Monday, June 18, 2007

Via Negativa (Father's Day, 2007)

Luke 7:36-50, C; June 17, 2007


My word processor has a nifty little capability—I am sure yours does, too: the “find and replace” function. I use that particular tool when, for instance, I am preparing to perform a wedding, as I am now. I did a wedding in Florida three weeks ago; I have another coming up in two weeks more; and so the other day I opened the “wedding” file on my computer and typed in the command—find “Michelle” and replace with “Jaime;” find “Lucas” and replace with “Clifton.” I am so thankful. I remember when every single word had to be retyped every single time. The “find and replace” function saves both time and aggravation.

I thought about doing that kind of thing for this morning, a little “find and replace” with my sermon from Mother’s Day. You may remember it, how I mentioned that for some mothers and their children Mother’s Day is a great day, a day to celebrate all that is good about family life, while for others—those for whom their family’s life was and is no Hallmark card—it can be a very hard day indeed. Kind of like today, and not just across the street. So why not just open that sermon file, type in the command: find “mother” and replace with “father,” and preach the same sermon over again? A very nice day for some, and very difficult for others…

Except today is even more difficult, I suspect, than Mother’s Day—for all of us, here in church—if only because “Father” is one of the ways we refer to God and “father” is not always a positive image, sad to say. “A father’s love” is one of the many ways we try to describe God’s care for us and that comparison, too, can be disturbing.

“If God is like my father then I want no part of him…” I have heard that so many more times than once. And should the father be a preacher, then even more’s the pity. But preacher’s kids or not there are many wounded children out there, and maybe many wounded children in here—of all ages—who cannot disengage those realities from one another, God and father. And so, for worse or for better or for worse the images get all tangled up. God, father. Father, God.

And for some of us, surely, God as Father proves a comforting image. But for some, if they can hold at all to the idea of God as Father, it has to be via negativa, which is to say by way of negation and contrast, with a profound hope that God as God is, that God’s care as God cares, will prove to be other and different than their fathers as their fathers were or are.


I have been thinking this week about when I was a new father, of one moment in particular and soon after Bethany had first come to us. This was long ago, now, though fresh in my memory, in the days when car seats were newly mandatory (and rightly), but before what we might call “car seat awareness” was very high—by which I mean before parents realized that car seats had to face backward in order to be properly secured, and before car seat manufacturers knew that all exposed car seat surfaces needed to be plastic or, better, covered with fabric.

Anyway, Jo and I were loading-up to take Bethany for her two-week check-up—two weeks she had been on our watch. I brought her carefully down the back stairs of the house where we were living, put her gently into her car seat…and saw her tiny face contort immediately with a silent scream. She was in instant agony. I immediately grabbed her up to my heart, cradled her, and only then could see that the car seat’s metal buckle, exposed through the front windshield to a July sun, had burned her newborn leg, had in fact blistered her leg in three places.

I cannot tell you everything I felt in that instant—what I still feel when I think of it: horror, panic, guilt. Nausea. I was an unfit father, I knew, incapable of protecting this small life entrusted to me by God and instead horribly able to harm her in a host of ways. It was an accident, of course, but I appreciated both immediately and upon reflection the terrible power a father possesses to wound a child, to leave lasting marks not only on legs but also on hearts, on minds and lives, on spirits.

Bethany is scarred there, still, on her leg. Sadly, the scar has gotten larger with time; gladly it has faded, too, through the years. It is not so very noticeable to anyone else, perhaps, except me. But I can see it—with my eyes and my memory. How many other scars I have left on my left on my little girl, the rest of them invisible, I fear to consider.

I have blessed her, too, of course—yes, I know that—and Jacob, my son, as well. Surely. But just to finish that part of the story, I have to tell you that on the third Sunday of the following June, when Bethany’s not-quite year-old hand had scrawled an unintelligible crayon signature on the inside of a card that read something like, “To the greatest dad ever,” I knew better. Still know better than that—have known, painfully, since that July afternoon long ago, how impotent I am to protect them, my children, how powerful I am to harm them, and sometimes with just a word—words are the cruelest, both the sharpest and the dullest of every parent’s weapons.

