At the church I served in Birmingham, Michigan there was a Men’s Breakfast Group that met Friday mornings at 7:00 AM. For a time there was a program in which different men spoke on the topic of: “Lessons I Have Learned from My Father.” Most of the talks were centered around fond memories mixed in with humorous anecdotes and genuine expressions of appreciation and gratitude. But that pattern was broken one morning. The speaker began by saying bluntly, “My father was not a Hallmark card. He was not around while I was growing up and those few times he did drop back into our life, it always ended up being unpleasant.” That was the sum total of what he had to say about his father. Then he shifted to talking about the influence a couple of men at his church and, in particular, a coach at the local YMCA had on his young life. These men paid attention to him, listened to him, counseled him and encouraged him. The coach, he said, nagged and pushed him to get good grades so that he could go on to college. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he remarked. “That man was as good a father to me as I could ever hope to have.” His story has stayed with me and served to remind me there are all kinds of father relationships: biological fathers, step-fathers, foster fathers, fathers-in-law, adoptive fathers, father-like mentors.
In all the variations, fathers do indeed teach their children lessons that influence their lives…by what they do and don’t do, by what they encourage and discourage, by the wisdom they share and values they reflect, and by the way they show love.
One of the more popular gifts for graduates this June is a slim, little book called The Last Lecture. It is based on an actual lecture that Dr. Randy Pausch, a computer science professor, delivered in September of 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University.
Apparently there is an emerging tradition at colleges and universities for professors to give what is termed a “last lecture.” Professors are asked: “What would be your final words to impart to students; what wisdom would you share if you knew it was the last lecture you would ever give?” It is a hypothetical question. But that was not the case for Dr. Randy Pausch. At 46, he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. The doctors told him he could expect to live no more than a year. So his was literally a “last lecture.”
The theme Dr. Pausch chose for his lecture was: “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” At the outset he told his audience he was dying, but what made his message so compelling is that it was all about living. A true techie, professor Pausch’s lecture was multi-media. There were photos of him as a boy as he described his early hopes and dreams, images of his CAT scans, power point charts, plus videos of him and his wife playing with their three children aged 5, 2 and 1.
The lecture was videoed and subsequently put up on the internet on YouTube. In this digital age word got around quickly. The lecture became an unexpected phenomenon. It is estimated to have been downloaded more than six million times. Oprah learned about it and invited professor Pausch to deliver the lecture to her audience. His story and segments of the lecture were featured a few months ago on ABC TV with Diane Sawyer. And now the book.
In his “last lecture,” Dr. Pausch speaks about the many set backs he had in his vocational life. Out of those experiences he says, he “learned that brick walls are there for a reason. They let us know how badly we want things.” He encourages his audience “to be patient with others.” “Wait long enough,” he advises “and people will surprise and impress you.” The teacher in him comes out when he tells the audience that helping others to fulfill their dreams is “even more fun than achieving your own.”
With the touch of gentle humor, Dr. Pausch says that after he received his Ph.D., his mother liked to introduce him by saying, “ This is my son. He is a doctor, though not the kind that helps anybody.” He credits his parents with giving him the freedom to express himself growing up, and teaching him perseverance.
Although Professor Pausch does not offer original insights, what he has to say is nevertheless profound, in large part because of its utter sincerity. People in the auditorium laughed and cried and were inspired by the openness, common wisdom and courage of the man who stood before them.
At the very end of the lecture, Dr. Pausch tells his audience a revealing personal truth. “This talk is not for you,” he said, then, “It’s for my kids.” Which made everything he had shared even more meaningful.
What words of wisdom would you want to pass along to those you love…if you knew it would be your last chance to say what you have learned from life?
As you ponder that question, let’s look at the words found in today’s reading from Proverbs. “Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, be attentive that you may gain insight…Hear, my child, and accept my words. I have taught you the way of wisdom that you may walk the paths of uprightness.”
Wisdom is an important Biblical concept. The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom writings. The advice contained in this ancient book isn’t just about what to do or how to do it, but also about the importance of attitude. For wisdom is not only about the mind, but of the intuition and the heart.
However our culture is inclined to equate wisdom with knowledge – facts, figures, technical understanding, even financial success. But biblical wisdom is more like the teachings of Jesus or a person like Dr. Randy Pausch. It is a wisdom that challenges us to live a certain way that we may come to know what is essential to life and life abundant. “Gain wisdom and get insight and understanding,” the writer of Proverbs advises. He is talking about the good stuff of hard earned experience passed on from generation to generation, parent to child.
Some of you may remember the Crosby, Stills and Nash song from several years ago that goes in part:
Well you who are on the road
Must have a code that you can
Teach your children well…
Don’t you ever ask them why,
If they told you wou would cry,
So just look at them and sigh,
And know they love you.
