Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A mantle worthy of Our Father who art in heaven . . .

It is that wonderful day of the church year when everybody who has an assistant is rejoicing: Trinity Sunday. When I entered the ordination process and as I worked my way through seminary, I was told (and this was an experience shared by a number of my classmates) that Trinity Sunday was one of those days we would receive all kinds of invitations to preach. As I was pastoring a church in Ohio, I laughed how so many clergy were free for Pentecost but always tied up the very next Sunday. I’d have to check the red book, but I don’t believe we ever celebrated the Eucharist on Trinity Sunday the entire three years I was there. Explaining a mystery is tough work. Explaining a mystery in a few short minutes is worse. Fortunately, I guess, I have always had to preach on Trinity Sunday (at least until this year), so I do not know any better. I simply try and tackle what is going on in our lives and how it relates to the readings. Hopefully, if God shows up, you and I learn something. If not? Well, it’s Trinity Sunday and I have that as an excuse.

I suppose the seeds for this week’s message were in the HOB/D listserv last week, in conversations with some WoW youth, in conversations with some of you, in the press, and in my reflections on Father’s Day. My thoughts on fathers began with a post on the listserv in which one of the priests asked all those on the list to jettison the titles “Father” and “Mother.” As one who preferred “Pastor,” I thought “Good luck with that. While you are at it, create peace in the Middle East and fix our economy.” I suppose she thought she meant well. From her perspective, the titles of “Mother,” “Father,” “Brother,” and “Sister” gives the impression that we organize ourselves like a family. Who wants to join another dysfunctional family when we all have one at home? Plus, don’t the titles undermine the ministries of those without one?What followed was an incredible discussion. What made it incredible was the sheer number of responses. I am guessing there were nearly 200 posts either in favor or opposed to her suggestion. What wassad, from my perspective, was the suggestion from a new delegate that we discuss successful ways of evangelizing in our respective communities instead. For the first two days, that post drew a grand total of 2 responses. It was only when that poster pointed out the energy being spent on title discussion relative to the energy seemingly being spent on the Great Commission that people began to share some of their ideas.

In the background of all of this were various headlines relating to Father’s Day. It seemed like the AP had a new headline on Yahoo all week. 27% of all dad’s live apart from their kids! Nearly half of all fathers in United States have a child born out of wedlock! On and on droned the headlines. I shared with you last week the tough decisions being made by a dad to help his children and himself through one of life’s valleys—an addicted mom. I heard at least a half dozen times from teens how they wished their parents would take up an interest in the things that they like (like WoW). When I pointed out that WoW was pretend, the teens each responded to the effect that “the time you spend playing with you kids, planning for the next raid, or gratsing each other for ‘dings’ or ‘chieves’ sure isn’t.” I am often saddened as a parent at the number of kids at my children’s school who thank Karen and me for coming to the games and cheering them on. “My mom and dad are too busy, but it sure is nice to hear my name called out in the stands.”

I suppose my nadir of reflection surrounding fathers happened on my drive back from WV. I was a bit put out and feeling petty. I was sorely disappointed that my dad had chosen to leave right after the wedding. I had driven nearly 12 hours, and he and I had only spent a couple hours together--admittedly half of that was spent in that heaven on earth known as Bob Evans. Couldn’t he stay the night? The truth is, I could not have done much with or for him. Karen and I spent what we had on the trip. And we were exhausted. All four of us were probably asleep Saturday night far sooner than the kids back home! But it would have been nice to spend more time with him. As it turned out, though, God had a job for him. The next morning, he went to church at home. At church, he learned that a member had allegedly shot and killed his son. The mother was understandably beyond upset. Their 13 year old son was dead. His father, her husband, was arrested as the killer. She was grieving and worried. What’s going to happen to her husband? Where was her son’s body? Many of you know my dad is a lawyer, so he left church for the sheriff’s office. He walked that morning where few others in that community of faith could. His gifts and talents were put to use by God providing some small comfort and some significant assistance to a family wrecked by pain and guilt. While the minister tended to the wife/mother and the youth pastor tended to the youth, dad did what he could do better than most. And I was reminded of a couple serious discussions of fatherhood, discussions which seem very appropriate this Father’s Day.

A couple years ago we were reading The Shack as a group at church. At one point during the book, “Papa” says to the dad in the story that he revealed himself as a father in Scripture because he knew that one day in the future, people would forget what a father was supposed to be like. This statement struck a chord with many of us in attendance. That observation stuck with me because the group was all women. They realized that fatherhood has begun to lose its meaning in modern society. Certainly, we can look in the newspapers or think of or own stories to remind ourselves of its truth. What does society teach us about fatherhood? What has God revealed to us about fatherhood?

