A Father’s Lament


This weekend is Father’s Day. For me it is always a difficult time of year. I have never given or sent someone a Father’s Day card who was my father. It is difficult to praise or honor him for the trauma he put me through as a child. “You are nothing but half-assed,” he would say. It remains a constant mantra throughout my life. And I wonder if my own children feel the hatred toward me that I have felt toward my own Dad.

This time of year brings up many emotions in me. Perhaps the feelings most prevalent are the feelings of shame being a father to my own children. I don’t know if they remember the bad days, the yelling, the spankens, the absence when I should have been there, the lack of involvement when I was involved in my own things, things I would have done differently, etc, ad infinitum. The list is a long one. But…I remember.

The shame of my perceived failures as a father and the shoulds of what I wish I had done haunt me terribly. These crowd my mind and only leave room for the self-contempt to grow. I am not certain that any other Fathers experience this. I doubt my father ever did. He told me once that he loved the bottle more than he loved me. Lack of honor and silence from my children only exacerbates my self-hatred.

I have recently been talking to God about the self-condemnation inside my head. Many years ago I was told that I had “low self-esteem.” So, I tried to raise that by attending self-help conventions and reading self-help books. I met Art Linkletter, Paul Harvey, Zig Ziglar, and was grabbed by the lapels and screamed at by Charlie “Tremendous” Jones. As I began working in the field of adolescent psychology, I joined the Speaker’s Bureau and did talks on the topic, “You and Your Child’s Self-esteem.” I spoke to schools and churches all around Kansas City. That was, until at one church I opened it up for questions and a man asked, “Are we born with self-esteem and then lose it? Or are we born without self-esteem and have to learn it.” The question was left unanswered. I didn’t know.

That question bugged me, so I went to my source of truth and for ten long years wrote down every verse in the Bible about having self-esteem. There are none. Even though some point to verses to try and prove it, the Bible says we are not to think more highly of ourselves. There are hundreds of verses saying the opposite about self-love. We are not to be arrogant and proud. After I read the part in the book of Revelation where they looked for someone worthy to open “the book” I found that only Jesus Christ was worthy. I went from thinking, “Only what you are in yourself makes you worthy.” To “Only what you are in Christ makes you worthy.” To finally, “Only Christ is worthy.” I walked away from the idea of seeking self-esteem.

For the next thirty years I practiced this. Yet, I had such contempt for myself that I thought it made me humble. Actually, it made me self-centered. I am bad. I am no good. I can’t do anything right. Notice the “I”s? I went to the extreme. Pride was the opposite extreme and I stayed as far from pride as I could. I discounted what I did well. I side-stepped other’s compliments. But in doing so, I now realize that I have been telling God that I was better than Him. That He can forgive sin, but I cannot. My self-condemnation was stronger than my salvation. I had forgotten that He made me. That He forgave me. That He loves me. I have lost the idea of being kind to myself and praising God for being wonderfully made.

I once went to the pastor I worked under and sat across his desk telling him all the things I did wrong, and neglected, and failed to do in my ministry there. He looked at me and said, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” I sluffed it off as him being ignorant and unobservant.

There has to be a balance. Yes, sin is bad. And I identified as a sinner—a bad person—and tried to convince God that He was wrong when He looked at me through the filter of Christ’s blood.

Now, slowly, I am learning to apply God’s loving-kindness to myself and attempting to change the constant contempt to praising Him for the truth of who and what I am.

Yet, the shame and guilt of long ago failures and perceived neglect regarding my children cry out from the grave during Father’s Day. And, I find myself wanting to apologize for the sins only I remember. Therefore, I pray…Dear Lord, I….

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A New Song

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Fourteen days in the hospital when you don’t know what is wrong can be very be tedious. My wife was not feeling well. Hadn’t for a while. She never complained when sick, so it took a while before I noticed. Her aliment? She couldn’t retain any food or fluids in her body. She lost sixty-five pounds. I took her to the emergency room and they put her in a room to run tests.

 I stayed with her every night except one during her hospital stay. I slept on a rickety cot that the hospital provided me. My mother and I bought her some pajamas, so she didn’t have to spend her days in a gown that opened in the back. She was grateful for that.

The nurses constantly hooked her up to dripping stuff and monitors everywhere. The Doctors ran test after test measuring everything that went in and everything that came out. They checked her inside and checked her body outside looking for any clue to what was wrong. They took a lot of blood.

I wanted to make her time there fun and not boring. She read books, did crossword puzzles, and worked on a cross stitch of a bear for my brother. Her stitchery stuff was always the best anyone had ever seen. You could frame it from the backside and it still looked great. She then worked on another one that had a beautiful house with a wraparound porch. She told me she wanted a home like that someday.

We had been married for thirty years and it got better every year. She was the best part of my day and I loved telling her so.  But I never could give her a house like that on a ministry wage.

After two weeks, we talked about how we always enjoyed going out to dinner and to a movie together. She apologized and laughed saying she couldn’t do that while in the hospital. Christmas came. Christmas passed. We celebrated Christmas in her hospital room.

