Sunday, July 6, 2014

My Father's Daughter

My father is one of the best men I know. He is kind, humble, positive, optimistic to a fault, and forgiving. His childhood was very difficult, growing up with a father who was gruff and cold, and a mother who was narcissistic and flighty. His mother left the family when my dad was ten years old, only to return months later to snatch his two older sisters from a street corner and disappear with them into the night. My dad records his feelings about that event in a life sketch he shared with me: ". . it was a miserable, lonely time for me. A lot of months passed before I saw Beverly and Lorene again. Us 4 kids were extremely close those first 10 years of my life, and for my 2 sisters to all of a sudden be gone, was like taking half my life away." My heart breaks for that ten-year-old boy, and at the same time bursts with gratitude that the boy grew up to become the loving, compassionate father I knew. How he came to be that man is a mystery to me, but I feel so very lucky to get to be his beloved daughter.

My dad calls me occasionally just to remind me that he loves me. I have known and felt that love my entire life, and have never, not even once, felt that love withheld from me. When my dad looks at me, I feel like I am somebody special, and indeed, I am. I am my father's daughter.

I know I've disappointed my dad, especially in the last few years. My dad is a devoted Mormon, and has never wavered in his testimony of the church, and the gospel. He still, knowing that I no longer believe in or practice religion, talks with me frequently about his experiences with prayer, and God, testifying to me of his belief in a divine Father who watches over us and takes care of us. He has never told me that he is disappointed in me, has never even intimated it, but has continued to share with me his deepest feelings about the meaning of life, and the importance of loving those closest to him. My dad is the epitome of a loving father.

I got lucky twice. I was born to a loving father, then I married a man who became a loving father. My husband, from the time our children were born, has never hesitated to express his love for them. One of my most tender memories is the day our oldest child was born. I looked over from the delivery bed to where Daron held tiny Erin in his arms, and witnessed the birth of a father. He looked her over from head to foot, and his gaze spoke volumes. He had fallen deeply, passionately, in love with this little girl. I had no clue in that moment how very deep that love would prove to be, but I felt the warmth of it from where I lay, and was profoundly grateful to feel its reflection.

The love born in that moment has never wavered, even though that child's life has not unfolded in the way her father envisioned it would. She grew up to become a beautiful young lady, who, at age 22, discovered that she was gay. Coming to that realization brought with it a variety of complications, and she has had to 'come out' many different times, to many different people. But the most difficult conversation of all, for her, was the one with her father. He was her first love, and she feared disappointing him, and possibly losing his love.

She agonized over this conversation in her mind, carefully rehearsing the words she would use, but could not overcome her fear at his reaction. I finally convinced her to get it over with, so the three of us sat down on a bright sunny Saturday morning, and she attempted to share her deepest secret with her father.

We sat on our couch, Erin between her father and me, with her back to her father, and the tears streamed down her face as she struggled to form the right words. Ultimately she failed, and I asked her if she'd like me to tell him. He sat behind her with a look of fear on his face, watching her back heave with sobs, wondering at the emotions running through her. I looked around her, and said, "Honey, your daughter is gay." At these words, a look of relief flooded his face, and he laughed and said, "Whew! I thought you were going to tell me she had wrecked my truck!" Then he gently took her in his arms, and he told her that there was absolutely nothing that she could say that would change how he felt about her. She would always be his little girl. And they both cried. Well, we all did. It was a beautiful moment, rivaling the moment they met in that delivery room so long ago. A father, tenderly holding his daughter, and loving her unconditionally.

This morning I received a newsletter from the church, thoughtfully left in my front door by a representative from the Relief Society. The topic was the divine mission of Jesus Christ: Advocate. It defined advocate as "one who pleads for another", going on to say that the Savior pleads for us, before our Father, for justice and mercy.

"Listen to [Jesus Christ] who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him- Saying: Father, behold the suffering and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life". (D&C 45:3-5).

