How reconnecting with my estranged father helped me experience God’s mercy
Like many in my generation, I grew up mostly estranged from my father. When I was just three years old, he abandoned our family in a dramatic fashion.
He rented a small airplane and ditched it in a lake, planning to fake his death or die in the attempt. Dad survived the crash and disappeared for a couple of weeks, but eventually realized that starting a new life with an assumed name was not as easy as he had imagined. He returned home to a shattered marriage.
After the divorce, Dad never came to visit me. I saw him occasionally when I went to visit my paternal grandparents, but he made no effort to build a relationship with me or my sister. He did not send child support, birthday cards or Christmas presents.
Even so, I found I could not help loving him. My heart always beat fast with excitement the few times we did get to visit. Dad was good with kids. He knew how to encourage and coach them in sports or games of any kind. I longed for him to know me.
And I refused to believe that he did not have a similar feeling toward me buried deep beneath his depression.
Growing up in fear
I grew up with fears common to children who suffer abandonment—the fear of being alone, an acute fear of rejection, a fear that death would steal my loved ones away. These fears were compounded by losing my mother for a time as well.
After the divorce, Mom put her two young girls in the care of her parents while she went to school and sought some stability. My memories of early childhood are mostly dark and sad, especially in the years when I was separated from my mother.
Even so, God always was close to me. I remember talking to him, thinking about him, even pretending to play ball with him when I was very young.
When I became a teenager, my family started attending a vibrant church with a great youth group. With the strength of community, I grew happier and more confident. I met a wonderful young man who eventually proposed marriage. All seemed well with my soul.
Right after the wedding, my husband Thomas and I moved to a new city. Suddenly my fear of abandonment roared back to life. For the first year of marriage, I was constantly afraid that Thomas would leave. This fear led to depression. Within a month of our wedding, I had undergone a sad and dramatic change, which made me all the more afraid Thomas would want to leave.
But Thomas proved faithful where my father had failed. He promised to stick by my side even if we were miserable for the rest of our lives. His words were a gift of mercy to me, and eventually I found grace to believe them. Thirty years and five children later, we remain happily married.
My Dad also became more stable over time. He remarried a good woman who encouraged him to reconnect with me. Thomas and I made a point of visiting Dad from time to time, but we never grew close. He and I never talked about the pain between us.
The same patterns which existed in our relationship extended to the grandkids. He enjoyed them; he was fun when we were present, but he was passive. Dad did not make a point of sending presents or being a factor in their lives.
I knew he felt ashamed of his failures towards me. That is why he kept his distance.
A rainbow of perfect clarity
Then six years ago, God gave me a tremendous gift. On the first night of a spiritual retreat, many sins from my youth came to mind. My heart felt heavy and full of sorrow over things I had done years before. Though I could feel God’s presence in the grief, I could not sleep at all that night.
The next morning, as I tried to understand what I had experienced in the night, I felt God ask me to lift up my face and look at him. It was simply an impression which came to my mind. I was willing to comply, but I did not know how.
Suddenly a vivid image appeared in my mind. First, I saw the pillar of fire that led Israel through the wilderness (Ex 13:21). I could see flames of red and gold dancing, intertwining. I could see eyes flashing in the flames, and I felt the jealous love of God toward the people he had saved.
Then I saw the gorgeous deep blue of space with bright stars shining like gems. I could see galaxies spinning in the Father’s hand, and I sensed his pride in creation. I knew he wanted his children to delight in his works.
Finally, I saw a rainbow shining in perfect clarity, and I knew it was the arc around God’s throne. The vision filled me with a sense of peace and order. There was a safety under the rainbow that allowed for complete trust.
Intuitively, I understood what God was telling me. Each of the colors represented a different aspect of his divine nature—justice, mercy, long-suffering, joy, power, loving-kindness and holiness—and he wanted me to rejoice with him in all his goodness. He had received my repentance and was returning his joy.
The hard parts and the healing
For weeks, all I could think about was the rainbow around God’s throne! I often dissolved in tears of wonder.
One day while working in the garden, I knew I had to tell my Dad all about the vision. He had to know about the colors that can wipe away sorrow! So for the first time in my life, I drove to see my Dad by myself, without my family as a buffer.
The two of us took a long walk together. I spent an hour telling him about my retreat at the beach. When I finished, Dad replied: “Amy, I have never heard anyone talk about God like this. I understand what you are saying.”
Then he surprised me with a question. “Amy,” he said, “I am coming to the end of my years. What I should do with the rest of my life?”
I urged him to get to know his grandchildren. Beyond that I did not know what to say, until some weeks later, when a thought occurred to me. What if we were to actually talk about what had happened in our past—both the hard parts and the healing?
I called my Dad with a question of my own. “You know how you asked me what you should do with the rest of your life, Dad? What do you think about writing a book together? A book about abandonment and reconciliation?”
He said yes, and so that is what we are doing together now. We are exploring the past together—uncovering things that went wrong in both our lives—and that process is painful.
But we always end our talks by looking forward to the hope in heaven. I am confident that my Dad and I will spend eternity together, and even the parts of our stories that we cannot make right in this life will find justice in heaven.
To me, this is the wonder of God’s mercy. Mercy does not deny pain. God’s mercy never denies pain, but he is able to redeem it and restore it and make something beautiful out of it. And I’m convinced there is no sorrow that God’s mercy cannot heal.
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“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love,” said the Christian medieval mystic Meister Eckhart.
An interview with Christopher White, Vatican correspondent for NCR