Faith of a father

LAST YEAR, IN OUR PARISH CHURCH, I preached on Father's Day. I'd never before given a true in-the-pulpit sermon, but I was there as a sort of expert witness. I'm a father, first of all. My wife, Cathy, and I have two children: David, who's 13, and Sarah, 10. And a couple of years ago I wrote a book on fatherhood called Daily Meditations (with Scripture) for Busy Dads (ACTA Publications, 1995).

Writing that book was quite an experience. What I did was look at all the different aspects of fatherhood—the joys, the pains, the irritations, the wonders, and the sorrows—and see them, at least implicitly, in relation to my faith. In a way, it was like a diary of my life during the year and a half it took to write. In another, it was an 18-month-long meditation for me on what it means to be a parent.

Father's Day, of course, is not an official church event. But it (and Mother's Day) could easily be. Throughout the Bible, fathers—and mothers—are extremely important. Think of Abraham and Isaac. Think of Mary. Think of the father of the Prodigal Son.

God as our Father—as our parent—is one of the central concepts of our faith. Throughout the gospels, Jesus constantly refers to his Father.

No wonder: the whole idea of parents and children goes to the core of being human. We can all relate to what it means to be a parent, either because we actually are parents or have been in situations where we've acted in some way like parents—as mentors, teachers, bosses, siblings, or even coaches. Or, simply, that we've had parents.

To make this point, I reached into my book early in my talk and read one of the meditations, called "One a.m." As I looked out on the upturned faces of the congregation for the 11:30 Mass at St. Gertrude Church in Chicago, I asked people to try to picture themselves in this same situation.

"It's 1 a.m., and he's two hours late. You're sitting up, unable to read, wondering, worrying, angry, afraid, unable to pay attention to the colorful empty surfaces of the shows on the TV, drinking another beer, eating some more nacho chips, remembering how he was—so bright and filled with life—when he went to kindergarten that first day, remembering how he yelled at you a week ago over his chores and you yelled back, remembering the small round scar at his left temple from a long-ago case of chicken pox, worrying, wondering, angry, and afraid."

As Jesus said, if we, as imperfect as we are, love our children with such depth and passion, how much more does God love us?

There's another way of thinking of God as a parent that was in that Sunday's three readings.

The first one was from Ezekiel. In it, God talked about his power to raise up and tear down nations. In doing so, God used an extended metaphor of a gardener who prunes, plants, and nurtures. But it was an image that didn't just show the power of God. Even more, it got to who God is for us, and who we are, and what it means to be human.

In the reading, God says: "I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar. . . . On the mountain height of Israel, I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind" (Ezek. 17:22-24).

It's a wonderful image: a twig being nurtured from virtually nothing to this strong, vibrant tree that is not only filled with its own life but provides life and shelter to other creatures.

And it's an image that was echoed in the gospel of the day from Mark 4:26-34. In it, Jesus told two parables about seeds being sown and growing. In both he compared the seed to the kingdom of heaven. "It is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

Again there's this picture of something small growing large not only for itself but for others. The mustard tree, nurtured through its youth to its maturity, is this big, strong, vitally alive thing. And, equally important, it is something that also provides nurture, shelter, and life to the rest of creation. There's something really elemental that's happening here, something that points to how all of life is interconnected. You can almost hear the birds cheer as the tree grows larger and larger. You can almost see the tree sigh at the beauty and grace of the birds.

Nature loves nature, and children—who are closer to nature than adults—are often very much in touch with this. One thing about being a parent is how you're constantly being brought up short with wonder at the amazingly fresh ways in which your children experience the world.

As Cathy, David, and Sarah sat in the front pew right below me, I read another meditation from my book to illustrate this. It was a meditation about the first snow of winter—an event that often leads adults to wail and gnash their teeth. From David, though, the reaction was very different when he was an 8-year-old, when he was looking with open eyes:

"In the lingering dark before dawn, a loud yell explodes into the air. `Yaaaaaaaaaahooo! It snowed last night!'

"My son, normally slow to stir on school mornings, is not only out of bed but in the living room, dancing, jumping, bounding with delight.

"He shouts to his sister, `Look! It snowed last night!'"

For David, the new snow didn't mean traffic jams, or frigid cold, or the need to shovel the walk. For him, it was a thing of beauty. And, through him, we could all see that beauty ourselves.