During our discussions, one of the big differences noted was the idea of unconditional love. Does God let Israel deal with the consequences of their sins? To be sure. Does God sometimes follow through with His punishment even when Israel repents? Absolutely. But always, always He reminds them and us that He loves them and us and cherishes His relationship with them and us. Unlike our OT fathers, we know His absolute love for us through the person and work of His Son. What they saw with blurry vision, you and I can see clearly in the hindsight of history. Certainly our readings this year have focused on Jesus’ role in restoring us to our Father in heaven and on His gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to glorify Him truly. But behind all of this lies a behavior which all of us as fathers are called to emulate.

Part of that clergy’s problem with titles and part of the reason that so many kids or adults lament their relationships with their dads is because so many have bought into the world’s description of fatherhood and forgotten the Father’s example. As men, particularly Midwestern men, many of us are good at “working hard” to “climb the ladder.” Some of us, certainly not me, are good at “cleaning up after our own messes.” Our measure, at least by worldly standards, is our bank account, our titles, and our independence. Even when we do good things for our kids, we like to point it out to them. We want respect from them because we’ve earned it, at least in our minds. To add to the difficulty, bad relationships are often glorified. Whether we watch MTV and see the teenage dads or Deadliest Catch and see those interesting relationships, we see negative examples glorified and think we deserve respect just for trying to be a good dad.

Our Father in heaven though, displays a different priority of virtues. There is nothing wrong with wanting respect. There is nothing wrong with hard work, or independence, or goal setting, or many other virtues providing they are kept in their places and don’t gain control of our lives. How do we prevent that from happening? Through the emulation of that truly counter-cultural and virtue exhibited by God in all His dealings with us: humility. Dads, have you ever taken the time to think how your Father in heaven has dealt with you? Does His relationship to you in any way remind you of your relationship with Him? Put a different way, when in any dealing with you has God not exhibited humility? I’ll save you the trouble by reminding you that the answer is never. Any dealing he has with us, by definition, is an exercise in humility. We rightly think of the cross as a humiliating experience for the Son, but God did not need to save us, ever. It is simply His willingness to abase Himself, His unwavering desire to do whatever is necessary to save us, to lead us, and to guide us back to His love which motivates Him to act. Whether He is forging a covenant with Abraham, freeing our ancestors in Egypt, returning our ancestors from the Exile, incarnating Himself in human flesh, or sending us His Spirit that we might fulfill His plan for us, He is always coming down to our level of His own volition. We cannot make Him. Impelled by love, He comes down to where we are. He shows grace to those whom He chooses, not any who deserve it.

Dads, is that how you deal with your kids? Is that how your dad dealt with you? Yet think of His gracious actions in your life? How many times have you known Him to act to help or to save you? How many times have you forgotten that being a dad is a gift and not a right? How many times have you forgotten that your primary job is to steer your kid’s attention, love, and devotion to the One Father who will never disappoint, the One Father who, despite who you were, acted to save you for all eternity? That, fathers, is a humility which we should all embrace because, truth be known, we really excel at making a mess of things. I often joke, but with an edge, that dysfunctional is what the Bible calls “normal.” I dare you to study the Bible and find a family that matches what sociologists and psychologists want to pass off as ideal. The whole story of the Bible is about God’s willingness to humble Himself, for Him to forgo the honor, respect, an glory owed to Him for a time, that you, me, and everyone we know or met might share in that same honor, that same glory for all eternity. Though we do not deserve it, He longs to share eternity with us.

The best lesson regarding that humility and that love naturally begins at home. That best lesson, dads and for later in life sons, begins with us. Each day, you and I are called to be thankful that He called us into relationship with Him. We model this thankfulness through prayer and by gathering at worship. We do this by serving our wives, our children’s mothers, and by loving them as Christ our Savior loved the Church. And we do this that our sons might grow up to be the Fathers He has called them to be. We do this that our daughters might grow up unwilling to settle for what society says is available, but to find young men worthy of their love and capable of raising up the next generation into the family He has called us all. We do this all with a sense of reverence, a sense of awesome responsibility, and a certainty of knowing that, without His grace and humility, each one of us would surely fail in our efforts. Fathers, we live in an age that has forgotten the importance of fathers. It is time for you and for me to take up His mantle of humility, and through prayerful love and service of those whom He has entrusted to our daily care, and remind the world that its Father in Heaven wants nothing better than to call us all His sons and His daughters.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Find your voice . . .

And a tongue rested on each of them! – When this week began, I had in mind a beautiful theological effort for a sermon. Pentecost is one of those days during the church year that a lot of people come. True, it’s not as important to many families as Easter and Christmas, but it still has an important place in our lives, even if we're not quite sure why. And given some of the criticisms surrounding the rest of our Communion’s inability to understand the ministry of the laity, it certainly seemed a good time to spend discussing all our ministries in light of the Comforter’s presence in our lives. Unfortunately for me, God sometimes does not agree with what I intend to do.

