A Tale of Two Fathers

Reading Time: 5 mins

In an autobiographical telling, Gretchen Ronnevik shares the fate of two different fathers and the hope she has in Christ.

Four years ago I got the call that my father was dying. I flew down to California where he lay in a hospital bed. This man who was so large in my mind was so thin and small. It has been 17 years since the last time I had seen him—which was my wedding day. It was his choice to never meet my kids. It’s hard to explain why, but I have my theories. Maybe he was intimidated by my husband. More likely he was afraid of hurting my kids how he had hurt me. When you’re an alcoholic who has a lifetime of relapses, you start distancing yourself to protect your loved ones from the darkness of it.

I wrote an article back then about saying my final goodbye to him [1]. I didn’t write any follow up because even though the doctors said he had a month, maybe 6, he’s lived 4 more years. There were months in there when I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. He was back in the hospital just recently, the doctors said he had maybe another week—maybe 4 weeks. I’m beginning to think the doctors are just guessing, because it’s been a month.

But we do think this is the end…again…maybe. My oldest brother is working hard to make sure our dad is getting dignity and comfort at the end. The rest of us siblings basically decided not to fly in and say goodbye…again. It was too hard. We can’t pick the scab again. How do you say goodbye to someone who hurt you so deeply? Doing it once was hard enough. Fortunately, we all get it, and spread grace to each other as thick as we can. There is no pressure to perform for him. He was a great dad when he was sober, and he was not sober nearly enough. Some of my siblings have no memories of him sober.

Recently at the HWSS conference in San Diego, I was speaking about the Baptized Imagination, knowing that perhaps I’d get the phone call he had finally gone at any moment. But the call never came and he lives on for now. We don’t know the day or the hour. Death is funny that way.

Everyone has opinions on alcoholism and the cause of it. Like many things, there is genetics, there is trauma, there is choice. Reaching for hope feels complicated. We all want healing for him, whatever that means. From what I have seen, the alcoholism was a symptom, not the problem. The bigger problem was deep, deep trauma. After years of prayer, I see him differently. When I look at him now, I see the little seven-year old boy who ran to the doghouse when his mother died, holding the dog tight as his world fell apart. And no one came looking for him for three days. I think of the beatings he took from his dad. I think of him trying to protect his sisters. And I’m filled with compassion now instead of anger. That change didn’t come easily for me. Some wounds only heal in death and resurrection.

I think we often think of sin as something you do, not something that you are caught in, like a trap. And it’s both. Something you are born into, and can’t escape on your own. Dad was caught in sin. It strangled him his whole life.

I think we often think of sin as something you do, not something that you are caught in, like a trap. And it’s both

Earlier this year, my husband’s father died. My husband and his dad worked together on our farm. He was most literally a worker in the field. He was an elder in our church. He was a Gideon who handed out Bibles. He lived just down the road from us. He was involved in my children’s lives, and they all loved him dearly. He was Grandpa to 22 grandchildren (17 boys and 5 girls) he wrestled with them, and they all loved to test their strength against him. He read to them from Luke 2 every Christmas around the tree. In their eyes he was the biggest and strongest human they knew. When he died, rather unexpectedly, it rocked our world in ways I cannot begin to describe. This year we have been walking through all the stages of grief.

At his funeral, our pastor talked about the strength of my father-in-law’s hands. His big farm hands were a marvel. Anyone who ever shook his hand remembered them. He could crush a person with his strength if he chose to, but he used his hands for the service of others. Our pastor shared how it wasn’t the strength of his hands that assured his salvation, though, but the strength of Christ’s hands. He was in the hands of Jesus—and Jesus’ hands are strong enough.

I’ve wondered these last few weeks how odd it would be if both my husband and I lost our fathers in the same year. How odd that one was involved in every aspect of our lives, and one was not involved in any aspect of our lives. I wondered what kind of grief would hurt worse? Losing a father who was always there, or losing a father that was never there? Maybe it’s best not to compare grief. It all hurts.

When I visited my dad 4 years ago, I was obsessed with wondering where he was in his faith. He had been baptized in the Catholic church as an infant, and when he converted to Lutheranism, his father-in-law-pastor told him that a baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was valid. It’s the Triune name we are baptized into, not a church. When he left the church under discipline, and shook his fist at God, he still adopted the language of faith for my sake. He always talked to me about his relationship with the Lord. I never knew the truth of the state of his heart. Honestly, I don’t think he knew either. He so rarely had the works to back up his words.

God brought me peace about my dad’s faith when I realized I didn’t know the state of my dad’s heart, and that I didn’t need to know. God would do right by my dad—whatever that meant. I could trust God to handle the job of judging him rightly. That was too big of a burden for me to handle. God is good, and that’s enough.

But these last few weeks, as my dad is once again on my mind, as I’m waiting for a phone call again, and I continue to comfort my husband in the grief of the loss of his own father, I’m reminded of the parable of the workers in Matthew 20. As I pray, this story keeps circulating in my brain.

God would do right by my dad—whatever that meant

In this parable, the master of the field goes out and gets laborers. He hires some in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some in the evening. Then he pays them all the same. This parable always bothered me, as it doesn’t seem fair at all. But now it hits me differently. The words of the master of the vineyard cuts deeply into my heart. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (v.15)

Can it be that my father, with his shame that oppresses him and his weak prayers for mercy, and my husband’s father with his strength and good works for his neighbor, in their range of faith and works, both enter the kingdom as brothers?

If so, what a wonder that grace would be. I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.