By Michael C. Mack
“Stand up if you grew up without a father . . . if you never knew him . . . if he was abusive or inept or spiritually vacant and unavailable . . . even if he was around, but not really there . . . if you knew him but weren’t known by him . . .”
I and six other members of my men’s group had traveled to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis for the Promise Keepers conference, joining some 62,000 other men worshipping God and being inspired to live godly lives. On the second day of the conference, John Trent spoke about the vitality of passing “The Blessing” from one generation to the next, and what happens when you don’t receive that blessing from your father.
When Trent mentioned fathers who were around, but not there, painful memories flashed through my mind. I felt the muscles in my legs twitching, as if they were involuntarily trying to stand. As my brain fought off the urge, I saw waves of men around the stadium rising to their feet, and I suddenly found myself among them.
I was the distant last of four children in our family. My siblings are 19, 16, and 7 years older than me. I grew up feeling like Dad was done raising kids by the time of my surprising arrival into his world in 1960. I had the sense that I was an inconvenience to him. He put up with me being there, and with my mom’s urging he would take me to my baseball games or enroll me in Cub Scouts, but I had no sense that he loved me or was proud of me. Usually, the best thing I could do was to stay out of his way.
For many years, I thought I was the lone target of Dad’s blend of antipathy and acrimony, but my siblings later corrected me. While he intentionally intimidated me, he didn’t come home drunk and knock me around as he did them. None of us, including my mom, ever heard him say the words, “I love you.”
When I was baptized in 1988, Dad, along with the rest of my family, showed up. He didn’t agree with my decision; after all, I was leaving the Catholic church to which he was so devout and that I had been raised in. But he was there.
I wanted my dad to know my heavenly Father like I now knew him, but I also wanted to honor his wishes not to “evangelize” him. Yet he couldn’t stop me from praying for him and letting God shine his light through me. I prayed for him almost daily, that God would draw him to himself. I asked the Holy Spirit to bring conviction. I began to ask God to use someone Dad respected to speak the right words to bring conversion. I looked for ways I could bless my dad. I also tried to understand why my dad was the way he was.
“Carl, why are you acting so happy and joking around at your mom’s funeral?”
My dad was only 11 when his mother died in childbirth. His father and five older siblings didn’t—or couldn’t—tell him. He thought everyone came to their house for a family party. It wasn’t until a cousin asked him about his inappropriate behavior that he learned the truth.
Two years later, his dad passed away as well. It was the Great Depression, and eventually my dad had to quit high school and a dream of playing football to go to work. World War II and 40 years working in a factory followed, living day-to-day, providing faithfully for his family, and never dealing with the deep wounds from his past.
Understanding my dad led me to forgive him and treat him with grace. It also helped me realize my own faults, like my drivenness and perfectionistic tendencies (trying to earn other people’s affirmation and acceptance), and it motivated me to deal with them. I recognized that Dad had never received the blessing, so how could he pass it on to me? He had felt abandoned by his parents at a young age, even if it wasn’t their fault.
I began to feel empathy rather than anger toward him. If my dad would have been at that Promise Keepers event, he would have been standing right next to me! All I could do was keep praying for him, that God would help him deal with and heal from his deep and long-hidden wounds, that Dad would come to a place where he could receive the blessing of his heavenly Father.
“I want you to know how much I appreciate all the sacrifices you’ve made for me over the years, especially now as you give up part of your home to help me get through school . . .
Shortly after surrendering my life to God in Dayton, Ohio, I enrolled at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, and Mom and Dad allowed me to come back home. The move was intended to help me defray housing costs for a year while I transitioned, but God intended it for so much more.
I heard about writing a “tribute” to your parents to honor their lives, and so I did. I read my letter to Dad on Father’s Day.
“I thank you, Dad, for teaching me about God as I grew up, and I thank God, our heavenly Father, for making you my earthly father.”
Dad never showed much emotion, and this Father’s Day was no exception, but I thought I saw him trying to hide a tear forming in the corner of one eye.
Dad seemed to be mellowing with age, or perhaps God was responding to the prayers I was still praying daily. I believed God was at work, even when Dad would sometimes return to his belligerent ways.
One day I was talking on the phone with him and I ended the call by saying, “I love you, Dad!” expecting no response. I was shocked to hear a quick, “Love you, too.” I still wonder if the words accidentally slipped out of his mouth before he could stop them, but I also wondered if perhaps his heart was changing.
“Mike, I want you to know that I just talked to your dad about the loss of his mother and father and everything else that has caused him so much pain over the years. He has forgiven them and repented of his own sin. And I know this is important to you: I led your dad to Christ.”
Congestive heart failure. The onset of kidney failure. We celebrated Dad’s 79th birthday as a family on December 8, 1998, but we all knew the end of Dad’s life was near. We had gathered at his and Mom’s apartment, trying to spend any time we could with him. Other family members came to say goodbye.
A Catholic priest, Jim, who was a good family friend, also stopped in. He spent more than an hour in a bedroom talking with Dad, praying with him, leading Dad to release everything he had held inside so long, and then to surrender, repentance, confession, and freedom.
Jim told me the good news and then asked why my face looked so shocked. I had never said a word to him about my hope and many prayers for my dad. But it made sense. God had answered my prayer in a way I didn’t expect, sending a man my dad respected and trusted to share the good news with him.
“I’m not concerned about those things now. I just want to stay focused on God.”
A normal Sunday afternoon with my dad had been spent watching football, baseball, or golf. In his home, from his chair, with his remote, he controlled the TV. If he wasn’t watching television, he was reading his daily paper. It had been his routine for years. But this Sunday was different.
I sat with him in his living room and the TV set was off. The newspaper sat, still rolled up, on the dining room table. I asked if he wanted to watch football on TV. He shook his head. I asked him if he wanted his newspaper. He told me no. Those things didn’t matter to him. He knew he would soon be leaving this world to be with his Father in Heaven, and he didn’t want to be distracted by lesser things. As I sat with him in the quiet, I noticed the Bible I had given him several years before sitting on the table next to him. It was obvious by some dog-eared pages and my dad’s new perspective that he’d been reading it.
Over the last couple weeks, Dad had been in pain, and this once athletic man was too weak to walk. He was too sick to celebrate Christmas with the whole family as we always did. The day after Christmas, my sister and brother-in-law moved into my parents’ apartment to help. Both my sisters were amazed that Dad wasn’t swearing, as he normally would. Mom would later tell us that during this time Dad apologized to her for his years of detachment.
“Mike, I think he’s passed.”
On New Year’s Day, 1999, he was taken to hospice care, and Joe, my brother from Colorado, traveled back to Cincinnati. Dad became unresponsive and fell into a coma as each day his vital signs weakened. We took turns spending nights in his room, so someone would always be there. When Joe arrived on January 4, he and I spent the night with Dad. Early in the morning, his breathing was shallow.
My brother stood on one side of the bed and I on the other, and we prayed. We asked God to take Dad peacefully, if he was ready to do so. We asked God to help Dad let go and be with him in Heaven. Then, together, we said the Lord’s Prayer, and I felt Dad’s hand squeeze mine. I opened my eyes for a moment to look down at our hands and then his face to make sure this was real. When we finished, Joe, who had been a coroner, checked Dad’s vital signs. He had passed from this life as we were praying. Dad’s hand was still clutching mine.
It was a gift that our dad and our Father gave to his sons in that moment. Joe and I stood quietly by the side of that bed a long time, trying to absorb what just occurred . . . acknowledging the sacredness of the moment . . . affirming God’s presence.
We stood quietly . . . receiving the blessing.
Michael C. Mack serves as editor of Christian Standard.