What wisdom are we teaching our children? What are we doing to provide them with a solid foundation where they can find belonging, identity, and the hope on which to build their lives? These are questions for us on this Father’s Day. Robert Coles, noted psychiatrist and professor at Harvard, who wrote Children of Crisis, had this to say about what we teach our children. “I think what children in our society desperately want and need is a moral purpose – and a lot of our children aren’t getting that. They’re getting parents who are more concerned about getting their children into the right colleges; buying the best clothes; giving them an opportunity to live in neighborhoods where they will live fine and affluent lives; giving them the best toys and going on interesting vacations, and all sorts of things. Parents are acquiring things they think are important to their children, and yet, vastly more important things are not happening.” (p.112) Like teaching responsibility and accountability. Like giving a child the gift of your time. Like passing along the values and reassurances of our faith.
Here are two striking comparative statistics from the Gallup poll: 1) If only your mother worshipped regularly with you as a child growing up, chances are only 30% that you will worship regularly when you leave home. 2) If your family, including your father, worshipped regularly with you, chances are 70% that you will worship regularly as an adult. I find the disparity in these numbers to be surprising. We all know fathers have an important influence on their children, but what is not so obvious is the tremendous impact that fathers have on their children’s faith.
One of the strengths of KUC is the involvement of fathers with their families in the life of this church. You see it every Sunday morning as you watch families coming into church. You see it during the holy chaos of the Culbertson room following worship. And, you see it in our Sunday school classrooms. Did you know that of the 125 Sunday school teachers, just over 40% are men and fathers? That is commitment! .
Teaching and sharing with our children the faith we hold is very important. For it is through learning the lessons of faith that our children begin to deal with large questions. Questions like: Who is God? What is God like? What is the most important thing? What does Jesus teach us? Who is the stranger? The fathers of our congregation do their part in passing along the faith by teaching and coming to worship with their families. I say that somewhat regretfully as a father who was not nearly as committed to church when my own children were growing up. Sometimes I guess wisdom comes later. And then sometimes, sometimes, wisdom comes not from parent to child but the other way around.
Unitarian minister and writer, Robert Fulghum, tells of a cherished relic that he keeps tucked away in a cardboard box marked “THE GOOD STUFF.” This keepsake he describes as “a small paper bag…the top sealed with duct tape, staples, and several paper clips. There is a ragged rip in one side through which the contents may be [viewed].” The bag was given to him years ago by his young daughter, Molly, who had packed it one morning with his lunch and handed it to him on his way out the door. When Fulghum asked why he merited two bags, his little girl simply explained that one was lunch and the other one was “something else, just some stuff.” Thinking little of it, Fulghum went out the door and off to work.
Hours later as he unwrapped his lunch to eat, he also unpacked the second bag to find “two hair ribbons, three small stones, a plastic dinosaur, . . . a tiny seashell, two animal crackers, a marble, . . .a small doll, two chocolate kisses, and thirteen pennies.” He smiled and thought to himself, “how charming.” And then in a hurry to get back to the business of the afternoon, he “swept the desk clean – into the waste basket – leftover lunch, Molly’s junk, and all.” That evening when he returned home, he was met by Molly at the door.
“Where’s my bag?”
“You know, the one I gave you this morning.”
“I left it at the office, why?”
“I forgot to put this note in it,” she said handing him the note, adding, “Besides, I want it back.”
When Fulghum later unfolded the note, it said, “I love you, Daddy.” It was suddenly clear that Molly had entrusted her father with “Love in a paper sack” as Fulghum puts it. But he had missed it. “Not only missed it, but had thrown it [away].” Feeling his “Daddy Permit” about to run out, Fulghum trekked back to his office. He arrived just ahead of the janitor, picked up the wastebasket and poured the contents on his desk. “After washing the mustard off the dinosaur and spraying the whole thing with breath-freshener to kill the smell of onions, [he] carefully smoothed out the wadded ball of brown paper into a semi functional bag,” put the discarded treasure back inside and made for home. The next day, he returned it to Molly. But this time he asked her to tell him about the various objects in the bag.
“Everything had a story, a memory, or was attached to dreams and imaginary friends.” She reminded him that he had given her the chocolate kisses. At appropriate moments Fulghum managed to mutter “I see” several times. And he did see. The bag was filled with Molly’s treasures, in a sense her very heart.
Days later, Molly entrusted him with the bag once again. “Same ratty bag. Same stuff inside. [He] felt forgiven. And trusted. And loved. And a little more comfortable wearing the title of Father.” This cycle of giving and returning the bag repeated itself many times in the months to come. Eventually, “Molly turned her attention to other things. . . found other treasures. . . lost interest in the game. . . grew up.” Fulghum, on the other hand, was left holding the bag so to speak. And he muses, “It sits in my office still, as if to say, ‘Here. This is the best I’ve got. Take it – it’s yours. Such as I have, I give to thee.” (It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, p 28-31)
“Such as I have I give to thee.” A child’s expression of love to her father. There is wisdom here, a wisdom borne of love by child to father. All good wisdom puts us in touch with a reality that engenders habits of the heart. As the writer of Proverbs said poetically, “Wisdom will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow you with a beautiful crown.”
May it be so for all of us, and especially fathers this day.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.