behavior that about biology:
THE HEART’S PAYCHECK: A Fathers Day Story
Many years ago I worked as a counselor at a Crisis Care Shelter for children who had to be taken out of their homes suddenly and needed a safe place to be while their relatives and social services and the courts sorted out what would happen next. Some stayed a day or two. Some a week or two, some quite a bit longer. None of these emergency placement children wanted to be there. All were frightened, many angry. They came because of abuse, incest, battering, or because their parent had been arrested. Sometimes they came because they were suddenly orphaned and needed shelter until claimed by appropriate relatives.
Once, five brothers were dropped off by the police at six o’clock in the evening, just as I was coming to work for the weekend. Their mother had died six months before of complications of childbirth. The baby was fine. The oldest boys, twins, were twelve, and the other two were somewhere between in age. Their father had been in a car accident driving home from work and was flown from the local hospital to the nearest Regional Trauma Center for emergency surgery. No one had known until he briefly regained consciousness in the airplane that his boys were home alone. They had quickly radioed for the police to pick them up and bring them to the shelter. The boys were bewildered and ready to panic completely, which seemed appropriate to me, under the circumstances. The baby and the three year old were too young to understand and were settled soon enough, fed, cuddled and rocked to sleep. The three older boys sat at the kitchen table pretending to drink hot chocolate, nearly paralyzed with dread. They finally told me that their mother had been flown away in an airplane to have their baby brother and they had never seen her again. She never came back. They never got to say goodbye.
They wouldn’t go to bed but two of them finally put their heads down on the table and slept. The other boy, Danny, kept a silent vigil through that long night with me. When the sun came up, rosy and promising, he was staring out the window with me at the sunrise. He said, “My mom always said, when we had troubles or sickness, ‘Joy comes in the morning, with the sun and the song of the lark.’ ” His voice was bleak and flat and full of despair.
It was a long day. Social services had contacted the boys’ grandparents in another state the night before and they were coming to be with the boys, but couldn’t get there for 24 hours. There was no information from the police, the hospital or social services. Finally, late in the afternoon, there was a knock on the door. Outside stood a man I didn’t know. He said, “I understand you have the Johnson boys here. I have a message for them from their father.” He came in and sat down and patted the sofa next to him but the boys stood in front of him, stiffly at attention. He looked at each of them and named them each correctly, even the look-alike twins. Then he nodded and took an envelope out of his pocket. “This is from your dad,” he said to the boys. “He was anxious to get it to you quickly, and as a father myself, I understood and offered to bring it in person.” He took some pages out of the envelope and started to read.
“My precious sons,” it began, “If I could have any wish in the world it would be to be at home with you now, eating macaroni and cheese and watching Star Trek reruns. I believe that I may not be able to do that. I am hurt very badly and the doctors may not be able to fix it. I was feeling pretty worried about leaving you, but I had a dream in the airplane on the way to this hospital and I saw your mama just as clear and real as Sunday morning and she said to me, “Hush, now, Daddy. Joy comes in the morning, with the sun and the song of the lark. If grandma and grandpa have to finish raising our boys–well those boys will each have two guardian angels all their lives long instead of just their mama.” And I said to her, “But Lucy, they are so sad that they never got to say goodbye to you. What if now I can’t get home to say goodbye either? And she said, “Jack, It’s not time for me to say goodbye. I’m still saying hello to each of my boys every morning. They must know it when they wake up to a brand new day and feel me blowing a kiss onto each cheek. And now they’ll know it in the darkness of every lonely night, when we whisper goodnight in each ear and say, “No more giggling and carrying on…you boys get to sleep right now!” You boys are everything your mama and I ever wanted in this world. We love you forever and ever.” Love, Daddy.
The eight year old blurted out, “My daddy’s dead, isn’t he?” The man looked at him and there were tears in his eyes. ”I don’t know, honey. They had to make him sleep before they could operate on him and I just know it was mighty important to him that he get this message to you and he wouldn’t let them start the operation until he said what he wanted to say. So I wrote it down just the way he said it and I promised him I would drive up here and tell you every word in person.” He said, “I have to go back now to the big hospital. Are there messages that I can take back to him from you?” Each of the bigger boys wrote him a letter and sealed it in a big envelope I found for them. The man took the envelope and left.
Later that evening their grandparents arrived and soon after, they all left, huddled together in silent sadness in the gathering dark. A week later I learned from a co-worker that the boys’ father had actually died in the air-evac plane on the way to the trauma center, regaining consciousness only long enough to whisper that his boys were home alone. When the hospital had notified his parents, they had asked the hospital not to call our care shelter but to let them tell their grandchildren in person when they arrived.
Then they called the hospital chaplain. I have no idea what particular church he was affiliated with. They explained the situation and, with his help, composed that eloquent and personal message of love from the father to his children. Then he drove up to the Crisis Shelter, a nearly five hour trip one way, and delivered the message from their dad in person. The love of a father for his children….it is a God Thing that inspires others to stretch themselves for Love’s sake.
