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Picking Up the Pieces When a Parent Leaves

Written by Chap Bettis on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Chap Bettis

Fathers make impressions on their children for both good and ill. By our presence or our absence, whether emotionally close or distant, we shape our kids.

But we can be oblivious to our impact. If only a child could articulate in adult words what he or she feels as we interact, it might break through our dullness.

This is exactly what Jonathan C. Edwards has done in Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves.

Edwards—director of curriculum for Docent Research Group—takes us on his journey from childhood to manhood as he reacts to his father’s abandonment and the resulting holes, messiness, and disorder in his life.

Crushing Abandonment 

Edwards employs metaphor to great effect by describing days as shovels. Dates like his dad’s birthday or his wedding anniversary are shovels that unearth the past: “Certain days dig up all kinds of things.” To understand this painful excavation project, we must reach back to July 1993, when Edwards was seven. We’re sitting in Edwards’s living room with his brother and sister as they hear the haunting words that Mom and Dad are splitting up “for our good and for our wellbeing” and “just for a season.”

But the emptiness isn’t good, and it’s certainly not for a season. Christmas at Dad’s apartment is nothing like Christmas at home. Emptiness gives way to shame when Edwards has to wear used girls’ softball cleats on a boys’ baseball team. Raw poverty and embarrassment are given a voice.

In contrast with his father, we feel the unabashed encouragement of his heroic mother as she cheers at a cross-country meet. “She sounded like a hound dog. Her voice booming through the woods,” Edwards recalls. “I didn’t have a clue where she was but I could hear her.” In painful contrast to her attitude, though, were the words of his dad. He always had a correction for perfection never reached, words that slashed and cut.

When Edwards is a college freshman, we sit with him through the meeting with his dad’s new fiancée, whose engagement ring proclaims the stinging truth—Dad has moved on to something new, something different. As the pent-up emotion of years overflows, his soon-to-be stepmother serves him a rebuke: “Jonathan, you don’t need your father. You’re an adult.”

The fallout leads us to the last chapter of Edwards’s journey, “Filled.” We listen in as he prays and is counseled through the pain, and begins filling in the holes with the hope of Christ. Though not reconciled to his father, we see Edwards reconciled to his heavenly Father.

Raw Grace

Those expecting a didactic resource on how to overcome abandonment will be disappointed. Rather than a Pauline epistle, Left is more like a Davidic psalm in which Edwards’s emotions engage our minds and hearts. Rather than teaching mere principles, it’s his suffering that imparts spiritual lessons. Like King David, Edwards opens his heart as he journeys from hurting to healing, from abandoned to embraced.

We see glimpses of the grace of Christ in his mother’s devotion and in a church’s financial provision. It’s in the later chapters that some personal lessons become even clearer. We see him address his own sin and grow in his understanding of the restorative work of our Savior.

Deep Impact

Anton Checkov once gave this writing advice to his brother: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on the broken glass.” Edwards’s storytelling does exactly that.

Left isn’t a book I’d normally have ordered. I like books that instruct. This is a narrative. I’m left-brained. This is right-brained.

So why am I in tears?

As I read Left, I entered into the suffering of a confused seven-year-old watching his parents’ marriage disintegrate. I saw with new eyes a perspective I would share if only I walked on my knees for a little while. Edwards helped me get small.

And my soul ached for him.

Then I realized I was reading the unarticulated thoughts of a family of five teens in my church whose dad walked out on them. More faces flooded to mind: a friend whose mother left when she was in middle school; two little girls whose father is deserting them even as I write this. Then it hit me even deeper. My own parents had fathers who left. This is their story, too. My heart grieves for the heartache behind the smiles, the insecurity hidden under the bravado. Now I can better feel the pain.

For Helping Those Who Hurt 

Who might benefit most from Edwards’s journey? Counselors, pastors, and spouses of abandoned children will find the themes and descriptions haunting. Spiritual leaders from stable homes will benefit from reading Left and passing it on to others. We will better empathize with the feelings of those in the midst of divorce, better understand the scars of those we pastor. We can more knowledgeably mourn with those who mourn.

As usual, those who need this book most will be the least likely to read it—dads or moms contemplating abandoning their families. To comprehend the long-term mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences would cause any adult with a modicum of decency to nail his or her feet to the floor rather than walk away.

Will those who carry this scar benefit from reading it? The book itself opens with 12 testimonials of those who who found help reading Left. Some felt it was a helpful shovel to dig up an old mess. Others were encouraged to know they weren’t alone. Still others were delighted someone had put words to their deepest feelings.

To be a father is to impact a life, but it’s not the preeminent impact. At the end of Left, Edwards asks:

Do we stand firm in the truth that God’s ability to heal and restore is infinitely greater than our ability or our parents’ ability to tear down and destroy?

By the grace of Christ, the answer to that question is an encouraging and resounding yes. Edwards’s own journey testifies to that truth.

Jonathan C. Edwards. Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves. Nashville, TN: Rainer Publishing, 2016. 198 pp. $11.97. 

Chap Bettis is the author of The Disciple-Making Parent: A Guidebook for Raising Your Children to Love and Follow Jesus Christ. He is also a frequent conference speaker and executive director of The Apollos Project, a ministry dedicated to helping families pass the gospel to their children. For 25 years previous, he was lead pastor of a New England church plant. He and his wife, Sharon, have four children and reside in Rhode Island. You can find him on Twitter or blogging at TheApollosProject.com.

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