The first rule of writing is: “Write what you know.”
What should be the first rule of preaching?
If preaching were limited to what we know sermons would be shorter, for sure. But they would be less interesting, less challenging.
The first rule of preaching is, “Preach that with which you are struggling.” What makes a sermon interesting, challenging or even exciting is that the one delivering the sermon reveals part of his or her struggle with real life issues.
Without a sense of struggle sermon simply sound silly.
Religious fundamentalism, by definition, is the practice of pretending you don’t have to struggle…the answers are all there and all you have to do is open the Torah, the Koran or come to Jesus, or listen to the Guru who will tell you all the answers. So much silliness.
Sermons must be, to some extent, confessional. Not in the sensational sense. Not overly personal; not a revelation of things which ought to remain private; but personal and confessional in the sense of ‘dealing out one’s life, life passed through the fire of thought,’ to paraphrase Emerson. Or, perhaps better, The Velveteen Rabbit said that what we want and need is to be real.
Of course a sermon should be thoughtful—well thought out. But it should not be pre-fabricated, in the sense that one is simply saying things that have already been decided, like the verdict.
Listeners want to know something about the struggle that’s behind the verdict, the opinion, the idea.
The delivery of a sermon should include at least some spontaneity, some construction going on in the moment, like a good, energetic, and somewhat intimate conversation. The listener needs to feel some sense of dialogue, not simply a one-way process of talking down…from on high.
This preface is somewhat confessional in itself, since it’s meant to prepare you for what’s to follow, which is this preacher’s ongoing struggle with the issue of faith that fathers need for a lifelong commitment to a very challenging role.
At the heart of fatherhood—or personhood for that matter, is the issue of faith. Contrary to popular opinion, faith does not mean having all the answers wrapped up to put under your pillow. On the contrary, mature faith is the ability to live without the answers. Faith is the ability to hold opposing thoughts simultaneously.
The Baptist minister and theologian Paul Tillich touched this idea when he provoked us by saying: “God does not exist. God is existence. God is not a being, God is the ground of all being.”
The issue of fatherhood is a test of faith. Fathers need faith, but not in the traditional sense—not in the sense of thinking they know how to do it right. But in the sense that a father who is working on it—trying to be the best he can be—knows that he can’t be certain that what he is doing is the right thing at that moment.
It’s not always appropriate to hug your child, is it. It’s not always appropriate to say, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes it is. And sometimes it isn’t. It’s always a challenge, and that challenge doesn’t end with your child’s graduation or wedding.
There are always new demands on fatherhood or fathering—demands peculiar to each age or time, as the culture changes.
Fatherhood is a wonderful, painfully challenging role, and the subject of this particular struggle!
On the one hand fatherhood is a pure blessing. Nothing else in my life has come close to bringing me to such heights or such depth.
On the other hand, fatherhood is the greatest ongoing challenge of my life—how can I be a good father to Susan and Jonathan? A good grandfather to Alex and Hannah, a good father-in-law to Chip and a good stepfather to Carlyn? That’s the million dollar question, and there is no final answer! There is no final answer.
The question and the challenge brings me to my knees, again and again. Being a father has made me proud, and, as Hubert Humphrey put it, ‘pleased as punch.’ It has also made me feel the need for forgiveness—for the faults and failures on the one hand, and lack of wisdom necessary for such an awesome task.
Fatherhood puts a new twist on the very idea of forgiveness, and to suggest that I know every aspect of this tricky process—of forgiveness…of feeling forgiven and of forgiving…would be grossly misleading. I don’t. And, by the way, neither do you.
We fathers, if we’re open and honest, will acknowledge our struggle, our limits…with humility. Adult children, if they are open and honest, will acknowledge their own limits, with humility, when it comes to the ongoing process of being the child of this particular father.
Times change. Roles and responsibilities change. During my 36-plus years of trying to be a good father, there has been a significant reconceptualizing of the traditional role of father.
Think about it. Think about the word: reconceptualizing. It’s a wonderful word, as words go. A concept is an idea, a thought, an opinion, a belief. We conceptualize that which is most important in life. To reconceptualize is to change the meaning of something so basic; it’s like changing the rules in the middle of the game!
