Abba-love

I sat in our window-lined school room where the late summer sunlight slanted across my desk. My phone blinked the length of the phone call with Jeff. These calls were few and far between. This particular conversation had been brief, yet my heart ached as I realized how bad things had actually become. 

Jeff was actually Dad. My dad. I learned it was easier to call him by his first name than by Dad. That’s how I listed him in my contacts. Then, when the angry, hate-filled words came through text or call, I could release the expectations I put on him as father. I could pray for him as Jeff, and that helped ease the hurt. 

Dad had always been an alcoholic. All my childhood memories include him in his big, blue recliner in the evenings – book in one hand, beer in the other. I would snuggle up on his lap, his scruffy beard ruffling my hair. He smelled of aftershave, coffee, diesel fuel, and beer. The smell comforted me. Dad and I were close. We were similar in so many ways – our love for puns, our insecurity in large groups, and our appreciation for good music and deep conversations.

I adored my dad. For all his faults and shortcomings, he was my kindred spirit hero. 

But the thing is, sin isn’t neutral. We are all either moving toward God, or away from Him. And Dad stubbornly, pridefully shook his fist at God many, many times. His drinking was steadily increasing. Then the years of affairs came to the surface. After the divorce, I watched his heart harden as he ran full speed in his hell-bound race. 

The betrayal of those years created a deep wound that would take decades to heal. The rift between Dad and I grew with each heated argument, each word screamed in anger, each empty promise. I was heartbroken and devastated. I desperately wanted my dad, and at the same time hated myself for being so needy, even as a young girl. 

God knew my heart. He knew my longing for a father. And He was faithful to woo me into His Abba-love. As a teenager I came to trust God with my heart, not just my salvation. I began to allow Him to tear down the walls of self-protection I had built. I began to believe His character, His goodness, His unwavering pursuit for the one He loves.

As the father-hole in my heart slowly filled up, I unclenched my fist around the expectations I held for my dad. I released my rights as his daughter. I chose to look at him as if he were a child, the way I look at my little boys. When I pictured him this way, my compassion came quickly. Forgiveness came slower, but God was faithful to soften my heart. Even as Dad spiraled in sin and wounded me with his words, the sting was less and less. 

Dad hadn’t been to my wedding, the birth of my children, or remembered any of my birthdays for many years. So when his name popped up on my phone the day I turned 30, I was surprised. At my answer, however, I quickly realized this was not a celebratory phone call. Barely pausing for “hello,” Dad told me he was in the hospital, that his liver was failing, that he couldn’t eat or drink, and he would need a transplant if he had any hope of living longer than the next six months. 

Two months later, I would get that late summer phone call in the school room. The call when he could barely remember the city he lived in or the name of my son. His mind was nearly gone, and I knew with a sinking feeling in my stomach that his body would quickly follow. 

As I sat there, staring at the sunlight fading into evening, I began to panic. I had shared the Gospel with my dad many, many times over the years. He had either laughed at me or stared angrily past my eyes. I had terrifying nightmares of him in agony, separated from God for eternity. I would wake up in a sweat, my heart pounding, begging God to please save my dad.

I flew home to Wyoming the day he was moved into hospice. 

Walking into the room, he was no longer “Jeff” to me; he was Daddy. My poor, hurting, broken Daddy, lying in a hospital bed with yellow skin and shallow breaths. His green eyes were glazed over in unconsciousness, his familiar hands unmoving on the blanket. The nurses were shocked he was still alive. They told me people often “wait” for loved ones, and that perhaps he had been waiting for me. 

I held his hand. I wept on his shoulder. I read Ephesians over him. I prayed. I played his favorite songs. I sponged water over his dry, cracked lips. When I combed his hair, his furrowed brow relaxed. I whispered words of forgiveness and peace into his ear. 

My dad and I would never speak again. This was it. This was me giving him the Gospel one last time. And I would never know if he softened his heart to this amazing God who loved him far more fiercely than I ever could. I would never know the destination of his eternity.

Yet as I watched his life leave his body one warm afternoon in September, I felt the peace of my Father on my shoulders. These words came to me, “Can you trust I am good, even when you don’t know the ending? Can you trust I am holding you in the midst of the unknown? Can you trust me?”

I’m learning that my hope, peace, and joy are actually about God’s faithfulness, not mine. It’s His faithfulness I can lean on. It’s His faithfulness that holds strong. And as I struggle to the surface from the ocean of pain and fear and unhealed wounds, it’s His faithful hand that pulls me up. 

When I’m weak, He is strong. When I doubt, He is sure. When I tremble in fear, He is powerful. 

I don’t know the condition of my dad’s eternity. 

I don’t know if I will see him in Heaven. 

And I have complete peace in that. My hope isn’t resting in God righting all the wrongs and fixing all the problems, it’s resting in His faithfulness. That is enough for me. 

“YET I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places,” Habakkuk 3:18-19 (emphasis added).

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Jen Hulbert

About Jen Hulbert

Jen Hulbert lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband and favorite coffee date, Aaron. They serve together at Calvary Bible Church, where Aaron is the lead pastor. She homeschools her three boys and loves sharing the beauty of God’s creation with them by hiking the trails of the northern Arizona forest. Jen met Jesus at a young age, and as she gets to know Him better, discovers more of who she was intended to be. Creating the perfect playlist, well-timed puns, and all forms of organizing and categorizing are a few of her favorite things.