He missed his visit with his son. The son who lives in my care. I wept and prayed for him then. Born premature and hooked on drugs, the boy was born into foster care where I put my claim on him for all I am worth, and with all its limitations. Only a few months old, he has no idea, of course, but I do.
I do, and I already feel the pain storing up for him when he is old enough to “understand” it. I am haunted by the Pearl Jam song as I think about it.
Well, I’ve got a little story for you too. I am not at liberty to tell his, nor would it help. But I will tell you mine – mine and yours.
I knew my dad, and he raised me. He loves me to this very day. But there was a day, a dark day, that if I write about it now will pierce his heart to read it.
I was in the first grade. A small child, very impressionable, I needed constant supervision and assurance. Normally, that is exactly what I got. But not always. No. I want to tell you about the dark day when my dad was supposed to pick me up from school, but he did not come.
I went to the appointed waiting area at the appointed time… and I waited… and waited…
The school emptied out. All my little friends were gone. The place became eerily quiet. If I had felt comfortable being there before, it became strange and unfamiliar with each passing minute. The impression that I did not belong there hammered its way into my imagination. I became LOST.
The teacher watching over me from a distance approached. I could give no answer as to why my dad had not come. She, of course, was concerned and dutifully cared for me, but I felt increasing anxiety taking over my soul. I was abandoned. I was alone. The school lost all sense of familiarity and comfort. My teachers transformed into strangers. I was scared. I was lost.
And then Dad remembered me.
Looking back on it now, I bet the whole ordeal did not last more than 30 minutes. Dad came racing to my rescue as soon as he realized his error. And I know, because I have heard him reference that event a few times over the years, that he felt deep remorse. As I recall it, he apologized to me at the time and tried to make amends by taking me for ice cream at the Tastee Freeze. I am certain that my little, first-grade self was eager to forgive him, as my grown up self also is. But the impression the event made was not erased. It could not be erased.
It is a powerful memory ingrained in me to this day. And in fact, when I was in college I studied the psychology of memory as researched by Elizabeth Loftus from the University of Washington, and found it notable that when she sought to produce false memories in her laboratory experiments, she was able to get the study approved by the ethics committee by producing fake memories of a time adults had been “lost” as children. The scenario of being “lost” was sufficiently traumatic to validate her experiment without causing actual harm to the psyche of her test subjects.
In my case, this was not a lost memory recovered – no. It has always been with me, though we rarely talk of it. And it is a common experience. Many readers here will have their own version of it. If you were ever “lost” as a small child, even briefly, it made an impact. And if not, it is an easy false memory for researchers to produce in experimental situations because of how vulnerable one feels at the thought of it.
And so I look at the infant in my arms who was scheduled for a visit with his “real” father. The man has missed enough appointments now that the CPS worker will set restrictions on him in the future. And while I am grateful the boy is not stuck in the “care” of his neglectful birth parents, I am grieved to the bottom of my heart that this boy will have a DAD-shaped hole in his soul that cuts far deeper than being forgotten at school one day will ever compare to.
And with Pearl Jam echoing in my brain, I think “Son, have I got a little story for you…”
The difference with me is I am a theologian. Not one of the great scholarly theologians of our day (much as I wish I could have been), but I am a theologian “at large” – to borrow and bend a phrase from Bill Moyers. A Christian theologian in specific. All of my thoughts I think theologically, and I have a little story alright. But perhaps it is not so little.
Once upon a time, God had a Son. Actually, it was more than once, and to think of THIS Son as a singular person would be a mistake. It really helps if you can allow for some of these words to resonate in the culture from which they come rather than try to plug them into categories of thought only a modern, Western American would have. No. The home culture of this lost Son is ancient and Middle-Eastern, and in that culture, they thought of themselves collectively as God’s Son.
But not at first. At first, they thought of themselves as slaves. It is possible they thought of themselves as abandoned sons, but more likely as slaves of empire destined for the grind. That is until God heard their cry and remembered his promise (Exod. 2:23-25). And then one day their God, whom I think they did not know (after 430 years in captivity) comes blowing in off the desert and picks a fight with the emperor. And the kicker is that he tells Pharaoh, “That’s my Son you’re picking on!” (Exodus 4:22).
Over the course of the next 40 years, Israel learns what it means to be The Son of God, but on that first day, they did not even know YHWH’s name. What could they know of him? Moses had not yet written Genesis! (In fact we might say they didn’t really learn what it meant to be The Son of God until Jesus showed them 1500 years later.) In the meantime, they might have heard a few “old wives tales” about the God of their fathers from their dear, old Aunt Edna, but even if they had, they mostly viewed her as a kook. I mean, just go down into Pharaoh’s brickyard and ask any Hebrew you meet: What has your God done for you lately? And they have 430 years of a we-ain’t-heard-much-out-of-him history of waiting stacked up against the Son of Re who daily holds the power of life and death in his hands, killing Israel’s sons upon birth, and also sets the quota for making bricks in his brickyards. And it’s into that dark worldview that this God they don’t know comes blowing in off the desert, picking a fight with the bully on the block, and now has their full attention!
The powerful statement this God makes in Exodus 4:22 has such an impact on the collective imagination of those people that they revere it to this day some 3500 years later! Not unlike Elizabeth Loftus discovered in her research that lost children get their imaginations and memories impacted deeply for a very long time afterward. It’s like a kid in the orphanage getting picked on by a bully for years on end, and then one day a stranger arrives to confront the bully and says, “That’s my son!”. The orphan does not know this stranger, but suddenly new possibilities are open to him – especially when the stranger proceeds to kick butt and take names! Ten plagues later, Israel is leaving Egypt, and Egypt is left in smoldering ruins! This God unleashes Holy War on their behalf and does not stop until he has sent the Death Angel in one of the most bone-chilling events in all of history. And the text says “There was a CRY in the land like was never heard before or since!” (Exod. 11:6/12:30).
(And for those interested in exegetical matters of such things, Moses only uses the Hebrew word for this shrill “cry” in two other places throughout his writings – The cry of Esau when he realizes he has sold his birthright, and the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah when God blasts them with his fire from heaven!)
All of this scene I portray here now is narrative in which Israel first learns of this God but even before that they hear him call them Son! And that is the point around which this whole blog post rotates. I have this boy, this precious baby boy, who does not even yet know what a father is, or that he is a son of one. But questions will come, in time, and a DAD-shaped hole will form in his soul. And if I may be blessed to play a father-figure role in his life, I will take the obligation with utmost seriousness. But that other father will loom large in the shadows of his heart, no matter how I wish he didn’t.
And though I be jealous of this absentee father, for it is a strange phenomenon that children of abusive and neglectful parents tend to forgive them with shocking ease, it is really that Other Father, that is his Abba, not me (or the sperm donor). And the boy will need to hear that.
And I will be tasked (like the mother in the Pearl Jam song) with saying, “Son, I have a little story for you…” But I hope to tell him of his Abba… that Other Father of whom both me and the sperm donor are merely a dim reflection. And really, it is not actually a little story at all, but rather a huge story – one of the biggest ever! And it is the story of all God’s people, Christians included. It is your story; it is mine. And collectively it is ours. And if this baby boy will consent, at the age of accountability, to be a part of this family, it will be his story too. The one that truly matters.
Perhaps I will teach him the little rhyme I wrote when I was young:
I am the son of two fathers
But a Father to no one.
I live to serve both,
like a loaded gun.
I’m a wayward soul,
and I’m known to none.
Like Joseph to Jesus,
I’m not really The One.