The summer before third grade my family lived temporarily on a lake in northern Illinois. My brother and I spent many happy days swimming and fishing and doing what boys did back then, roaming the neighborhood. That was the summer I thought it would be a good idea to climb the barbed wire fence next to our house and get up on the roof. Perhaps we had thrown something onto the roof and I needed to retrieve it, I can’t remember the details. Nevertheless, in the process of climbing the fence, I fell, and got a nasty gash in my arm, the scar still visible today. That summer provides another memory that still haunts me over 50 years later.
One day, my brother and I had committed some heinous crime in the eyes of my mother, who seldom administered punishment. On this occasion, she made it clear to us that corporal punishment would be referred to my father. I imagine my mother said something like, “just wait until your father gets home…he can deal with this.” I remember waiting for my father to return home from work knowing full well I was in for a whipping.
We knew exactly what was going to happen. Dad would walk in after a hard day at work and Mom would tell him what we had done. My father would tell me to bring him the board and bend me over his lap and administer the spanking. It was never bare bottom, but a board smacking your ass repeatedly hurts like hell. I was never one of those kids that refused to cry or show weakness when being punished. I think I started crying and begging for mercy the minute Dad walked in the door. Whatever I had done, it must have been really bad because I remember this spanking as epic.
The most disturbing part of this memory is the sheer terror and desperation I felt as I anticipated my punishment. Fear of punishment and a desire to be good little boy became very important to me as I grew up. I constantly worried about being “perfect” and doing things “right”. I wanted to please my parents, and I certainly did not want to be punished for not measuring up. I excelled at excelling and built a life obsessed with being judged worthy.
Add some religious upbringing where sin and unworthiness were constant messages, and my fear of being measured as not good enough was easily transferred to my understanding of God. God was a heavenly version of my father, quick to administer justice and punishment if you didn’t measure up. I distinctly remember my confirmation class emphasizing that if I ever approached communion without truly repenting of my sins, I was bound for eternal damnation. Once again, I was measured as unworthy.
During a recent spiritual retreat, we were asked to personalize an emotion, to visualize this emotion as a person or a creature, and then to have a conversation with this creature. Then, we were asked to have God enter the picture and asked what God would say to the creature and to us in this setting. Later we were asked to “dance” or move with this personalized emotion. It was a powerful experience for me that brought me back to the summer of 1962 and an epic spanking.
I asked myself what I am afraid of and why I am reluctant to trust God. Why do I feel such a natural urge to give God a “script” or a “to-do list”? Why do I hurt those I love and annoy others with my obsessive need to be right, or to be better than others? Am I afraid of not measuring up, of being punished or thought unworthy of approval? I have created a personality and self-preservation system that tries to control everything to ensure I am always correct. I even try to control God.
I pictured myself at 10 years old. I was a little boy afraid of not being good enough in my relationship with my heavenly Father. I had to make sure God understood that I needed to know what I was supposed to do, so I could ensure I was being the good little boy he wants me to be. Later, I “walked” and “held” the 10-year-old version of myself telling the child that he was good enough. When God joined the two of us, God simply confirmed we both were worthy and that we were loved and brought much delight to our heavenly Father. God wrapped us both in a warm blanket of love and acceptance.
It occurred to me that I did not have to do anything to be judged worthy of God, that God could be trusted to reveal God’s divine reality to me without my script or “to-do list”. I vowed to try to be more patient and open to God’s presence without being anxious or trying so hard to discern God’s call on my life. I don’t need all the answers, and I can trust God to be present in my life and to show me His truth if I can simply be open and present to God.
Sadly, my earthly father died when I was just 13, so we never had the opportunity to develop a deeper and more loving relationship. If we had, I would feel compassion for a man who was trying to do the best he could, despite poor employment prospects, a wife with diabetes and bi-polar disorder, and dreams for a future he never realized. I think Dad would tell me how proud he is of all that I have accomplished and the man I have become. He would no doubt claim those early spankings were due to his stress and frustration at not being a good enough father. My father and I both need to know we are loved and valued by a God that delights in us.
While I may not have been able to get to know my earthly father more deeply, I can learn to trust God to be present in my life. I know I am a beloved child of God, and that God delights in all of creation, including me. I don’t need to be anxious or fearful, I just need to be open to the Divine Presence. Thanks be to God we serve a Father that loves us and delights in us.