The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 29 “On Dads, Pastors and Priests”

mom and dad on boat

When I was 9 years old Lizzie Hover’s dad died. He died in a head-on collision on a dusty desert road in the Sindh area of Pakistan. The night before he had been at my parents home with his lovely wife Carol. They had talked, laughed, and discussed furlough plans as both were heading to a home leave in their passport countries in the summer. My parents and the Hovers were good friends.

I heard the news along with twenty other little girls in a boarding school dormitory. The collective trauma was immense. If Lizzie Hover’s daddy could die, that meant our daddies could die. Suddenly we were no longer safe from death, we were vulnerable, our jugular veins exposed.

Ever since I can remember my father has been there for me. As the only girl in a house full of boys, I enjoyed a special place in his heart. Somehow I knew this without even being told. My father was this strong force against a world that could change in an instant, in an instant like the one that took Lizzy Hover’s father.

They say that your earliest connections with your father affect your view of God. As a little girl I viewed God as completely trustworthy, a strong force against a world that could change in an instant.

I never had a pastor growing up. Such is the life of a boarding school kid. You go to church during the year at boarding school where different faculty members serve up various denominational versions of theology each Sunday. During winter vacation I attended the local Pakistani church, always struggling yet hopeful, Miss Mall’s booming bass voice starting every 20 verse Punjabi song. During the summer we all attended Holy Trinity Church on Mall Road in Murree, a multi-cultural, multidimensional church that sprinkled one week and immersed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit the next week.

I rarely thought about growing up and having a pastor. That was for other kids and adults, not for those of us who didn’t know what the role meant. But during the rare occasions when I thought about pastors I assumed they would be like my father, trust worthy, wanting the best for me, willing to sacrifice and care, sometimes at great personal cost. I did (eventually) grow up and I grew into having an actual pastor. God in his gracious way allowed for my first experience with a pastor to be wonderful. It was an international church in Chicago and my pastor was Indian, his wife American. The connection was immediate on my part, and I willingly trusted this man. He was trust worthy.

But later in life I learned that pastors weren’t all like my father or Samuel Mall. I learned the hard way that you can share with a pastor but they may not be trust worthy, that you can pour out your heart and yet be met with stone cold, that you can offer up your hardest situations and not be comforted. I began to think of God as less like a father and more like a pastor. It was not a good change.

Because I began to see God as one who could be stone cold, as one who could not be trusted, as one who could not comfort me in my hardest situations. When you are hurt in this way, a part of your heart shrivels and dies to the point of needing life-giving resuscitation.

It is a mystery of how this resuscitation has happened through the Orthodox Church, but it has. There is no tangible explanation – perhaps my hard crust has softened, perhaps I’ve just grown weary of being wary. But through my journey and through the pastoral care of my priest I am learning more about the God that I used to know. The God who is always present and ever faithful, the God who meets me with compassion, comfort, and challenge; who takes my hardest situations and makes them a touch more bearable. The God who I saw my own father trust and love, bowed in adoration in the early morning hours in a Muslim country.

My father celebrated his birthday yesterday. My white-haired handsome father, who enjoys life in a way that many envy, is now 88. We talked right after he had reeled in a large fish while on a birthday fishing expedition with my brother. Each day that I know my father is still alive becomes more precious as I know his life on earth is limited. And today as I think about pastors, priests, and fathers I want to honor him. A man who has loved family, loved life, and most of all loved God. Happy Birthday Dad. I love you.

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Parenting Series: Don’t burn your Bridges – A Home to Come Back To

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Part three:  Don’t burn your Bridges – A Home to Come Back To

This is the final segment in a three-part series Robynn has called, The Spelling Bee. “Lowell and I squeezed hands. Connor seemed to hesitate. There was a long pause. The audience had time to spell out the word in their heads several times over. Still Connor seemed to struggle silently…He was grasping for the spelling of his word. Until hesitatingly, falteringly, he began, Gospel. G…..O…..S……P……E…..L? Gospel. Altogether, parents, teachers, students exhaled. He had spelled it correctly. The Principal of the school, sitting just in front of us, turned and said with a smile, “Wouldn’t that have been awkward to have the missionary’s kid go out on ‘gospel’?!” It’s an amusing little story but the truth is I really don’t want my kids to go out on the gospel.” Join Robynn has she shares more from the unwritten list she and Lowell try to employ as they parent their children toward a vibrant faith.

