When I was 9 years old Lizzie Hover’s dad died. He died in a head-on collision on a dusty desert road in the Sindh area of Pakistan. The night before he had been at my parents home with his lovely wife Carol. They had talked, laughed, and discussed furlough plans as both were heading to a home leave in their passport countries in the summer. My parents and the Hovers were good friends.
I heard the news along with twenty other little girls in a boarding school dormitory. The collective trauma was immense. If Lizzie Hover’s daddy could die, that meant our daddies could die. Suddenly we were no longer safe from death, we were vulnerable, our jugular veins exposed.
Ever since I can remember my father has been there for me. As the only girl in a house full of boys, I enjoyed a special place in his heart. Somehow I knew this without even being told. My father was this strong force against a world that could change in an instant, in an instant like the one that took Lizzy Hover’s father.
They say that your earliest connections with your father affect your view of God. As a little girl I viewed God as completely trustworthy, a strong force against a world that could change in an instant.
I never had a pastor growing up. Such is the life of a boarding school kid. You go to church during the year at boarding school where different faculty members serve up various denominational versions of theology each Sunday. During winter vacation I attended the local Pakistani church, always struggling yet hopeful, Miss Mall’s booming bass voice starting every 20 verse Punjabi song. During the summer we all attended Holy Trinity Church on Mall Road in Murree, a multi-cultural, multidimensional church that sprinkled one week and immersed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit the next week.
I rarely thought about growing up and having a pastor. That was for other kids and adults, not for those of us who didn’t know what the role meant. But during the rare occasions when I thought about pastors I assumed they would be like my father, trust worthy, wanting the best for me, willing to sacrifice and care, sometimes at great personal cost. I did (eventually) grow up and I grew into having an actual pastor. God in his gracious way allowed for my first experience with a pastor to be wonderful. It was an international church in Chicago and my pastor was Indian, his wife American. The connection was immediate on my part, and I willingly trusted this man. He was trust worthy.
But later in life I learned that pastors weren’t all like my father or Samuel Mall. I learned the hard way that you can share with a pastor but they may not be trust worthy, that you can pour out your heart and yet be met with stone cold, that you can offer up your hardest situations and not be comforted. I began to think of God as less like a father and more like a pastor. It was not a good change.
Because I began to see God as one who could be stone cold, as one who could not be trusted, as one who could not comfort me in my hardest situations. When you are hurt in this way, a part of your heart shrivels and dies to the point of needing life-giving resuscitation.
It is a mystery of how this resuscitation has happened through the Orthodox Church, but it has. There is no tangible explanation – perhaps my hard crust has softened, perhaps I’ve just grown weary of being wary. But through my journey and through the pastoral care of my priest I am learning more about the God that I used to know. The God who is always present and ever faithful, the God who meets me with compassion, comfort, and challenge; who takes my hardest situations and makes them a touch more bearable. The God who I saw my own father trust and love, bowed in adoration in the early morning hours in a Muslim country.
My father celebrated his birthday yesterday. My white-haired handsome father, who enjoys life in a way that many envy, is now 88. We talked right after he had reeled in a large fish while on a birthday fishing expedition with my brother. Each day that I know my father is still alive becomes more precious as I know his life on earth is limited. And today as I think about pastors, priests, and fathers I want to honor him. A man who has loved family, loved life, and most of all loved God. Happy Birthday Dad. I love you.