Some years ago, when my children were young, Kodak had a commercial that captured my attention. It showed a photo sequence of a baby girl, following her from infancy through girlhood, adolescence to young adulthood and then marriage, ending with the young woman coming home from the hospital with a baby in her arms. The pictures were accompanied by a song written by Harry Belafonte called “Turn Around”:
Where are you going my little one,
Where are you going my baby, my
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young girl
Going out of the door.
Where are you going, my little one,
Little pigtails and petticoats,
Where have you gone?
Turn around and you’re tiny,
Turn around and you’re grown,
Turn around and you’re a young
With babes of your own.
Little ones grow up as every parent knows, and they do it, it seems, so fast. “Where are you going, my little one, little one?” is a question that comes to mind when you turn the pages of the family album and see your child’s life unfold as memories are rekindled with a feeling of nostalgia and a lump in your throat.
This is the season for taking pictures of memorable family moments…your son’s kindergarten class graduation celebration, that first unsteady ride on a bicycle, your daughter and her boyfriend on the front lawn just before they go off to prom, your child coming home after the first year of college, your son at graduation, wedding pictures in front of the church. As you carefully frame each photo looking at the image on the back of your camera, you are hoping to capture something of the essence of a moment, of a point of transition, of a place and time – to secure the memory of what passes by in the blink of an eye as you turn around.
A child comes into your life and there are so many possibilities.
Sometimes when I go to Evanston hospital and walk through the women’s section in the north building, I will happen to see a couple taking their newborn son or daughter home for the first time. I sometimes pause to watch the mother gingerly rise from the wheelchair and give the pink bundle of a baby to the father who is intent on doing his part. The balloons can get in the way as he stiffly takes their child in his arms, new to this role of father. All three of them look so young – infant, mother and father.
Who knows what it will be like for them as parents? Whether their child will be healthy or not. Whether she will be independent and feisty, or easy-going and compliant. How will her terrible two’s be? Will she struggle as a student or be a whiz at math? Will she pierce her tongue? Will she enjoy sports? What dreams will she have? What tears of disappointment?
It all crosses my mind in an instant as I watch those parents get into the car to take their child home – never more dependent on each other, and on God, than at that moment.
Being a mom and a dad is an extraordinary challenge. Parenting tests our energy and creativity; it tests especially our capacity for patience, steadiness and stamina. All of which is to say that parenting tests our ability to love. On top of that, each child is unique and special. There is no one size fits all when it comes to parenting. The guideposts can be ambiguous and conflicting. But one of the great God-given gifts all parents have to share is the blessing of their heart.
Recall the biblical story of Esau and Jacob and their mother, Rebekah, and father, Isaac. It is a family drama that reflects many dynamics we are familiar with: sibling rivalry, favoritism, duplicity, regret, commitment, tenderness, and the importance of a blessing – even a mixed blessing.
Esau was the first born son, his twin bother, Jacob, the second. The two could hardly be more different. Esau was a hairy lad, athletic and a good hunter, the apple of his father’s eye. Jacob was fair and smooth of skin, more the quiet type, yet smart and cunning, his mother’s favorite child. One day when they were young boys, Esau had returned from hunting in the field to find his brother in the kitchen cooking up some soup. Esau was famished, and like a lot of teens wanted instant gratification. With just a little adept maneuvering, wily Jacob takes advantage of the situation and gets his brother Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of the soup. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Now some time later, the boys have grown into men and their old father, Isaac, is weak and dying. His eyesight is dim. As was the custom, Isaac asks to have Esau come to him so that he might bestow upon the brow of his first born, the family blessing. But Jacob, at the urging of his mother, disguises himself by dressing in his brother’s clothes and covering his skin with the hair of an animal. Then in the darkness of his father’s tent, Jacob passes himself off as his brother, and old Isaac gives Jacob the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s.
When Esau discovers the deception, he cries out bitterly in hurt and anguish to Isaac, “Bless me also, father!” The sad truth was however, that despite the deception, there was no way the blessing of Jacob could be taken back once given. Esau had lost something of great importance and value.
A blessing in the biblical world was much more than kind words. A blessing was reserved for the eldest born son and understood to be the passing on of the graces, the virtues, and the lessons of life from one generation to the next. In the millennia since, the gift of a blessing has been broadened to include all children. A blessing today is something we wordlessly give to our children when they are young through our attention and nurture. Then as the child grows older, especially at times of separation like leaving for college or getting married or moving away from home, to bless is a way of saying, “May God go with you and guard and watch over you. Be who you are. Become who you will become. I am always very interested in what you do. I may not understand everything you are and may not approve of everything you do. But I still care about you each day. Get on with whatever life has in store for you, or whatever you have in store for life.”