9.  Live separately.

A couple of years ago I was talking to another mother of teenage boys. She was frustrated that her son had decided to not do well in school. She and her husband couldn’t seem to find a way to motivate him. Her emotional response to her son’s academic apathy was discernible. As a Spiritual Director I wanted to help her push into her own anxieties. “Sherry, this is not your D,” I told her. “You made different choices and you didn’t get a D in math.” It’s important to live separately from our children. My children are not extensions of me. We must resist the urge to parent based on popular opinion or the opinion of others. I can’t take their rages against me personally. I love them too much to argue. As their mother, I have to separate myself emotionally and yet not be emotionally distant.

10.  Don’t sweat the small stuff

If I really believe, and I do, that Jesus is the only thing that matters…then I want my kids to pursue Jesus. I imagine because of the personalities of our children and because of the counter-cultural ways we’ve taught them to think that one or more of them will follow a different “straight and narrow” path to Jesus the Good Shepherd than through the protestant evangelical path we’ve stayed on. I’d rather they find Jesus cloaked in Orthodox clothes, or Mennonite simplicity or Charismatic Catholic garments than not find him at all.

11.  Pray like crazy!

At the end of the day, I hate to tell you but, we are completely out of control when it comes to parenting! I had to smile when another friend, a mother of two, was telling me that she had quit her ministry so her kids don’t hate God or the church. I wasn’t sure if I should break it to her or not…but there are no guarantees. We cannot control the outcomes. The sooner we admit that to ourselves the better. The sooner we acknowledge that God alone has access to the insides of our children, he has admittance to their souls, the sooner our parenting will be another admission on our part that we are not in charge. We are not in control.

Our own faith has great opportunity to grow through parenting. We recognize, quickly, our humanity, our selfishness, our desperate need for the help of Another. And we turn to our own Father, who generously gives wisdom to all who ask. He doles out parenting advice. He reassures our own fears. Simultaneously he handles our own hearts full of anxieties and insecurities and the hearts of our children full of insecurities and anxieties.

We pray often: little thank yous, little cries for help, little petitions for their souls, little celebratory yays when they’ve made a good choice. We pray through our own emotional responses that overwhelm us, our memories, our own horrors that surface as we watch our children grow through the retroactive lenses of our own upbringings. Quickly we learn to pray without stopping as parenting drives us to the very edges of who we are.

12.  Don’t shy away from suffering.

I have often prayed that God would do whatever it takes so that my children know Him, so that their faith is their own, so they know that Jesus is relevant for here and now. Surely that will involve suffering. Suffering is a theme in scripture that we cannot ignore. Suffering purifies, transforms, deepens our faith. Suffering is a privilege. As horrendously hard as it is, I have to resist the urge to protect my children from all of their sufferings. I’m not suggesting that I stand by and do nothing if I discover my children are victims of evil. But I am saying that it is tempting as parents to want to rush in and fix the disappointments and pain our children face. We want to make it better. We want them to be ok. We need to be careful here. Suffering can be the tool that God uses to make His presence known to our kids. His comfort goes deeper than ours ever can. He understands the complexities of their grief and their sorrows. He walks with them through it. We can trust him to shepherd their souls in the midst of the sadness and suffering they experience.

I don’t want to mess that up.

13.  Be the Father for them…a place to come back to.

Several months ago I was having lunch with a couple of friends. One friend’s older children are making poor decisions. My friend, in processing that, said something really profound, “At this point in my relationship with them I don’t want to burn any bridges. I want them to have someone to come back to. When they’re done being stupid, I want them to know they can come home to me.”

