(N.B. The image above is of the original Winnie the Pooh on display at the New York Public Library. These toys belonged to Christopher Robin Milne and were used by A.A. Milne as the inspiration for his Winnie the Pooh stories.)
Sermon for Father’s Day, the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18th, 2017.
The best argument for the truth of the doctrine of original sin, and the fallen state of our human nature, is living with a three year old (or maybe a two year old, or a five year old). Not every moment in the life of a young child is precious, let’s be honest. There are some moments that absolutely require endurance; there are some moments that are almost intolerable. It’s true that children are born with the capacity to love, but they are born with a lot of other capacities as well, some that are a lot less charming. They are born with impatience; they are born with tempers; they are born sometimes being greedy or selfish; they are born with a lot of things.
It takes a parent that can see past bad behavior in a child; that can continue to love a child even though they are not necessarily being lovely. It takes a parent in order to shape the life of that child. It’s true that we do learn some sins as we grow older through life, but some things just seem to come from the beginning. We are born with all these different capacities and it takes a loving and patient parent to love us before we are loveable; to love us despite our wickedness sometimes. It takes a loving and patient parent to spend the time to shape us, and to shape our character, and our souls, to form us into hopefully decent human beings. Parents, more than just protecting and providing for their children, a good parent should shape their child, should help to form their child as they grow older.
Now we could talk about mothers and fathers this morning. I think the role of a parent is interchangeable between the two. The reality is that we are not here this morning to celebrate a gender, we are here to celebrate a role. And the role of Father which we celebrate on Father’s Day, is in many ways similar to the role of Mother: it is the presence in a young life that not only protects and provides for, but also shapes for the future; that guides; that wants to be a part of that life, and not just create it and walk away. And our parents, they shape our lives in so many ways (by their example, by their patience), but one of the ways that I think parents most shape our lives (which they may not realize) is through how they play with us.
You see, I think part of the role of a parent is not just to protect and to provide for a child, but I think a good parent will also understand that playing with their children is crucial. Now you may think that playtime for a child is just time for their pacification, for them to let their imaginations run wild and their fancies set free. But I think that in that playtime of make believe and storytelling is where character is tested and formed.
If you look at some classic fairy tales and if you listen to the way that children play as their act out their fantasies, they are testing who they want to be in the world, and what they want to be in the world. They are trying to imagine what their world and what their life can be like. What better time for a parent to help shape their child’s future than in playtime? It enables parents to share stories with them that can affect the rest of their life. If you want to test what makes a good children’s story, go and read it now as an adult. If it still touches you; if it is still relevant to your life as an adult; that is a good children’s story. Children’s stories should be taken seriously. They are not there just to pacify the child so that you can go on and do something else. A good children’s story should be as relatable to your life as it is to theirs. One of the best things that a father or a mother can do for their child is to tell them stories that will mold them and shape them for the rest of their lives.
I was revisiting some of my favorite children’s stories these past couple weeks and rereading them. I was just amazed at how much I get out of them now, probably more than I did as a kid. For me the ones that are my classic favorites are The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I have found that I can go back to those stories and find them perfectly relevant to my life in so many ways now, perhaps even more so now than when I was little. And the beautiful thing about both The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, is that both of those stories were created by a father telling a story to his son. It was a father creating story time with his children that created both of those stories. And what a gift that has been, not just to their children, but to children throughout the world. Generations at this point now have had these wonderful make believe stories that have the power to shape who we are, and to shape our character.
One set of stories that I didn’t actually come to as a child (I came to them as an adult) is the Narnia series, the fantasy series written by C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis whom I am very fond of as an almost academic writer and as a spiritual writer, (and who can be a little difficult to approach because he is very, very smart and very heady) wrote these wonderful stories that just entrance children, and I think relate the faith to them and shape them into people of character. As I was reading about Lewis and his creation of The Chronicles of Narnia, I cam across this article written by C.S. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. I want to share a couple pieces of what he wrote about his stepfather:
Lewis (I’ve always called him Jack, the nickname used by everyone who knew him) married my mother, Joy Davidman, when I was 10 years old. Four years after that my mother died. I was estranged from my father, who lived in America.
Suddenly a 62-year-old professor of medieval English literature who’d been a bachelor for almost all his life was the closest thing I had to a father. Jack was as grief-stricken as I was. And yet he did everything he could to raise me. I saw a C. S. Lewis few people knew, and I grew to love him deeply.
I didn’t feel that way on first meeting him. My own father was a successful writer, but he was an alcoholic and by the time he and my mother divorced he frightened me. My mother got to know Jack Lewis after writing to tell him how much his books on Christianity had meant to her.
