Successful. Able to provide. Generous. Compassionate. Ever Hopeful. Seeking the best for you. Warm Hearted. Affectionate. Joyous. A Good Listener. Forgiving. Wise. These are all qualities of the father in today’s Gospel reading. This parable, of course, is meant to teach us about the qualities of God and the kind of relationship we can have with God.
But, who among us, would not want to have an earthly father like that? Or for some of us, to be an earthly father like that?
Although we likely wish we had fathers like the one in today’s gospel – the list I just read is God’s “job description.” An impossibly high standard. Consider how in our lifetimes the concept of what it means to be a good father has dramatically shifted.
For many of our fathers and grandfathers, and perhaps for some of you, to be a good father meant to be a good provider. That was what was expected. To be compassionate, warm hearted, a good listener – that was Mom’s job. For men growing up through the Depression or facing other challenging circumstances, the pressure to provide could be overwhelming. And overwhelmed Dads don’t necessarily have the best relationships with their kids.
By starkly splitting the roles between fathers and mothers in generations past, it was difficult for either to be whole or for fathers to have the healthiest, emotionally available relationships with their children. Though I can speak to this only anecdotally, in the over 300 funerals and memorial services I have officiated, it’s been common for me to hear grieving adult children say about their Dads that it was “my way or the highway.” I’ve not once heard that about a Mom.
In the Christian tradition, a primary name and metaphor for God is “father.” For some people, seeing God as father sheds light about the loving nature of God, especially if you’ve had the benefit of a warm, secure relationship with your own father. For me as a young person, calling God “father” was a huge stumbling block. I struggled to sort out the discrepancies between my lived experience of my earthly father and what I was being taught about the nature of God. Simply put, calling God “father” didn’t work for me;
it didn’t open my understanding or my relationship with God.
It was not a helpful metaphor. Perhaps some of you can relate.
Though the image of God as father when used exclusively is still a stumbling block in my own spiritual life, the main point of today’s Gospel reading – forgiveness – is one that helped heal my relationship with my own father.
As some of you know, I used to work at an overnight shelter for homeless men over the age of 50 in Seattle. In my first week there, a group of about 20 men gathered in one of our TV rooms to watch Monday Night Football. I was standing at the back of the room observing as the guys were cheering and jeering, just like my Dad would have done in our living room. Suddenly, I realized that my Dad, who struggled with alcohol, as many of the men at the shelter did, could have been any of those men sitting in front of me. For the first time in my life, I saw my father as just another person with his own challenges and shortcomings.
In the flash of an instant, I stopped seeing him with all the expectations I had about what a father was supposed to be and began seeing him as another soul trying to make his way on the path of life.
Later that year, my father called me from his home in upstate New York to say that he was travelling to San Francisco and wondered if I could meet him for the weekend. His geography wasn’t the best; for some reason he thought I could just drive down from Seattle! When I explained that I would need to fly, he offered to buy the tickets, an unusual and unexpected act of generosity. One afternoon, as we were enjoying the sights of a city neither of us had visited before, my Dad shared that he knew he had not been the best father and he told me that he loved me. It was a turning point in our relationship.
Fifteen years later, when I moved home to Schenectady as a single parent to care for my brother, my father stepped up to be the grandfather, the guiding, fun, and helpful presence, my son and I needed. Over the hills and valleys of his journey, my Dad grew to become Successful. Able to provide. Generous. Compassionate. Ever Hopeful. Seeking the best for me and the family. Warm Hearted. Affectionate. A Good Listener. Forgiving. Wise. And as he grew and I grew, our relationship healed and grew; it became full of love, acceptance, appreciation and joy.
A few church members have prepared remembrances to share today. As is our custom in online worship, it would also be a gift to hear some of your stories. For the next three minutes you are invited to remember your own Dad or someone who has shown or shows you what it means to be fatherly: loving, successful, generous, compassionate, ever hopeful, warm hearted, affectionate, joyous, a good listener, forgiving and wise. Someone who actively seeks the best for you. How do you see any of those qualities in your own father or in someone who has made a fatherly difference in your life ? Where have you discovered the grace of God in your relationship with your father?