This is exactly what has been demanded of fathers during the past few decades.
So-called traditional fathering was characterized by father as head of the household, the final authority, the last word, as in, “father knows best.”
How would you characterize traditional fathering?
One penetrating illustration would be to have mother threatening unruly children by saying, “Just wait till your father gets home.”
Many of us grew up hearing that. I did.
There was no razor strap in our house, but there were instances when my father’s belt was removed and used, ever so effectively! Even his holding the belt had its effect.
I’m not suggesting that was the right way, or that those were ‘the good old days.’ The corporal punishment debate continues, and certainly the weight has shifted from spankings to talking it through or taking a time out.
Some say that something about fatherhood has been lost because of the lack of good, firm disciplinarian action. Some well-meaning Bible quoting folks remind us what it says in Proverbs: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
The point is that the role of father has changed.
Father’s are much more likely to be present at the birth of their child; they are much more likely to change diapers—we see changing tables in most men’s rest rooms now. Fathers are much more likely to read stories and tuck children into bed…to be nurturers more than disciplinarians.
Some of us who became father before these basic, important—and, for the record, I believe to be good, necessary changes—have been criticized for not catching up with the times. But such criticism is sometimes retroactive, coming from adult children who look back and think we fathers should have known better!
We were doing it the way we learned to do it, from generation to generation. Yes, we made mistakes. Some of us were too strict or too distant; some of us were too liberal or lenient—we failed to set appropriate, necessary limits, or we tried to be our children’s friends, failing to provide them with a father they needed more than a friend they might have thought was ‘cool.’
Some father weren’t available emotionally, believing they were the bread-winners and they were out winning the bread as best they could. The criticisms come from all directions, of course.
Truth be told, there are some men who simply feel inadequate to the task.
Some foolishly believed that the task of fathering stopped at the graduation, the wedding, or the move out of the house.
Many fathers feel like failures—if not all the time, then some of the time. Especially on Father’s Day, perhaps!
We fathers wonder how to do it well, this fathering thing.
We worry about spoiling our children, giving them everything they ask for as soon as they ask, depriving them of the opportunity to postpone gratification, or to know the joy of working for something and feeling good about it.
There’s a song in Jesus Christ Superstar that includes the line: “I don’t know how to love him.”
Many thoughtful, sensitive fathers often feel like singing that one! The main thing, of course, is to love them. Someone said that the essence of faith is ‘to love God and do what you will.’
The essence of the faith fathers need is to ‘love your child and do what you will,’ even though you are bound to make mistakes, or what the child tells you is or was a mistake!
Truth be told, I have loved being a father from day one. And I remember day one so well. It was 1963, before fathers were even allowed into the delivery room, much less expected to be there! The early days of fathering are summarized in that wonderful song which ran through my mind for years: “Daddy’s Little Girl.”
You’re the end of the rainbow, my pot of gold, you’re Daddy’s little girl, to have and to hold, a precious gem is what you are, you’re Mommy’s bright and shining star. You’re the spirit of Christmas the star on the tree, you’re the Easter Bunny to Mommy and me, you’re sugar you’re spice, you’re everything nice and you’re Daddy’s little girl.
For years I couldn’t hear or sing that song without tears.
I walked that ‘little girl’ down this aisle fourteen years ago; it was the longest walk I’ve ever taken—it took all those years, all those years! And suddenly it was over. It was exquisitely and painfully changing! Time to reconceptualize!
Then came grandfathering! I like the joke that says something like: “If I knew how wonderful grandfathering was I might have skipped being a father and went right to it.”
Now I’m challenged by step-fathering. But that, too, is grist for another mill.
In his book-length poem, The People, Yes Carl Sandburg inserts this father-focused passage:
A father sees a son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
‘Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.’
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum and monotony
and guide him amid sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
‘Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.’
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
The growth of a frail flower in a path up
has sometimes shattered and split a rock.
