I know that my dad took me fishing when I was little. After all, it was his favorite sport, and we did live in a town called Lakeville. I remember him teaching me how to find worms and hook worms, and where the best place to find different kinds of fish might be, and how to wait for the fish to take the bait, just how hard to pull up on the pole to set the hook, how to clean a fish and fillet a fish. Dad was as good at that as anybody I know.
But 1963 was different; this time he took my two brothers and I north to the boundary waters of Upper Michigan, to a place called Ishpeming, within sight of Iron Mountain.
Ishpeming was an endless track of streams and paths and deer and bear, and lakes and rivers, massive boulders, far-reaching green forests. There in the middle of that great wilderness was an old, rustic cabin someone had built long ago, on the banks of the Esconaba River, and that was our home for 2 weeks, and once we settled in I became aware of a deep, resounding silence. For several days all we did was fish in those beautiful clear waters. We made shore lunch out of whatever we caught that day and at night we ate s’mores while watching for shooting stars. My older brother hated every minute of it.
What can I say? His one love in life was playing the piano, and there definitely wasn’t one there. It practically gave him the bends. He had never particularly liked fishing anyway, and sitting on a shore with his line in the water for hours was pure agony for him. With his attitude, I’m a little surprised my dad didn’t just chuck him into the water and be done with it. Instead, he bore it all pretty patiently, which was a little unlike him, and tried to teach us things he’d learned about fishing, outdoor cooking, camping, and life.
It’s not easy teaching a boy how to become a man, but somehow my dad found a way. It may take gentle coaxing, it may involve some kicking and screaming, but in the end, I believe teaching a child how to grow is both the greatest blessing and challenge God can give a father. My dad taught me a lot during those times at Ishpeming and working together at home, and looking back on it now I realize how much of it I took for granted. In these ways, and so many more, my dad tried to help me understand better about who I am, and about who God can be.
There are a lot of father stories in the bible, but frankly, you know, most of them aren’t very good ones. Adam was a father, but one of his sons murdered the other. Abraham was a father, but he nearly sacrificed his own son. Lot was a father who made his 2 daughters pregnant. Isaac was a father who got fooled into giving the wrong son all the property inheritance. David was a father whose own son raised an army against him. And on and on. So it’s hard to find good Father’s Day material in the bible.
But Jesus says something in one of his parables about a good father worth noting. The parable of the friend at midnight is one of several parables that only appear in Luke. It begins, not with a father, but with a friend who arrives in the middle of the night and asks for bread, because he has company coming, and he has nothing in the house to feed them.
Nowadays, if you came and stood on a front step and rang the doorbell at some homes, you might not notice the little tiny glass circle just above the button. You might not realize that it’s a door camera. Whenever someone rings the doorbell, you can then turn any of the TV’s in the house to channel 17, or use your cell phone and see who is standing on the porch and decide in advance whether to answer or not, or whether to call the police.
You couldn’t get away with not answering the door in a first century Palestinian village. You wouldn’t grumble and try to get out of giving bread to the friend at midnight standing at your door, either. Everyone in the village baked their bread at the village oven. They all know who has fresh bread. He’s the one, he’s got it. The custom is that you serve fresh bread to company. Plus the houses were so close together that when the needy friend stands on your doorstep pounding on your door at midnight, everybody up and down the street knows they’re there and you’re not getting out of bed to help them. To grumble like this would bring shame on one’s family and one’s village. And nobody in that village 2,000 years ago would want to be the one to destroy its reputation for gracious hospitality to travelers with their grumbling.
So, it begins with Jesus saying a good friend knows how to be a good neighbor to a friend who drops by, to answer their need, even in the most inopportune time. But then, Jesus applies the same logic about a good father, and the bar is pretty low. Suppose, he says, your son wants a fish taco for lunch? Sure, son, the Esconaba River is just full of fish. But here’s a snake – why don’t you eat that instead? Oh, what kind of a father would that be?
“Hey dad, can we have eggs for breakfast this morning?” “Well we could have eggs. We have them, but why don’t I cook you up a scorpion instead?” Well, how ridiculous. No father, Jesus says, even a bad one would serve his children a scorpion for breakfast, for Pete’s sake. And so that’s a pretty low standard. And Jesus goes on to make a point about how God will give the good gift of the Spirit to those who want it. But let’s stay with the good father image for a while.
Every good father I know wants the best for his children. But let’s face it. There are fathers out there who are less than good. There are plenty of snake and scorpion fathers, which is a good description for them. And that’s why this day is not a good one for some people: those who have been treated badly, or ignored, or abused, or molested, or abandoned, or injured by their fathers. Father’s Day might be very difficult for many who grew up with that kind of father, and people carry around scars from long ago, both inside and outside.
