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Father Figures

PASTOR'S BLOG | Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene 

PASTOR'S BLOG | Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene  

          Because preacher-types are always grubbing around for fresh nuggets of good material, I smiled at my good fortune in pulling open my Father’s Day file to find Garrison Keillor’s gimlet-eyed observation that any father who has a daughter is nothing but a high-class hostage.  Registering an Amen while remembering how it sometimes seemed to work in my own family of origin with two little sisters who pushed their strategic gender advantage with Dad, I will admit that Keillor had me at “hello.”  Even the best father can at times turn a stony face to his sons, Keillor warned, “He berates them, shakes his antlers, paws the ground, snorts, runs them off into the underbrush, but when his daughter puts her arm over his shoulder and says, ‘Daddy, I need to ask you something,’ he is a pat of butter in a hot frying pan.” 

          Now maybe that is exactly how it should be, especially in a frightful world which as a general rule always seems to suffer not from too much but rather too little evidence of love.  So if my Dad was prone to excess in the passionate defense of his beloved little girls, so be it.  Part of my assigned role in our family was to figure out how to emulate the Old Man in his protective advocacy on behalf of my Mother and sisters, and to that end Dad was most generous in bestowing his advice and counsel whether or not I was listening closely.  Get up and clear the table for your Mother, he would say while I was still grazing contentedly on any scraps that remained available for dismemberment during the years of my ravenous, teen aged appetite.  Open the door and let your sisters go first, he would mutter in stunned amazement over my persistent inability to retain and apply the most rudimentary rules of social etiquette for our family.  But over time his patient insistence seemed to have its effect, and little by little I grew to understand that love was more often than not the aggregate of little acts of kindness and care done with quiet courtesy.  And because ours was a family deeply influenced by a strain of Swedish piety and perfectionism that came through our matrilineal kin, what we were trained in time to do always ranked ahead of anything that we merely said.  Ours were not people who relied upon greeting card sentiments written by complete strangers to express things as important as love and respect for parents.  Doing love was the litmus test.    

        Because I can be a rather slow and stubborn learner, on Father’s Day this year I’m grateful to have been the beneficiary of many men whose investments of time and influence in my life made them very significant father figures for me.  As an example of this dynamic, if there had ever been any lingering doubt in my mind regarding the nature of our previous relationship, by the time one such man asked me to cut up his Filet Mignon into bite-sized morsels on his plate it was apparent that I had somehow become one of his good friends.  Had I been paying any closer attention to his earlier gestures of trust and confidence, that modest request for my assistance would have come as no surprise.  There had been other times that he had tossed me his car keys, insisting that I jump behind the wheel to chauffeur the two of us to another one of those interminable business meetings where you know you are expected to care passionately about an intended purpose that remains every bit as clear as mud.  But even when he was making similar concessions to the fatigue and atrophied muscles resulting from the Post-Polio Syndrome which made these final years of his life such a challenge, any time you spent in his company seemed rich by comparison to the way all traces of joy will often leach out of the lives of so many who suffer.  Street smart and with a righteous but wicked sense of humor that set him apart from the company of the timid bureaucrats you often run into in his line of work, for me he always remained one of those sharp originals that make you thank the Lord for your crazy good luck in having better friends than you deserve.  So when I heard that he had died last week, the news itself threw me into a bit of a funk simply because the thought of not having such a good man available to talk with me just in case I fell into the grips of one of those days simply made it seem like it was already one of those days.  As I had written in the obituary when my own father died a few years back, “To be with him was indeed fun, and to be without him will not.”

          Probably because my friend served faithfully and well as the leader of some institutions which had enormous impact on my own life and career, in recent days I have been thinking about some of those remarkable contributors whose gifts to us only seemed to surface over time as a result of the extraordinary adversity they had overcome.  More often than not, these deeply personal traits, skills, and graces that sometimes make such a profound and significant difference in situations that give life to individuals and the institutions they inhabit seem to emerge almost by accident.  For example, as a pastor, rarely do I meet someone who is actually living the life that he or she planned.  Instead, most of us usually seem to tumble headlong into a very different type of life, a life in which we may at times bark our shins against the kind of hard and unyielding circumstances that become formative for our character in ways that never develop as the result of our comfort and convenience.  This is especially true for leaders, which may go a long way in explaining why so many of our greatest leaders are occasionally quite reluctant to accept the roles for which they are later remembered and celebrated.  As Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes noted in a recent essay, “They had other plans for life.  But something happened to push them into a responsible role.  It wasn’t really their skills or résumés, and certainly not their ambition.  Mostly, the great leaders were just true believers in a cause. . . There’s no evidence that these leaders were having a good time along the way, but they knew what they had to do.”  And then Barnes moves in for the kill by drawing a rather familiar contrast:  “The worst leaders are those who narcissistically believe they’re destined to greatness.  That always ends in a Waterloo, a maniac fiddling while Rome burns, or even the horrors of a holocaust.  History cautions us never to have faith in a leader who isn’t reluctant.” 

          With this kind of precautionary hesitation in mind, I have one more story to tell and then I will be done.  In this instance, the narrative comes from an Amish community in Northern Indiana where the neighbors would occasionally come together to select a new pastor from among the various elders of the congregation.  As you probably guessed, on those occasions they did not think to contract for the services of an executive search firm to recruit a new leader for the faithful.  Instead, they would simply gather all of the elders from within their own congregation who were known by age and experience to be eligible for consideration to assume the duties and responsibilities of the pastoral role.  Then in a kind of Amish version of musical chairs, each of the elders are invited to select a single hymnal from a stack that has been placed before them on a table in the fellowship hall.  In only one of those available hymnals, the other members of the congregation have secretly inserted a hidden slip of paper that will inform the recipient that they will henceforth serve as the new pastor of the community.  As you might guess, non-Amish visitors to the community often ask, “But what if the person who takes hold of that particular hymnal does not feel adequate to the task?”  “Well, the way we look at it,” explain the patient members of the congregation in reply, “I don’t think we would want them as our pastor if they did feel adequate for the work.”  Apparently it would seem that there are still some wise folks living in Northern Indiana who believe that humility rather than braggadocio is a fairly essential quality of leadership.  My sense at the present moment is that we might consider their quirky perspective and wisdom worthy of preservation.  One hopes by the grace of God we will never be too late to do so.

          If by now you are thinking that perhaps there might be something for you to yet be and do in accepting your own role as a person of influence who will leave a legacy of blessing for others, let me simply remind you that sometimes the most important of gifts only develop over time.  Learning how to choose today something of lasting value and significance that will only become visibly evident on some tomorrow far removed from your present circumstances is a critical skill of spiritual discernment that can require a great deal of both faith and practice.  As the late Lewis Smedes, long time professor at Fuller Seminary often used to put it:  The ultimate meaning of the promises I make today will be clear to me only at the very end of my life; but the eventual meaning of my life at its final end will be forever different precisely because I am making this promise today.  In other words, every promise you make creates a set of possibilities that you could never fully imagine right now.  But keeping those promises, to yourself, to your spouse, to your kids, to your Lord and his Church; these steadfast expressions of daily faithfulness do in fact change you for the better over time.

          God knows whether or not you will choose to embark on such a path, but I sure hope you do.  I suspect that the Lord also knows that we are still much in need for some worthy father figures.

 Jeff Crosno