(Father's Day Sermon)
Rev. Kit Billings
June 20, 2004
Dads matter a lot. Fathers are enormously important to the welfare and growth of their children, and they play a great role within the family. Fathers, in fact, are responsible (as are mothers) for setting a spiritual example in the home and for teaching their sons and daughters about a heavenly and Godly way of life. Warm, loving dad's, in fact, play a major influence in whether their children wind up becoming atheistic or theistic in their outlook on life. This morning, we are celebrating you good dads in America.
Have you ever noticed how carefully children observe their moms and dads? You know, it's really something isn't it how carefully observant children are. Do you remember your childhood years? Remember what it was like to be around your parents, and how important it was to just watch how your own mom and dad did things and learn from them? Well, that's how I was. I don't know if my parents really realized how intently I enjoyed observing them and learning from them. I used to enjoy watching them do everything and anything. I learned both their good and their unhealthy behaviors and ways, which taught me later how impacting parents are as role models. I must say though how impressed I am with my own parents. They readily admitted that they weren't perfect once I reached my later teen years, and that it was important to them to try hard to improve upon the parenting they received. Their hope is that every succeeding generation within our family can increase the good and decrease the negative. But they also understand that pain and imperfection do add to the mixture of a person's life, enabling them to have certain important growth issues and character weaknesses that deeply serve in one's spiritual growth. Out of all this I have long felt how important it will be for me as a future daddy to continue their legacy, of trying to help each new generation experience a bit more of the goodness and truth of the Lord (and what it means to be a good human being).
The prominent point here for us is, it is so much easier for children to learn love and truth when they experience them living readily and often in their parents. Children model what they see their fathers bringing to life, especially sons do this. And children absorb the real values and perspectives of their fathers, creating similar values and ideals within themselves.
There is a father who once wrote about his son Zachary. One day Zachary brought home his report card that showed he had gotten an average grade on penmanship. His dad examined the report card further to see why. An explanatory note from the teacher said, “Zachary reverts to all capital letters frequently.” Want to guess who had been printing in all capital letters? Guess where Zachary learned it. Zach's father always printed in all capital letters, and his son was modeling his daddy's behavior, literally to the “T.”
In the opening of my sermon I mentioned how great an influence fathers are upon the spiritual outlook of their progeny. What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Schweitzer, and G. K. Chesterton have in common? All of them were prominent Christians of the last century. But these champions of our Heavenly Father had something else in common, as well: All had exceptionally close relationships with their earthly fathers.
In his new book, Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Paul Vitz says he initially set out to examine the lives of prominent atheists of the last four centuries. He discovered that all had fathers who were weak, abusive, missing, or dead. But then he began to wonder: Was it possible that what appears to modern eyes to be defective fathering simply reflected the social conditions of the time?
To find the answer, Vitz compared the family conditions of prominent atheists to those of prominent theists from the same period. What he found is startling: Every theist he studied had a strong and tender bond with his father, or with a father substitute. And as adults, these men became known for taking on the intellectual forces of atheism.
For example, Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher and mathematician, was home-schooled by his Catholic father. Their relationship was close and affectionate. As an adult, Vitz writes, “Pascal wrote `a powerful and imaginative defense of Christianity.'” Alexis de Tocqueville, French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America, loved his father deeply. Tocqueville argued that religion is absolutely necessary in the public life of a nation -- a view that was, Vitz writes, “really quite unusual” at a time when atheistic views of culture “were becoming standard in Europe.”
G.K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist, was deeply attached to his father, who was Chesterton's constant companion when he was a child. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by Hitler, also came from a loving home. His father was a major presence in the lives of his children, whom he treated with respect and affection, Vitz writes.
The great missionary to Africa, Albert Schweitzer, called his father “my dearest friend.” Karl Barth, the Swiss-German theologian, also enjoyed a close relationship with his father. In light of Vitz's research, the importance of good fathering can hardly be overstated. His book helps us understand why scripture commands fathers to provide diligent spiritual leadership to their children -- and why, in Ephesians, fathers are specifically instructed to avoid provoking their children to exasperation. Vitz's remarkable book, Faith of the Fatherless, will help you understand why some people become evangelists for atheism and why others become fervent followers of God.