On New Year’s, I told her I had to take care of a few things and I would be back. I went to the church where I worked as a youth pastor and borrowed a projector I could hook up to my laptop. Then I swung by home and picked up two of her favorite movies. Princess Bride and Pride and Prejudice. We arranged her furniture, set her up in her bed, and we watched movies on the wall of her hospital room like it was a drive-in movie. We laughed and cried. We held each other’s hands tightly the whole time. Nurses kept peaking in as no one had ever done that before.

A few days later, she was dismissed from the hospital. They never found the cause of her problems but decided to treat it as if she had celiac disease. That, I learned, is a problem with the lining of the intestines. You can’t eat anything with gluten in it like bread or pizza. We went home and bought all new utensils and pots and pans and started the gluten-free diet. She was always hungry and still could not keep anything in her system. After about a week and a half she felt better but was far from well. A month went by.

I brought home a single yellow rose and caramel apple for her Valentine’s gift not knowing that four days later she would die. I was devastated. We never thought it would come to that.

After the funeral and burial at the cemetery I stayed with my mother for a while. Eventually, I went back to our home—alone. I went back to work.

While at work I would sneak behind doors to cry. I’d come home and just sit in the driveway at night not wanting to go inside. I would take meds, so I could go to sleep. I put a picture of her on an end table in the living room and I moved the picture to the bedside table at night when I went to bed.

I cried constantly. I even considered getting a sailboat and sailing into the sunset never to return. I wanted to be where she was.

 I’d stopped going to church where I served as I couldn’t walk into the building without remembering where we ministered together. She sang solos in church all the time. One that everyone loved was an upbeat song that had the phrase, “Ain’t no grave going to hold my body down.” I saved all the church recordings of her singing and I made a CD of fourteen songs. I listened to it over and over and somehow it comforted me.

I stayed away from church. Surely, they understood. Yet I felt I needed to go back and say goodbye to the teens that I worked with.

That Wednesday night I showed up and told the pastor what I was intending to do. This was going to be very difficult for me. I didn’t think I could do it alone. I asked him, “Can you please ask someone to come in and work with me and the teens tonight?” Immediately, he asked a deacon and his wife to do that. Maybe I could get through this.

 I went into the class and I preached my last sermon to the teens to encourage them about my wife’s death and to tell them goodbye. I told them how even though we had prayed for her healing, that God sees our circumstances from a different perspective. I spoke to them alone.

Afterwards, I walked back out into the vestibule and went up to the pastor. I asked him where my help was. He said, “Oh, I thought that you could do it by yourself. You’re pretty good at that.” I left that night and never went back.

I had never wondered about heaven before this happened. Hadn’t needed to. In my crying I would say repeatedly, “She’s gone. She’s gone.” My son corrected me once. “Dad? you need to finish your sentence.”

“What do you mean?”

“You need to finish your sentence. She’s gone… to heaven.”

That only made me grieve more. Does she see what we do down here? Does she see how hurt I am without her? How can I keep going on?

Then one Saturday night she visited me in a dream. It was so real. She looked so beautiful. She said she was okay and she loved me. Then she sang a song. It was a song I had never heard before. I couldn’t get the tune out of my head. After I had the dream, as it was now Sunday morning, I decided to go to church. A different church. I decided to go to a church where I thought I might see someone I knew that could comfort me.

I went in and no one noticed I was there. I sat in a pew three rows from the back. My wife’s dream-song kept playing over and over in my mind. I especially remembered one phrase. “He gives us the Heaven and Grace our hearts always hunger for.”

The service began. The first praise song started, and everyone stood up. I didn’t know it. I belonged to a church that used a hymnbook and declared that they would never show words on the wall. The next song was also unfamiliar. But it sounded nice. A violinist played a counter melody that I enjoyed.

Then came song number three. The tune sounded familiar, yet I know I had never sung it before. Had never heard it before…before last night, that is! I sat down, and I started crying. It was my wife’s Dream-song. The very same one she had sung to me in my dream. When they sang one verse that kept repeating in my mind, they changed her word “Heaven” to “Healing.”

We had prayed so hard for her healing. We all have a hunger for heaven. She did too. And for my wife, going to Heaven became the greatest healing. I understood.

I returned home and framed the unfinished cross stitch of the house she’d always wanted.  

(Here is her Dream-song as sung by Selah.)

Wonderful merciful Savior
Precious redeemer and friend
Who would have thought that a lamb could
Rescue the souls of men, Oh You rescue the souls of men

Counselor, comforter, keeper
Spirit we long to embrace
You offer hope when our hearts have
Hopelessly lost the way, oh we hopelessly lost the way

You are the One that we praise
You are the One we adore
You give the healing and grace our
Hearts always hunger for, oh our hearts always hunger for

Almighty infinite father
Faithfully loving Your own
Herein our weakness You find us
Falling before Your throne, oh we’re falling before Your throne

By Eric Wise and Dawn Rogers 2001

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