Every one of us had a father and mother who were not perfect, and if they are still alive they are still not perfect. It has now become almost a cliché in Christian circles to say that this is OK because we have a Father in heaven who meets the standard of perfection. While this is true, this sounds too trivial for such a fundamental aspect of our human existence as fathers and mothers.
I mean, is that all there is to it? Is it as simple as dads and moms just not measuring up when it comes to doing all the things that need to be done to love their kids perfectly? Isn’t there something more profound to our shortcomings as parents, other than simply not being God, or at least being born after sin entered the world?
Yes, it’s true that we can take comfort in God being our perfect heavenly Father. He works in our hearts to grow forgiveness and fill in the gaps left by our imperfect parents. And we can pray that our kids will find the same comfort to make up for our failings as parents.
However, I think God has given an inherently redeeming quality in fathers and mothers, and other relationships, that is deeper than the forgiveness of their and our deficiencies. And in fact, our deficiencies produce an even brighter spotlight on this quality. In a word it is this: presence.
In the 1992 movie, This Is My Life, the mother of the story, Dottie, is told that kids are happy if their mother is happy. Dottie answers, “No, they’re not. Everybody says that but it’s not true. Kids are happy if you’re there. You give kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy and they choose suicide in the next room.”
I was a Big Brother to a teenager who attempted suicide twice before his mother reached out to Big Brothers. In the training for Big Brothers, and other similar good organizations such as The Mentoring Project, the first and foremost principle they teach for being a Big Brother or Big Sister to these kids is: Show Up. Be There. It doesn’t matter that you’re not their actual mother or father. What these kids desperately need is to have someone be there for them. All children need that, whether we are 5 or 95.
Presence. There is something divine about presence, about being with one another. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Notice the word “with”. Skye Jethani, in his book With, says, “If we peeled back the physical and metaphysical layers of time and space and peered into the very core of the universe, we would not discover divine will, natural law, personal desire, or global mission. Instead we would find God existing in eternal relationship with himself.”
And God wants to be with us. He loves us. He sent His Son to be with us. Emmanuel, God with us. He came into our manger, our mess. And when Jesus went to be with the Father, the Father sent the Holy Spirit to be with us, to be in us. We are God’s dwelling place. And where two or three of us are gathered together in His name, even in the mess of our lives needing forgiveness from Him and from one another, He is there with us (Matthew 18:15-20).
It doesn’t take perfection to be with someone. As I was driving to work and pouring out my failings and my heart to God this week, and aching for the places in need of redemption around me, I sensed He was saying that He and I were fellowshipping with each other, that I was feeling what He has felt so often for His children. It brought new meaning to the phrase “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). And in my lack I was being filled.
In a mysterious way, the preciousness of presence is magnified when there is a limitation. The prodigal son, upon having nothing left, realized that he wanted to be with his father, even if he didn’t consciously realize it, that’s really what he wanted down deep. The faults of our parents or whoever else in our lives, their failure to live up to certain expectations, is the darkness from which we can more plainly see the light of the fact that they were there, providing if nothing else their presence. Even if they were not there for us, either physically or emotionally, that lack points all the more strongly to those people who were and are there present in our lives. Because you see, presence is something that we cannot get away from, because God is there. He who knit us in our mother’s womb, is there wherever we go, with us (Psalm 139). So whenever our mother or father or anyone provided even a moment of their genuine presence with us, they gave us the most precious thing there is. A touch of God.