Telling your story can be strange thing, especially in this format, where complete strangers are likely the primary readers. Frederick Buechner once said that publicly telling your story is “like showing [your] baby pictures to strangers.” In other words, all babies look pretty much alike, unless you know the baby, and the same might be said of the stories we share.
I tell my story anyway because it is an opportunity to share something about the nature of God and the depth of his grace, mercy, and love.
So here’s (some of) my story.
How It All Began
When I was 6 years old, my father murdered my mother.
In one thoughtless, terrible act, he put a violent end to years of physical and emotional abuse to my mother, my two sisters, and me. In just a few squeezes of a trigger, my dad took from three kids their mother, from my grandparents their firstborn daughter, from my aunt and uncle a sister. He took away a beautiful, creative, talented, vibrant young woman a few weeks shy of her 31st birthday. What’s more, none of this was particularly surprising to those who knew our family. After all, my dad was an unstable, volatile man addicted to drugs and alcohol, and gripped by a severe mental illness that went undiagnosed and untreated until after the murder.
He was convicted of murder in 1981 and sentenced to die in Georgia’s electric chair. His appeal reduced his sentence to life in prison.
In the aftermath, my sisters and I were adopted by my maternal grandparents, and in the face of that great tragedy, we did what any family would do—we circled the wagons, we bonded over our grief. A significant portion of that bonding came through our shared hatred of not just the evil things my dad did, but of my dad himself. So I grew up hating him, and 23 years without contact only increased the distance, fear, and disdain that defined our “relationship.”
Honor Thy Father
In 2004, when I was 29 and married to Melissa for all of a month, I was listening to a sermon about the Ten Commandments. At that point in my life, I had read the Ten Commandments countless times. I had read commentaries, written papers and sermons about them—yet somehow it had never occurred to me that the fifth and sixth commandments speak directly to my personal story.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder. (Ex. 20:12-13)
The question that began pounding in my head and heart was, “How am I supposed to keep the command to honor my father when all I really know of him is that he hurts people to the point of shattering the very next command about murder?” Right there in the pew I asked God to show me how I could honor my dad.
In a matter of seconds, God gave me a new understanding of what it meant to honor my father. What God laid on my heart in that moment was the phrase, “Look him in the eye.” To begin honoring him, I needed to look my dad in the eye, which meant, at the very least, I needed to visit him in prison.
A few weeks later, Melissa and I packed some bags and headed from our home in St. Louis down to Central State Prison in Macon, Georgia.
Eye to Eye
Melissa and I checked into the prison and were led by an armed guard through gates and checkpoints to an unadorned 8’ by 8’ cinderblock room with three folding chairs. The guard left, assuring us that she was just around the corner if we needed anything. I placed two chairs facing the door for me and Melissa, the remaining chair for my dad. After a few moments of silence, I heard the shuffle of shackled footsteps and knew that in a matter of seconds I would be face-to-face with my dad for the first time since I was 6 years old.
I decided that I would look my dad in the eye, stick my hand out, shake his hand, and then sit down quickly, so that he would be likely to follow suit and we could minimize the awkwardness.
My dad entered the room and, just as I’d planned, I looked him in the eye. Yet, for all my resolve to be a man in front of my dad, to shake his hand and to be tough, to stare him down if I had to, the actual result of our first moment together in more than 23 years caught me completely off guard.
When our eyes met, my dad was immediately overcome with emotion. His eyes instantly filled with tears. His head jerked downward, and his body shook, almost like a convulsion. He was literally taken aback by looking at his son after all those years.
Within seconds of meeting my dad, I learned the first of many grace-filled lessons that God is still teaching me about that encounter. I believe God wanted me to look my dad in the eye, not so that I could assert my manhood in front of him, not so that I could show myself to be strong, but so that I could see clearly that my dad is a sinful, broken, frail human being in desperate need of restoration.
The handshake melted into a hug, and before I knew what was happening, I was standing face to face with the teary-eyed killer of my mother, and the only thought running through my head was, God, be merciful to this man.
We eventually began to talk, and my dad offered a sincere apology for all the hurt he’d caused, for creating a situation where three kids grow up without their father and mother. He talked about coming to faith in Christ behind bars, and how with medication and proper treatment his mental illness is pretty much in check.
Not a ‘Feel Good’ Story
God used that day to heal both of us. My dad offloaded a years-long apology and request for forgiveness, while I was able to finally release childish notions of him being the epitome of evil. We were now two sinful men in need of God’s mercy and grace if either of us would find any real freedom in this life.
I’d like to tell you that since then our relationship has blossomed into a classic father/son relationship that’s the envy of anybody who knows us. That’s what I’d like to tell you. But that’s not the truth.
The truth is that I visited my dad only one other time in prison, and it was a confusing meeting that left me with more internal conflict than the first visit. We’ve exchanged letters and cards, but our contact has fallen off to the point that I’ve not even seen him since he was paroled nearly three years ago.
The truth is that while I’ve forgiven my dad, I continue to experience the occasional sting of resentment toward him. I’ve also learned the hard lesson that it is difficult to make room in your life for someone that you’ve gotten used to not having around.
My story, at least this part of it, is not a “feel good” story. So why share it?
In Romans 8:28, when Paul says, “What then shall we say about these things?” the things he’s talking about are “sufferings,” “futility,” and “bondage to corruption.” In other words, what shall we say about things like dads murdering moms and families torn apart by violence and abuse?
Paul gives us a response to just such things beginning in verse 37:
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:37-39)
Yes, we live in a world where murder is real, but these parts of our stories do not tell the final word for those who are in Christ. We are conquerors, not because of anything we’ve done, but because what belongs to Jesus—who conquered Satan, sin, and death—belongs to those who are in him. That is the final word, the ultimate story.
I tell you my story as a way of testifying to that story.
- We see brokenness from my dad who was worn and weary from the guilt and loneliness that resulted from his misdeeds.
- We see restoration and redemption in the hug that we shared after years and years of being separated from each other.
- We see restoration in the reality that my worst fears about my dad did not rule the day, and that the experience I feared might turn into a nightmare actually turned into a poignant, life-giving experience.
I tell you my story not so you will say, “Be more like Joel, because he was obedient when God told him to go visit his dad.” I tell you my story not so you will say, “How heart-warming that Joel and his dad reunited.” I tell you my story so that I can also tell you that even amid the brokenness and tragedy of our lives, and our imperfect obedience in response to them, we are nevertheless “more than conquerors” through Christ. His death and resurrection are real and operative not only in the moments of shining redemption, but also in the ugly, painful moments during which we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons” (Rom. 8:23).
What About You?
Do you know your own story? Have you examined your own story for gospel themes like brokenness and redemption? Have you been honest with yourself and with God and owned up to the bad behaviors and motives that mark your story? Have you looked for and found Jesus and his redemption in your story?
If you haven’t, please consider these things. As you do, remember that Jesus was the Word incarnate. Among everything else this truth means, it certainly means that God speaks to us not merely through words, but through events, through the triumphs and tragedies of our lives. If God can be found in a manger in Bethlehem, he can be found in the broken places of our stories.