Like many people, I was terribly afraid of God when I was young, while at the same time assuming I would end up in heaven with him. Of course this had its downsides. For one thing, an eternity trying to please the Almighty seemed awfully tiring. Then as I grew older I began to be afraid heaven would be like high school. You know, popular saints in cliques, ignoring me and my friends while we tried to look righteous or at least like we hadn’t been let in by mistake. The nicest mansions going to folks like St. Francis, C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham, with nerds like me being content to live (forever!) in a double-wide far from the streets of gold. And if by some wild chance I were invited to any parties, I would as usual end up alone, trying to look as if I were having a good time standing on the sidelines, never being asked to dance.
Spiritual roadblocks like fear of God and heaven paled beside the fear I had of my father. God boomed thunder and struck people dead or turned them into pillars of salt, and I wasn’t quite sure where he ended and my father began. My father seemed like God because he was powerful and I never knew when he would give in to rage. He cultivated the idea of a direct line between himself and God, and he knew immediately if we did anything wrong. With both of them I tried to stay invisible, do what I was told to do, and not do what I was told not to do. Of course, this didn’t always work.
When I was ten years old my parents often left me in charge of my younger brother and sisters. I had been caring for my three siblings with less and less supervision since I was eight and the baby was born. On this night, we had spent the evening in the family room. We ate popcorn and watched TV, and slowly everyone went to bed. Everyone but me.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember something so long ago, but this was a memorable evening without the tensions surrounding Mom and Dad and their constant conflicts. With the dim light from the lamp and the sound of rain falling gently outside, I relaxed, enjoying the rare opportunity of having the TV to myself. I lost track of time until I heard a noise. It was my parents’ car; they were home.
I panicked. Not only was it past my bedtime, but I had been watching television without express permission. Enjoying myself made me feel even more guilty. So I did the obvious thing: I turned out the light and the TV, ran to my bedroom and flung myself under the blankets.
The wait was short. My father burst into the room flipping on the lights, whipping off his belt, pulling me out of bed by my arm, and yelling, all seemingly simultaneously. Without questioning me or explaining why, he began to hit me, his shouting as painful as the belt. The hitting continued as my father roared. I had not fooled him by pretending I was in bed. He knew better. I was a bad child who deserved worse punishment than he could give me. When his arm tired, or his anger dissipated, or he grew ashamed, I’ll never know which, he dropped me back on the bed and gritted the warning. “Don’t you ever lie to me again. Ever.” Even when my mother told me the next day they had seen the lights go out when they drove up, I was convinced God had told on me.
As I lay in bed, skin burning where the belt had hit me, I struggled not to cry. My father might come back and whip me again. I did what many children do when they live in a house full of rage. I internalized my fears and guilt and tiptoed carefully until I messed up again.
This is how I learned about God and love. Love and fear were intertwined. Love and violence went hand in hand. Love meant anger and pain. Love was measured out, or taken away, depending on how 'good' I was. God was to be feared because, theoretically at least, he was even more powerful than my father.
When I left home at age nineteen, I married a man who soon began to hit me. I stayed with him for three years until I began to fear he might kill me. When I told my parents we were splitting up, I was ashamed to tell them why. My father’s response to our divorce was, “Remember? I told you it wouldn’t last five years!” He had tried to convince me I shouldn’t marry this man, and now he was gleeful because he had been right. He expressed no sorrow, offered no hope. God had let him in on my future, and I should have listened to his warning.
I was twenty-two years old, still scared of my father, but beginning to feel anger. I never confronted him, but avoided him as much as possible. Living 300 miles away from my parents who were still busy with my younger brother and sisters, school and work became easy excuses for my unavailability, and during infrequent phone calls I became practiced at superficial, quick conversation.
As for God, I never shook my fist at the sky or spat angry words at him. I knew better. But I did stop going to church. I never talked to God or about God. I went about my life quietly rebelling against all I had ever been taught about right and wrong. I smoked, drank, experimented with drugs, bought into the idea of ‘sexual freedom.’ Once in a while, I even lied. I rarely thought about God except as a childhood idea. I was much too busy trying to figure out who I was and what life was about to spend time on something as archaic as God. Especially one as violent and capricious as the one who was friends with my father.
Fast forward twenty-five years. My second marriage of twenty years and three children is stumbling toward collapse. By this time I have been living in my hometown only a few miles from my parents during my entire second marriage. The uneasy truce we have achieved is easily destroyed by the sudden upheaval of another divorce.
My father was not at his best during this time. While he didn’t rage violently any more, and hadn’t for years, he had settled into a narcissistic rut where everything revolved around him. If it didn’t, it just wasn’t all that important. At this point in my life, I hit what felt like bottom. I was bereft with no foundation, no hope, nothing. This was when I began writing angry letters to my father. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you for this,” said one. “This is just another example of your ego feeding on everything around it,” said another.
I began to see a counselor. Kathryn was not your warm and fuzzy therapist; in fact she seemed somewhat stern at times. This was good in a way because my old fear of lying came back and I was able to tell the truth about my life in little spurts. I worked slowly toward untangling the web of fear surrounding me and understanding myself in relationship with other people, including my parents.
