His story began and ended among the ranks of the working class. Abandoned as a child, he was passed through eleven foster homes before he landed in a family willing to meet his most basic needs. As soon as he could get out on his own, he entered the world of adults, became a junk man, and scavenged for metal to hawk for cash until he could scratch his way into the tile trade. Somewhere in there, he managed to marry a woman, have one kid, and keep putting one foot in front of another.
His son, my dad, was everything to him. Without the capacity to express that love in words, outward affection, or even much by way of provision, he understood the redemption of his seemingly ever-sinking life would come through somehow leaving the world better through his one and only son.
My dad went on to stand on the shoulders of his just-scraping-by parents. Working nights in a blood bank, cleaning pools at resorts by day, harvesting sand dollars from the Florida coast to sell to tourists, and piecing together other odd jobs, it took him eight years to finish undergrad, paying for school as he went.
Being accepted to medical school, Dad doubled down, still working on the side but intent on giving everything he had to the field of medicine that was capturing his heart and mind. He trained as a general surgeon, built a respected medical practice, and joined a small cohort of pioneering physicians advancing the technique of laparoscopic surgery. From the day he graduated Tulane Medical School until the day his parents died four decades later, my dad quietly and entirely funded their modest life, which consisted of an apartment, a car, and a small work truck for my grandfather’s itinerant tile jobs.
My grandfather had no hobbies, few friends, no ambition for travel or learning, and little tolerance for people. In the twilight of his life, he clung fiercely to his work, even when he couldn’t pull it together to complete the tile jobs he had started. There was, however, one unbroken line in the story of my grandfather: his unwavering pride in and love for his son.
This complex relationship between a father and son is the story into which I was born. Alzheimer’s hit my grandfather early and forced him into a reluctant retirement, shifting the nature of his days. An iconic image from my childhood is my grandfather sitting by himself at our family kitchen table, smoking cigarettes, drinking black coffee, and waiting. Hours on end, day after day. For a long time, I never questioned why he was there or what he was waiting for. We were kids, naturally self-absorbed, intent on watching cartoons or playing in the small woods behind our house.
My only memory of engaging him was when he’d pull out a big, fat wallet dependent on a permanent rubber band to hold it together. (Over time, I realized it wasn’t cash that overstuffed his wallet but innumerable business cards from other working-class folks in our steel-mill town.) On these occasions, he’d pull a single dollar bill halfway out of his wallet and, with a glint in his eye, beckon us to grab it. Falling for his private joke every time, we’d pull and pull, never able to overpower him. Only once we finally deflated (or the next TV show was starting) and gave up would he finally give up the dollar in victory and throw it at us.
Week after week and day after day, he’d wait and wait and wait.
Until his son got home from work.
I have no memory of them talking. It’s only now, forty years removed, that I wonder why there were so few interchanges and no physical affection of any kind. My dad would walk through the side door, exhausted after a day of surgery, rounding at hospitals, and patient appointments at multiple offices. He’d proceed past my grandfather without conversation, through the kitchen, straight to his bedroom, and instantaneously fall asleep with a pillow over his head and his feet (shoes still on) hanging off the end of the bed. (For the next half hour or so, he’d remain motionless until my mom sent one of us four kids to wake him up and call him out for dinner.)
For my grandfather, it was that moment when my dad wordlessly passed him that marked the end of his day. My grandfather’s mission was completed: he had seen his son. My grandfather would stand up from the table and head for the door as my mom said, “Bye, Lou. See you tomorrow.”
Sitting, waiting, and watching for my dad became my grandfather’s life’s work. Just putting his eyes on his son was enough. Witnessing the walking miracle of his physician son and feeling the miraculous possibility that it had happened. He was leaving the world a little more beautiful than the one into which he had been born.
My father and grandfather were of two generations uninitiated in expressing emotion, and deeply limited in their ability to participate in the essential rites of passages, both formal and informal, intended upon bestowing masculine love and validation from one generation to the next. But this daily liturgy of waiting and watching communicated everything my grandfather’s words couldn’t at the time. His love for his son was boundless; his pride in his son was immeasurable. He would give everything he had, even his own life, for my dad. And to sit and watch and wait and to see his son with his own eyes was a fulfilled life.
It is this memory that emerged from deep in my subconscious last week as I sat for the first time at the bar of Bourbon Brothers, a new, locally owned smokehouse and tavern on the north end of our town. My son is graduating from high school, completing his vision quest, and now embarking on a Spirit-initiated gap year, God’s invitation to adventure, exploration, and service, before he immerses himself as a student at Colorado Christian University.
