The Strong Legacy of a Weak Father

Father’s Day is a wonderful common-grace gift, an explicit reminder to fulfill a gracious obligation God has placed on us: “honor your father” (Exodus 20:12).

But for some fathers, this day is a painful reminder of ways they haven’t been able to fulfill all a typical father’s responsibilities, often due to circumstantial or physical weaknesses largely or wholly outside of their control. Which means that, for some, Father’s Day can seem to highlight more shame than honor.

I imagine Father’s Day might have had that effect on my own father. You see, Dad suffered from a humiliating affliction, a mental illness that took a significant emotional, relational, and sometimes economic toll on our family. His affliction was, in certain ways, our affliction — a fact of which he was all too painfully (and no doubt shamefully) aware.

But Dad was an honorable man — more than he probably knew. And I’d like to share why, both as a way to honor my father’s memory and as a way to encourage fathers who battle shame over ways their weaknesses have limited their fathering capacities. Because our weaknesses, if we steward them as faithfully before God as we’re able, can reveal greater, more spiritually significant strengths than those our afflictions steal from us (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Background of My Boyhood

My most vivid early memory of my father is seeing him running over the crest of a hill to rescue me.

One spring day when I was three years old, my good mother sent me out in a jacket to play in the backyard. When I came back in, she noticed I was lacking my jacket, so she sent me back out to retrieve it. I, however, being three, quickly forgot about the jacket when I saw the path, one that wound off through an adjacent meadow leading to . . . where? Some wonderful Land of Oz? It seemed like a good idea to find out. So, off I merrily went.

All I recall of the journey was that the meadow path shortly gave way to grassy hills, and the Oz I discovered was just some strange houses bordering a busy, loud highway. Just when I realized that there’s no place like home, I also had the frightening realization that I had no idea how to get back there. I was lost and alone and little. All I could think to do was to sit down and cry.

I don’t know how long I was gone, but it was long enough for my mother to search in vain for me, begin to panic, and call my father at work — and for him to come home and join the search (which by that time also included a policeman).

My cries had turned to despairing chest heaves when I looked up and saw the beatific form of my father cresting a hill, running toward me. Daddy! In my (emotionally enhanced) memory, there’s a golden glow around him. The man who loved me most, the man I loved most in the world, had left everything to find me and bring me home — the best place in the world. I was flooded with joy inexpressible.

That memory captures my father as I knew and viewed him as a child. He seemed larger than life. His presence (even when absent) permeated the atmosphere of my world and filled it with a unique brightness.

The background of my boyhood,
The apple of my eye,
The meaning of my manhood,
The sun in my young sky,
The shelter in your sovereignty I felt with you close by:
You were my young world.

Meaning of My Manhood

To most, Dad wouldn’t have appeared extraordinary. He wasn’t a prominent leader, didn’t have a socially prestigious job, and wasn’t physically imposing. But when I was young, he wasn’t ordinary to me. To me, Dad was the paragon of manhood.

I remember how he stood straight and exuded an unpretentious confidence when he walked. I remember his big, strong, calloused hands. He wasn’t an excessive talker, but when he spoke, he looked people in the eye and treated them with dignity, honesty, and good humor — laughing easily. And when he gave his counsel, it was measured and wise.

He taught me what it meant to work hard through instruction and example. Throughout my childhood, Dad got up at 2:00 in the morning to drive downtown to the Emrich Baking Company, load his truck, and deliver baked goods to scores of restaurants and hospitals. A couple of times, I rode his route with him. Few things are as wonderful as the smell of a bakery in the early morning and spending the day with a father you deeply love and admire.

Dad taught me how to skate, throw a baseball and football, and play golf. I can still see his graceful swing and how the ball would sail off the tee, landing way down the fairway. If at all possible, he attended my hockey, baseball, and football games and even coached some of my teams. He taught me to compete hard and show my opponents respect.

But of all the ways he shaped me, two were most formative. The earliest one was how dearly Dad loved my mother. When he was well, I never heard him utter an unkind word to or about her. And he would by no means tolerate us kids showing her disrespect.

Then, when I was about nine years old, Dad experienced a spiritual renewal. His faith in Jesus became noticeably more vibrant. He studied his Bible more earnestly, prayed more openly, and became more engaged in the life of our church. It’s hard to overstate the profound and lasting impact this had on me.

The resolution in your walk,
The strength in your hand,
The easy laughter in your talk,
The poise in your stand,
The power of your presence my respect would command:
You filled my young world.

Devastating Weakness

However, there was a shadow that followed Dad throughout his adulthood. There were these strange, brief, episodic seasons when, for inexplicable reasons, this normally even-keeled, loving, kind, honest, patient, hard-working man suddenly began speaking and acting completely out of character. For a short time, he became a different person. These episodes were then followed by a bout of stubborn depression. Dad was left as confused and disturbed by these episodes as everyone else was.

