Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Fatherly Heart (6/16/13)

The Fatherly Heart
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 16, 2013
Father’s Day

Father Earth     
Clarissa Pinkola Estes

There's a two-million year old man
No one knows.
They cut into his rivers
Peeled wide pieces of hide
From his legs
Left scorch marks
On his buttocks.
He did not cry out.
No matter what they did, he held firm.
Now he raises his stabbed hands
and whispers that we can heal him yet.
We begin with bandages,
The rolls of gauze,
The unguents, the gut,
The needle, the grafts.
We slowly, carefully turn his body
Face up,
And under him,
His lifelong lover, the old woman,
Is perfect and unmarked
He has laid upon
His two-million year old woman
All this time, protecting her
With his old back, his old scarred back.
And the soil beneath her
Is black with her tears.  

Jesus said:                   
‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Matthew 7:9-11

In my twenty years of ministry I have found that two of the most challenging Sundays are Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.   Easter, Christmas, and Advent have their own challenges as well as do those days that celebrate nationalism.   I tend to find a way to use those Sundays as opportunities. 

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day offer a unique challenge to the preacher.   

My own father scoffs at Father’s Day and other days like it.
“It was invented by the stores to sell us stuff.  Don’t get me anything for Father’s Day!”
So I don’t. 

I think he has a point but he is an extreme curmudgeon.   

Then there are the church purists mostly of the mainline variety that refuse to preach on anything that isn’t on mother church’s calendar and thus blessed by holy father.      If Father’s Day isn’t in the lectionary then forget it.

Nevertheless, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have infiltrated our lives.  They are on the popular consciousness whether curmudgeons or church officials recognize these secular holy days or not. 

On the other hand many churches use these days to reinforce patriarchal gender roles.   You can hear sermons on Father’s Day and Mother’s Day about biblical manhood and biblical womanhood and how President Obama is ruining our country by turning all the boy scouts gay.   

Then of course, there is all the sentimentality.   That is another reason my father curls his lip about the whole business.   I likely have inherited a bit of that. 

So part of the fun challenge of this day is to examine the stereotypes  regarding mother and father and use these days as spring boards to discuss everything from how we structure society, care for children, and challenge gender inequality. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day also provide inviting avenues to explore metaphors for the sacred.    What does it mean to speak of the sacred as mother or father?  

The big challenge for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is that there is no such thing as a generic mother or father.   We all have complex, multi-faceted, and unfinished business with real human beings.   It may be easier to skip church on this day than to deal with the emotional fallout that all the mother and father imagery uncovers in our own lives.   As a minister I know that is the case because many have told me exactly that over the years.    

On the other hand, it could be that these sentimental and commercial popular holidays exist because we have a need to explore and to honor and to struggle with the most important relationships in life.    Worship is an opportunity to acknowledge these relationships, including their brokenness, and who knows, maybe even take a step toward healing.   

This is a hard day.

Last year on Father’s Day was the last day we saw our son, Zachary, alive.     It was a good Father’s Day.  The four of us had supper.   We watched a film at the Real to Reel and came home and talked late into the evening.   I never saw him again.  Eleven days later he was gone.     

I relive that day.  I relive the days that follow.   It was my last chance to be a father to him.   What didn’t I say?  What didn’t I do?  What could have I done, should have done, would have done, to make things turn out differently?   Why did my fatherly heart fail him?    

I know all the answers to this.   I know all the answers there are to know.   There are limits to what fathers and mothers can do, even good ones.    It is not enough always to be good.  Sometimes you have to be lucky.  And sometimes you are not.   Nevertheless, on Father’s Day, that is my emotional fallout.   

Since last year, I have met many whose stories are tragically similar.  Robin, a Presbyterian minister, lost her son to suicide a few years ago.  Her blog is entitled, “Beautiful and Terrible.”  That phrase comes from a quote from author Frederick Buechner:
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”
So here I am on Father’s Day.  I showed up.  I suited up.    

Because of that, I get to do something beautiful.  I get to participate in the baptism of Wyatt Zachary Miller.   Yes, his parents Rhett and Stacy, selected his middle name, Zachary, in part to honor our Zachary.   So circle round the spiral of life and on Father’s Day, I baptize him in the name of the
“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
One God, Mother of us all.”
In so doing, I along with everyone present, whether fathers or not, both male and female, old and young, will be able from the depths of our own fatherly hearts be to Wyatt Zachary like as a father.   

All this week, and longer, I was doubting how I could preach on the fatherly heart when my own is so filled with sorrow.    What can a broken and aching fatherly heart have to contribute?   Am I much more than a hypocrite to preach about the importance of fathering, of passing on values, wisdom, and hope, when I couldn’t pass them on even to my own son?  

That reflection is the dark path.   The only way I know to cross it is to name it and to keep going.     I acknowledge the dark feelings so they don’t master me.  Ultimately, I know that Zach faced things that I couldn’t reach.   No one could.   I don’t know what all was passed on and what was not.    I do know the love was beyond doubt.   He had a huge heart himself.  Yes, the Fatherly Heart is a sorrowful heart.     

It is also a joyful heart and a playful heart.   We fathers grieve but we also laugh.  We play.  We act silly.  I have another beautiful child, Katy, a grown woman.   My fatherly heart delights in her and there are many things yet in my heart for her.   A lifetime’s worth.   She will need her old man’s heart to keep pumping. 

So what is the fatherly heart?

Matthew Fox writes about it in his book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men:  Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine.    He summarizes the central qualities of the fatherly heart as follows:
Giving and generous
Looking to the future
Sees the big picture
Playful and affectionate
Fox reminds us that beyond our biological children, and even for those who have none, we can be Earth Fathers and we can exercise our Fatherly Heart on behalf of our communities and our world.   Think of mentors, teachers, coaches, uncles, grandparents, older brothers, this includes of course women as well who expand the notion of fatherhood to all children in our communities.   Parenting is too large a job for parents alone.  

The value of a faith community is that we span generations and we collectively have wisdom of Earth Fathers and Earth Mothers just waiting to be used and shared.   One of the great joys of ministry is to watch and to encourage these connections.    

Finally, our collective Father Hearts are needed to care for our planet.

Fox writes:
The fatherly heart seeks to nurture the Earth, and nurture society, in the largest sense.  In fact, demonstrating through active citizenship that Earth Fathers raise communities, as well as kids, is an important aspect of being a healthy parent….Thus every effort to create a sustainable planet is an investment in healthy fatherhood. ”  pp. 192-193. 
With that I am going to close with the lyrics of a song that Rhett and Stacy asked if we could play today in honor of Wyatt’s baptism.    The song is from the important film, “Curious George” and it is called “My Own Two Hands.”   I will play the song during the offertory, but I want to share the lyrics now.   This song reminds me of perhaps the central task of Earth Fathers and the Fatherly Heart.   

That task is encouragement, to say
“Yes, we can.” 
Amidst the pain and grief, amidst the brokenness, amidst the great challenges we face.  Amidst our own uncertainty and insecurity, amidst our smallness, amidst the terrible…

…we must never forget there is the beautiful. 

This song embodies the Fatherly Heart…
I can change the world
With my own two hands
Make it a better place
With my own two hands
Make it a kinder place
With my own two hands

I can make peace on earth
With my own two hands
I can clean up the earth
With my own two hands
I can reach out to you
With my own two hands

I'm going to make it a brighter place…
I'm going to make it a safer place…
I'm going to help the human race…
With my own two hands

With my own two hands
I can hold you
I can comfort you
With my own two hands

But you've got to use
Use your own two hands…