Sometimes conversations come out of the blue to change our day, even our life perhaps. A moment ago I walked into Caribou Coffee expecting to sit quietly in the corner with a mug of dark roast and plan out my day. But Bill is here, in his own little corner of the shop pouring over his Bible, as he often does. I walked over to greet him, deliberately without setting down my satchel or taking off my coat. I wanted to make it short and sweet.
After the typical cordiality Bill said out of the blue, “You know, I grew up without a father.” He let the words register. I could not imagine the connection in his mind that gave these words meaning in the context of our superficial encounter. Bill is in his mid 60s. He is serious and intense and not one to fancy platitudes. Bill doesn’t waste time. He was after something here.
“It’s always been a source of shame to me. Even filling out forms for the doctor or the government, and having to leave the spaces blank for the question about my father’s identity. I always felt shame about that. It seems like I was reminded every day – in some way – that I was a bastard. Then one day when I was 30 years old I walked into a room in the church I attended and I heard a man talking seemingly to no one. He was praying, talking to God, and he used the intimate word “Father,” and suddenly something tripped in me. I’d used that word in prayer a thousand times, but at that moment the flood broke. I knew Him as Father, or more like ‘Papa.’ It’s funny how small moments make all the difference. That changed my life.”
I stared at Bill. Where had this come from? A collision of thoughts and feelings collided in me. Two years ago I was making daily sojourns to the critical care unit of United Hospital in St. Paul watching my father struggle back to life from a devastating brain hemorrhage. On April 17th that year he finally passed. I had a father, a good father, who taught me to throw a curve ball, and barbeque burgers, and to pray and mean it and believe that my life is more than an accident. I looked at Bill and felt again a bitter wave of grief flood over me. “God, I miss him.”
“You know,” Bill added, “I think I’m better because I never had a father. Once I discovered that God is my true Papa, I knew I had to depend on him for everything. I was an orphan, but that made me more desperate to depend on God. Once I knew I could call him ‘Papa’ I think I became truly sane. I belonged. Everything made sense. I had a place and a family, and no more shame.”
“I understand,” I said, though I realized I didn’t quite know of what I spoke.
“To this day I come to Jesus in prayer, but he only holds the door open for me to go into the room to be with Father. For me it’s really all about knowing Papa.” Bill nodded and then looked back down into his Bible signaling to me that our little encounter was over.
“Thank you,” was all I could answer. I walked over to my corner chair, set up my computer, ordered my mug of coffee and decided I needed to process the last 5 minutes. Not all moments or days are created equal. Some simple encounters can change our lives. “Father…” I too no longer have a father living with me on this planet. Bill’s words were meant – by Father himself – to coax me deeper into the security and love and lasting joy of knowing I do have Papa, my true father…
Just now, as I finish this Bill is packing up and walking toward the door. He waved slightly at me and nodded, seeming to know he and his words had somehow struck a chord in me and changed my day, maybe more than just this day…
“Father God, Papa, Abba, on behalf of all of us here who do not have Fathers to reflect your grace and goodness and security, I approach you with a new gratitude. Others of us may have fathers, but they are not good reflections of your character. Perhaps they have deserted us, or been too harsh or too distant or demanding. We come to you through Jesus, our true ‘Big Brother’ to find the place of belonging we long to have. Without you we have no name, no place, no sense of destiny. But as your child we have all and more than we can even imagine. Papa, today I come and ask again for your protection, your provision, your tender but firm discipline, your direction and wisdom, your abundant and your extravagant affection. Today I settle into your family. Here, all my fear and insecurity fades into insignificance. I belong. In Jesus…”