Is there any longing more universal than the desire of a child for their parent’s approval? Have you ever had a friend say to you, “I somehow never could seem to please my father. He always wanted me to be more than what I am.” I know some folks, and you probably do too, who still are waiting to receive a blessing from a father or a mother, and who would get on the next plane and fly across the country if they could have their parent bless them in some way. We all yearn for approval.
The writer Tony Robinson recalls: “I remember how long I waited before receiving a blessing from my father, who later in life had Alzheimer’s disease. During his last three years he lived in a small facility with twenty others in various stages of the diseases. The summer before he died [my wife and I] were there for a visit. The three of us were walking together arm in arm, my wife and I on either side of him…By this time, my dad seldom said much that made sense to us. Even his words had become difficult to understand, his speech often slurred. As we crossed the dining room his slippered shuffle drew to a halt. Bent over, he looked up at me and clear as a bell said, ‘You are a good man.’ Then he resumed his shuffle toward the door. My wife said, ‘Did you hear that?’ She did not mean, ‘Did you hear the words he said?’ She meant, ‘Did you hear, really hear, what he was saying to you?’ It was my father’s blessing.” (Common Grace, p. 96)
And Isaac, hearing Esau’s plaintive cry for a blessing of his own, does his best to give a blessing to this son who had been cheated. He gently says to Esau, “May you enjoy the fatness of the earth and the dew of heaven. May you one day be free of your brother’s treachery.” It may not have been a fulsome blessing, but it was a blessing nevertheless. Nobody wants to live a life that is not blessed. Nobody wants a life without those special words and gestures that convey love and care and concern for your wellbeing and future. The late Henri Nouwen wisely wrote, “Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, husbands their wives, wives their husbands, friends their friends…Whether the blessing is given in words or in gestures, in a solemn or an informal way, our lives need to be blessed lives.” There are times that an informal blessing may be conveyed quite simply. In the current movie, Once, the widowed father says to his singer-songwriter son about to leave for London to try and break into the recording business, “Give it a go, son. Make your mother proud.”
There is power to a blessing. Jesus blessed the little children, just as he had been blessed as he was baptized in the River Jordan when the heavens opened and he heard God’s voice speak to him out of a cloud saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Throughout his ministry that followed, God’s blessing sustained Jesus. Those precious words helped him to believe in himself and gave him the strength he needed to meet the challenges and disappointments he encountered all along the way to the cross.
Quite often, a blessing flows both ways, between the one giving the blessing and the one receiving the blessing. In the novel, Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson, John Ames is an aging Congregational minister who is writing a long, extended letter to his young son in which he reflects on the experiences and the thoughts that have shaped how he understands the meaning of life. A part of the story involves Ames’ strained relationship with a man named Jack Boughton. Jack is the son of his best friend, who gave him Ames’ name almost as if he were to be the boy’s surrogate father. However Ames struggles to accept Jack for the person he has grown to be. Toward the end of the book, Jack is leaving town. It is possibly the last time the two of them will be together. As they walk along to the bus station and talk, Ames feels he must somehow find a way to reconcile with Jack. This is what he writes about what happens next. “Then I said, ‘The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.’ Jack shrugged. ‘What would that involve?’ ‘Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—’ There were a few people on the street. ‘No, no,’ Jack said. ‘That doesn’t matter.’ And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers of course – “The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’” Then Ames reflects, “Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, ‘Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.’ Then [Jack] sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.” (p. 241) A blessing has the potential to turn a life inside out. A blessing thrusts its powerful grip into the future and gives strength for the journey that lies out ahead. A blessing can set the wandering soul upon a straight path. A blessing can bring peace. A blessing can uplift, heal, and redeem…whether it be eloquent words, God’s voice coming out of a cloud, or something far more ordinary, that is no less beautiful. We all have the power to bless because we all have the power to express approval and hope for our child.
Where are you going my little one, little one? Life is always more complicated than any photograph can capture. It’s always messier than the frozen moment of smiling faces. Life is what happens most of the time: the ordinary and normal and usual. And through the blessing of our words and our gestures that convey love, we make life sweeter for those who are a part of our family album.
The poet Blake has written, “We are here to learn to endure the beams of love.” On this Father’s Day when dads are given the cards and gifts to acknowledge their important role, it is also a good day for fathers to take a deep breath and bless their children. What words or gestures of blessing do you have to give? In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. .