I once heard a set of parents say that they wanted their ceiling to be their children’s floor. If you’d heard that, too, you would have said it. You lived it.
Though your body was broken for about as many years of my life as not, I think I’ll always remember you as you were when you were 40. Saturday mornings, covered in the after-sweat of hours of tennis with John Engel, jogging with me around the neighborhood (when I was just learning to run for sport and not because I was being chased ), and being “cool Coach Welter” under the fluorescent lights of St. Joseph’s brand new gymnasium. That’s how I remember you, Dad.
Even after the time when girls start to hold secrets inside, I told you everything. Our stiff living room furniture absorbed conversations that were supple. My heart was safe with you, Dad. You normalized me.
Then, age fifteen brought with it — for me — a new understanding of God. My fifteen year-old heart was finally able to decide that I didn’t want to just acknowledge His existence, but I wanted to know Him and allow myself to see that I was known by Him. I fell in love at fifteen, Daddy — the same year you began to die to lifelong dreams as your body gave way underneath you. The vigor of your youth was slipping through your fingers like sand, that year I found God.
And the living room couch still absorbed our conversations, except now you were skeptical — sometimes curious — and I was fiery. How can’t you see? I thought, wondering why you could acknowledge God’s existence but not climb into His lap. Jesus was still historical, for you, the history-lover.
But you taught me to wait with your life, Dad. It was just passive, this time.
For years, you had taught me with your words and your actions to pursue my dreams and to not shrink back and to make an impact on the world around me. You taught me to run hard, Dad, just like you did with your life. A cause with YOUR name on it meant that it would be made known. You made the overlooked famous and showed us kids what it meant to love the unlovely. You made a mark.
But Dad, what you taught me when your body broke and you didn’t have any more words is what has changed my life.
You made your ceiling my floor in the darkest days of your life.
I waited on God, for you, Dad. Not patiently. But I waited. I prayed prayers over years for your heart. I labeled you stubborn but you were really just pensive and thoughtful. You saw more life and pain in your fifty and sixty years than I’d yet known in my twenty. You had more questions of God. I pushed and tapped my toe against the floorboards, anxiously, while God was having His perfect way with you.
… while God was having His perfect way with me.
That night Nate called me in to pray with the two of you and I knelt on the floor beside the chair (that I’m sure still has a permanent imprint of your figure), made the decades seem like months and the years seem like days. Your “yes” to Jesus that night was perfectly timed. He knew when He looked at my fifteen year-old heart, full of vim and vigor, that I’d get formed in that fifteen years of waiting for you to say “yes” to Him.
He also knew that your soul was about to go home.
And that’s when your ceiling became my floor, Dad. In God.
How do I say thank you for teaching me, with your life — lived and died — that God will father me when the sun sets on my external life?
God became a whole new kind of father to me, Dad, when you died.
You primed me to receive a loving Father, by the way you made me safe and then you left a gaping hole that my heart so desperately needed in order for me to know Him more. You ushered me into His chest, Dad, by your life.
And you ushered me into His chest by your death.
Death has no sting when God fathers.
(The gaps that our broken fathers and mothers leave are opportunities for God to uniquely and tenderly parent our weak hearts. One day — instead of wincing or avoiding to look at those painful gaps — our cry might just be: thank you, God, for how you gloriously repurposed, not just patched, those gaps from our parents’ broken lives.)
Here I am, now, staring daily down the corridors of my children’s almond eyes that hold a once-fatherlessness behind them — and I show them what you showed me, with your life and with your death: God comes in the ache and the gaps. And He breathes. Right there. He scoots near. He presses His once-flesh against our bleeding wounds and He heals hearts, even when bodies hang in the balance.
The place where you left me with the biggest gap, Dad, has become the place where God’s glory shines the most through me. (This book is not just my story, Daddy, but it’s yours.)
Your ceiling became my floor, Dad. When you and I both least expected it.
I love you,
The book: Every Bitter Thing is Sweet (Zondervan) is available here.
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