June 16, 2013
Over the past couple of weeks several of you answered a question that I posed to you: what did you learn from your father? Your answers confirmed for me the great impact that fathers have on our lives. Here are some of the answers that I received from you.
Christine Whitten said, “Here are my lasting impressions of Dad: Maintaining dignity, respect and honor are essential to being a good person. There is always something positive you can find to say about someone. And, make sure you are good at math and spelling.” 🙂
Judy Rankin said, “I asked incessant questions as a child, and Dad’s answer frequently was, “Let’s look it up.” Out would come the dictionary — maybe the desk-size book, but sometimes the huge Webster’s Unabridged (1934 edition!) — or, better yet, the encyclopedia. I spent lots of happy time standing by his chair or sitting on his lap, learning about all manner of things, and establishing a life-long habit.
My dad also — with notable patience and tolerance — taught me to be competent: how to use all the basic tools, how to paint (and clean up!), how to garden and, eventually, how to drive. When after college I moved to my first apartment, he equipped me with a basic toolbox, which is still in use.”
Susan Vanderver learned from her father that “Approaching others with a smile and a friendly remark or a joke is always appreciated. In this way, my Dad never met a stranger. His warmth and sense of humor has been a blessing to those who know him!”
Janet Ballentyne and Herb Dorsey have powerful testimonies about their fathers as well.
Janet said, “I was heading into my second year at the university the summer my father was dying. He had terminal cancer, and his fear was not about dying but that his daughter would not know how to live. I had a job during the day, but in the evenings he gave me a series of short tutorials throughout the summer and I remember them well — they included “the sonnets of Robert Browning,” “mysteries of the rings of Saturn,” “short history of the Punic Wars” and others. Towards the end of the summer, as we finished reading a synopsis of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (in Latin, no less), I finally asked him what was the purpose of all of this. He laughed and said “it’s simple — we learn not for any particular purpose, but for the sheer love of knowledge.” A great and lasting gift from a great man and loving father.”
Herb said, “My father died when I was 12, after a long bout with cancer in a VA hospital.
His job required him to work shift work: a week of days, a week of evenings and a week midnight shift, including weekends. Therefore, our limited time together was to be savored: a June week in Ocean City, New Jersey, day trips to the Bay and Sunday visits to numerous aunts and uncles.
What I cherish the most however are three postcards he sent in the last two months of his life from the hospital. Since he had been a radio operator in WWI, he was thrilled that I would be learning morse code now that I had just joined the Boy Scouts. SO…in morse code, he sent three short “words to live by” messages:
. play and have a good time
. think of dad often
. I love you
As I’ve talked with you I’ve learned that some of you received tremendous blessings from your fathers, as we’ve just heard. And some of you have learned hard lessons. Some of you had fathers who were always there for you; others of you had fathers who were largely absent, or whose presence was a negative one. Some of you have appreciated your fathers more and more with each passing year; others of you came to understand them only later, if at all.
Like Jacob, some of you got everything you needed from your father; like Esau, some of you did not receive the blessing you were hoping for. Esau wanted all the blessings his brother Jacob got: authority over his brothers; grain, wine, and land. But he didn’t get any of that handed to him. Instead, what his father gave him was a vision, a hope, that he would be able to create for himself, by sheer force of determination, the kind of life he wanted. “But when you grow restless, you will tear away his harness from your neck.” Esau would have to seek his desired future for himself; he would not be handed it by his father.
This hope, that we can create a better life than the one we have been handed, is the same hope that animates Paul’s letter to Philemon. Consider the world that Paul, his fellow convert Philemon, and the slave Onesimus inhabited. In the Greco-Roman world, being a slave meant having no legally recognized father, and no legally recognized children. The legal term for a Roman slave was “son of no one.” A slave was cut off from the past and the future, boxed into the present, with no hope of receiving an inheritance from his father or leaving a legacy to his children. Even a freed slave was still dependent on his former master’s good will, because he had no father to pass on to him a profession or livelihood.
This was especially devastating because in the Greco-Roman culture, the bonds between fathers and sons, and between brothers were sacred. The same way that romantic love is celebrated in our culture, fatherly and brotherly love was celebrated among the Romans. This was the place where “bromance” originated. Everything—your social status, wealth, your profession—was handed down through the male line, and family inheritances were shared equally among brothers.
So when Paul calls Onesimus his son, and tells Philemon to regard him as his brother, he is making a huge leap-—outside of blood family, outside of social position—-to create a new kind of spiritual family. Classical scholar Sarah Ruden writes that “Greeks and Romans never used the term “brother” to create a sense of closeness and equality out of division. Christians did, which at the start would have seemed bizarre. Imagine the impropriety of calling everybody at an open religious gathering “husbands and wives.” That’s how addressing church members as “brothers and sisters” would have sounded.”
Yet this idea of a spiritual family was what made Christianity so compelling. Even a slave who had no legal family, no one to claim as his own, could claim a new identity as a member of God’s family. Onesimus found a spiritual father in Paul, and Paul found someone to protect and nurture as a child. This is what Jesus meant when his mother and brothers came looking for him, and instead of going to meet them he said to the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
The traditional family is not the only form of family that brings blessing to our lives, today or in ancient times. We need a spiritual family as well, fathers and children, brothers and sisters whom God brings into our lives to bless us in ways that our biological families didn’t or couldn’t. Especially in our day and age, when many of us do not have our families close by, we need a spiritual family, people whom our kids call aunt and uncle even though they are not related, neighbors who look out for us like family, church members we regard as our grandmothers and fathers in faith. God may be calling us to be like Paul, who becomes a father to one who needs protection, or like Philemon, who is asked to receive as a brother one he thinks is beneath him, or like Onesimus, who becomes a son to Paul when he takes the risk of asking for help.
So this Father’s Day, let’s not only give thanks for fathers, but also those who step in to care for the fatherless. Let us give thanks for coaches and mentors, teachers and neighbors who are father figures for children not their own. Let us not only remember the blessings our fathers gave us, but also the blessings we can give and receive from those around us who are related to us only through the family of God. For we all need a father’s blessing, but by God’s grace, it may come to us in a form we didn’t expect.