We all too often expect out of our fathers what only God can provide.

I love my Dad who left for heaven the fall after our son David died in 2014. I could tell it pained Dad as he watched us do our best to minister to David through his year-long struggle with leukemia. Dad had been confined to his chair and bed in a nursing home for some time and I could not spend as much time with him as I should have. David serenaded his Grandpa for his 90th birthday (pictured at right). Who would have thought that two years later, David would be gone at 36?

Chad Billman’s article “This Father’s Day” flooded my mind and heart with memories of my Dad and my sons. My Dad was a Chief Warrant Officer in the Air Force. When he spoke, you listened. He was a great no-nonsense provider and I watched him grow spiritually as I grew older, largely due to the influence of my incredible German mother who loved God, taught the Bible to others and served others intensely. He gave me great advice and discipline, and modeled being a man of character and generosity.

But I wasn’t sure my Dad loved me. We were very different and he often reacted to my adventurous side with, “Why in the world would you want to do that?” When I was named to Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities as a junior, his comment was, “Wow, you made it into Who’s That?” Both of my parents, as products of the Depression and WWII, excelled at their goal to see that I didn’t “get the big head” with any accomplishment. In my mid 20’s, when we had two young babies, I asked my Mom if my Dad liked me. Incredulous, Mom said, “What do you mean? He adores you and is so proud of you, he thinks you hung the moon!” I heard it, but I couldn’t feel it. Then she shared more with me some tragic turns in his life I had never known: losing the brother closest to him when he was young, his best friend committing suicide when they were still teenagers in the military, and so on. Then I remembered some of his famous “joking” statements, like, “Don’t get too close to people and they can’t hurt you.” Suddenly my Dad became more of a person to understand and in need of compassion.

About that same time, I became a true disciple of Jesus. I had been raised to know the Scriptures very well. I had many great Sunday school teachers, preachers and elder influences, and some not so great. When we lived in Germany during my high school years, I witnessed missionaries in Europe who were sincere and those who were just enjoying Europe. My college years at Harding College, a small Christian school, were similar. The incredible spiritually connected and the focused few who were serious about personally reaching others. The teachers and administrators who were there to serve and those who were there for the job. I was fortunate to be influenced and encouraged by some remarkable people. But a few years later, I found myself to be a frustrated minister for a small growing church, who was a miserable husband and who blamed all our problems on his wife. When I was confronted by true disciples, who were making disciples, suddenly scales fell from my eyes and I saw that the preacher of our church was not even a totally committed follower of Jesus. No wonder I was not happy, looking for a way to become a stock broker and to fix my wife.

In all that time with all of that great influence and Bible teaching, I had never personally confronted, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” – Luke 9:23-25.

That decision to lose myself and take up my cross daily led to daily challenges and daily resurrections! Suddenly, I viewed everyone differently. God the Father no longer was trying to catch me in what I was doing wrong and correcting me every time I did something right. I now understood him as the Father who really gave his only Son to die, so I could live in real relationship to him, his Son and his Spirit — not just so I could be religious or doctrinally correct. I now saw my wife differently; she was my partner as we completed each other learning love, truth and grace. I now saw my parents differently. I had to change how I related to them. I was free of having to expect my Dad to be my heavenly Father, and could now love him as a man who had given his best with his own frailties and baggage.

I immediately knew I had to do one thing I had never done in my life. I had to hug my Dad — the Chief Warrant Officer. I prayed about it. I agonized with Marcia on how, when and where. Finally, we came up with a plan. I can still see this vividly in my mind’s eye with all the attending emotions. My parents joined us at an evangelism seminar. We were coming down from that spiritual mountaintop experience to spend the night in my parents’ home. Meticulously prepared, I would give my Dad my first real hug when we said goodnight. Fear, anxiety, dread, excitement, warmth, and conviction all swirled in my heart. The moment arrived and like an awkward teenager I hugged him. And he hugged me back.

It would take awhile later for me to consistently say “I love you.” In his 80’s, he regularly returned the phrase. A few years after that first hug, my parents sold everything and moved to Chicago to be with us and with a church committed to discipleship. My Dad was baptized there and he changed. He grew more loving and caring. When we were called to move to Boston and Los Angeles, my parents made the Chicago Church of Christ their family, and served all of their adopted children, grandchildren and so many others. We learned much from them. By God’s grace we were able to move back to Chicago and serve them through the last years of their lives. It was at this time he told me he was proud of me. I thank God often for being the Father who helps me continually feel my father’s hug.

I am far from being a perfect dad. Just talk to my wife and kids. Because of God, I have made efforts to hug my kids and tell them I love them and am proud of them. I stand amazed at how good a dad Michael is in connecting with his children. No one else can fill that role on earth. God fills that need for everyone who seeks it regardless of their dad’s abilities. I still give virtual hugs and love to David. I try to do this often with Christie and Michael. With Mike’s recent mini-stroke, we received a sudden reminder to not waste a moment or an interaction.

How it changes our lives when we really hear, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”