To all the fathers out there – Happy Father’s Day. And to all the wives and moms who help keep us dads in line, thank you and we celebrate you today as well. I also want to take a second and ask God to bring peace and comfort to those who may be missing a dad today, and to those whom Father’s Day doesn’t feel like an occasion to celebrate. In my message this morning you'll hear that Father's Day doesn't always mean the same thing to everyone.
For me, there could be no greater honor than to share Father’s Day with you all here in church this morning. I’m grateful that my dear friends from St. Peters church thought enough of me and what I might have to say about fatherhood to invite me. Father’s Day more than any other day has strengthened my relationship with God.
I have the added honor of having my dad here with us today, which makes this a little more meaningful. My mom – who keeps him in line – is here as well. So, it’s a special opportunity for me.
So, this message starts when I was 30 years old. I was finishing up what has easily been the most challenging decade of my life. The nature of those challenges is an entire sermon series in itself. I'll simply tell you I'd been living in some pretty dark days and had been creating plenty of darkness in the lives of the family and friends around me.
But after more than a decade of stumbling towards it and being tripped up by it, I was holding a business degree from Ohio State University. And so I did what every recent graduate with a business degree does – I went to work as a therapeutic counselor in a wilderness camp serving at risk kids in the middle of the Croatan National Forest in eastern North Carolina.
A few months into that experience, in the middle of a hot, Carolina summer, I found myself canoeing for 3 weeks down the Edisto River in South Carolina. I was joined by 10 pretty tough teenage boys and 3 other counselors. The program director who hired me told me a major trip like that early in my career would be a great learning opportunity. And boy was he ever right.
About a week down the river the heat and exhaustion began taking a toll on all of us. I discovered with a little bit of coffee, even the kind brewed by soaking a sock filled with coffee grounds in water heated by the flames of a small fire along a river bank, adults can forge on. Kids, on the other hand, especially kids who have no idea how to manage the stresses life throws their way, have no interest in forging.
Kids would rather explode.
One late afternoon around this time we pulled over to a small clearing in the woods along the river to set up camp. One of the young men, Jimmy, became agitated because he felt the counselors were asking him to do more than his fair share of the work setting up camp. His protest started with an angry look and quickly escalated from there. He began cussing at the counselors and the rest of the guys in the group. He obviously thought they were part of the plot to unload all the work on him.
One of the kids had heard enough of Jimmy's accusations and decided to shut him up. He charged after Jimmy. The lead counselor intervened. One of the other counselors hurried to assist him. For a few moments, as the counselors tried to build order out of chaos, bodies intermingled and whipped around like they were unknowingly trapped inside a high-speed blender. Then, almost as soon as it was turned on, the blender stopped, Jimmy lay pinned to the ground by two counselors. I had witnessed my first physical restraint.
Restraints were an ugly part of camp. But the reality is they were often necessary to prevent kids from hurting themselves or each other. I can't prove how much the two are related, but it was my experience that some of the most life-altering conversations took place in the aftermath of some of the ugliest problems. Many of them involving these restraints.
I'll likely never know how much our conversation altered Jimmy's life after he was restrained that day, but it impacted my life as much as any conversation I've ever had in my life.
You see Jimmy eventually calmed down. He and the counselors re-joined the rest of the group. Then we did what we always did to solve a problem. We huddled together and talked about it. Some discussions went well. Some not so well. Some carried on for hours in chaos and confusion before all of that came together in the middle of us as wisdom and understanding. Like our discussion with Jimmy.
I don't remember much about the first several hours of that conversation. The chaos and confusion. We talked about a number of unrelated things, I'm sure, from the most popular gangster rap artist at the time to how much better a McDonald's quarter pounder with cheese sounded than the can of beans and spam we would heat over an open fire for dinner that night.
But here is what I do remember; I remember every word and every tear of how that conversation ended.
I remember Jimmy asking us if we wanted him to tell us what was really bothering him. I remember how quiet we got when he asked that. And not because of his words, but because of his cold and watery eyes. I remember when he took a step toward our lead counselor. He was no longer angry, but clearly was intent on making a point. He pointed his finger at the counselor, and with tears now streaming down his face, he asked him, "Do you have any idea what it is like to grow up without a father?"
A lump barged into my throat, crowding everything from my breathing to my thinking. Then Jimmy spun around until he located another counselor, the tears now beyond control. He asked him the same thing: "Do you have any idea what it's like to grow up without a father?"
I knew what was coming next. Jimmy looked at me. He pointed his finger at me. It looked like a missile firing my way.
"Do you have any idea what it's like to grow up without your father?"
You know, the truth is I didn’t. And until that moment, at 30 years old, I don’t think I’d ever stopped to consider it. I didn’t have to. My dad was always there. When you always have something, it makes it easy to live life overlooking what it means to be without it. In Jimmy’s tears I had the opportunity to see who I was in that moment was largely influenced by having a dad in my life. And everything Jimmy wasn’t - was rooted in the suffering he endured being without one.
Let me take you 12 years ahead in this message. I’m sitting in the waiting room of my wife Katie’s doctor’s office. She was about a week overdue with our first child. I was reading a golf magazine while a dozen or so pregnant women sat around me talking about what life was like being pregnant at their various stages of pregnancy. We’ll just say I felt a little out of place.
I didn’t have long to settle into my awkwardness, however.
I’ll never forget the look on Katie’s face when she came rushing through the waiting room – as much as a woman over 9 months pregnant can rush. She said, “you need to get me to the hospital.” Trust me, over the last 19 years I’ve heard her say to me “you need to” a million times – but this “you need to” will always be a little different. There was a sense of uncertainty and fear and urgency I’d never seen.
