I remember feeling my heart sink when I saw him come through the door. My wife and I were at a Christmas gathering at our church. My brother spotted me and made his way to our table. He didn’t have to say anything. I knew what had happened by the look on his face. My fears were confirmed with just two words: “He’s gone.”
That December 19th, 20 years ago today, made it a Christmas season very different from any I had ever experienced.
Dad had gone into the hospital that year shortly after Thanksgiving. The doctors soon concluded that his heart would not withstand bypass surgery. There were no other options. The goal now was to build up his strength enough so he could come home for what was to be his last Christmas.
Just as Jan and I were about to leave for our Christmas party Dad called to see how things were going with us. That was Dad. Literally on his death bed but asking how we and the kids were doing. As the conversation was ending he asked, “When am I supposed to come home again?” Jan answered, “Christmas Eve.” Dad asked, “How many days is that?” Jan told him, “Five.”
Dad’s response was peculiar. He said matter-of-factly, “I’m not going to make that.” Jan assured him that if he wanted to the doctors would certainly allow him to come home early. She told him we could come right then to pick him up. Not surprisingly, he declined the offer. Dad never wanted people making a fuss over him. He responded, “No, we’ll see how tonight goes.”
A nurse later reported that, according to Dad’s roommate, he was “on the phone with someone, hung up, and died.” Turns out Dad was calling to say goodbye.
Most people who are close to me or have heard me speak or have read my writings know that due to my father’s drinking problem we a rather tumultuous relationship. Throughout my childhood I knew my dad as a verbally abusive alcoholic. The name of my ministry--Finding Father’s Love—suggests what my heart yearned for. The very title of my first book--When Father is a Bad Word—offers a glimpse into what my relationship with my father had been like.
Through the years I have shared many personal and painful stories about how my dad’s drinking affected me and my family. I have described my father to literally thousands of people with adjectives like violent, scary, mean, and shaming. One would think that news of his passing would trigger feelings of anger, hopelessness, and deep regret. Instead, I found myself overflowing with gratitude.
Many people know about the drinking problem my dad had when I was a boy. What they may not know is that my dad overcame his addiction when I was an adult. In what could rightfully be termed a miracle, my dad quit drinking. That in itself is not miraculous. People overcome addictive behaviors every day. It’s how my dad did it. You see, he did it with no visible help. He didn’t seek support from AA. He didn’t go to a counselor for direction. He didn’t rely on a sponsor for support. He just quit.
When our pastor got wind of the news he stopped by for a visit. “John,” he said, “I understand you quit drinking.”
“That’s right,” Dad said.
“I also understand that you’re not going anywhere for help.”
“That’s right,” Dad said.
“Well,” the pastor replied, “if you’re able to quit without help you’ll be the first person I’ve ever seen do it.”
Dad’s response took him aback. He grinned and said, “Then I’ll be the first.”
My dad never drank again. Turns out God’s help was the only help he needed. I don’t often speak of this because I don’t want to hold up Dad's story as the norm. For the vast majority of alcoholics, quitting drinking is just the first step. Then they must assemble and rely on a support network to help them maintain sobriety. For many, staying sober is an everyday, lifelong battle. My dad, virtually overnight, was transformed from the raging drunk I feared as a child to the kind and gentle man I was privileged to come to know and love as an adult.
There were many tears during that Christmas season 20 years ago. But intermingled with my tears of sadness were tears of profound gratitude.
While I struggled to sing Joy to the World on that Christmas after losing my dad, there were many other familiar carols that took on new meaning for me that year. Some still bring tears. But there are no longer tears of sadness. Only tears of gratitude.
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
There are three rules in dysfunctional family systems:
1. Don’t talk.
2. Don’t trust.
3. Don’t feel.
We learn at an early age not to talk about family problems. We keep them to ourselves either because we are embarrassed about what’s going on or because we’re convinced no one could possibly relate. So we stuff our family stuff.
