I grew up a daddy’s girl. It was his side of the bed I went to as a little girl when I was sick. It was his car I looked for in parking lots after school and his shirts I stole to sleep in. When my family went on a deep sea fishing trip and everyone got violently ill, I left my mom behind and spent the afternoon laying on his stomach above deck with the sun beating down on us both. Those sounds and smells of that boat–workers yelling and men casting heavy line out into those churning seas and that hot fishy smell- will always be wrapped up with some of my most precious memories of my Dad. He was my person. Because of this, I was always fascinated with his faith even when I didn’t share it. It colored everything in his world. It affected how he treated my mom, how he conducted himself at work, how he dealt with hitchhikers he happened upon. Everything was filtered through his faith. I lived my entire childhood and early adulthood in the shadow of this man I adored. I really thought I understood what it meant to be a Christian. I thought I was one. I was wrong.
When I was 32 years old, my Dad was diagnosed with a horrible, rare disease. Para Supra Nuclear Palsy. It was a horror nobody could dream up. It lasted six years and it ravaged our family. Eventually, it would rob us of his voice, his wisdom, his smile and finally, on a beautiful June morning, it would take him. But, long before that morning, it had robbed me of something else–my Dad’s faith and I had parted ways. I was as angry at God as a person could get. My Dad didn’t deserve to die the way he did and I didn’t want any part of a God who would allow it. But, the same wasn’t true of my Dad. Through those six long years, his faith was the same. Gentle. Sweet. Solid.
One afternoon in the parking lot of Hobby Lobby, I stood beside his car window and helped him pass the time until my mom and sisters were done shopping. At that point, he could no longer walk very well and having conversations with him was hard. But, tell me I didn’t try? I did. Constantly. I knew I was in the last moments with my father. My Father. This big man that had always held my heart. Anything he had to say I wanted to hear. Anything. So, leaning against that dusty door and with my hand on his I asked him, “Dad, is your faith ok? Are you angry?” Did I want him to say, “Yes”? Maybe. That, I would have understood. He had a right to be angry. He was almost to retirement. All of the things he had put off to raise all of us were about to happen. Fishing trips, vacations with Mom, and more visits with grand babies. It was his time. Instead, his granddaughter was pulling up his socks and his wife was shaving his face for him. He had no control over anything.
But, he didn’t say yes. Instead, he struggled to tell me that sometimes he thought that all of this was happening because he still had lessons to learn. A fine tuning of his relationship with the Lord. Folks, I would like to say I absorbed what he was saying in a wise way. But, I didn’t. My temper flared on a level my Mom would have applauded.
“Dad, how can you even say that? If you don’t have this figured out then none of us do! That’s the craziest thing I have ever heard. You are perfect.”
Except, there were cuss words involved. Lots of cuss words. Normally, I would have never talked that way in front of my Dad, but there wasn’t any normal left to be had. I was just so pissed off. But in that moment, like so many others, my Dad absorbed my immaturity with love and grace. He slowly brought his arm from the other side of the car to pat my hand that was resting on his. I can still see his big hand covering mine.
And then, with his painfully slow speech he said, “It’s ok. My worries never touch that peace.”
I knew immediately what he was talking about. I had grown up hearing that phrase my whole life. When bills couldn’t be paid, when cars broke down, when Mom lost her folks, when he lost jobs. The peace that passeth all understanding. It’s what my Dad treasured the most about his faith and I had no clue what it really meant. I understood the idea of it, but never the reality. I cried that day in that Hobby Lobby parking lot and many times after that because I knew I didn’t understand. And, then, came that day my dad was gone. A hysterical voice mail on my phone from my Mom confirmed it. “We lost him Jean Ann. We lost him.” There isn’t a word in the universe that I could type here that would describe that feeling. I woke up in a world every morning that didn’t contain my Dad. He was gone.
I went to his funeral. Both of them. I listened to people talk about him. The stories of him encouraging them and helping them and housing them and changing their lives and I knew it was his faith. His relationship with his God. A God that I had sometimes claimed, but didn’t really know. So, I drove back to Houston with my husband and daughter and a empty heart. I was swept clean and I had no idea what to do about it.
If you could read my journals from those days you would know how lost I was. They are full of furious, one-sided, arguments with God. It hurts me to type this, but I hated Him. With everything in me. I hated God and, to deal with that, I walked away from everything I had ever been taught and decided there was no God. But, I still hated. Then, one day as I was driving down the freeway, a little voice presented itself to me, “How can you hate someone who isn’t real?”
I’m trying to find the words to bring you into that moment with me. How huge it was.
