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.

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