As often happens, that Sunday's second reading—2 Corinthians 5:6-10—seemed, at first glance, to be about something completely different from the other two: in this case, the dichotomy of the body and the spirit, the clash of the two worlds of human existence and life in the Lord. Yet, it actually linked up nicely with the other two.

Embedded in the middle of Paul's theological and philosophical exposition was this assertion: "We walk by faith, not by sight."

Well, what does a gardener do? A gardener takes this small thing—the seed—plants it, nurtures it, raises it, prunes it, waters it, and cares for it. Why? The thing is nothing. It looks—and really is—insignificant. It's useless, except maybe as some bird's midday snack. But the gardener believes. The gardener has faith that the seed, despite all appearances, despite what can be seen with the eyes, is really a great tree. And the gardener believes that there is something to be gained by helping this seed become a tree.

Part of it, of course, is the end product: when the seed has become a tree, it will be a source of fruit and beauty, and it will be a shady place where the gardener can sit on a hot summer day to take a nap.

But there's also a benefit that comes from taking part in the process of nurturing this seed as it grows to become a full-bodied tree. In nurturing this seed, the gardener is participating in the broad fabric of life. Just as the seed is nurtured, so the gardener is also nurtured—growing from a seed, cared for as a child, maturing into adulthood.

In American Culture, we're taught to think in terms of clear-cut exchanges—with no strings attached. I pay $55, and, in exchange, I'm given a jacket by the store clerk. I'm not expected to think about who made the jacket or how it was made, or about who gets my money or how it will be used. The idea is that this exchange is made, and it begins and ends in that moment.

The gardener knows better, and so does Jesus. Life is a process. All those moments string together to form something. For the gardener, it's the process of growing the seed into a tree. For Jesus, it's the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is not so much the fact that, at one moment, I may do something good and, at another, something not so good. It's a question of how I interact with other people, how much I'm part of the process of nurturing and being nurtured, how much I, like the seed, surrender to the process—to the soil, to the water, to the manure, to the gardener. And how much I fight it.

Parenthood is, in some ways, the greatest example and metaphor for what it means to be a member of the kingdom of God—to be a Christian, to be a part of the process of life, the fabric of life that God weaves.

On face of it, parenthood is a huge investment of time and energy and emotion and life. And for what? David and Sarah are just going to grow up and move away and live their own lives, leaving me and my wife home alone.

In the American way of thinking, that's not much of an exchange.

But, for us, as for the gardener, it's the process of parenthood that's so rich. In raising our children, Cathy and I are participating in this process that stretches around the world and across all time. We are connected with our own parents, and with those who raised them, and on back through history. And, through our children, we are connected with their children, and grandchildren, and on into the future.

And nowhere is the truth of Jesus' phrase that you must die to live so evident as in raising children.

In giving love, I get so much more back. But that sounds like an exchange, and it goes far beyond something so mercantile. A better way to look at it is that, at every moment of the day, my children and my wife and I are giving to each other and taking from each other—to the point that `giving' and `taking' doesn't mean anything anymore.

Giving is taking, and taking is giving. It's all part of the same process. It's all part of the same life.

Children aren't an investment, like a bank account. They're not a hedge against retirement. They are the same fabric that I am. They are, in some real way, me. This is what Jesus was preaching when he talked of the kingdom of God. We, in some real way, are not alone. We are, all of us and God, part of the same fabric. Each thread is itself. Yet, each thread is woven deep into the fabric.

I remember, as I was nearing the end of my talk, seeing a father, middle-aged like me, pacing back and forth near the entry door to the church, holding his young son in his arms. I'd done that, many Sundays, when Sarah and David were younger. But those days were over now. My children are too big to be carried like a precious parcel, to fall asleep on my shoulder while form-fitting themselves to my chest and the crook of my neck.

I then read one final meditation from my book. It's called "The Thing to Remember":

"The thing to remember is that we can't bottle our children for future study. The only time to enjoy who they are now is now.

"Never again will my son's shoulders look exactly that way as he skips through the house to his room. Never again will my daughter have that particular look of delight as she holds a baby duck in her hands. There are riches to come in the future, but these treasures will evaporate tomorrow like the dew."

The kingdom of God is like being a parent. It has to do with the here and now. It has to do with the fabric of life. It is elemental. It goes to the core of existence.

In the kingdom of God, we are all parents. And we are all children.

We nurture. And are nurtured. And we bloom. Amen.  

Patrick T. Reardon is the urban affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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