Paul, in his letter to the early Christian church at Ephesus, begins this lesson in chapter 6 reminding children what it means, in part, to love their parents—that is, to obey them. Not simply to hear what they say, but to follow their guidance and direction. Children and teenagers can give their fathers the best Father's Day gift simply by being cooperative and helpful around the home. And specifically in verse four Paul calls upon fathers to not treat their children in such a way that exasperates their children. Paul tells fathers that they must not provoke their children to wrath. Bengel, considering why this command is so definitely addressed to fathers, says that mothers have a kind of divine patience but “fathers are more liable to be carried away by wrath.”
I find it most intriguing that Paul repeats this injunction in Colossians 3:21. “Fathers,” he says, “do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” This is a good choice of words on Paul's part I feel. It isn't rocket science to understand that essentially good fathering brings up children with a healthy self-esteem and a feeling of hope in their hearts. Poor fathering creates, as Bengel says, the plague of youth, which is a "broken spirit," discouraged by continuous criticism and rebuke and too strict discipline. David Smith thinks that Paul wrote out of bitter personal experience. He writes: “There is here a quivering note of personal emotion, and it seems as though the heart of the aged captive had been reverting to the past and recalling the loveless years of his own childhood. Nurtured in the austere atmosphere of traditional orthodoxy, he had experienced scant tenderness and much severity, and had known that the `plague of youth, is a broken spirit.'”
Dad's play a major role in whether or not their children ultimately feel they have a valuable place in the world. And I do believe deeply that healthy discipline, which is consistent and firm (but not abusive), is part of how both moms and dads help their children to begin to see the conflict of heaven and hell inside themselves and take on the responsibility ultimately of letting God's Kingdom within grow and mature.
Fathers are responsible for the welfare of their children, both physically as protector from natural harm, as well as spiritually as protector from spiritual harm. Great fathers are those who take their material responsibilities seriously and who “get it” that they play a big role in keeping evil away from the home too. They protect from natural as well as spiritual harm. Thus, they make sure that drugs and pornography remain outside the home. And, along with their wives, do well to invite the Lord into the home, in every way possible, and try hard to keep the satanic and hellish forces out. Wise fathers understand, as well, that part of what makes us human is the deep spiritual freedom God keeps us in---as we all exist in equilibrium, in between heaven and hell throughout life. Spiritually learned dads understand that every child God blesses them to help raise must necessarily inherit many inclinations toward evil, and therefore part of what fathers need to teach their children is the wisdom of how to recognize the good from the bad within us and how to best arm ourselves with God's truth to defend us in times of internal trial and tribulation. Good fathers, you see, can help their children to learn what it means to become a spiritual warrior.
Given the male gender psychological make-up, and the fact that men have a fascinating ability to more easily move from truth-first toward what is good for others, we can play a huge role in making sure that our children feel and understand the consequences of their choices and not rescue them too quickly with the great tenderness of love and comfort that moms give so well. Fathers matter a lot, in part, because their “closer to the surface” form of wisdom helps their family better gain clarity about the salient spiritual issues most people must deal with. Children deeply need to experience and encounter their father's love for understanding God and His holy Word. I cannot tell you how many times my own father's reasoning and wisdom has helped me out over the years.
When caring and loving fathers take time to relate with their children about spiritual things, or to kneel with them at night in prayer, children learn how immensely important living faith in the Lord is. And finally, good fathers need to make sure to pass on vital Christian spiritual principles for their children to live by. Principles like those we learn of in the Ten Commandments, or others in the Psalms that teach us to wait patiently on the Lord after reaching out to Him for help. And certainly, who can forget about the awesome principles Christ teaches us within the Beatitudes?
Paul reminds us of the great blessing within the Fourth Commandment—that those children who can discover how to personally honor their father and mother will live long in God's Promised Land. In the New Church we know that on the deeper level of truth, this Commandment calls us all to honor our Heavenly Father, our Lord Jesus Christ. This great and awesome spiritual ability is something that human fathers must grasp and internalize deeply and pass on to their children. This, as well as learning to courageously love one's neighbor, is the basis of entering and inhabiting God's spiritual Promised Land. Our natural fathers, we discover, can help us greatly in discovering what it is like to peer deeply into God's kingdom of heaven, especially when their fathering encompasses the love and wisdom which makes heaven what it is—a kingdom of love, truth and usefulness.
One of many great and important principles wise dads can teach is that ultimately, we all only have one real Father, and He is the Lord. In the end, every aspect of our parenting should serve that greatest end, to help our children come to personally understand and relate to their Divine Parent, who wishes them every blessing and happiness life offers. And so on this Father's Day, I close my message to you in recognition of our Divine Father, our Lord and Savior, Jesus, who gives us life, freedom and protection from all evil.