“Don’t underestimate the powerful influence a debilitated father can have on his children.”

Until age fourteen, I was blissfully unaware of this shadow, since its last emergence occurred when I was too young to remember. But in 1979, when Dad was 47, the mysterious malady struck again with devastating effect. Suddenly, he began to descend into madness. He stopped sleeping. He made bizarre declarations about God, the universe, and people he loved. He hallucinated, turned suspicious, and, for the first time in my memory, said harsh things to my mother.

Dad had to be hospitalized, and his illness was finally diagnosed: manic depression (later renamed bipolar disorder). He was placed on numerous medications, which mercifully helped stabilize his moods, but which also dampened aspects of his gregarious personality.

Dad was never quite the same again. His illness and its treatments significantly limited his capacities to concentrate and engage socially as he had before. He had to push himself to participate in the activities he had previously enjoyed so much — and that we had enjoyed with him. He found it hard to trust his own mind, and having been humiliated in front of his family, friends, church community, and coworkers, he found it difficult to take initiative in the ways he had before.

Strong Legacy of a Weak Father

But Dad’s weakness caused different strengths to manifest in him, ones that I now view (as an adult and a father myself) as even more honorable than the ones I perceived as a child.

I watched Dad persevere in suffering. Only those who have experienced severe depression understand the indescribable darkness he battled. My own experiences of depression (low grade compared to his) have increased my respect for him greatly. He battled valiantly. I know at times he fought the temptation to end it all. But he didn’t surrender. Out of love for God, his wife, and his family, he endured.

I watched Dad resist self-pity. I never heard him complain. When I would ask him how he was doing, he was humbly honest about difficulties he faced, but never in a way that telegraphed self-pity or solicited mine.

I watched Dad model faithfulness. He did not reject or express bitterness toward God because of his affliction. When his health permitted, he faithfully continued to worship at his local church. And I have priceless memories of Dad expressing his longings for heaven, when he would at last be whole and free to enjoy all that God prepared for those who love him.

And I saw in Dad — and Mom — deeper dimensions of what it means to love. Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed is the steadfast covenant love Dad and Mom extended to each other over the three decades following that devastating episode in 1979. Both suffered due to Dad’s illness, each in different ways. Life and marriage did not turn out as they envisioned when they married in 1954. But they stayed together, for better and worse, in sickness and in health, and determined to love each other, which at times called for steely resolve, desperate prayers, and deep faith in Jesus.

Mom in particular lived out a beautiful sacrificial love for Dad, tenderly caring for him for the rest of his life. And Dad loved her for it. Few had the privilege to see what a wonder this was. I was privileged beyond measure.

I Remember

Life is hard. Brains can be just as defective as hearts, hands, legs, and livers. Dad, like many fathers, suffered in ways beyond his illness. He suffered the indignity of losing the capacity to be the kind of husband, father, and grandfather he wanted to be.

But his formative impact on me by no means ended when the worst of his affliction struck. His example of perseverance, faithfulness, and love are just a few of the ways he continued to shape my character and prepare me to face my own bewildering afflictions.

Though the days of childhood have now long since passed by,
I still see you clearly in my memory’s eye,
And I remember, Dad,
I remember . . .

The constant love I felt from you,
The disciplining grace,
The ear I told my dreaming to,
The pleasant, patient face,
The faith that did not die despite the dark of your disgrace:
You shaped my young world.

In June 2010, one last disease brought Dad’s earthly sojourn to an end. Now he knows fully what he knew only in part (1 Corinthians 13:12). Now he is whole and free to enjoy all that God prepared for him. The lyrics I’ve woven throughout are from the song I wrote and sang for his funeral. I wish I would have written and sung them to him before he died.

But I do remember. I remember how he ran over that hill to rescue his frightened, lost little boy. I remember how profoundly he filled and shaped my young world. But even more profoundly, I remember the strengths that manifested in him because of his weaknesses. His influence didn’t die when he no longer was able to be what he was when I was young. And it didn’t die when he did. I am still learning from him. My admiration and respect for him has only increased as I’ve aged.

To fathers who have suffered in ways that seem to have robbed them of being the kind of father they desperately wish they could be, and who perhaps experience Father’s Day as a painful (or shameful) reminder, I say this: Don’t underestimate the powerful influence a debilitated father can have on his children. Remember, even in the worst of times, that God’s grace will be sufficient for you — in ways you may not yet see and perhaps may not live to see. Steward your weaknesses as faithfully as you’re able. For there are dimensions of God’s power that manifest most clearly to fallen people, like me, through your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).