ne evening when I was about 12, my father and I clashed over something. I walked away feeling shame and guilt, and I went to bed vowing to try to behave better, to be more obedient, to somehow make myself more acceptable to my dad. I can’t recall the details of what caused our conflict that evening, but what happened next is still vivid in my mind 50 years later.
I dreamed I was making myself a sandwich in the kitchen when a luminous angel suddenly appeared and started telling me about how wonderful and glorious heaven is. I listened for a while, then said matter-of-factly, “I’m going there”— meaning, of course, at the end of my life.
The angel’s reply stunned me. “How do you know?”
How do I know? What kind of question is that?
“Well, uh, I’ve tried to be a good kid,” I stammered. “I’ve tried to do what my parents say. I’ve tried to behave. I’ve been to church.”
Said the angel, “That doesn’t matter.”
Now I was staggered. How could it not matter — all my efforts to be compliant, to be dutiful, to live up to the demands of my parents and teachers? Panic rose in me. Words wouldn’t come out of my mouth.
The angel let me stew for a few moments. Then he said, “Someday you’ll understand.” Instantly, he was gone — and I woke up in a sweat. It’s the only dream I remember from my childhood. Periodically through the years it would come to mind, and yet I would always shake it off. It was just a dream.
As I got older, I found myself getting more confused about spiritual matters. When I became a teenager, my parents insisted that I attend confirmation classes at the church. “But I’m not sure I even believe that stuff,” I told my dad.
His response was stern: “Go. You can ask questions there.”
The classes were built around rote memorization of the catechism; questions were only reluctantly tolerated and dealt with in a perfunctory way. I actually emerged with more doubts than when I started. I endured the process because, when I was finally confirmed, the decision about whether to continue going to church would be mine—and I knew what the answer would be.
At the time I was oblivious to the fact that a young person’s relationship with his father can greatly color his attitude toward God. I wasn’t aware that many well-known atheists through history—including Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Voltaire, H. G. Wells, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and others—had felt abandoned or deeply disappointed with their fathers, making it less likely they would want to know a heavenly Father.
My Father’s Death
I always wondered, Would I cry when my father died?
After the confrontation in which my dad declared he didn’t have enough love for me to fill his little finger, I stormed out of the house, determined never to return. I lived for two months in a small apartment nearly 40 miles away as I worked as a reporter for a small daily newspaper. The publisher agreed to hire me beyond the summer. My future seemed set.
I never heard from my father, but my mother kept urging me to return. She would call and write to tell me my dad certainly couldn’t have meant what he said. Finally, I did come home briefly, but my father and I never discussed the incident that prompted me to leave. I never broached it, and neither did he.
We maintained a civil but distant relationship through the years. He paid for my college tuition, for which I never thanked him. He never wrote, visited, or came to my graduation. When I got married after my sophomore year at the University of Missouri, my parents hosted the reception, but my dad and I never had a heart-to-heart talk.
Fresh from Missouri’s journalism school, I was hired as a general assignment reporter at the Chicago Tribune, later developing an interest in law. I took a leave of absence to study at Yale Law School, planning to return to the Tribune as legal editor.
A few days before my graduation, I settled into a cubicle in the law school’s gothic library and unfolded the New York Times for a leisurely morning of reading. I was already prepared for my final exams and was getting excited about returning to Chicago.
Then my friend Howard appeared. I folded the newspaper and greeted him; he stared at me as if he had something urgent to say but couldn’t find the right words.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, but somehow I knew. “My father died, right?”
He nodded, then led me to the privacy of a small alcove, where I sobbed inconsolably.
Alone With My Father
Before my father’s wake began at the funeral parlor, I asked for the room to be cleared. I stood in front of the open casket for the longest time. A lifetime of thoughts tumbled through my mind. My emotions churned. There was nothing to say, and yet there was everything to say.
So many times in my life, I had rationalized away my need to take responsibility for the role I had played in our relational breakdown. He’s the one who should be apologizing to me. Or pride got in my way. Why should I go crawling to him? Or sometimes I’d just put it off. I can always handle that later.
Finally, after a long period of silence, I managed to whisper the words I desperately wished I had spoken so many years earlier: “I’m sorry, Dad.”
Sorry for the ways I had rebelled against him, lied to him, and disrespected him over the years. Sorry for my ingratitude. Sorry for the bitterness and rancor I had allowed to poison my heart. For the first time, I admitted my own culpability in our relational strife.
Then came my last words to my father: “I forgive you.” As best I could, I extended him grace—too late for our relationship, but in so many ways liberating and life-changing for me.
Over time, I found that nothing heals like grace.
Soon business associates, neighbors, golfing buddies, and others arrived at the wake to offer condolences to my mother and other family members. I sat by myself in a folding chair off to the side. I was dealing with deep and conflicted emotions and didn’t feel like interacting with anyone.
One of my dad’s business associates walked over and sat down beside me. “Are you Lee?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said. We shook hands.
“Well, it’s great to finally meet you after hearing so much about you,” he said. “Your dad could never stop talking about you. He was so proud of you and excited about what you’re doing. Every time you’d have an article in the Tribune, he’d clip it and show it to everyone. When you went off to Yale — well, he was bursting with pride. He was always showing us pictures of your kids. He couldn’t stop bragging about you. It’s good to finally put a face with the name because we heard your name a lot from your dad. ‘Lee’s doing this.’ ‘Lee’s doing that.’ ‘Did you see Lee’s article on the front page?’ But then, I suppose you knew all that.”
My mind reeled as I tried to conceal my astonishment. I couldn’t help wondering what might have been different if those words had come to me directly from my dad.
When I became a follower of Jesus several years later, I saw the stark contrast. Here, there was no concealing how my Father felt about me. In direct declarations, the Bible shouted over and over: God’s love for me is unrestrained and unconditional; His grace is lavish and unending. I am His workmanship and His pride, and He couldn’t stand the thought of spending eternity without me in His family.
And as God’s grace utterly rocked my life — forgiving me, adopting me, and changing my life and my eternity — something else became clear: how tragic it would be to withhold the news of that grace from others. How could I revel in it myself but never pass it along to a world that is dying for it? As atheist Penn Jillette said, “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”