Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Father’s Day Dilemma

There's always room in God's closet
for another tie.
Pastor Stuart Briscoe is quoted as saying the qualification for Christian leadership, and especially pastors, must include “the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” I have always felt that the third of those qualities was dangerous, however advantageous it might seem to be.

In law enforcement, department psychologists, chaplains, and human resources staff alike try to combat the natural effects of the highly emotional interactions required in that profession. There, it is referred to as “cocooning.” Imagine the stress of constantly dealing with both perpetrators and victims, both smiling criminals and angry citizens. Add the demands of both community and workplace politics. Multiply that by court appearances where two adversarial sides seem united only in their animosity toward officers who do both more and less of their job than either side would prefer. No one is surprised when officers begin to disengage emotionally from victims as well as their attackers, even from children as well as their abusers. But the officers themselves are often dismayed to find that in the process they have also distanced themselves from those closest to them.

The greatest quality in preaching:
that others hear a pastor's heart.
My students, my counseling clients, my Hospice patients and families, and especially my parishioners all count on my ability to remain open and caring to them in their particular circumstances, no matter which or how many other, worse situations I have faced with others, sometimes within moments of their call or visit. I serve on at least one team marked by a remarkable habit. We intentionally form close personal friendships with people who are going to die soon. And when each of those Hospice patients do reach the end of their earthly lives, we commemorate that fact together, sharing with one another around the room, processing together the constant experience of compound grief.

So, I should be able to shrug off something as simple as this past Sunday’s anonymous, post-worship-service note of “disappointment,” if not entirely disapproval. Here’s what it says: “Sent with tender observations. Thank you for today’s message. It resonated with us. We were disappointed that your message didn’t include a message about fathers. The Lord our Father. Our fathers – our children teaching their children from what they learned from their fathers. Mentoring someone who hasn’t had a father, or had a harsh father. Praise Godly fathers.”

In the recent past, I have begun to acknowledge some holidays. But previously my practice of preaching chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse through entire books of the Bible continued throughout the year. I was used to being questioned about Christmas or Easter failing to be Christmas-y or Easter-y enough. But in addition to all my reasons for pursuing a serious commitment to expository preaching, I also have been troubled by my marketing background and the usual bait-and-switch practices that only reinforce the habits of many who attend only on those “special occasions,” since the rest of the calendar pales in comparison. In short, I have very good reasons for not throwing out the next passage or swapping it for something more topical in my preaching schedule in favor of Christmas or Easter (though I have begun to relent for those occasions) much less Mother’s, Father’s, Memorial, Labor, Independence, Thanksgiving, Arbor or Groundhog Days.
When you say "Christmas-y" to me,
this is the image that floods my mind.

But that’s not the main reason that the note affected me so badly.

It is not like I had not considered potential applications from the passage. But the only overtly parental relationship in II Samuel 2 is that of Ish-Bosheth, son of the recently deceased King Saul. But other than stating the relationship, anything beyond simply mentioning that (which I did, since it is written in the text I read aloud) would be a stretch. No, what I had considered more was the great difficulty many face during mother’s or father’s day. Among our parishioners there is great fondness for many of our fathers, deep sorrow over the loss of some of our fathers, distinct frustration over the difficult relationships with a few of our fathers and, as my anonymous critic seemed to suggest, a tendency to sugar-coat even the worst of circumstances that have accompanied the damage and betrayal inflicted by fathers on a number of our parishioners.
And as for "Easter-y?" It's clear that for some,
the resurrection simply isn't magnificent enough.

One of them had sent me a Facebook message on Father’s Day afternoon, just as I was trying not to reflect too much further on the “absence” of a message on fathers (though in the course of the worship service we did, of course, acknowledge, speak of, and pray for/about/with fathers). This parishioner had been exposed to a more traditional emphasis on Father’s Day. Specifically, they have been under pressure to unilaterally “forgive and forget” the unrepentant man who contributed to her birth (I’m dancing around the term others might use here). The pain of her mother’s choice to return to him only multiplies the challenges she faces in her family relationships. But no one, notably, suggests that he has changed his habits, preferences, or boundary issues, even those that led to the legal penalties that resulted after he sexually assaulted his young-adult daughter while she was incapacitated by illness.

She was not in church on Father’s Day. If she had, perhaps she might have been spared the pressure (indeed, what she identified as the “guilt”) to which she succumbed. Her note expressed the anguish of trying to decide whether or not to call her father, much less apologize to him and forgive him as she had been instructed to do. Then, when she did, in fact, call and apologize, she faced the personal disappointment of having tried “to make the guilt go away.”

I shared with her what I have been slowly working toward sharing with you.

While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50, NASB)

If we are to honestly pursue the blessings of knowing God as our heavenly Father, we must first begin be recognizing that our human fathers, however well-or-ill-intentioned, however succeeding or failing in their attempts, and however present, absent, attentive, neglectful, inspiring or otherwise they are or may have been, the role of parents in the lives of their children must always be seen in light of the perpetual efforts of God to raise us as His children. (Hebrews 12:4-13 is a good place to look for more details about how this works.)

Look more closely at God's word, and see if our
cultural occasions coincide or conflict or merely coexist.
So, admitting that my Christmas and Easter sermons are probably still not Christmas-y and Easter-y enough, I also know that it’s not just my Father’s Day sermon that is not Father-ly enough, either. My children experienced the fallibility of an all-too-human, inconsistently devoted, arrogantly ambitious and, for a time, clinically depressed and over-employed contributor to their genetic foundations. I have had some shining moments, and some unforgettably dismal ones, too. Some my children laugh about openly. But I fear that there are some they mention, if at all, only to each other. (“Can you believe what Dad said/did that one time when…?” is how I imagine the discussion going.)