We learn not to trust others. Children are, by nature, very trusting. Not trusting is a learned behavior. When children are unable to trust you can be sure it is because their trust has been violated by someone close to them.
When children find they can’t talk freely about what is going on in their life and when they are distrusting of those around them they tend to shut down emotionally. They “turn off” feelings like anger, fear, or sadness because they have nowhere to go with them anyway.
Adhering to these three rules as children makes sense. Kids somehow believe that by not talking, not trusting, and not feeling, their pain will be alleviated. But continuing to keep to these rules as adults can have serious consequences. Following these rules as grown-ups does not protect us from pain. It prevents us from wholeness.
The first step in successfully putting our past behind us is to break the rules.
We must talk about the things that caused and, more than likely, continue to cause so much pain. We must bring to the surface those things we didn’t or weren’t allowed to talk about. Our dark family secrets must be brought into the light if we are ever to strip them of their power. We can’t ignore them. We can’t go around them. We must talk through them.
The key to breaking the don’t talk rule is to first break the don’t trust rule. We must find safe people we can talk to. People who have our best interests in mind. People we can be comfortable confiding in. People who won’t judge us. People who accept us–even in our brokenness. As we seek to recover from a painful past we must assemble a support base of trust-worthy people and lean on them often. Yes, this involves risk. But it is a risk worth taking. Trust is the single most important element to a healthy relationship. So find a counselor. Confide in a friend. Join a support group. Trust does not come easy. Truth is, trusting others with things we’ve kept secret our whole lives can be downright terrifying. But learning to trust is crucial to our emotional, spiritual, and relational well-being.
And, finally, we must learn how to feel. When we’ve found people we can trust, when we give ourselves permission to speak of things we may have never talked about before, we must then deal openly and honestly with any and all feelings that may pop to the surface. We must identify and process the feelings we have spent a lifetime trying to suppress. Author Gita Bellin writes, “The fastest way to freedom is to feel your feelings.” We must actually feel what we feel and feel those feelings all the way through before we can finally release them. That is the only way the pain of our past will no longer pervade our present.
Does the pain and trauma of a difficult childhood still hang like a dark cloud over your adult life? Maybe it’s time to break the rules.
The story is told of a conference speaker who regularly asks his audiences to raise their hands if they thought they could go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about or to another person. He implores them to be honest. Without exception, only a handful of people raise their hands. On several occasions people have actually shouted out, “No!”
Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal said, "If you cannot go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go 24 hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go 24 hours without saying unkind words to or about others, then you have lost control of your tongue.”
God says it clearly: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful or building others up according to their needs that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV)
We all need the encouragement and support that comes from words that are kind and affirming. Every one of us has that need. But the need is even greater for those who didn't hear such words growing up.
Kind words build others up. Unkind words tear them down. If you can't say anything nice about someone you're not looking deep enough. Build them up with your words according to their needs. It will benefit them. And it will benefit you.
I'm just going to come right out and say it. I think sex is one of God's greatest ideas. On my list of all-time favorite activities, having sex is number one by such a wide margin that you'd scroll down quite a ways to find the runners-up: watching baseball, eating pizza, and going to Disney World. I am deeply grateful to God for such a special and spectacular gift to humankind. And I am saddened that so many people don't experience it to the full as God intended.
A word that is often associated with sex is needs. Many of us are all about getting our sexual needs met. But instead of focusing on our personal needs when it comes to sex, I would like to offer four general needs surrounding this vitally important topic.
1. We need to talk about it.
Sex was designed by God. It is a vital part of Creation. None of us would be here without it. So why do so many of us, especially those in Christian circles, have such a difficult time talking about it?
And why is it that when sex is talked about in the church it is almost always spoken of in negative terms? Adultery. Lust. Debauchery. Fornication. Coveting your neighbor's wife. Admonitions are sternly given from pulpits across the country that sex is, indeed, a dangerous thing. We are warned that, if we're not careful, our sexual activity could lead to unfaithfulness, unplanned pregnancy, blindness, and the falling off of body parts.