A parent’s words can carve a child into pieces, can warp a child with pride or prejudice. A parent can skew a child’s way of looking at themselves or the world, can color the way they look at or relate to others. Garrison Keillor writes of a Lake Woebegone boy who grew up hating the Bunsens, a family in his parents’ church, only the boy never knew why, exactly: it was just how his parents felt, a part of the air his family breathed, and he was expected to follow suit.
How many children have been misshapen by their father’s stuff? How many have been kept perpetually miserable and small by their parents self-serving expectations? How many children have been dwarfed in their development by their parents’ demanding of them something other than what God may intend? That, when the goal of parenting, of faithful parenting at least, is to bless and release and grow our children beyond us.


My friend John Simmons says that he thinks the best definition of faithful parenthood is this: “faithful parents work to release the gifts of their children, whatever the gifts God has given them; and faithful parents allow their children to exceed them—allow their children to exceed them—in whatever areas God and the child may choose.”

Faithful parents learn to see their children, I guess you could say—to see their children the same way Jesus asked the Pharisee to see the woman who was washing Jesus’ feet in our lesson for the morning. Jesus did not want Simon to see the woman just objectively: a thing, a woman of the city, a sinner; but as a real, live person: a loving child of God made in God’s loving image, no matter how much that image was marred or smeared, misused or corrupted; one for whom God desired the fullness of life, the best expression of all the good gifts God had given her; one to whom God had given gifts for that very person; one in whom was God’s very breath, God’s very life and spirit, and from her first breath one blessed with a sense, an hint, an echo of God’s purposes for her.

Is that what Jesus wanted Simon to see? Something like that?

What does God want you to see? Fathers? Mothers? Which is to say, Parents, how does God want you to see your child? Not just as yours, I think, but as God’s…that at least. One who is made in God’s image and graced with God’s gifts and, with your help, sensing God’s call.

Faithful parents (and grandparents, too) will work to see their children as God has made them and gifted them, will work to release their children’s unique gifts, will work to help their children realize God’s dream for them, will work to let their children exceed them and their own expectations.

That is hard work, God knows, putting them on the bike and holding on only till they find their own balance and then letting go, letting them ride—into joy and danger. It is hard work, to be sure, harder to let go than hold on, but if we are to be faithful parents, we have to keep trying, to do just that. Put them on the bike, hold on for a while, then let go. Let go and trust. Let God and let God. Let go and, of course, pray.


All across America today preachers are preaching sermons on Christian Fatherhood, something like that, and maybe with titles like: The Bible’s Guide to Being a Good Father. I have to say that strikes me as a bit ironic, because there just aren’t that many good fathers in the bible. I have a list, but you can check it out for yourself.

Ironic, too, when Jesus—who loved children, of course—said in Luke 14:26, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Those are not our traditional family values, I guess. And surely some parents hate their kids, and some kids hate their parents, but not because they are disciples of Jesus.

Another place Jesus says, “Call no man ‘father,’ for you have one Father and that is God.” And still we do—we call some men father, daddy, dad. Our Father—that is God. Your father, my father…we have someone in mind today, so how shall we proceed?

All I can say is that on a day when my children intend, don’t I know, to celebrate me—to give me cards and gifts—I know full well that what I need most from them is their compassion. Their mercy. For them to see me as I am and am trying to be: to find in my file the word “hero” or even “monster,” and replace it with “human,” to find “”best ever” and replace it with “good enough,” adequate, faithful.

I recall a line from Shakespeare, King Lear, scene V, act III. The insane king and his beloved daughter Cordelia are in a British prison. He speaks to her of the future, his hope for their life together wherever it might be lived out, even in prison—he says to her, “we two alone will sing like birds in the cage…” that even incarceration is joyful if they can share it, but of a sudden his tortured mind recalls his guilt, his many kingly offences and not least to her, and he confesses: “when thou dost ask of me blessing, I will kneel and ask of the forgiveness…”

“When thou dost ask of me blessing…”which I guess is what this day is, really, every father’s child asking for their old man’s love and blessing, saying what ought to be true of us but also seeing us for who we are…

“I will kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness…”and that is what this day should be, every child’s father kneeling and asking forgiveness, repenting of what we have done and haven’t, pledging with God’s help to do better: “Next year, with God’s help, the cards will be truer than they are today,” as we dads and granddads and great granddads… kneeling to ask our kids forgiveness, to ask God for God’s help.

Isn’t that what today should be about?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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