The lights of Las Vegas were especially bright and colorful that week, it was Christmas. Everywhere you looked there were reminders that the season was upon us. I was happy to be there working and happy to see my dad.
Dad left our family when I was 13. He was an alcoholic and the summer of my 13th year he chose rum over his family. Mom had all she could take and packed my little brother and two little sisters into the car and moved over 1000 miles away. My older brother got a job. I took out onto the streets.
For years I had resentments against my dad. How could a man ever choose booze over his family? Where was he when I needed his help? Can I expect anything from him at all, ever? I wandered the streets with these questions and anger rolling about in my head.
There were times I attempted to reconcile with him. I tried to rescue him once when I was a young man. I set him up in a place to live, gave him money, offered anything I could. None of it worked. I invested my heart over and over again to just to be let down. The longing for a father’s love is a powerful thing. Unanswered questions about life and broken feelings can wreck a boy, they can wreck a man.
As I began to work my way through 12-step programs and sobriety in my own life things began to be revealed. I began to understand the disease and spiritual warfare that is addiction. It was a battle to accept the reality of my life and move forward. To forgive my dad and give my kids a different fatherly legacy had to override lots of hurts of my past.
It was my older brother who finally gave me the words I needed to understand how to live with my dad if I chose to have him in my life. “You have to either accept who he is and choose to have a relationship with him, as he is, or you can live with expectations that will never be met and your relationship will always be what it is now. You get to choose.” It was a simple yet profound statement that began a journey of healing and understanding I longed for. It was by no means perfect. My dad was my dad. I remember when I heard Jesus tell me it was my responsibility to share the gospel with him. I was a new believer and God presented the opportunity. I was hurt when he dismissed my fumbled words. It was a dear friend who consoled me with, “God calls us to share the gospel. We are not responsible for them to accept it. You did what He called you to do.”
Eventually dad found sobriety and built a comfortable little life in Las Vegas. He was a counselor at Salvation Army and helped a lot of men with their sobriety. I had an event I was covering in Las Vegas and I asked if I could stay with him and visit while I was there. He agreed. We both had to work and in my dads fashion he didn’t clear his calendar for when I was there.
Christmas was everywhere, well everywhere except his little apartment. One morning I was there, he was at work and I was writing. God prompted me to go to the store and buy everything to decorate a corner of his little apartment for Christmas. I got a small artificial tree, lights, decorations, a few small gifts and a nice smelling candle. That afternoon I left for my event and did not return until late into the night. When I woke up my dad had already left for work. There next to me was a letter he wrote to me.
Dads handwriting was impeccable. Beautiful. In the letter he told me how much he was surprised when he got home to the decorations. He told me how much it meant to him and how proud of me he was. I cried. I am on the edge of tears as I write this. Healing the heart of a little boy, a man, comes in bits and pieces like this.
One of the gifts I had for him wrapped under that little tree was a Dad’s Journal. It had all kinds of questions about his childhood, how he grew up, his family life. I knew that it was a big ask that he would fill it out. I knew to be careful with expectations from him. But it was God who prompted the gift. It was God who brought up the whole Christmas in his apartment idea.
It was a year later I received a package from Las Vegas. It was from the Salvation Army, from my dad. I had no idea what he could possibly be sending me. A Christmas present would be totally unexpected and not like him. To my surprise it was his Dad’s Journal, filled out completely. I sat in awe. Later that night I wept as I read it. I saw him trying to express his heart through the answers. He was raised in a hard place and showing his feelings made him vulnerable. It was a stretch to allow anyone too close. But this, this was a big effort to allow one of his kids in. He knew he had hurt us, he knew what he did had to have crushed his kids. But in his way I knew this was his trying to talk with us about it. Trying to make amends.
Yesterday my oldest son sent me an early morning picture from the deer stand. It wasn’t the buck he has been chasing. In his lap was his copy of my dad’s Dad Journal. He was reading it, again. He asked me a few questions. I was drawn into a tender place when I answered. He replied back, “I love you dad.”
My kids have been given a different life story than I was. I am not complaining or living in regrets or anger anymore. God protected me and used all those hurts for His good. I do have some of my dad’s character traits that need work. I also have his receding hairline, can’t fix that. On certain days when I look in a mirror I can see him. I remember the camping and building things and his laugh. I remember him standing on the porch of my brother’s cabin as I walked off the mountain with my first and only bull elk. But I don’t remember the bad anymore. I chose not to, maybe it has been healed, but it serves me no purpose to live in the old.
Jesus blessed me with a new life, a new identity when I asked Him into my heart. I want that to be where I go in my thoughts of the past.
As we move forward into the Christmas season I want to challenge you to ask Jesus what there is you might say to your parents, family. Even if they have passed what is it? Can you forgive the hurts? Can you love them the way they are, accept them with all their brokenness?
I am not a big fan of Las Vegas but I love Christmas. Every year we have an “Elf” party at our house fashioned after the Will Farrell movie Elf. Yes, it includes the eating spaghetti with maple syrup, candy and chocolate. We wear elf and Christmas costumes. We decorate the house with paper chains and snowflakes. Jesus has changed our family legacy in an amazing and joyful way.
Some may think it is crazy and dumb, so be it. But it will be in my Dad journal with pictures I leave behind and my kids will laugh at how embarrassed they were. “Santa, I know him,” will ring out from heaven and I will be smiling.