The story of the Prodigal son is one of my favourites for so many reasons. I love that story. The prodigal makes a really offensive request. No one is surprised by the question (–the youngest are always coming up with ridiculous ideas!) but everyone is surprised by the Father’s response. He lets him make, what to the rest of us who are sane seems like, the stupidest decision of his life. The youngest walks intentionally, deliberately further and further into his folly. He packs and moves away and wherever he goes he wastes his money in a series of bad decisions.

When the younger son is hungry and comes to his senses, he knows where he can go for food and forgiveness…but mostly for food! He goes home. He returns to his dad.  And the dad is there waiting and eager to have him. The welcome is wondrous! The father doesn’t hold back. He embraces the son, decks him out in the most extravagant clothes and jewelry, orders in the richest cuisine and throws a party.

The father was there, the person the son could come home to. I want to be that parent. There was no shame or guilt heaped on the son, no pleading and nagging for details, no tears, no manipulation. There was welcome and grace and love.

I want Lowell and I to be there for my kids to come back to. I want to celebrate every return, every pivot point, every desire to come back. I want them to know they are always welcome here at home.

Fathers? Optional or Essential?

An open letter to my husband in response to the question “Are fathers essential?”

Dear Cliff,

Happy Father’s Day! As the man behind the blog I’ve chosen to write an open letter to you this Father’s Day, a letter for the world to see.

We’ve had a brave marriage. Through continents and crises, through baby births and toddler tantrums on three continents, through poorer and richer, through working and unemployment, through silence, through arguments, through Grace – we’ve covered a lot of ground.

And both of us know that there were times when we wanted to walk away. When no amount of Grace seemed enough. But somehow it always was, and like the loaves and fishes we then picked up baskets full of leftovers. Leftover Grace. Amazing it’s been.

And through this all you’ve been a dad and a father to our kids.

It seems that we are in an era that is both divided and schizophrenic about the role of the ‘father’. On the one hand President Obama said this about fathers in a 2008 Father’s Day Speech:

“We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.” 

And indeed, Obama’s words are backed by research. So much is this the case that the Federal Government gave out “$150 million for each of Federal fiscal years 2006 through 2010 to promote and support healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood.” * A 127 page document titled “The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children” supports the idea of a father being “essential”.

The table of contents alone provides a guide to the role of fathers and includes such things as provision and protection, the impact of the father on cognitive ability, and the importance of father as a ‘guide’ to the outside world.

On the other side,  Judith Stacey, a sociology professor at NYU (the school that gave our son so little financial aid you were compelled to write the Dean) said “Children certainly do not need both a mother and a father”. (emphasis mine) She goes on to suggest that “three parents might be better than two” and that “Obama is dead wrong”.

So in her eyes, indeed in the eyes of others in society as well, fathers are optional, not necessarily the accessory of choice for the modern feminist.

While sperm is essential – fathers are optional.

The infamous ‘they’ tell me that you, as father, are not essential to the well being of our kids. Perhaps Stacey had a traumatic upbringing, perhaps she’s lost some grey cells – irregardless I offer here some places where you are ‘essential’.

While I pull our children in, you draw them out.

While I create home, you create adventure.

While I worry about nutrition, you make sure of fishsticks and fun.

While I worry about being too loud, you encourage them how to be loud. 

The foundations of our family are stronger, because you are essential.

Our kids travel the world with more confidence, because you are essential. Our kids understand the difference between people-pleasing and strong opinions, because you are essential. Our kids laugh more because you are essential.

From traveling through Swat Valley(now being effectively droned by our present administration) to staying at hotels in San Diego – You are essential. From surprising us with “Yes” gifts to unexpected postcards and treats – You are essential. From Arabic, to Persian, to Russian language learning – you are essential. From understanding Southern Baptists to moving towards Eastern Orthodoxy – You are essential.