I don’t know what happened to those boys as they grew up. I know that at least some of them must have become fathers and maybe now are even grandfathers. I believe that despite losing both mother and father at young ages, the loving care of grandparents, the hospital chaplain who was also a dad, the care shelter that gave them a safe place to wait out their worry and pain….all these things are a reflection of the love available to all of us and which shines particularly in this story through the love of family and of fathers.
We learn most important things through stories—those that happen to us or that others tell us that happen to them. As a pastor I particularly believe in the power of stories. I like stories that talk about how the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Love, or God’s Domain, the Peaceable Kingdom—what do you call it?) comes alive among us. Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “My experience tells me that the Kingdom of God is within us, and that we can realize it not by saying, “Lord, Lord,” but by doing His will and his work. If, therefore, we wait for the Kingdom to come as something coming from outside, we shall be sadly mistaken.”
“The kingdom of God is at hand”, said Christ. And someone asked him, “When will the kingdom of God come?” And he said, “The kingdom of God will not come if you watch for it. Nor will anyone be able to say, “It is here” or “It is there”. For the kingdom of God is within you.”
Life starts out as small as a mustard seed, a tiny thing which grows and spreads and becomes one of the largest of shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky are able to make their nests in its shade. The mustard plant can grow to a height of four feet or more. The point of the famous mustard seed parable is the contrast between the smallness of the seed and the large widespread growth of the shrub and the shelter and safety and nourishment and tending it provides to those who live in in.
Meister Eckhart, the German priest and mystic born in 1260, once said, “The seed of God is in us. If you are an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up into God, whose seed it is, and its fruits will be God fruits. Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds grow into nut trees, and God seeds grow into God.” It is an interesting metaphor, because in a sense, the farmer can’t really control the process at all–he can’t control the sun or the rain or the pests–and that makes farming a very challenging activity. In another sense, it is all up to him–preparing the soil, planting the seed, caring for its growth. It is a metaphor for each of our lives. We can’t control most of the things that happen to us but we can open our hearts to give and receive love that will shelter and sustain us—and others– whatever happens.
That is certainly a Father’s Day image. Fatherhood begins with the planting of a tiny seed. But the birth of a baby that grows from that seed does not make a man a father, except in the least important biological sense. Tending to and nurturing, caring for and teaching and loving and providing for…those are the things that make a man a father. And it requires commitment and presence and heart and it does not require a biological connection, although that can make it easier to connect—or harder!
Fatherhood is helped by God’s grace, since none of us can do something as important as being a father without love, luck and grace. It is a matter of the heart. And grace is a mystery, like Love is a mystery. In fact, Love is the essence of grace, irrational and lovely. You can only see grace, writes Paul, with the “eyes of the heart”. Pascal, the great French mathematician in the 17th century (which was the beginning of the so-called Enlightenment in which reason was considered to be the invincible rule of the mind) wrote, “The heart has reasons the mind knows not of.” In the Kingdom of God, reason does not rule at all, the irrational heart of love does.
In the Little Prince, that lovely French fairy tale by St. Exupery, the fox tells the little boy who has tamed him a secret: ”It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It is the time we waste on each other that makes us unique and precious and valuable, loving and lovable. It is relationship, the connection and meeting of hearts, that allows us to recognize grace when it appears in our lives.
Fathers are precious. There are not enough men engaged in fathering the children of this world. Learning to love those children comes from knowing them, in relationship, in connections of the heart–not where there are undeniable differences between us, as there are in all families–but on the ground of our common aliveness where each one of us has struggled with the deep pain and loneliness that comes with risking our lives for the love and belonging we are all born seeking with all our hearts. Being alive often hurts. Being open to being hurt because closing our hearts to pain is closing ourselves off to love is to lose the source of one of the greatest treasures life offers. Our capacity to experience the pain that total aliveness inevitably brings to each of us is also the measure of our capacity to feel joy and love, and to recognize grace in the mysterious unfolding of the patterns of our lives. Being a father takes time and courage and a willingness to keep showing up even when you don’t know just what to do to get it “right.”
“The Heart’s Paycheck” is a good story because often something real happens in a crisis that connects us, heart to heart. It doesn’t mean we get to determine the outcome. It does mean, that with grace and trust in the seed of God’s image planted in each of our hearts, through whatever pain and suffering we must endure, we can know that the heart’s paycheck is not in money but in awareness that Love changes us and changes those we love. Love finds us precious, unique and beloved. Love invites us to write new and better endings to old and sadder stories in our own past, and Love, in God’s gracious abundance, in full measure, pressed down and running over, never ends. When we call God “Our Father” we are reaching out for Love’s promise that with God’s grace and our care for each other, Joy will one day come in the morning, with the sun and the song of the lark.
So Happy Father’s Day to all good fathers, whose biology or behavior makes this Sunday your day, to be honored and respected, loved and thanked!