Behold your son: Walter Wittwer [Retrieve Lament]

(You can read all of this week's stories of lament here.)

Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of Christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories of lament I'll be sharing here this Holy Week.

I count it a high privilege to know -- at least in a small part -- the writers of the mourning stories I'll be sharing now through Holy Saturday. Their lives walk the path of celebration, yes, but also suffering -- illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, the death of loved ones, and the death of dearly-held dreams. Their stories have helped form me in my understanding of suffering and I believe they could also encourage you too. Today's guest, Walter, and his wife, Karen, have become dear to Brian and me since our move to Connecticut almost two years ago. Walter's love for God and for people makes me glad to be a Christian. 

Would you read Walter's story with me, and listen with an open heart for any words Christ might be speaking to you?

     In Memory of My Mother, 1969  by Minas Avetisyan (image of the artist's parents at the foot of the cross) ( Source )

 

In Memory of My Mother, 1969 by Minas Avetisyan (image of the artist's parents at the foot of the cross) (Source)

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
— John 19:26-27 (ESV)

A father's blessing

by Walter Wittwer

 

I have often lamented never receiving my father’s blessing. He was not the blessing type, yet he had a son who coveted a blessing from dad.

Not always. There was a time I did not know what a blessing was, never mind a father’s blessing. And even if I knew about it, I would not have wanted one from my father. I did not like him, and I felt he did not like me. In fact, I came to hate him.

When I understood blessings and curses, that they were, what they were, I believed I had been cursed, but never blessed. I had always lived with an empty ache and filled it with alcohol and drugs and sex and shame and arrogance and anything, but like a bucket full of holes, I remained empty, and the emptiness seemed to get bigger. I felt cursed, not blessed.

I met Jesus along my way and saw that He was blessed by His Father. I saw Abraham and Isaac and Jacob bless their children, not always well, but a blessing just the same. A blessing seemed to speak connection.

I have often felt adopted, but not in the good way of being chosen, but in the bad way of being left. Left and a burden, not living up to my potential, or someone’s potential. A disappointment. I was to be the golden boy, the boy of promise, the boy sent to college to become something. But not becoming whatever it was I was to become.

As conscientious objector my father disowned me. I was an idiot for not pursuing engineering. When I foolishly asked why dad never said anything nice about me, he said, “There isn’t anything nice to say about you!”

I worked hard. I always performed. I tried and tried, juggling, dancing, aching for approval, from anyone and everyone. I thought if I get enough love from others, I would be filled and could rest from achieving. But other’s praise never filled me for long. The holes in my bucket kept me empty.

When I became a Christian, I received my heavenly Father’s blessing and thought that now I could rest. But strangely, I could not. I transferred my driven-ness to showing Him that I was worth something. I struggle accepting God’s blessing when I can’t get my father’s. I don’t know why. I know my father never got a blessing from his father so what would he know about giving his son a blessing? And that saddens me as well.

There is something about generational blessing that I think is important. It is a way of passing on something mystical, a deep calling another deep, a spiritual DNA of sorts. I believe all parents should bless their children and, at the proper time, all children should bless their parents. I took it upon myself to bless him whenever I saw him. I secretly hoped that he would bless me in return. And perhaps he has. As I write this, I wonder if perhaps he has. Blessings have a way of boomeranging.

And now he is dead. He left a few days ago. He did once say he loved me. That will have to suffice. The holes in my bucket still leak but repairs are underway.

The question is will I ever not lament? How do I not lament my childhood’s lack of fatherly affection? No memory of throwing a baseball around on a summer evening or a football on an autumn Saturday. My father worked hard to provide the basics, so he was usually busy. Perhaps that was why he was also usually angry. I have forgiven him for the missing time together and the anger, but that doesn’t change the lament of my child-memory.

And like father, like son, I mourn my own lack of availability to my siblings. I was the older brother, but I was too cool to hang out with my little brother and my sister was, well, a girl. I cannot regain the status of the good older brother. This is sad and will always be sad.

Forgiveness does not change the lament. The past cannot be relived. Forgiven sins are still sins committed. Even if totally erased, the gaps are left as reminders. It is hard to live in chronological time.

I try to do better now, with my kids, with my wife, with those around me. But I am not perfect. Each day brings new laments: I should have done this, I shouldn’t have done that, I wish I had said this and not that. Do laments ever end?

Jesus lamented. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Mat.23:37) Perhaps lamenting is both human and godly?

I do not mean here to live in the past. It has become as much imagination as is the future. In fact, being present in each moment, as God is (after all, His Name is I AM), leaves the least room for new lamentations to be caused by me.

But lamentations will always be because they are at the foot of the cross. This is where I lay them, and this is where I find them. At the foot of the cross is where they will always be because that’s why Jesus died. In His forgiveness, in His redemption, in the salvation His cross bought me, I am shed of my self, I am relieved of my heart of stone and given a heart of flesh, and it is in this heart that I lament.

He knows the tears I’ve cried for the lack of positive childhood memories, for the shame I carried and caused, for the days lost to alcohol and drugs. “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps.56:8)

So, I will never not lament, but that’s ok. That’s as it should be. The paradox is that, even though at the foot of the cross I find my laments, it is there that I also find my greatest joy. I can’t explain it. It is a mystery. And I’m starting to think that mysteries are always true.


Walter Wittwer.JPG

Immigrant at 5, alcoholic and drug abuser at 13, atheist at 19, clean and sober at 31, married at 33, father at 35 and 37, divorced at 41, happily remarried at 46, and orphaned at 67. Vocationally involved with people with developmental disabilities, and avocationally with prisoners and post abortive men. My life has turned into a miracle still happening and my relationship with God continues to grow in intimacy.

Walter lives in Norwalk, CT with his wife, Karen, and his Airedale Terrier, Rosy. You can read about his journey as a chaplain, prison minister, reader of good books, and writer of poetry at his blog ChainsGone.com


Once, ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night, when all is silent.
Where can we find such customs now? So many have long since disappeared or been disowned.
That’s what you had to come for: to retrieve the lament that we omitted.
— Ranier Maria Rilke, "Requiem For A Friend"

(You can read all of the Retrieve Lament stories from previous years here.)