I am sitting in the center of the canoe, holding a camera, as Jason and a Park Ranger paddle us across Black Bay toward a spot where we may have a chance to see a patch of wild rice. I look for the picturesque moments, while the two men talk of all the things you talk about when you don’t know someone—where you grew up, what you do and how you got there. I listen.
They talk about the National Parks and I chime in as Jason asks me to help recall the places we have visited. Sometime after this, the ranger asks us what our parents do. As Jason tells about his parents and the retreat center they direct in retirement, I begin to consider how to respond.
When I am asked about my parents, I often wonder how much to tell. I tend to think people believe this is a safe question for casual conversation, but my parents’ story is not a normal one. Inwardly, my stomach knots up as I decide to take the direct and uncomfortable approach. I almost always do. It is my story and to tell anything less is not being really authentic.
I wait until Jason’s voice comes to a stop before I speak up. I tell of how my mom is a retired nurse and how my dad is in prison.
For a moment after I speak, there is silence. I am not surprised by this. It usually takes people a moment to take it in, because prison is never something people expect to hear. This is always the hardest part of the telling for me—getting it out there and wondering how the person who is listening will respond? It is a little like dying. I have to let go, not knowing what the results might be.
The ranger says that he is sorry. It must be very hard.
I acknowledge this. It is hard.
But I tell him, there is so much good that has come from all that has happened. I talk of how my dad’s life has been changed by God.
I tell of how he began walking away from God in my early high school years. I tell of how he left my mother in my junior year of high school. I tell of the emotional distance that grew, year after year. I don’t tell of what happened to my dad for him to be arrested and charged with six felonies. It is a long story, so I only say that he did some of what he was charged with, but probably not all. It is hard to know since he doesn’t remember much of that day.
I tell of the prescription drug coma that he recovered from over the course of a month as he was taken of all the medications his psychiatrist had him taking for depression, anxiety, sleep, and a few other things. I tell how it is after this they discover he had bi-polar, not at all treated by the medications he had been on; instead his medication likely made him worse.
I tell of how my dad tried to do the right thing by working with the prosecution. I tell of how they told him they would not push for the maximum sentence. So, he agreed to plead guilty, which meant he did not go to trial. Then, the prosecution pursued the maximum anyway. I tell how the judge gave him the maximum, despite a court psychologist who wrote on his behalf for release and counseling. I tell of his twenty-five year sentence without parole, because of the way the judge wrote the sentence—this for a man who had no previous record. This is the difficult part of his story.
I pause because of some static on the radio. After it stops, the ranger voices his surprise and his interest. I continue to share.
I tell the beautiful part of my dad’s story too—one of grace. I tell of how my parents have reconciled. They are friends and in love—in a way they never were when I was growing up. I tell of how my dad has drawn close to God and lives with such joy now, even in such a place as prison. I tell of how he has softened in a way that has made his good qualities better and the change that continues to transform a proud man into a humble one. I tell of how inmates respect him and come to ask him questions and talk to him about God. I tell of how proud I am of who he is becoming.
Jason agrees with me and tells of his own experiences of my dad as he knew him while we were dating and the change he has witnessed since he has been incarcerated. He says he is like a totally different person.
As we marvel about his transformation the ranger sits quietly, listening closely. He responds a little tentatively by saying how he is speaking for himself as a man, not as a park employee, when he says he is encouraged to hear my dad’s story. He says that we sound like we are people of faith and asks us a little bit about our own faith stories.
I am delighted; because as we continue to talk the ranger begins to share about his own relationship with Christ. He tells of how it was two years ago in this same park that his life began to change. He tells of how his church and a group of men from Chi Alpha provided community and encouraged him to grow. He tells us how he has come a long way—from a man who lived an impure life to a man who seeks to honor God with his life.
Jason and I share how delighted we are that the ranger would share his story with us. It never gets old, hearing the way lives change when a person encounters Jesus. We talk about the challenges and the joys of discipleship. We listen and encourage one another. We speak blessing.
We paddle along exploring wild rice, listening to the rush of cormorant wings flapping overhead, watching an osprey circling, and hearing the distant call of a loon—we enjoy God’s creation and we enjoy fellowship that happens so naturally in the presence of believers—each moment of it blessing.
I tuck away this vacation memory, the fruit of authenticity.
Grace and peace be ours in abundance as we share the story God has given us. May we find that people are drawn to Him in the midst of our authenticity. As we die to ourselves may we find that we have true life in Christ.