Buttons & Macaroni
This sermon is not about lifting before you the image of perfect fatherhood. This sermon is about imperfect Dads: the guys who aren’t saints, who are no longer ‘Super Dads’ to their grown children, the guys who have made the mistakes, the guys who may have been well intentioned but, for some reason, just don’t end up getting that Dad of the year award. It is a sermon about the dads who were too quiet, the dads who were too authoritative and distant, the dads who were absent physically or emotionally. It is a sermon for dads who, out of their own addictions, their own pain, their own emptiness, the dad’s who ended up hurting the ones they love. That’s is who this sermon is for.
Why? Because our Biblical stories are not fables, tales told of those perfect, faithful people whose ideals we should live up to. The Bible is, however, full of tales of people who have fallen from grace, whose lives God has redeemed. Theme overarching theme of the Bible is always about redemption.
Meet Steven Reid. Steven had spent most of his early life in and out of prison. Drug addiction, and the consequent robberies he committed to support his habit. But after thirteen years of being out of prison, of leading a publicly redeemed life, after thirteen years of freedom, Steven writes, “I got myself wired, robbed a bank, shot at a policeman, held two people hostage. Why? “Because the people I owed $90,000 and they were coming to collect tomorrow and these were the kind of people you didn’t disappoint.”
I’m forty-nine years old, married to one of the most interesting and beautiful women on the planet, and parent to two incredible pieces of magic Sophie, who is ten, and Charlotte, seventeen.” Stephen, bank robber turned author, wrote a book called, A Crowbar and the Buddhist Garden. The chapter he wrote, entitled, Without My Daughter, is our sermon for today. Within these words lies the fears and hopes of every father.
As my daughter dives deeper into the pool of her teenage years, I often kid her that I must be the envy of other fathers. I am in prison and the razor wire keeps me safe. Under the watchful eyes of the visiting room guards, our black humour is what we share best.
I have not been in the natural presence of my daughter since she was ten years old. We talk on the phone, write letters; our time in visits seems all too fleeting, never long enough to get down to the ground of what really hurts her out there in the real world. Sitting at right angles under the revolving cameras is too strained and artificial a setting to untangle the confusion and conflicts. We have our occasional heart to heart but mostly we make small talk, an unacknowledged pact not to disturb much below the surface.
Sophie knows, with the clarity of a fourteen-year-old, that I can only go to those places where she lives in the abstract. I see how fiercely she wants to shield me from her burdens: it is her way of loving me now, protecting me as if I were the child.
I was in the delivery room when she emerged into this world, saw how wide her liquid eyes opened for the first time. That morning, an unbreakable filament of love connected us forever.
In the ensuing months, I warmed her formula and mashed her carrots. I changed a thousand nappies. I watched her learn to crawl, then stand for the first time. I heard the first words she ever uttered: “More!” I pushed her in strollers, dozed with her glued to my chest and buckled her into car seats to take her everywhere I went. I read Goodnight Moon until she knew where to find the mouse on every page. We teeter-tottered in every park. We survived stages where she wouldn’t be caught wearing clothes in public, where it was lullabies on demand until I fell into a dreamy sleep beside her, and her obsession with hog-tying nanny to the patio chairs.
Ever since I can remember, Sophie has made me cards for Father’s Day. She decorated them with buttons, tiny seashells, or bits of macaroni painted in splashy colours. Now she is older, she has dispensed with the decorations, but the cards haven’t stopped and the messages inside haven’t changed. We remain bound to one another in as primal a way as any parent and child, by our experiences, our love and our DNA.
In 1999, the dragon that has haunted me all of my life reared its fearsome head again. Addiction. I harbour no romantic notions of what took place, only the sad admission that I robbed a bank and shot at a motorcycle cop, barely missing a woman bystander. Of all the people harmed that day, Sophie remains my most enduring reminder of an innocent victim.
The day after my arrest, my wife found Sophie in her room absorbed in crafting a Father’s Day card, as if by this deliberate act, she could bring everything back to the way it had been. But before she finished, she looked up at her mother and cried, “He is not coming home, is he?” Then threw herself on the bed and sobbed her grief away.
Early in my bit, I pondered the idea of taking myself off the count. Suicide. A psychiatrist, one for whom I had a great deal of respect, was conducting a pre-trial assessment, and saw through to my private thoughts. “This isn’t about you anymore,” he told me. “You’ve had your life and you are going to prison for a long time. This is about a ten-year-old girl. You have to show her that no matter how badly you screw up your life, you can survive, maybe even find redemption. That is the one gift you have left to give.”
I began to lay a lot of hard bricks to rise out of my addiction, up from that pit where only self matters. I started to reclaim the heart-place of a parent, re-entered the realm of selflessness in small and ordinary ways.
There are days when the memory of those little buttons and macaroni cards fill me with a terrible caring and I am overwhelmed with a numbing regret for it all. Then my name is called for a visit. Though Sophie has learned to live with the fact that her life has been diminished in some ways, her love is relentless: it jumps over the razor wire. I go back to my cell, lifted by the knowledge that everything she needs is already inside of her.”
Stephen died last Wednesday at the age of 68.
Maybe that is why a father whose son acted like an ungrateful, spoiled brat, whose son, because of the chip on his shoulder, could not see the privilege with which he was raised, whose son, always felt he was just the ‘little brother,” whose son, who wanted to show everyone else just how he could stand up on his own in the world, whose son uttered death threats against him, whose son forced him to liquidate a third of his holdings and pay him off, whose son, then proceeded to prance through the community, showing the world what a big man he was; maybe that is why this father, beaten, wounded and worried, sprang to his feet, tore the hinges off the door, and even in his old age, leapt the garden gate like a gazelle, and grasped his son in an iron clad hug, afraid to let go and lose him again.
“Father, I have sinned…” “Shh…I don’t want to hear any more about it. Here, bring him a robe and shoes for his feet, and a ring for his finger. For my son once was lost, but now he is found.” Now he is found. Redemption.
I wonder if that father had been sitting by the lamplight through those long, lonely nights, fingering through his button and macaroni cards? I wonder if he spent those nights praying, healing his wounded heart, digging himself out of that place where it was only self that mattered, reclaiming the heart-place of a parent, re-entering the realm of selflessness. In those long and empty nights of buttons and macaroni was his prayer that they remained, bound to one another in some primal way as only a parent and child can, by their experience together, their love and their DNA?
As I said previously, I have yet to meet a saint. No matter how much we try as parents, we are going to mess things up at some point for we all carry our own wounds into the job of parenthood. But if we can hold on to that primal connection given to us through the buttons and macaroni, the place inside each parent and child that allows them to lay up a lot of hard bricks, and re-claim the heart place where the realm of selflessness is expressed in small and ordinary ways; then there is redemption. That primal connection that connects, forgives, graces and redeems and continues to do so throughout our relationship with our children for the rest of our lives.
Redemption. The crafting of a Father’s Day card may not bring everything back to the way it had been, but it reminds us of the desire to love through it all.