I have a problem when someone equates absence with love. I mistrust all forms of abandonment, so if someone seems to dignify any form of abandonment, I get upset.
That is why a few years ago, that I was bothered when one of my pastors promoted a book on parenting. The book was about a missionary who was also a mother. She and her husband moved her family to France. That is not so bad, but she also sent her 1st grade daughter to a French school. Her daughter, who could not speak French, was scared. As the story goes, she would hide in the closet hoping she could stay home. When her mother found her, the little daughter would cry, knowing her mother was going to abandon her to a foreign classroom.
I did not like the fact that my church was promoting such a “scandalous” form of parenting. And it happened to be that I was in counseling at the Barnabas center during this episode of anger. My counselor suggested that I was not considering the way God parents His children. His suggestion stuck. Somehow, I had never connected being a parent and loving my children, with how God loves his children. But when my counselor said that, I spent the next few weeks scrolling through my mind about all the people God ‘abandoned’ to very difficult situations. He allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery. He allowed Moses’ mother to be so desperate that she put Moses in the Nile River in a basket, with the hope that he would be “safe.” He allowed Esther to be taken into the harem of a foreign king. I could go on, but the point is that I realized that God is not opposed to allowing; even orchestrating particularly difficult suffering in the lives of those He dearly loves.
My counselor did not leave me there. There is another piece to this puzzle. He asked me: “Why is it Jim, that the Bible is so clear on love and suffering being intermingled, yet you are so disconnected from this reality in regards to parenting?” “Well, John”, I said, “I will have to think on that.”
I grew up in a family that said “I love you” all the time. Whenever you left Grandma’s it was always, “Bye, I love you.” When you went to bed same thing, “Goodnight, I love you.” It was so bad that sometimes when you got up to go to the bathroom someone would tell you they love you. But the thing is, it just wasn’t true.
I was about 6 years old, on the front porch with my Dad. I asked him to play catch. He said he didn’t feel like doing anything. But then some men drove up. They were drinking. He got in the car with them and left. This kind of thing happened a lot. But I remember this one. And I remember him telling me he “loved me” as he got in the car. I knew it wasn’t true. To this day I struggle to even say “goodbye”, much less “I love you.” I just leave, or if it’s a phone call, I just hang up. It’s a terrible overcompensation.
A few years after I had that epiphany on the porch with my Dad, my parents divorced. And a few years after that, my mom remarried a man who lived in North Carolina. We moved. The day we left South Georgia, we spent the morning with my Dad and some of his family. The thing is, he never talked to me that day. He stayed in his room. His sister, my Aunt Eunice, (she was a truck driver and not to be trifled with) made him come out. But he sat in a chair with his eyes closed. When it was time to go, I poked him on the shoulder to say goodbye. He acted like he was asleep. I shoved his shoulder and said, “Dad, we are leaving.” He did not open his eyes. This time he did not say goodbye. My Aunt Eunice walked outside with me and gave me a pep-talk about North Carolina. Then we left.
Well there is the answer to my counselor’s question. I have always associated emotional absence with selfishness, weakness and apathy. And I have the emotional data to prove it. And though I was right then, I am wrong now. I can now see that it takes a lot of strength, a lot of thought, and a lot of love to allow a little girl the crisis of attending a foreign classroom. With the help of the Barnabas Center, I can see the possibility that God loves – even in His absence. I am not as determined to see things through the lens of my skewed childhood, but rather through the lens of God’s love.
Jim Luke has a Masters of Divinity Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary and a BA in Religious Studies from UNC Charlotte. He has worked in the landscaping industry for the past 18 years and currently runs a business caring for peoples’ trees. He has been married to his wife Carrie for 16 years and lives in Charlotte with their two daughters.