Monday, June 17, 2013

The Father Factor

You may have heard the story of the prison chaplain who following the overly successful program of providing Mother's Day cards to inmates thought to do the same thing for Father's Day. But as it turned out, not one Father's Day card was requested.

Whether or not this is a true story is beside the point. It's believable. This is not to say that no one has issues with their mother, it's that we have the perception that father issues are very common. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, an American organization dedicated to supporting the role of fathers, "there is a 'father factor' in nearly all of the social issues facing America today". America is not alone in this regard.

Do you have "father factors"? Something that debilitates you based on something that your father did or didn't do. Or maybe it's due to not having a father in your life at all. Or you did, but, not really.

Let me introduce you to my father. I don't have many pictures of him, but of the few I do have, here is one of my favorites:

Sam Gilman was born in 1914 in Russia. He was actually given the Yiddish name "Yoinah" (Jonah), but after emigrating to Montreal at 12 years of age, a girl in his class said, "Let's call him 'Sam'", and it stuck.

My father was a creative man. He had a good singing voice and played saxophone, clarinet, and guitar with jazz being his preferred genre. He also gave private guitar lessons. He took up oil painting in his fifties. Like many Jewish immigrants to North America back then, he worked in the garment industry, working in a dress factory his whole life, eventually becoming a dress designer and supervisor.
He had a great sense of humour with wonderful delivery, but his preferred characteristic was his physical strength. When he was thirteen he fell from a balcony and broke his hip. During his recuperation, he began to build up his upper body and earned the moniker "Tarzan". This picture was taken when he was 20.

His strength was also his weakness as he tended to resort to it in order to resolve problems. He was never physical with me. In fact, he was often appropriately affectionate. When I was young he regularly took me out for breakfast on weekends followed by a trip to the park. The positive effects of this kind of time and attention were offset by his constant griping about my mother. He also had a loud and aggressive temper that regularly agitated life at home. I don't recall ever receiving words of affirmation from him. In fact, I always had a sense that he was very disappointed in me and my three older brothers.

I think I can summarize my "father factor" as confused ambivalence. My father, who seemed to believe in his "Tarzan" persona, was a superhero in his own eyes. Yet he was helpless to solve the most important problems within his own family. Instead of helping me grow to be a man, he lamented my weaknesses, physical and emotional. He abandoned me and my mother just as I was beginning puberty. I only saw him a few times between age 15 and his death in 2001.

Perhaps the greatest thing I didn't receive from my father was a sense of identity. I grew up with no sense of who I was and what living on earth was all about. My anxiety, fear and insecurity were the results of this profound lostness. I don't blame my father for this, since he too was just as lost.

As I was preparing a sermon for Father's Day, I was drawn to the second of Paul's prayers in his letter to the Ephesians (3:14-19). I believe that it was issues of identity and security that were most likely on Paul's mind when he prayed this prayer, which begins, "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" (Ephesians 3:14-15). Much of Ephesian deals with how God through the Gospel made a way for non-Jews to become fully part of his family. Even today many of us, Jews and Gentiles, are bothered by a sense of not quite belonging.

Being insecure in our relationship to God drives some of us to spiritual excess, placing all sorts of unreasonable expectations on ourselves. Instead of resting in the security of our Father's love, some seek connection with God through religious rituals or just the right spiritual experience. Others simply live with a quiet, but debilitating sense of never quite belonging.

So Paul's reference to God the Father as the one "from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named" has to with how identity is ultimately established and defined by God. The only way the Ephesians (and you and me) will ever find a true and lasting sense of belonging is from the Creator God, the original Father, who made us on purpose and for a purpose. It is only from him that we will ever know who we are and why we are here.

Notice what Paul asks the Father to do: "that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being" (3:16). The way to become a secure human being is to be spiritually strengthened by God. What my dad did not (and could not) provide for me, God can. The result of God-provided strength is "so that the Messiah may dwell in your hearts through faith." When God fills us with spiritual strength, then Yeshua will truly be at home in our hearts and will live through us as never before. It is then that we will grasp the bigness of God and his plan for us and the universe (18), know the mind-blowing love of the Messiah, and be filled with God's own fullness (19)! Identity, security, fullness - the kind of father factors we all need - and ones that can only come from our heavenly Father.

So whatever father factors you might be dealing with this Father's Day, God desires something better for you. May he "strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being."

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