A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
And left them dead years before burial:
The quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
Has twisted good enough men
Sometimes into dry thwarted worms.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use amongst other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is a born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
He will be lonely enough
to have time for the work
he knows as his own.
—From ‘The People, Yes’ Carl Sandburg
Another poem would be ‘a father sees his daughter nearing womanhood, what should he tell that daughter?’
At our Coming of Age ceremony a couple of weeks ago we heard fathers and mothers talking to their sons and daughters who are ‘nearing manhood…womanhood.’
Now we all know, of course, that there are men who have no business becoming fathers.
There are boys who become fathers by accident, the result of testosterone and do what boys do; they run away.
There are men who decide that they will not become fathers, for a variety of reasons, some of which they are or may be ‘aware,’ and some reasons which may be on a less-than-conscious level.
There are men who want to become fathers but can’t; some of these become step-fathers, or adoptive fathers.
Fathers come in all kinds of sizes, shapes, colors and I also want to respond to your comments about growing—away from the judgmental self toward the accepting self…of oneself as well as others.
Sandburg’s poetic attempt prompted me to turn it around, instead of a father seeing a son nearing manhood and telling him things, a son sees his father…so this is what I’ve penned these words:
A son sees a father struggling to be the best he can be.
What shall he tell that father?
“Relax, Dad. Don’t sweat it.”
And this might serve him for the anxiety and nervousness.
“Pay attention to the little things, Pop.”
And this, too, might serve him.
Sometimes the growth of a relationship can be nurtured better by not trying
more than by trying too hard.
Setting limits counts, and it’s still part of a father’s job,
or even a grandfather’s or step-father’s job.
Tell Dad to be a fool every so often and to have no shame
over have been a fool, hoping to learn from the folly.
Tell him to tell his stories again and again—
the stories of what it was like when he was a kid
and how things have changed
and how he had to struggle when money was tight
and jobs were scarce
and you didn’t think the world to owed you a living.
Tell him you understand that you may be a bit spoiled
but it isn’t his fault
and, besides, you have your own struggles
even if they’re not as visible as they were
during the depression, during the war,
during the unemployment.
Tell him to be a good receiver
and to believe what you wrote
on the Father’s Day card
that he really is loved, admired and appreciated.
Tell him to enjoy himself and have a life of his own;
Tell him you want to give back some of what he gave you
all those years.
Tell him to be ready to laugh freely and openly
and not be ashamed of tears either.
Tell him you understand that he has an accumulation of
memories which you know he cherishes
and those memories are connected to the tears.
Tell him he doesn’t have to be Super-Dad
that you know it’s not a Leave-it-to-Beaver life
and you know the world has changed
and fathers are often confused
but he should enjoy the moment anyway
because this is not dress rehearsal.
Tell him to be different from other Dads
and not to worry about being different
because he is unique
and doesn’t have to go to the ballgames
or fishing trips or father-son wilderness trips—
then he may accept himself
and his way of being a father.
Let me close with a Father’s day question, even though it’s not the million dollar question—maybe only the $100 question: where was Father’s Day first observed?
Was it San Francisco, Cleveland, Spokane or Washington D.C.,? Want to phone a friend? Let’s ask the audience:
It was Spokane! On June 19, 1910 at Spokane, Wash., where the local YMCA and the Spokane Ministerial Association persuaded the city fathers to set aside a Sunday to “honor thy father.”
The idea has come from local housewife Mrs. John Bruce Dodd, 28, who has been inspired by the selflessness and responsibility of her father William Smart, a Civil War veteran who raised his daughter and her five brothers after the early death of his wife.
So Father’s Day was initiated to honor what has become the nurturing father; not the head-of-the-household father, or the disciplinarian father, or the bread-winner father, but the father who raised six children after the death of his wife.
Perhaps the sermon can be summarized by the poet Wilhelm Bush who put it this way:
Becoming a father is easy enough
But being one can be rough.
If you are a father, enjoy. Forgive yourself.
If you have a father, enjoy…appreciate. Forgive him.
Yes, it’s a struggle. Yes, it’s a challenge. It’s worth all the effort you can give.