This is my first Father’s Day as a father. This is my father’s first Father’s Day as a grandfather. As I think about Father’s Day, I realize that—besides time with his new grand daughter—the best gift I can give my father this Father’s Day is love, mercy, and grace.
Not all the memories of my father are good, but all the good memories are really ordinary. My dad is a Cuban immigrant. When I was a kid, he was tall and strong, about six foot two, two hundred pounds. When I was a child, my dad—in his thick Cuban accent—would tell stories of Cuba. He would talk about the food: fried bananas, smoked pork in a pit covered with banana leaves, black beans, rice, garlic, and bacon. He would talk about the people: uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, and friends. He would talk about the things he liked to do: eat, dance, play baseball, and box.
Occasionally, he also spoke of his struggle to come to the United States. My dad fled Cuba in the sixties, when Cuba was in political turmoil. He spoke about the shark infested waters of the Gulf of Mexico through which he traveled. And with maybe a hint of dramatic exaggeration, my dad would describe his days out on the water, swimming when he could, floating when tired, alone in the water. He and a couple of friends had to abandon ship during the journey.
One night they jumped in the water hoping to make it to foreign soil. He found himself alone in the vast ocean. The friends who jumped with him were eaten by sharks. I would ask, “Papa, how did you swim so far?” He would respond with comments like, “It was easy. I didn’t want the sharks to eat me, so I kept swimming. It’s easy to swim when you don’t want to get eaten.” This was his way of lightening the mood of such a dark story.
When I think about my childhood years spent with my dad, I remember how he loved his freedom. He loved the beach, he loved fishing off the shore, and he loved waking up early to prepare his fishing poles. He loved the smell of the ocean that came with the morning fog, but mostly he loved the fried fish that would end up on his dinner plate.
I grew up a few miles from a beach. The beach was horrible for swimming. Lots of swimmers had drowned in those rough waters. The rip currents could pull a person out past the breaking waves. If you panicked or didn’t know to swim at the proper angle to return to shore, you could tire and drown. It was probably the worst sort of beach for a child, but my dad loved fishing and I loved going with him.
Sometimes while my dad was fishing, I would get in the water. My dad didn’t like it, but I always felt safe. I knew he was a good swimmer and would save me if the water took me out. My dad’s presence made me fearless and a bit foolish. I was never aware of the dangers just around the corner.
Grace for Fathers
Popular culture often portrays dads in demoralizing ways. The first image that comes to mind is the father as a disciplinarian. This dad is grumpy, hardworking, loveless, and rule enforcing, none of which is any fun. This is the dad who is avoided by his kids. When he comes home, people scatter or try to look busy. This dad only wants to come home, eat his dinner, and maybe watch ESPN. The worst that can happen is that this dad’s final hopes for the day are dashed by a disobedient kid who has some questionable activity to confess.
Other times, popular culture portrays dads as incompetent buffoons. Usually, the dad is the husband of a well-organized soccer mom. His wife is flawless. She is beautiful. He is scruffy at best and usually chubby. She works a full-time job, keeps the home in order, and helps the kids with their homework. The dad is less impressive. He slouches on the couch and watches football while his wife prepares a four-course meal. He is clueless.
When he tries to help, he always makes a mess of things. His wife always saves the day with a better brand of paper towels to clean up his mess. The dad is sorry and tries again, but he almost always fails. This dad is a clown. He is known for his jokes and laxity. He is fun, but not much help. Dads are important—everyone knows this—but these images betray our fathers and destroy their sense of worth.
There is a much more helpful and honoring picture of fathers. Recently, I have been reading Scott Keith’s Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace. Scott Keith explains why a dad has an important role in a household. Dads at their best picture God’s grace through showing love, kindness, and mercy. This image honors the task of fatherhood, giving it gospel significance and shape.
Dads are in the position to display God’s grace in the household, but like me and every father, dads need grace as much as anyone. Today is a great day to show our fathers that we love them even though they fail at times. Pop culture is hard on dads. Let us embrace them.