This is my first Father’s Day without my dad, who passed away suddenly in January. Still processing his death nearly six months later, I find solace in Jesus’ promise, nestled in the Gospel of John, that God’s house has many rooms reserved for the saints who pass from this life. I get some peace (and a laugh) from imagining Dad hanging out with the saints, both noble and modest, in God’s grand hotel. Dad was an insatiable socializer, so he probably makes his way around most of the rooms of that divine establishment each day, sharing shards of gossip he picked up from the rooms he had been in before, and asking each of his hosts the same question he asked his children, siblings, or friends when he dropped by their houses in this life, usually unannounced: “You got any coffee?”
Just a few verses after John’s Gospel offers us this image of eternal fellowship in God’s abode, Jesus assures his disciples, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Like all the language we use to capture the essence of God, describing God as “Father” is an idea borrowed from human experience to try to describe the indescribable. And with due acknowledgment of the problems that “God the Father” language has created, I still think parental language discloses something important about the character of God. Like the ideal parent, God possesses undying and unconditional love for us, and is willing to do whatever it takes to be in relationship with us. And by referring to himself as God’s Son, Jesus’ parent-child metaphor tells us something essential about him too. As the ideal dutiful son, Christ is the reflection of the best in his Father’s character.
The metaphor of father and son captures important truths about God in Christ. But I think it also can tell us something wise about what it means for some of us to be fathers and sons. For when the Bible borrows the idea of fathers and sons to describe God in Christ, it transforms how we think about human fathers and sons. God becomes our ideal for those roles, the new standard for those relationships. The character of God redefines what it means to be a father. The devotion of Christ redefines what it means to be a son.
If Jesus is a model for the ideal son, then one thing his model suggests is that sons are supposed to be the best reflection of their fathers. Perhaps that is an important reminder, especially on Father’s Day, especially for the son of a father who can no longer be seen. Perhaps it is a reminder of my duty to ensure that people who never knew Bill Davis before he died nonetheless feel as if they know a little bit about him, because they have been around me.
I think that is already the case, even without a ton of effort on my part, a testament to how powerful an influence my dad has been on the person I have become. I have lived a very different life than my dad did; that was part of his intention for me, I think. Dad was a manual laborer his whole life, a coal miner until he was injured, and then a highly skilled amateur mechanic, electrician, welder, and builder all his life. By contrast, I have spent nearly my entire working life behind a desk, in a pulpit, or in a classroom. My dad had just a high school diploma, and by his own account, achieving that was not a foregone conclusion! I went to college, and I eventually earned a Ph.D. My dad lived in economically strained circumstances his entire life. I have a secure teaching position with tenure. Except for his time in the Army and a brief stint in Cleveland, my dad lived his whole life in his hometown, a tiny mining town in western Pennsylvania. I am not much more traveled, but I haven’t lived in my hometown for thirty years.
Dad and I lived very different lives, and yet, if you know me, you know my father—at least a bit. That’s how much he has shaped me as a person. I’m not nearly as talented at building or fixing things as he was, but I love doing it—and I hate hiring other people to do my chores—because of him. My love of the outdoors and manual labor, my strong preference for cheeseburgers over formal dining, the fact that I am infinitely more comfortable in my garage than at any college function, and my penchant for seeing class injustice everywhere all come from being his son. His blue-collar work ethic, his impressive problem-solving skills, his silly sense of humor, his habit of helping strangers, his militant insistence on holding doors for other people—I can see those reflected in me.
Some of the character I inherited from him makes me a stranger and pretender in the academic world I now occupy, but that just means the reflection of the father shines bright in the son. I used to try to mask it when it seemed professionally out of place. Now I celebrate that I am the token hillbilly on my school’s faculty. If you know me, dammit, you will know my father also.
On this Father’s Day, while I am missing my own dad, the Gospel offers comfort in the promise of a future together again, in the many rooms of God’s communion. In the meantime, though, it also gently reminds me that there is work still to be done to discharge the duties of a son to a father, namely, to live my life that others will know the best of my father. But that responsibility is also consolation. It reminds me that those we lose to death are never truly gone. As long as their lives and legacy are reflected in us, we remember, cherish, and honor them. Those who are no longer here with us nonetheless live on, in our love and in our character, even while we hope for a future in which we can share coffee and gossip with them again.