Fortunately, the hospital was right across the street and we were there in no time.
The next thing I remember with any real clarity is a team of doctors and nurses wheeling my wife away. They were all wearing the same looks of uncertainty and fear and urgency Katie had back at the doctor’s office. In that moment I said what I will always remember as the first real prayer of my life. Because in that moment all I could think to say is God I’m completely helpless here. I have no idea what to say other than I trust you with this one.
That moment has helped me understand that’s God’s favorite prayer from me: God my strength is nothing here - and yours is everything.
And I know God was with us in those next hours.
Relatively quickly it became clear that Katie was going to be fine, but there were more questions than answers when it came to our baby. He was ultimately put in a helicopter and flown from Morehead City to Pitt Memorial Hospital in eastern North Carolina where they had a very highly regarded neonatal intensive care unit – forever known to me as a NICU - the place where angels work.
I made what seemed like a weeks-long drive to get to our baby, who we'd named Elliott. When I got there, I was met by an older nurse. To this day I don’t know here name, but I’ll always remember her. I told her who I was and what I was doing there, and I was pretty anxious to find out how our son was doing. She clearly sensed that in me. So, she wasted no time in putting a hand on my shoulder and saying what to this day are the most comforting words I’ve ever heard:
She said, “honey, your baby’s going to be just fine.”
In the months leading up to having our first baby I always imagined how I was going to meet him. It was going to be a scene from the movies. The doctor hands the baby to mom and then mom hands the baby to me. As I walked with this nurse through this NICU, looking at incubator after incubator filled with tiny little babies all connected to wires and tubes, I realized that wasn’t going to be my meet my son scene. But I look back on the moment of meeting my son and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God choreographed every step of the walk and the introduction that was about to happen.
We stopped at an incubator in a far back corner of the room. She said there he is. There’s your son. I walked over to the incubator and looked down in it. As I did my eyes made contact with a pair of the most beautiful little eyes I'd ever seen. And in that moment, I was overwhelmed with a love unlike any love I’d ever felt before. All I could think to say in that moment was “hey pal, I’m your father.”
Here’s what I want you to know about those words and that moment. In that moment and to this day I hear the echo of those words.
“Hey pal, I’m your father.”
But the echo is no longer my voice. In that moment I felt and heard God say that as much as the love you feel for that child overwhelms you, my love for you is infinitely greater. In spite of whatever darkness you’ve lived in, are living in or will ever live in – I am your father.
A couple of years later I got to experience that echo again when our son Ian was born. Although Ian decided to arrive much more according to that movie script. From that moment on it’s never been lost on me that God could have chosen any role in our lives. He is God, after all. But he chose to be our father.
Ephesians 1:4-5 says: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will
You know, every time we say the Lord’s prayer, we acknowledge this adoption to sonship. When Christ taught his disciples how to pray, the first words he taught them to say was “our Father.” Think about that for a minute. This is the living, breathing son of God saying this is not just my father, this is our father. The father who decided long before we were ever born, the father who decided that in spite of all the imperfections we’ve had and will ever have, this is the father who longs to have us as his children.
Let me give you some things to think about in these stories.
You know, that young boy Jimmy, he, like all of us wants to belong. I believe an overwhelming amount of the collective human suffering in this world traces back to a lack of belonging. We want to belong to our parents and our family and our friends. We want to feel like the people who are closest to us in life value us and accept us. I believe God created that longing in us. He did so we’d keep pursuing it and following it until we hear the words “I am your father.”
Because the reality is the desire to belong never really gets satisfied short of God, no matter how much we feel like we belong to those around us. We keep pursuing it until we can feel the holiness and blamelessness talked about in Ephesians, until we can feel God's pleasure in calling us his children, until we can finally say "our Father who art in heaven." Then and only then does that longing get satisfied.
But if we never feel accepted by one another – we'll give up on that pursuit far short of our father in heaven.
Second, I’d like to repeat this: When you always have something, it makes it easy to live life overlooking what it means to be without it. One of the great mandates we have as children of God is to not get so comfortable in our own lives that we overlook the struggling and hurting going on in the lives around us. Going to sleep in a comfortable bed every night makes it easy to overlook we have brothers and sisters who don’t. Going to work every day and living with the security of a paycheck makes it easy to overlook we have brothers and sisters desperately looking for work. And sitting in church this morning surrounded by the love of family and each other makes it easy to overlook there are people around us looking for just someone – anyone – to share in their lives.
And finally. To dads. Especially young dads I guess. Being a dad is hard work. There are a zillion opportunities every day to ask; am I doing this dad thing the right or wrong way. If I ever have any advice for dads – and parents in general – it’s a lesson I first took from my dad. Just be there for your kids. When they screw up – be there for them. When they hit the home run or strike out – just be there. You’re going to say the wrong things a lot. Scream the wrong things a lot. Miss opportunities and overstep your role. But all that gets lost in the mind of a child who can simply count on you being there with love and understanding.
I will also remind you of this, dads. Our kids were born in the image of God, not in the image of us. And the sense of belonging our kids crave will never be satisfied by us. Our love, our being there for them, it's definitely one of the biggest clues, one of the biggest pointers they'll ever get when it comes to finding that ultimate love. But the biggest dad success story we can ever write is making sure they know a heavenly father adopted them long before we ever met them. Our goal isn't to make our kids think they can't live without us, it's to make them know they can't live without God. Our goal isn't to make our kids love us, it's to make sure above all that they love God.
In that they'll come to understand the message our heavenly father wants us to understand most on this Father's Day. That no matter who we are and what we’ve done, our heavenly father wants us to delight in the security of knowing he is there for us.
Happy Father's Day.