So no, dads are not automatically respected. Respect doesn’t come because you conceived a child. Someone said “the male has got to get rid of the feeling that mere fertilization is a reason for a high five.” Nor does violent masculinity – just being mean and smug and ordering your family around, telling them what to do until they’re old enough not to do it – none of that makes you a good father. It makes you a snake and scorpion father. And if you’re a grown child struggling with guilt because you feel that way about your parent, let me take you off the hook. You are not the one at fault.
May I also say that where that has happened, you need to know that you deserve the compassionate ear of a healing therapist or counselor, because you are a loved child of God. You deserve it.
I remember a story I heard actor Burt Reynolds tell about his dad in an interview with Barbara Walters years ago. His dad was a sheriff in a small Southern town, beloved by everyone, but very strict with his son. Burt respected and feared him, but yearned for some sign of tenderness or approval. Burt said, “Our family lived by two simple rules: “No crying. No hugging.” He went on, “There is a saying in the South that ‘no man is a man until his father tells him he is,’ and I hadn’t yet gotten that message from my father. I kept hoping someday I’d hear it.”
In the meantime, his hopes of being a professional football player were destroyed by an injury and his hopes of being an actor were growing dim. They told him he looked like Marlon Brando, but that he didn’t have any talent. A few bit parts in his twenties left him, at age 32, the best-known unknown in Hollywood.
Then his marriage to Judy Carne hit the rocks. This would be the first divorce in his family. He remembers staring at the phone, knowing he had to call home and break the news, but afraid that his dad would come to the phone instead of his mother. Yet, wanting more than anything to hear his father’s voice — standing there, staring at the phone, not able to make himself to pick it up.
Burt Reynolds says he finally picked up the phone, dialed his parents’ number with shaking hands, and, thank God, got his mother on the phone. “Mom, Judy and I are getting a divorce. No, it’s final. Mom, tell him I’m sorry. Tell him I’ve failed again, and that I’m sorry.” Then,” he says, I heard this other voice on the phone. “Why don’t you come on home, son,” my father said, “and let me tell you about all the times I’ve failed in my life?”
I’m a father. I’m not a perfect father. I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way. But I’ve tried to learn from them. I’ve tried to let my children teach me.
When Josih, our first son, was old enough to be interested in what bigger people in the house were doing, he showed an interest in Saturday morning car-washing. It was a weekly ritual I enjoyed, and especially so since I had just bought my first brand new car – a 1979 Dodge Colt. (ok, it was the cheapest new car ever – but it was mine!) Shiny. New car smell. Not a single scratch.
So I’m out there washing my new car, and Josih toddles out. He’s maybe 3 years old. “Can I help?” he says. It was a question of consternation. I had visions of soap scum. Dirt in the sponge making scratches. Missed spots. Soiled perfection. What should a father do? I swallowed hard, girded up my loins and said, “Of course you can help! Grab a sponge.” And we soaped, scrubbed, sprayed, and even worked a little on the car. What did it look like? Awful. How did I feel? Great. And it wasn’t just because I knew I was training a future car-washing worker-bee (ok, partly) but mostly because I love this kid and would be glad to have him hang out with me regardless of what the car looked like.
I think God might feel the same way. All of human history is a record of our inability to clean things up. The truth is we often make a mess of things nearly as often as we get it right. That much is true of fathers. God gives us a brand new, shiny world every day, and we leave soap scum. But our God hands us the bucket anyway. Why? Because God loves us and would rather hang out in a world with us than without us.
By the way, Josih has his own car now. And it looks great.
Today is Father’s Day. And we join an entire nation in recognizing the dads, the step-dads, the grand-dads, the next door neighbor dads, the mentor dads, the teacher-dads and coach-dads, sister-dads, mom-dads, new dads and old dads. And we want to use this time to encourage and honor them.
Here, in this place, we have learned a new way of being family. We are fathers and mothers to each other now. We are family in the way that we accept one another and include one another; where everyone is welcome. The table is wide in God’s family. We do not walk alone in this world.
So, our hats are off to all the dads who, though far from perfect, still want to be the best they can be. Our thanks to the dads who vow to be people of integrity, authenticity, humility; who vow to lead holy lives. To love God in some deeper and more practical way.
A good father, in terms of Jesus’ parable, is someone you can count on to come to the door and offer you nourishment when you show up on his doorstep. A good father offers you an egg or a fish, not a snake or a scorpion, with arms open to say, “I love you. I will always love you.”
May this Father’s Day bring you many blessings and remind you of the many you already possess. Amen.