During one session when I had been particularly vitriolic regarding my father, Kathryn gave me some advice. “It might be helpful,” she said, “to view your father as perhaps a pet turtle. He’s there in your life, you’re not going to get rid of him. You may even pat him on the head once in a while. But you don’t get too excited over whether he goes in his shell or comes out, whether he hibernates or wakes up. He’s just a turtle.” This was not a magic solution to the complicated relationship with my father, but it helped. I was able to look at my father more objectively and to see him more as a wounded man than a fearsome demi-god.
At the same time, I began to consider my spiritual life. For years I had countered any serious questioning about where I stood with God by casually stating I was finding my path. That was my entire spiritual life: finding my path. With the upheaval I was experiencing, I realized there was no path; I was essentially going in circles, going nowhere, believing in not much of anything. Unexpectedly, I found myself yearning to find the path and walk it, or crawl it if necessary. The only thing was, I had this little problem with God. The part where I was full of anger and fear. Churches of my youth had reinforced the fears my father encouraged, and I had no way to deal with the anger. I felt paralyzed, unable to reach out for what I needed.
My journey was slow at first, as if I were walking along a beach, looking at the water, staying just far enough away from the tide to avoid getting my shoes wet. Eventually I took my shoes off and let the water cover my feet. It was only a matter of time until I was wading slowly away from the shore, getting ready to dive, to explore the mysteries. I couldn’t swim and had no idea where I was going, but I was beginning to believe God would give me what I needed to find my way.
I had been raised to believe any church outside a narrow range of evangelical groups was suspect at best. So, of course, I was drawn to a small Episcopal church called St. Alban’s in a nearby town. I attended one Sunday and was relieved at the predictability of the service. I found The Book of Common Prayer in the back of the pew in front of me, and it took little effort to find my place and follow along. I loved how different this was from the churches of my youth, yet I didn’t go back to visit. Not until a few months later when one day I was feeling particularly raw and un-tethered and saw a short notice on the religion page of the newspaper announcing a healing service at St. Alban’s each Saturday afternoon during Lent.
I arrived early at the service, slipping into a back pew and onto the kneeler. As I knelt I meditated on the stained glass window at the very top of the front of the church. After several minutes, the rector walked to the front of the church and began arranging his vestments. Realizing I was the only other person in the church, I began to panic. Would I be called out, made a spectacle of, have hands laid on me? I tried to look pious but I was secretly trying to find a way to leave unobtrusively. I didn’t find it.
Father Eric turned to face me, and acknowledged no one else was there except the organist up in the loft who came down and sat in a pew on the other side of the church. And so the service began. I don’t remember the words said or prayed that day, but I do remember it took only a few minutes before I began to weep
By the time Father Eric called us to the front of the church for communion, I had lost my self-consciousness and stood quietly as Father Eric dipped his thumb in oil and made the sign of the cross on my forehead, praying for my healing as I continued to weep.
I have seen and heard many conversion stories, seldom one as un-dramatic as mine. But at that moment, the depth of my pain led to a place of surrender to a God who is nothing like my father, an imperfect man who loved me imperfectly and hurt me terribly. In that surrender, it really was like a veil being lifted or utter blindness giving way to sight as I experienced a love I had never imagined. One that required nothing of me but acceptance.
I’ve wondered since then why God gave me such a terrible earthly father. It seems not only unfair, but wasteful for me to struggle with the emotional and psychological burdens Dad passed on to me. I could have been so much more spiritually advanced by now, could have accomplished so many more things, could have had a real father instead of a turtle.
A few years ago, Dad died after a brief illness. Right up until the last time I saw him he remained cranky and self-centered. I patted his bald head that was beginning to make him look remarkably like that of a turtle, and tried not to take offense at his remarks. He was my father; he was who he was. About a week after his death, I began to miss him. Something would happen that would cause me to think, “I’ll have to tell Dad about that.” And then I would realize I couldn’t tell Dad. He was gone.
A while later at the prison where I volunteered, one of the men, Tom, was talking about a part of the Bible we were studying. I don’t remember what he said. What I remember is what a joy it was to listen to him talk about his faith and God’s meaning in his life. I imagined how Dad would enjoy talking to these men, and then just as suddenly I remembered Dad was gone. But in the next instant I had another thought: someday Dad would be able to sit with Tom and the others, and we could talk in freedom as long as we wanted about whatever we wanted. In that perfect day, Dad will have lost his self-centeredness and be able to listen. Joy gave way to shock as I realized I look forward to that day with anticipation, no longer burdened by the fears of my childhood. Yes, I could have had a better father, one who taught me from the beginning what it meant to be loved, to be in relationship, to be valued. But rather than sit by bitter waters and weep, I can drink deeply of sweet, living waters and thank God who says, “I am the Lord who heals you.”
I see heaven differently now than I did when I was young. There’s a song called “Dancing with my Father God in Fields of Grace.” After all the years of fear, anger, dysfunction and enmity, I think of Dad whenever I hear this song. I envision a vast field of barley, like the ones on Perrydale Road near the prison, with a few big leafy trees providing shade. Out in the field God and Dad are dancing joyously, unselfconsciously, with abandon. And there, at the edge of the field, I stand waiting. Waiting for the moment when I run to join them and begin to dance.