Di you even know that there is actually an entire book of the Bible devoted to the incredible pleasures and raw wonder of sex? Sadly, many believers aren't even aware of that. Because most preachers won't touch it with a ten-foot pole. Solomon's song has been censored by many a church board for inappropriate sexual content. Makes one question the validity of Timothy's statement that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction.
Dr. Kevin Leman is a Christian psychologist who bravely has gone where not many Christian leaders have gone before. In his book, Sheet Music, Leman broaches the subject of sex with refreshing, albeit rarely seen candor. He writes about the sheer fun of marital sex, addressing taboo subjects like oral sex, sex toys, and sex positions. Some readers may be shocked to learn that just because you're a Christian you don't have to do it in the missionary position.
For many in the church, talking about sex is forbidden (verboden, for my Dutch friends) because there is shame attached to it. To find the origin of this unfortunate connection between sex and shame one must go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Soon after God created the first couple, Eve sinned by eating the fruit God specifically told her not to eat. (I contend that Adam should be exonerated because Eve was naked when she invited him to have a taste.)
The Bible tells us that then, in an effort to hide from God, they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves. And, because they covered their naughty bits, the logical conclusion of many a biblical commentator is that sex is to be forever associated with shame.
The reality is, eating the forbidden fruit had nothing to do with sex. The "nakedness" Adam and Eve tried to cover was their open exposure to an all-seeing, all-knowing God. They were ashamed because they were in the wrong, not because they were in the raw.
Sex, as God designed it, is never to be disdained. We should never feel ashamed to talk about such a common and important part of our humanness.
2. We need to understand its purpose.
A primary reason God invented sex was to populate the earth. "Be fruitful and multiply" was God's command to Adam and Eve. They had to have sex to have children. But it certainly wasn't a chore. I can't imagine that Adam wrote Eve at the top of his "To Do" list, if you'll pardon the pun.
Sex was also designed by God to feel really, really, really, really good. It is meant to be pleasurable, even enjoyable. It is a wonderful, phenomenal gift given by our Creator to deepen intimacy between a husband and wife. It is God's intent that the spiritual bonds of marriage be enhanced and strengthened by the physical act of sex.
3. We need to identify and overcome obstacles.
As I have worked with people in my ministry who are struggling with relational issues, I am genuinely saddened by the number of hurting souls who have confided in me that they are living in a sexless marriage. It is not uncommon--even for people who have been married for a relatively short period of time--to confess that they hadn't had sex in months, sometimes years.
In my experience, sex is rarely the cause of marital trouble. It's a barometer. A lack of intimacy between husband and wife usually indicates more serious issues beneath the surface.
In Sheet Music, Dr. Leman identifies the greatest enemy of sex for most men as the lack of imagination on the part of their wives. The killer of sex drive for most women, Leman writes, is exhaustion.
These are not insurmountable barriers. They are often easily taken down by simple communication.
Men, if you want your sexual needs met you must meet your wife's emotional needs. Seek ways to relieve her exhaustion. Give her a break from the kids once in a while. Take her on dates. Do things for her around the house before she asks you to do them. There is truth in Leman's statement that "sex begins in the kitchen." If you actively look for ways to make life easier for your wife you may discover that sex can also end in the kitchen.
Another common obstacle to sex is a distorted perception of sex. I once counseled a woman who shared that she grew up in a home where sex was never discussed. There was no noticeable affection between her parents. They never gave her "the talk" when she reached puberty. She wasn't really clear about when she graduated from a girl to a woman.
Having been raised in a rigid Christian environment, she abstained from premarital sex. Not because she was committed to honoring a loving God with her purity. But because she was terrified of disobeying an angry God with her sinfulness.
The day before her wedding her mother offered her this nugget of "wisdom:" Sex is something you need to do for your husband. Give it to him and he'll keep coming home at night.