I had a gentleman enter my office on Monday. He needed to talk. By virtue of his addiction, he had destroyed his family, his job, and his reputation. Most of his friends had dropped him. His family had given up on him. Now he is getting help for his addiction, but he wanted to know that it was ok to have screwed things up. Imagine his surprise when I pointed out that he had screwed things up even more than he thought, particularly with his kids. After a long discussion, he said “Father, I just want to know that everything will get back to the way it was before, so long as I get help.” Naturally, I could not give him those assurances. What I could offer was that if he finished “coming to himself” using the words of the Prodigal Son, eventually, things might improve. It would depend in large part whether his kids were Christian. “Why does that matter?” I explained that Christians should understand the need for forgiveness and mercy far better than the rest of the world. “Why?” Because that is what He has given us. And as His disciples, that becomes one of our best witnesses to the world. “What if I am not and they are not?” I asked him how he could ever expect to find common ground, given things he had done to them and to those whom they loved? Needless to say, our conversation will be continuing for some time. I think God has called him; the question is whether he will come.

Later this week, I was playing WoW. Now, I have been incredibly busy since Cataclysm came out. I, who used to be one of the best priest healers on my server, have yet to down the first boss on the way to destroying Deathwing. Life around here has been busy. But I was finally in a group working my way down the volcano when I was whispered. It got so deep and involved, I had to leave my raid group. “I am so glad you got on.” Why? “I just wanted to let you know you were right." About what? “About what we were going through and going to go through if dad divorced mom.” As background, you should know that his mom had an addiction to drugs. Her habit was destroying this family, destroying it emotionally and financially. I had told the boy some months ago that, at some point, his dad would probably be forced to divorce her, if for legal reason only. Once that happened, there would likely be some serious emotional explosions within the family. He was thanking me for preparing him for what was to come. “Thank you for listening and thank you for understanding and thank you for caring. A lot of my friends were like, ‘it’s no big deal.’ It was bigger than I thought, or dad or my sister, for that matter. We’re better off for it, but it was really hard.” That’s good to know. “I’m just glad life will get easier now.” Life will go on, but it will still be hard. “Whaddaya mean?” Events will still happen. She is still your mom. A piece of paper doesn’t really destroy a relationship. It changes it, but it doesn’t destroy it. Plus, if you are lucky, she might realize what has happened and come to herself. “Whaddaya mean?” Have you considered that your dad’s actions and those of you and your sister might cause her to realize what she is doing? One day, she might awaken from her fog with terrible guilt and come to you and your sister and father seeking forgiveness. Wouldn’t that mess things up for you guys? “Holy $#@&! You don’t think that can happen, do you?” It can and sometimes does. “I dunno how I would respond.” You have told me repeatedly you are a Christian. Are you? “Of course!” How do you think God would call you to respond to her, were that to happen? “What about the hurt?” He bore it. “What about the financial injury?” He bore that. What about the embarrassment she has caused? He bore that, too. “I hate talking to you – lol. I guess I need to start praying that she does, don’t I.” Not just for her, but for yourself, your dad, and your sister. “Heavy stuff, Father.” It’s far lighter than what He did for us. “I can’t say thank you for this advice right now.” I understand. “I am gonna be pissed if you are right.” I know. But I am around. You can always tell me I was wrong. “That would be fun, but I don’t think I’m willing to cheer against you.” We finished some small talk and then he logged off.

It dawned on me after this conversation, that this was the fourth serious divorce consequences discussions I had been involved in less than two weeks. Plus, as I thought, I had been involved in two serious discussions about survivors’ guilt and the death of newborns. That’s when it hit me. Yes, God gave us this day the gift of tongues to proclaim his Gospel in all the languages of the world. But He gave us tongues in another sense, as well. Each one of us is shaped and informed by our own experiences. Every one of us brings a different background to our faith. Yet you and I are called to proclaim with authority His saving help not just through the ages, but in our lives. In a real way, you and I have been given various dialects in which to speak. I may understand the emotions of the children of divorce or the survivors’ guilt that comes when the newborns of dear friends are lost, but you might better speak the language of addiction, the language of mental illness, the language of financial failure, the language of the felon, or any number of other languages far better than me. I might speak the language of WoW or finances, but you might speak the language manufacturing or hunting. And this day in particular, we celebrate that God has acted in the lives of each one of us and empowered us to proclaim His release to those around us. He has taken what was meant for evil in our lives and used it for good; He has made the common in our lives holy. Who better to hear His proclamation by our lips than those imprisoned by similar circumstances in their own lives?

Pentecost reminds each one of us that He has sent His Spirit, His Comforter, to assist us His redeeming work. Pentecost reminds us that His story is our story and that the narrative of our lives can be used in His redeeming purpose. A weighty thing to be sure! But a purpose worthy of a celebration, a celebration of a people redeemed and sent out to proclaim that redemption to the world!