Everyone was doing what they knew to do. I can’t blame them for that. I can’t fault them for how they reacted when the dam burst. When my choices became an unmanageable PR disaster and inevitably caused family divisions, no one really had a guidebook for it. “How to Handle Your Daughter Who is Making Terrifying Choices” hasn’t yet hit the New York Times bestseller list.
But I can’t blame them, really. Everyone did what they had to do.
But me? I didn’t know how to move my feet. I didn’t know who to trust. My heart told me one thing. My friends, another. My new friends, something entirely different. My church, my parents, my siblings, my counselor—who could rescue me? That’s really what I needed. I didn’t know it, of course. I was a drowning soul in an ocean of sin and I thought the water tasted good.
On a Sunday morning when the month of April was just beginning to shed her winter skin, I was asked to stand in front of my church so that my sin would be made known. “Public sin,” they said. “Public repentance.”
And of course, who didn’t know that I had made a married man the object of my affection? Surely everyone knew. Gossip mills are greased with words like “affair” and “exposed.”
The night before I stood in the doorway of my parents’ living room, shaking, broken, unsure of the future now that my entire world was shattered by my one foolish decision. I knew the tales of Hester Prynne. Her scarlet letter was now mine. The scaffolding was built as I cowered in the house I grew up in. I knew I deserved it. I knew I hated it. I understood why. I hated them for it.
My father, quiet and steady, rocked in his recliner. The room silent with the exception of the television muted on a news station. It’s amazing how loud silence is when you’ve run out of reasons. My father was not a member of that church. It wasn’t even where he worshipped, where he broke bread, where he sought God. It was my church but not his.
“Come here,” he said and motioned me toward his chair. I sat on the arm and buried my face in his shoulder. Tears and snot drenched his flannel, just like they did when I was four. Except this time I was twenty-two. I knew better.
“I don’t agree with the choices you’ve made,” he whispered into my hair. “But you’re still my daughter. Nothing ever changes that.”
The next morning at church, I knew I would stand at the altar and face all of the people who had so faithfully poured into my life. The altar where I used to cry out and beg God to use me. The altar where I’d weep and pray for revival. Where I’d kneel and wonder if the Lord listened. But today I stood at the altar as an outsider. My Sunday school teacher. My friend’s father who had searched for me the night I ran away. My brother, my mother, my best friend. All people who now knew I was the worst version of myself. I stood in front of them and my sin was made public. Home and Jesus and the gospel felt like washed-out shadows in which I could no longer find a refuge.
My hand was squeezed.
My father stood there next to me. His hand gripped mine as tightly as I gripped his. He stood right there next to me in a church, people, system that was not his. Yet he bore the public shame of a wayward daughter. A man who was not a part of them stood among them and carried the grief that did not belong to him.
It took me years to come back. It was years before the lights turned on. It was a long road before Jesus woke my heart up and called me out of my grave. But when they say the light is brighter in the dark, I can confirm that there was no brighter light to me than that of my father’s. Like a lantern swinging along the twilight road. A father who cannot disown that which is his. A father who bears the shame for the sake of the ones he loves. A father who doesn’t blindly approve but forever says, “This is the way back home.”
God used my father to show me how he loves when I had forgotten who I was. Not rebellion, stubbornness, or pursuit of worldly pleasure could keep me from my heavenly Father’s love.
I recently sat in a room at church as a daughter confessed with bitter tears to her parents the failures and choices she’s made. She fidgeted in her seat, pulled at her hair and fingers. The words came out, strained and broken, imperfect and awkward. All of the things that confirm she feels like the worst version of herself.
I waited with my breath caught in my chest. No parent wants to hear that the child you raised and knew, the child who used to wear footie pajamas and promised they’d never love anyone as much as you, has now tripped and fallen so hard they cannot find their way back to true north. She spilled her confession and it lay there on the floor and silence filled the room. I waited.
Her father cleared his throat.
“I love you.”
The room tilted sideways with grief and grace. No three words hold more power in a moment of shame and brokenness than those. Especially from a father.
Cover photo by Juan Reyes.