It is impossible to experience sex as beautiful, pleasurable, and a gift from God when your concept of sex is so distorted that you don't even know it's possible for a woman to experience an orgasm.
There are many different issues that threaten to snuff out sexual drive. Husbands and wives owe it to each other, to themselves, and to God, to identify and work through those issues.
4. We need to enjoy it to the full.
An intimate relationship, by definition, is a relationship marked by intimacy, or closeness. Intimacy relates to one's deepest nature. It is love that is intensely personal, and completely uninhibited. By design, sex between a husband and wife is to reflect the intimacy of their relationship.
To be full-filling, in the true sense of the word, sex must engage our entire being. In God's plan, sex was never meant to be casual. Casual sex is void of intimacy; it is merely a physical encounter. God-ordained sex is the mystical union of body, mind, and soul. It is two becoming one.
A fulfilling sex life takes work. But, considering how much awe, wonder, and sheer pleasure the Creator put into it, it is too important to not put forth maximum effort.
"I'm waiting on God." I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say that. I've said it myself. We often find ourselves at crossroads on this journey called life. Times when we are faced with having to make decisions that will alter our course. So we seek clear direction from God.
We bring our dilemmas to God and we wait. We ask him for clarity in our circumstances and we wait. We beg Him to spell it out and tell us exactly what we should do and we wait. Instead of taking steps to resolve our situations we wait.
I have been in many a dilemma in which I stopped in my tracks and pleaded for divine intervention; asking for and waiting for God to make His will crystal clear. Then one day it dawned on me. What if all this time I spent waiting on God, God was waiting on me?
It's imperative that we seek God's guidance when making important life decisions. But just how often-- even with the heroes of the Bible--have those who sought clear direction been handed a detailed road map from God? How often have those standing at the fork in the road been spoon-fed by God detailed directions as to what they should do, how they should do it, and what the outcome would be? He simply wants us to trust Him. The first step is up to us.
Perhaps we need to go until God says no. Perhaps we just need to do what we already know in our hearts is the right thing to do. Perhaps we simply need to move forward and trust that God will make it clear if we're not on the right path. Trust is not passive. It is active. We cannot ask God to guide our steps if we're not willing to move our feet.
God's Word tells us that He will be our Guide in life. That He will show us the way. That He is not only with us in our journey, He is In us. He can be trusted. So stop waiting and start moving.
(excerpt from When Father is a Bad Word, by Dan Kuiper)
One day a prisoner at a penitentiary asked a Catholic nun who served as the prison chaplain to buy a Mother’s Day card for him to send to him mother. She did and, as the prisoner walked back to his cell with the card, the other prisoners asked where he got it. Soon there was a long line of prisoners outside the nun’s office, waiting to ask her to buy a card for them to send to their moms.
The chaplain called Hallmark Cards and explained what had happened. Hallmark agreed to send three cases of discontinued Mother’s Day cards to the prison. Every card in those three boxes was mailed out of that prison with an appreciative inmate’s signature.
Noticing that Father’s Day was approaching the nun contacted Hallmark once again to ask if they would be so generous as to send some Father’s Day cards as well. Again, Hallmark shipped three cases of cards to the prison. All three boxes remain unopened. Not one prisoner thought enough of his dad to send him a card that cost him nothing.
The effects of father wounds are far-reaching. We often don't connect the dots that the issues we struggle with in our personal lives, in our marriages, and in our society can often be traced to strained, abusive, or non-existent relationships we have or had with our fathers.
Here are some of the more common childhood wounds that continue to fester in our adult lives if we don't get help:
Ask yourself how these childhood characteristics might continue to play out in your adult life. The truth is we don't simply outgrow these destructive traits. We must find healing from our childhood wounds or they will seep into our adult relationships. You need not let them fester. Find a counselor. A pastor. A support group. There are plenty of safe places you can go where you can learn how to talk, to trust, and to feel. Healing can be found. Find it. You owe it to the people you love. You owe it to yourself.
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