It was a dirty windshield, and a mini-van ahead with a “My kid is an honor-student.” bumper sticker, and the universe shifting on its’ axles and the beginning of everything that matters to me now. In that moment, my soul finally acknowledged that God was real and that I had to deal with Him. Really deal with Him. Not pretend. Not perform. Not promise. There was this real God out there who knew the real me and we had some things to work out.
I started back at the very beginning. I was raised in a Christian home and attended more Sunday School classes than anybody should. I went to Church Camp and Petra concerts and Friday night pizza parties at the local Baptist Church. I knew the lingo but not the Lord. So, I decided to fight with God for real. I checked out book after book about every practiced religion known to man. I wanted to know what everyone else believed. I researched every “gotcha” I thought existed with the Christian faith. I drove three hours to a particular bookstore to pick up a book I was sure would provide proof that there was absolutely no God. It didn’t. Nothing did.
And, during that entire time, I took my daughter to church. I was determined she would be in church even if I was screwed up. I was hoping she could find what my Dad had even if I couldn’t. Somewhere, in all of that turmoil, my journal entries changed. They were no longer written to a God who didn’t exist and that I hated, but to one that was very real and that I needed. I knew He was there. I could feel Him. Not just in church, or when I was reading my Bible, or when I got the best parking place, but in everything. He was huge. He was precious. He was all I wanted. But, I wasn’t sure He wanted me.
I couldn’t get past the feeling that I had somehow wasted the gift of being raised by my Dad. And my Mom. I had grown up in a home where God was celebrated and I had missed it. Taken it for granted. Treated it cheaply. And, I had done so many things that I knew had grieved both of my Fathers. In short, I sucked. And, again, I had no clue how to get past it. I was stuck in a never-ending self punishment. There was no forgiveness for me. I was doomed to a life without God and I knew that was the worst thing that could happen to anyone.
Then, one day, that small voice presented itself to me again. “Do you really believe I don’t love you?” And, in an instant, I didn’t. I didn’t believe it. I knew God loved me. And I knew I loved Him. And life changed. Forever.
If I could, I would go back to that day in the parking lot and take my Dad’s face between both of my hands and I would kiss him and tell him, “Daddy, I feel it. I feel the peace. God found me.” And, I would be telling the truth.
Since I lost my Dad, some really awful things have happened. Happened even after I thought my family had endured all that we could. My Mom got cancer and beat it. And then got it again. And, I cried in even more parking lots and elevators and, on occasion, HEB. And then, on another June morning, I lost her too. I’ve sat in an examining room and had my doctor, with her kind eyes and high- lighted hair, tell me I had Lupus. I’ve buried friends and been helpless as I’ve watched others live through hell. I’ve watched the news and read Facebook and anguished at how we all hurt each other. I’ve had to watch young people I love find really spectacular ways to hurt themselves and their future. Divorce and affairs and drugs. Miscarriages, abortions, floods and heartache. The world is a scary, sad place sometimes, but, through it all, I have this little flicker of peace. A small place that says no matter what God loves me.
No matter what I do. No matter what the President does or who the President is. No matter what my bank account says. No matter illness or heartbreak or loss. God loves me.
And, the really amazing thing is that that knowledge is not just for me. Yes, it changed who I am, but it also changes the world. Because God loves me, I am indifferent to no-one. I can’t be. Your pain is my pain. Your problems are my problems. Your sin is my sin. We have to find our way together. We are His beloved. All of us. And, yes, that includes you. He loves you no matter what you have done or what you are doing this morning.
Throw it out there. The biggest, darkest, most awful thing you have ever done and it is no match for God. He can love it all away. All of it. Even if you’ve hated Him for a long time, and filled up little blue journals with page after page of how unfair He is. Even if you’ve never taken one minute to stop and fight with Him or wonder about Him or even question whether He’s real. Literally, no matter what, He loves you.
I’m not saying that it will be easy. That you won’t still have a temper, or a sailor-mouth, or a drug problem, or a boyfriend on the side, but from the moment you enter into a real relationship with God and leave all else behind you will begin on a journey that will change you and the world around you. He won’t leave you where you start. And, for every success you have, you will want more. You will come to crave those moments that you find yourself more like Him and less like you. You will find yourself willingly walking away from everything you used to hold valuable for a closer walk with Him.
Someday, you might even find yourself, in a parking lot dying from a disease that takes you bit by bit, and you will still be talking to your lost daughter about the peace that passeth all understanding. And, she will listen through her tears and hurt and foul language and a seed will be planted. And, because the Lord adores you, it will bear fruit. And the Lord will let her be lost and angry until He finds her and changes everything. Then, the true adventure will start.
And, through it all, that little flame of peace will burn. The peace that passeth all understanding. A precious gift from a Father who adores you and longs for you.