The two began corresponding and then my mother moved to England and enrolled me in school there. I was excited to meet the author of the Narnia books and I pictured someone from Narnia itself, maybe a knight with a sword.
What I encountered instead was a bald, stout old man dressed in a shabby tweed coat and with tobacco stains on his teeth and hands.
I was crushed—until I began to get to know him. Almost immediately I noticed how funny he was. You always knew which room of the house he was in because someone was laughing there.
One of the first things he did was invite me out for a walk in the woods behind his house near Oxford. Jack loved trees and animals and gardens. More than that, he knew exactly how to talk to a child.
He was straightforward and took me seriously, not like some grown-ups, who get cutesy and condescending around children. He asked me what I liked to read and told me his favorite childhood books, including the Beatrix Potter stories, which he said he still loved as an adult.
Most of all we talked about Narnia. We often spoke of it as if it were a real place, as if a faun or a centaur might appear in the woods at any moment. It was a delightful game.
Two years after my mother died I learned that my father had been diagnosed with cancer and, rather than face the disease, had committed suicide. I was now an orphan. Jack knew just what to say to me.
He didn’t offer trite condolences—he knew too much about pain and grief for that. There had been tragedy in my family and he didn’t try to sugarcoat that. He could have washed his hands of me but he didn’t. Instead, he made me a part of the last years of his life.
Jack died in 1963, when I was 18. At his funeral I saw a candle burning in a simple candlestick on his coffin. Others say they remember no such thing. But I am certain I saw that candle. Its flame burned unwaveringly through the whole service.
It was a perfect image of Jack’s love—for me, for my mother, for anyone blessed enough to have come into his circle of friends.
Jack Lewis embodied values that sound old-fashioned these days—courtesy, duty, loyalty. He was steadfast in his devotion to me and so I now do my best to remain faithful to him. What would I have done without him, alone there in England with no one to turn to?
I had gone as a child hoping to meet a knight in armor from a fairy tale. I got something far better, a father who understood that what children need most of all is unwavering love.
The complete article can be found here.
Douglas Gresham had two father figures in his life: one person who biologically created him and assisted in his birth, and another who helped to shape his soul and who cared to form and look after his character. One of those was his real father.
Jesus, when he is teaching and talking, time and time again he refers to God as “Father,” or “My Father” over and over again. He teaches his disciples to pray beginning with “Our Father.” He tells them in today’s gospel that when they are afraid of what to say that the spirit of their father will speak through them. So my question to you is this: when Jesus refers to God as “Father” which kind of father do you think he is talking about?
Do you think he is referring to a father that creates and then walks away, having done his job at the birth and feeling satisfied that his role is complete? Or, do you think the Jesus is referring to a father who is far more intimately involved in the lives of his children? Do you think he is referring to a father who wants to shape and mold, to live next to and besides, and yes even to play with his children?
I am sure, I am confident, that the father of Jesus isn’t merely a creator that walks away from his creation. The father of Jesus loves his children even when they are not loveable, as Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans this morning. The father of Jesus chooses to live among his children to share in their pains. He wants to shape the character of his children. He wants to guide them. He wants to feel their pain; he wants to share in their joy. The father of Jesus takes his children seriously. And as we have learned through the life of Christ, the father of Jesus very often seeks to teach his children using stories. More often than not, when Jesus was teaching his disciples it was by using a story (a parable). That is how he reached out to them to shape their character and their souls.
Our human fathers, they will always be imperfect. No matter how bad or good our human fathers may be, we will always have another father. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to preach a message to people who were like sheep without a shepherd; people who were longing and needing to be loved, to be shaped, to be guided. He sent his disciples out to those people with the message that they DO have a shepherd. They do have someone who cares, not just about creating them, but about shaping them. That they have a perfect father in heaven.
C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man, and one of the best apologists for Christianity in the history of the world, but he like all men was far from perfect. His strength as a father came not from his stature, his biology or his genes; his strength as a father didn’t even come from having all the right answers or from being brilliant. His strength as a father came from his steadfast love and from his willingness to take a child seriously.
Fathers, we honor you all this morning, but remember as a father, as a human father, you will always be imperfect. You will make mistakes and that is OK. Fathers don’t have to be knights in shining armour riding into town with their swords ready to defend and prepared to defeat every evil. You don’t have to be perfect, just be sure that in your words and in your actions, and especially in the stories that you tell your children, that you are always pointing them to the one father that is perfect.