My point, then, is this: the pretense of nostalgically perfecting our remembrances, or the rehearsing of wrongs inflicted upon us, or anything in between is a part of the reality of human nature and the ongoing effects of The Fall that should point us ever and only to the loving care of our heavenly Father.

Could that be more strongly emphasized on Father’s Day? Perhaps. If the passage supported it. Otherwise, I think we should continue to address it as often as it comes up in worship, fellowship and service…that is, pretty much every day, just as we commemorate the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Pentecost, and so many other “occasions” as they arise in the course of preaching the scriptures and in the life of the congregation, not just because they show up on the calendar.


Wm. Darius Myers said...

Okay, so does this fix the commenting problem?

Unknown said...

I'll give it a try again but I'm going to copy and save it just in case. My prior comment was related to this: "Specifically, they have been under pressure to unilaterally “forgive and forget” the unrepentant man who contributed to her birth" . ... . ."The pain of her mother’s choice to return to him only multiplies the challenges she faces in her family relationships. But no one, notably, suggests that he has changed his habits, preferences, or boundary issues, even those that led to the legal penalties that resulted after he sexually assaulted his young-adult daughter while she was incapacitated by illness."

Whoever advised this young woman to forgive and forget was wrong. There are some things that God might be able to forgive that humans just should not do. True evil exists in the world and we are not to blame ourselves and feel guilt over that. The responsibility is on the evildoer.

Forgiveness must be earned by admitting the wrong by taking responsibility for it and repenting. They must have true remorse. They must try to repair. And must never repeat the wrong with anyone, ever. However, this kind of evil is unforgivable.

This father (and mother) tore up their parent cards. The fact that this daughter called to ask forgiveness is appalling. She owes him nothing.

I'm not saying a person abused like this needs to hold on to anger or any other negative feelings. You can heal from this without granting the perpetrator something they do no deserve - forgiveness.

As to the intent of your blog - I have no issue with you simply following your planned sermons. And as you stated, you did mention that it was Father's Day.

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks so much for your comment, for a number of reasons. You give an excellent description of repentance and, while I might not agree with anything being "unforgivable," I know too well that some things that happen to us human persons are "unforgettable," and that the necessary "fruit in keeping with repentance" cannot be expected to restore or reconcile the prior relationship, even if a future relationship might be refashioned. There seems to be no bottom to the abyss of evil acts in our arsenal as human beings. But there may also be no end to the buoyancy pulling us insistently toward the surface, and the light.

Still, in the planning and preaching of pastoral care, though, "do no harm" trumps any futile attempt to "cover every possible angle of every possible topic." Thanks again for re-supplying your excellent comment.

Unknown said...

In re-reading my comment I would like to clarify that I was not appalled at the young women but appalled that this advice was given to her and that she felt guilt.


William Berkley said...

I was thinking about Jesus’ words in John 17, “... in the world but not of the world...” Perhaps it applies here. We have so many special occasions, special events, special visitors, etc. that it is rather difficult to maintain any sort of consistency in preaching/teaching through the Word or anything else that takes more than a few weeks. This may be part of our ‘sound bite’ culture. We are no longer used to things taking a long time to complete or waiting for anything. People no longer write letters, they send email. We do not even call to order things (much less going ourselves to a store); we can now order it online and have it delivered in an hour in some places in the country. The ‘sound bitey-ness’ continues with sermons. The idea of a long, complete series on a book or topic is almost unheard of, just as the idea of an hour-long sermon is almost gone as well. Even in my own church, a large digital clock is displayed for the view of whoever is on the platform, not showing the time of day, but the time remaining (in the service, that is... not for life in general!).

This may sound a bit off the original topic, but it is not. In this world, we live in “the present.” Long-term planning, considering consequences of what one does (positive or negative) are rare actions indeed. There is always a reason to put-off this or that, end a plan early, just ‘hit the highlights.’ Eugene H. Peterson wrote a book called, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” which talks in part about this tendency to focus on the present only and not on long-term ideas and goals. Peterson talks about how we have gotten into the habit of expecting goals to be accomplished immediately and discounting anything that takes time. We have ‘sound bite news,’ ‘sound bite goals,’ ‘sound bite conversations’ (isn’t that what Twitter is?). All that leads to a ‘sound bite life.’ And this is pervasive. Even while writing this, I have stood up at least three times that I have noticed, with no particular reason in mind. It was as if my body was telling me that it was time to do something ELSE.

I have wondered at times how it was possible that people like Calvin or Luther or Carey were able to write as much as they did... and with no word processor! They probably sat a LOT. They stuck to it. They did not give up, change their minds, or have a dozen half-finished goals. (My fingers are blushing right now.) They decided to start something and then they kept working until they were FINISHED. They did not let opposition, armies, special events or even Groundhog Day get in the way (the day or the movie), nor anything else. That is what I need to start doing. I start every day with lots of ideas of things to do, but far too frequently, my own ‘sound bitey-ness’ overcomes my steadfastness to a goal. It is not a complete waste of time, but it is far better to do one thing, do it well and do it completely, rather than start ten things and never finish any of them. My favorite quote from Star Wars (and one that I use frequently in my classes) is “Stay on Target!” That is what I need.

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