By Bruce Epperly
With the upcoming birth of my first grandson later this summer, I have been pondering parenting a great deal. The boy I helped deliver at the hospital almost thirty years ago is soon to be a father himself. In thinking about my future as a grandparent, I have been pondering my relationship with my own father. One of the great insights into my father came when our son was born. I realized how my dad felt about me. I understood his love, when I first experienced my love for my own son.
Many pastors are uncomfortable about promoting close associations between secular holidays and the life of the church. This is understandable for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, I believe that the church is not called to abandon the secular world, but to bring wholeness and holiness to important events in our lives, to raise them up beyond consumerism and selfishness to gratitude, service, and care.
Parenting is much more than a Hallmark card or movie (as much as I like these); it is a lifetime, heart-felt, embodied, and practiced commitment to bless another person with your greatest love, regardless of cost or unexpected events. While our quality of parenting vacillates, still parenting asks everything of us. Our child is always “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” whether he or she is a crying newborn, a young person entering the world of sexuality and sexual identity, graduating from college, or getting married and having her or his own children. We parents still have a protective spirit toward them: when my son was being treated for cancer two years ago, I recall walking home with him in the evenings after a day of chemotherapy. In the darkness of city streets, I was alert to the slightest sound and although my son towers over me, once again I needed to be on guard for him, ready to offer my modest peacemaking skills or aggression in his defense.
As a father, I learned of my father’s love from the inside, and I suspect that my son will know me better when he has his own son in August. Father’s Day reminds us of the giftedness of life and the care we’ve received from others. Now, I must say that Father’s and Mother’s Days can be painful for many persons: not all parents love their children – some abuse and others are absent, physically or emotionally, some are too present in narcissistic ways. But, if we’re blessed, we have either a biological father or an older male who helps us, albeit imperfectly, with our journey into adulthood. There is no one way to be a man or woman and a good father accepts his son or daughter’s uniqueness and seeks to nurture its growth in ways congruent with her or his deepest gifts.
Father’s Day is about gratitude and care. I am grateful for my Dad – Everett. I am a theologian and pastor because of my Dad. As a small child, I spent many hours listening to my father read to me. Later, I would do the same with my son. We read Steinbeck, the Hardy Boys mysteries, and baseball books and the sports page every morning before my mother and brother awakened. He played catch with me, regularly calling balls and strikes in our imaginary games. He taught me baseball and books. Later, when I went to college and graduate school, we would talk theology on regular evening walks or hikes in Alum Rock Park, above San Jose, CA. He was proud of my books and accomplishments and although he was more understated than my mom, he shared my good news with his friends at church.
I hope I learned a bit about grandparenting from my dad. Although he was 70 when my son was born (I’ll be 57), he did his best to come into the world of a young boy – of Star Wars and Transformers and Indiana Jones. Despite a hearing loss, he went to movies and did his best to follow to follow the fast-paced plots. He loved me and he loved his grandson. And, my love for my son will flow to his newborn son.
So, this is an “homage” to my Dad, to Everett, and a call to pastors to emphasize the role of older adults – fathers, mothers, mentors, teachers – who guided us on our way. Sometimes, the greatest gift is “thank you” and your own embodiment of the loving guidance and care you received from others with children, your own or others. So, on Father’s Day and throughout the year, with or without Hallmark cards, the church can be a place of gratitude for love, care, sacrifice, vulnerability, letting go, and adventure, and it can be a place where new parents are supported, guided, and counseled in their own journeys of loving a new generation.
Bruce Epperly is professor of practical theology and director of continuing education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living.