Jesus Christ is described as our literal savior before our heavenly parent. His job is to intercede for us and plead for mercy with our father, our creator, as he, Jesus, is the only being beyond reproach. Jesus was our older brother, chosen as the firstborn of the father, the only one of all the children created by our Heavenly Parents who was perfect, and beyond sin. Because of our sinful natures, we were in need of an atonement, and Jesus was able to step up and fill that role. And because of that act, he is in the perfect position to intercede for us with our Father. This, in a nutshell, is Christian theology.

The journey out of Mormonism began with the acknowledgement that I did not believe that the church was True, with a capital T. I did not believe that it was the only way back to God, and I did not believe that its beginnings were divine in nature. I did not believe that in order to return to God, I would have to spend my life conforming to the principles of Mormonism. As I traveled further down the road of disbelief, I began to question the story that formed the roots of all Christianity. And I began to see that the roots of my own disbelief lay in my inability to believe in a Savior for mankind. 

The story, as I understood it, took on the dimensions of a horror tale, intended to frighten adherents into submission. Broken down to its simplest form, it is the tale of a father, who created a family of children who he considered to be flawed and imperfect. Too imperfect, as it turns out, to be allowed back into his presence. So he formed a plan to have his oldest child, the perfect firstborn, sacrificed by crucifixion, in order to make atonement for these imperfect beings, thus enabling them to once again enter his presence. And, as I understood it, this child, Jesus Christ, would suffer exceedingly for the sins of mankind, sort of a proxy suffering, that they, the children, would not have to suffer for their own sins. But only if they professed to believe in him as a savior and redeemer. And then obeyed his commandments, and followed him in word and deed. And then prayed in his name, the name of Jesus Christ, who would then petition our father, the father of us all, in order that he, our father, would hear us and extend his love to us. 

I remember many, many occasions sitting through the sacrament, listening to the prayers, attempting to ponder the act of divine sacrifice, and just not getting it. Not understanding why it was necessary. But shrugging my doubts off as the thoughts of a sinner, a doubter. I heard the story too many times to count, and I knew that God the Father was my Father in Heaven, and that he had created me and sent me here, and had given me a savior who would make it so that I could return to my heavenly home, and my heavenly parents. I knew the story, told in song and scripture, but I didn't understand it. Ever. It just didn't compute. I just couldn't understand why, if he was my father, he required someone to intercede between us. My earthly father didn't. The father of my children doesn't. Why would my father in heaven? Why was I not good enough to approach him myself? To talk to him without an intercessor? Why did I need a savior, if I had been created by a perfect being? These thoughts, though, were blasphemous, and I shoved them back into the darkest corner of my mind. Over and over again, I shoved them back. And over and over again, they worked their way to the forefront to haunt me. It just didn't make sense. The story didn't make sense. It didn't work. 

Then, this morning, as I read the aforementioned scriptural reference to Jesus as an advocate before our father, it came to me why I could not understand this story. I was lucky enough to be born to an earthly father who, while imperfect himself, loved me perfectly. He didn't require anything more from me than to be his daughter, and he loved me perfectly. Still does. No one has ever had to intercede on my behalf. My father loves me, his daughter. 

And my own daughter's father, my husband, loves her perfectly. And he requires nothing more from her than that she be his daughter. She may have needed me to say the words, but she didn't need me to plead her cause. He loves her because he is her father. No advocate required. 

Why, then, would a perfect heavenly father be unable, or unwilling, to hear from me, his daughter? Why would I need an intercessory, an advocate, a savior? Why couldn't my heavenly father love me unconditionally? 

The answer, for me, is that the story doesn't make sense, because the story isn't true. 

I know millions, billions, even, believe this story, and it brings them peace. But I found peace when I allowed myself to not believe this story. I don't believe in that god, and I don't believe in that father. And I don't believe in a savior of mankind. 

But I do believe in love. Because I've felt it, from my father. My imperfect, earthly father, who loves me unconditionally. I'll take that over the fairy-tale any day.