As part of this initiation year, his Father in Heaven led him to a job bussing tables and practice in the discipline of taking the lowest seat. He passed through the initiation experiences of applying, interviewing, getting hired, buying work clothes, and putting in three weeks at the job without me ever stepping foot in the restaurant. He wanted to stand on his own, finding his way as a young man into the world.
I showed up at the bar unannounced and quietly chose a seat that afforded me a view of most of the restaurant. I had my first-ever pour of Bullet Frontier, marking the rite of passage for this father’s heart. As I sipped and waited, I found myself accessing a fresh memory laden in my soul for four decades.
I waited and waited and watched, for my son.
And then I saw him, in all his glory. Stronger than I’ve ever been, taller than I’ve ever been. What the world might’ve seen was a young, inexperienced busboy. What I saw was a man with the radiance of Solomon. As the story goes,
Look! It’s Solomon’s carriage,
carried and guarded by sixty soldiers,
sixty of Israel’s finest,
All of them armed to the teeth,
trained for battle,
ready for anything, anytime.
(Song of Solomon 3:7-10 MSG)
Watching, waiting, and seeing my son, tears emerged from the depths of my soul and come again even now as I write. Joshua moved about his work, having no idea I was there. Steadily clearing table after table, replacing cutlery, running food, and practicing the steady serving of guests. Cutting his teeth in the world of work.
My affection, my pride, my awe of my son knew no bounds. My heart was swimming in well-being, a gladness of a depth that rivaled even watching Cherie walk down the aisle toward me at First Presbyterian Church or watching her naturally labor and birth the most exotic creature of beauty I ever beheld in the birth of my Abigail Rose.
My Daughter. My Son. Ask me for anything. All I have is yours.
With the aroma of Bullet Frontier, the world faded back. The veil was so very thin. There were no limits to the love bursting in the father’s heart within me as I waited and watched my son.
And then it hit me.
This is my Father’s heart for me.
And an even deeper revelation came like a torrent of rushing water.
This is our Father’s heart for every one of his sons and daughters.
He is waiting and watching and reveling at each of our lives. He, right now, has tears on his face, the same tears I spilled at Bourbon Brothers. The same tears I have now.
His love knows no bounds.
His affection is relentless.
His care is steadfast.
His purposes for our lives are provision and a goodness beyond our wildest dreams.
There is nothing you can do to make him love you more.
There is nothing you can do to make him love you less.
He loves you
because he loves you
because he loves you
because he loves you
because THAT is what he is like.
It is his nature to love.
And you will always be his beloved.
And his love is unchanging.
And he loves you 100 percent.
He won’t love you any better when you become better.
He loves you 100 percent right now.
And even if you have no plans to become better, he will still love you 100 percent.
Because he loves you, and that’s the way that he is.
And even if you don’t want to change,
He will love you 100 percent.
Even if you have no plans to walk with him,
He will love you 100 percent, because that’s his nature.
He loves all the way, all the time.*
This is his one central mission.
It is his nature to love his children.
It is his character.
It is his purpose.
It is his passion.
The one who knows us best
Is the one who loves us most.
Somewhere in the evening, my son slipped behind the bar to bring a tub of dirty drink glasses to be washed. It was right after he finished working through the load of glasses that he happened to turn and see me for the first time.
His bright, ocean-blue eyes lit up; his radiant smile spread ear to ear.
I can only wonder if his look of surprised joy was merely a reflection of what he was seeing on his father’s face.
I was haunted all night, and I still can’t shake the thought even now as I try to reach for words to explain the incomprehensible.
If my Father’s affection and gaze and delight for you and for me is even greater than what I felt at that bar waiting and watching and seeing my son, what would hold me back from taking even great risks for the sake of love?
What would stop me from taking a full swing, living into the truest version of me in the story I’ve been given? What other source of masculine nourishment would I possibly need that would exceed this kind of heroic, unceasing love, to become by day and by decade everything God purposes for me to become?
Friends, he is waiting and watching you right now.
His tears tell a story of one who is never giving up. His affection for you and me knows no bounds.
The choice is mine, as it is yours.
Would we slow down long enough?
Would we find the speed of soul?
Would we turn to catch our Father’s gaze and allow his affection to reach so deeply into our souls as his sons that we too would become unstoppable in the face of adversity?
Because to receive that unflinching and inexhaustible gaze of our Father is life’s most precious secret.
Because of this great love, we have no reason not to.
We’ve got nothing to lose.
And everything to gain.
Your Father’s watching you.
Tears are in his eyes.
It’s your inheritance.
And it changes everything.
For the Kingdom,
*This core message was spoken spontaneously by Graham Cooke while Jonathan David Helser was recording the song “Inheritance” on his first album.