My Prodigal Fathers

It’s been 15 years since my father passed away and I have never cried for him. I have never fully realized what the emotional impact of his being gone has had on my life.

My father died when I was 25. The immediate season that followed was marked by a season of having to figure out how to survive. Since it feels like grieving doesn’t lend to the evolutionary process of what it takes to remain alive, it is easy to rush to find a way to get on with life.

My dad and I, we struggled in our relationship. To overly simplify the issue: he drank.

You know how there are people who are just so unexpressive, they’re always calm and reserved no matter what happens. Then you give them a couple of beers and all of a sudden, a well-spring of joy and emotion flood out of them. They start high fiving everyone, all of a sudden bear hugs are being dished out, and before you know it the phrase “I love you, man” becomes the most used phrase of the night, next to “we should really open a bar”. Well, my dad wasn’t like that.

Alcohol would have the opposite effect on him. A classic Jekyll and Hyde, who he was after he drank was a radically different person. He became very angry. His words were loud and harsh. Tact went out the window. As fast as he could make friends when sober was just as fast as he could lose them when he was intoxicated.  As far as his family was concerned, words were eventually replaced by heavy hands and flying bottles to express all that he had pent up inside.

I remember seventh and eighth year old birthday parties. What would have been perfect fun-filled memories were replaced with visions of my dad and his worse drunk violent spells. After that, I lost interest in celebrating anymore birthdays for fear of how they typically end up.

Since my dad drank almost everyday, our home was never an environment where you could feel at ease. My siblings and I stayed out as long as we could. I remember the knots in my stomach as feelings of anxiety would kick in right before I would knock on the door of our apartment. You just knew that, eight out of ten times, you would come home to  a volatile house waiting to erupt.

The alcohol abuse took a lot of things from us. It broke our family apart, it literally caused poverty. I remember my three older siblings, who were all under the age of eighteen, had to leave the house and get real jobs to put themselves through school way before they were ready. There are many other things that come to mind that I can list of things the addiction took from us, but I’ll leave it here. Eventually it stole his life way before his time. My father passed away due to liver cirrhosis at 61.

A few Sundays back was Father’s day so I preached a sermon at church on Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son. The story is one the most powerful illustrations of God’s love and grace toward humanity. As a matter of fact, one of the unique things about Jesus is that he invites us to call God ‘dad’. In all the richness of the Hebrew scriptures, of all the things it reveals about God to us, it is Jesus who brings God super close to us. He goes beyond the idea of the “Father” being the source and sustainer of the universe to this intimate word, “Abba”.

Now, admittedly, this Heavenly Dad metaphor doesn’t always do it for a lot of people, myself included, because we end up projecting the chaotic relationships we have had with our earthly fathers. And so I had mapped out my sermon’s ending to land on the idea that God, our heavenly father, would be different.

But as I poised to land, the thought crept in that for many years, because of the struggles with my dad, was this: in order for me to accept the love of a heavenly father, I have had to create a way in my mind for them to be sharply contrasted against each other.  Essentially the more Christian I became, the more disappointed I became with my dad. The more righteous I felt, the more inferior I saw him to be.  He was the picture of failure, of all I didn’t want to become, and all I wasn’t going to become, because I was better, I had Jesus.

Something strange happened as I was closing. While I was searching for ways to begin to contrast my two dads, heavenly versus earthly, all I could think about were all the ways my dad, my earthly dad, loved me.

All of a sudden images of him driving us to school, taking us to the beach, came flooding in.

And here’s the most important thing: my dad cooked for us. Every single day, he cooked us real home made quality Indian goodness. He made the bread, the yoghurt, the pickled lemons and carrots from scratch. He would spend hours cleaning the silver skin off of the goat which he would later stew for hours. And it was a stew to die for.

It was such weird moment. All of a sudden I couldn’t control my tears. I was realizing that he loved me in his own way, and I had missed it. A self righteous disposition had kept me from fully experiencing the extravagant love that was being given.

I had been too busy holding him accountable for the missed opportunities in my life, I failed to see that just like any other person, including myself, his brokenness had a context. There was more to the story that had caused him to be at war with himself internally.

It dawned that every time I had pondered the story of the prodigal son, I thought of myself as the younger son who had messed everything up, coming home to the unconditional love of the heavenly father. It never occurred to me that in a lot of ways,  it is so organic for me to fit the role of the elder brother, the one who can be physically be close to God, yet so disconnected from his heart of compassion for everyone.

My dad wasn’t perfect, but still. His love, no matter how flawed, actually pointed to rumors of a greater love. “Even earthly fathers, who aren’t perfect, can give good gifts to their children, will not your heavenly father give you the best gift, Himself?” Jesus tells us.

Now imagine all of these realizations flashing in like a flood in the last five minutes of the Father’s Day sermon, in front of 60 people who are groping for the point of your story. Definitely not my most poised moment. But hey, I’m glad it came.

One more thing: I love exactly like my dad. I love to feed people, as matter more than I am a preacher, I’m a feeder. It is the primary way I pastor. And I got that from my dad.

So to Mr. Lal Bharwani, if I could have figured this out sooner, we could have opened our own joint and fed people together. It would have been my honor.

Cheers dad!

And cheers to you too, Heavenly Father.

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