Our bereavements become entwined with times and seasons, so that the turning of the leaves or the feel of a month can bring back strong and stirring memories. It will soon be the 14th anniversary of my Dad’s passing away, and every time it comes around I can feel that loss in the fibres of the season. October is in two minds, caught between the worlds of summer and winter, bitter and beautiful, forlorn and sanguine, at least that’s how it seems to me. The 15th is a halfway marker in this halfway month, and as my diary fills up around it that day remains a marker of when my world changed as a relatively young man, of that moment when I lost my Dad.
My Dad was not perfect, but he was a brilliant father. The passage of years and the drying of tears perhaps clouds my memory of him with sentimentality, but as I look back on the ways in which he related to me I am amazed at how far ahead he was of his time. He understood how to help you learn, how to take his hands off the task and let you feel the weight of new responsibility, of how to feather the throttle on your development just enough to challenge you, little enough to enable you. I never felt pushed by him in any way, but I did feel stretched, and that felt just right.
One of my strongest and most evocative memories of him centres around the building of an Airfix model in my childhood. I did not have an excess of confidence or competence for manual tasks, and my Dad decided that a shared project in building a large scale Puma helicopter might be a good way of addressing that. He never articulated that as his motive in making the model, and I never disclosed that I could feel it, but there was a silent understanding between us that the gluing and painting of components represented more than the sum of its parts. I can remember him standing at the back door of our garage and, having primed part of the model for me, handing me the brush. ‘You do it, son’, was all he said. I protested my inability, he insisted on my teachability, and I did it. I don’t know how to capture that moment, except to say that it was an experience of non-patronising pity, an act of simple compassion, a light gauge altruism which spoke to my soul, an affirmation. Some things can only be said in one way, often without words.
That memory has become part of my interpretative grid for understanding God’s fatherly compassion in Psalm 103. If you’re not familiar with that glorious piece of praise, this is what it says in the Authorised Version in which I first encountered it:
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust (vv13-14)
There could scarcely be a more potent image than this: our covenant LORD looking upon his children with tenderness, with compassion, with condescension, with that heart-plucked pity of which our family affections are but a faint echo. If my earthly father’s unspoken pity was a powerful influence on my life, how much more my heavenly Father’s tender love and gracious appreciation of the very fleshliness and finitude which make me impermanent, and pitiable.
It might be that your paternal memories are warm, it might be that they are cold or complex, it might be that you do not have any, but, through saving faith in Christ alone, the adoption you have received is profound, permanent, edged with pathos. You have a Heavenly Father, who has not borrowed this name as a helpful shorthand, but who tends to us, and cares for us, and graces us with mercy and love and long-suffering kindness. God has compassion on me, he pities me and that changes everything about how I might view my world. His is not an exaggerated version of human fatherhood, a kind of UberDad, but his is the original Fatherhood, the eternal Fatherhood of his eternal Son, and an adoptive Fatherhood that he extends to me.
I falter in my faith at times, I fail to meet the mark so often, I labour and still lose, I come up short and feel the burn of frustration and futility, and still he Fathers me. I waver at the brink of uncertain days, I bend and break beneath the burdens of life and ministry, I get dazzled by praise and blinded by criticism, I smash the ornaments of my own perfectionism, and still he Fathers me. I adopt here as home instead of heaven, I raise up garish idols in the place of the beauty of worshipping the one true God, I curse the broken cisterns and weep for my sin, and still he Fathers me. I face my own mortality, I walk beside pilgrims entering the valley, I see the nearness of time’s horizon, I shrink before the existential weight of ‘three score and ten’, and still he Fathers me. He pities me enough to punish me, not so that I might be damned but so that I might be disciplined (and delivered). He pities me enough to see my unspoken, foresworn, blasphemies of his good providence as written in pencil that he wipes from the walls of my heart, he pities me enough to make me more like his eternal Son, he pities me enough to fully save me, to finish what he started and to give me present tokens of glory.
And he does the same for you if you are his. ‘Father God’, we say in our prayers, not realising that we are murmuring a miracle, that we are ritualising the richest relationship we could ever know, that we are addressing one who sees us as we are, who loves us and carries us, and cares for us, and encloses us in the sweep of his redemptive purposes. What a truth to carry wherever you go, what a message to speak into the darkness of your own heart, what a hope we have if we are his. I am blessed to be pitied by my Father, it melts my unbelief, it garrisons my resolve, it sends me out to live for him and to love him more.