Father’s Day After My Father’s Death

This will be my eighth Father’s Day as a dad. This year, I’ll still get something from the kids (fingers crossed!) and hopefully sneak in a round of golf. Until two years ago, this special day meant the usual—call Dad, send a gift, receive a gift, and generally do what I want. Unfortunately, this year, like the year before, I won’t be calling anyone or sending anything. Two and a half years ago, my dad unexpectedly passed away from heart failure.

Since then, Father’s Day has taken on new meaning for me. And it’s a reminder to not edit anyone out of God’s story.

Dad Taught Me Empathy

My father, Dennis “Gib” Gibson, never met a stranger. His warm and charismatic presence granted him access into many people’s lives. But he didn’t take advantage of this. His kindness allowed him to make countless friends over the years. I’ve heard it said, “Better to have a few friendships that are deep than many friendships that are shallow.” Well, my dad managed to have many friendships that were also deep and lasting.

Father’s Day is a reminder to not edit anyone out of God’s story.

One of my dad’s greatest influences was John Prine, the legendary folk singer-songwriter who recently died from COVID-19. It’s been said that Prine was able to “step so completely into someone else’s life.” There’s no doubt my dad learned empathy from combing through Prine’s catalog of songs that brought him into the elderly’s shoes (“Hello in There”), the Vietnam veteran (“Sam Stone”), or the generally overlooked (“Billy the Bum”).

I remember Dad stepping into the life of a young man with Down syndrome in our church, in order to allow his parents to attend Sunday school. But Dad didn’t stop there. He brought Michael into our family’s life, taking him to sporting events and golf outings and creating a lasting friendship. Prine’s lyrics from “Billy the Bum” might as well be written of my father:

For pity’s a crime
And it ain’t worth a dime
To a person who’s really in need
Just treat ’em the same
As you would your own name
Next time that your heart starts to bleed

My dad didn’t just see people; he moved toward them with a Christlike love. I learned a lot from him in my formative years by simply watching him. I remember him being a part of Bible studies with his coworkers, I remember him interacting with strangers like they were his best friends, and I remember him driving less-privileged kids from school to our basketball games. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning empathy and love from my dad.

I also didn’t know that he would become the person I’d need to show it to the most. 

Loving Dad Through Addiction

Addiction and recovery literature notes that one inevitable and meaningful moment in a man’s development is when he’s confronted with his father’s imperfections. For me, this moment crystallized when I was 16. I began to notice Dad would stay out until odd hours of the night.

I quickly learned Dad had a drinking problem. What was “manageable” during my high-school years became devastating when the General Motors plant where he worked shut down in the early 2000s. It broke him and our family, eventually leading to my parents’ divorce, several DUIs, and a much less empathetic and loving man. 

I was learning empathy and love from my dad. I also didn’t know that he would become the person I’d need to show it to the most.

I was angry and hurt. My heart broke for my mom and sister who had to deal with the wake of these things while I was in college. I was angry at my dad’s friends who’d enabled him in his addiction, and I lost respect for my dad for seemingly giving up on life. 

But I also found some kind of resolve to stick it out for him. He had discipled me in the empathy of John Prine and, more importantly, the way of Jesus. I chose to be curious about the hurt and pain that caused his downward spiral. I saw his wounds from losing his job and unfulfilled dreams and had compassion on him. My love wasn’t perfect. It never is. I had moments of self-righteous judgment. I told him off a few times. But more often than not, by God’s grace, I, like John Prine, stepped completely into my dad’s life. I prayed for him. I visited him. I called him. I encouraged him. I preached the gospel to him. I fought for him. I believed that all that the Father gives to Jesus will come to him, and whoever comes to him, he will never drive away (John 6:35–40).

Renewal of His Mind

I wish I could tell you my dad fully recovered. His life was cut short due to the toll the addiction took on his body. But we did notice some kind of renewal taking place over the last three years of his life. There seemed to be movement toward sobriety and away from the self-centeredness that addiction brings. We also noticed him interacting with and intaking the Scriptures regularly. I’d receive texts with a Scripture reference and application to his own life. It felt strangely normal and odd at the same time.

Little did I know I wasn’t the only one fighting for my dad. Michael’s father, Jean—my dad’s friend I mentioned earlier—sent him Bible verses daily and prayed for him often. We didn’t learn this until my dad’s viewing service. Jean handed me a printout of their text conversations from the weeks leading up to his passing. I cry almost every time I think about it. Here’s one of their exchanges:

Jean: Reflect. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” John 3:17. Jesus revealed the heart of God the Father in sending God the Son, to bring salvation—rescue, hope, healing—to the world through him.

Dad: In Jesus’s blood I have been rescued. I have hope and I am healing. The devil is a liar. He comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus came for us so we could live life abundantly. I rebuke the evil one. I hope my man [Michael] had a great birthday.

There’s a sweet comfort in reading these words. They remind me of God’s generosity in pursuing us. The kingdom of heaven really is such that the workers who show up at 5 p.m. receive the same reward as those who showed up at 9 a.m. to work a full day (Matt. 20:1–16), which is ironically fitting because Dad passed away the same day as Billy Graham. We have hope he is with Christ. 

If you’ve made it to the end of this story, I want to encourage you to not edit anyone, including yourself, out of God’s story. I can’t promise how it will end, but I can say I don’t think you’ll regret it