The evidence is irrefutable: You.Are.Essential.

So those who may dismiss the role of the father can go and sip martinis at a bar alone on this Father’s Day. We’ll be partying it up with an Essential member of our family – the Father.

Guest Post – Reflections on a Father

Today is a guest post written by my son Micah on Father’s Day. I hope you enjoy this personal reflection on his faith and his father. As always, thanks for reading!

Dancing Dad

Someone once told me that a person’s conception of God is shaped by who his or her father was during childhood. An authoritarian father paves the way for a legalistic view of God and His law. A father who protects prepares his children to trust their heavenly father, even when stepping out in faith. Perhaps an absent father makes one doubt that God exists at all, or that if He does, He’s definitely not a good God.

If I apply this basic, if not facile, theory to my upbringing, and I think of my dad as an analogue to my creator, then God is intelligent, talkative, proud of His children, forgets the lyrics to pop songs but sings them at the top of His lungs and, has a contagious sense of humor.

Intelligent? Judging from the architecture of the human mind, God, the creator, is definitely intelligent. And so is my dad. His ability to retain and interpret information is astounding. He goes to anew city, and within hours it seems he’s an expert. This dynamic occurs so often that I believe it’d be egregious if he chose not to become a tour guide when he eventually retires.

Talkative? God may seem silent, but through reading scripture, praying, and living in community with other Christians, I hear God talk a lot. Same with my dad. He’s definitely a talker. When you listen close, you stop hearing only the words that are coming out of his mouth, but also the psychology behind his talking. My dad is predisposed to make connections. When he meets a stranger, it takes no time at all for him to find some point of relation between the stranger’s life and his, and my dad can – and will – run with it. Rare is the moment when a conversation with him loses momentum. Usually it’s a matter of gaining momentum, so much so that we’re juggling five topics at once and I have to hang up the phone because my cellphone battery is about to die.

Proud of his children? I’m not sure if God is proud of me, per se, but He said that He was well-pleased with Jesus. Believing in the blood of Christ, I know that I’m covered with his cloak of righteousness, so, in a way, God is proud of me as His child. My earthly father is also proud of me. When I show him a new animation of mine, or tell him about a professor’s affirmation of my work ethic, or get married to a beautiful woman (as I did this past April), I can feel my dad’s pride emanating from each sentence. It warms my heart and mind, so much so that I sometimes look forward to finishing a project just so that I can send him an email about it and hear his encouraging feedback.

Forgetting lyrics? Here’s where the theory collapses. I’m not so sure that God forgets lyrics, so maybe that’s a flaw in my dad that will be exorcised in heaven. If you’ve ever heard James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful”, then you’re in for a treat to hear my dad’s rendition, which erroneously repeats the chorus and adds in words that I’ve never heard in any song before…. “you’re beautiful, tha’s fo’ sure (sho-ore)”

Sense of humor? God has a sense of humor, and to me it’s best manifest in His creation of the sloth. My dad’s sense of humor is much less subtle. My dad’s a trickster. I have memories of us going to friends’ homes at 9pm (past my bedtime at that age), hiding in the bushes, and scaring them through their kitchen windows, which always gave my dad a big kick. My dad’s a goofy dancer. At my wedding, my dad and my father-in-law did a dance-off to Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, and all the guests stood around falling over with laughter. My dad’s a comedic storyteller. He’s lived through so many absurd scenarios (partly by his own propensity) and the outcome is permutation after permutation of the same story, though milked for optimum humor. If some people tell stories in black and white, others in color, still others in 3D… my dad tells stories in the medium of virtual reality. I don’t like to admit it very often, but I know my sense of humor, my yearning to bring colorful energy into dull rooms, is from my mom and him.

Theory (accurate or not) aside, I know my dad is a true reflection of God and his son Jesus Christ. My dad is loving and compassionate, especially empathetic to the plight of the lost and the disenfranchised. He sees sports for the silly, childish games that they are, and I’m guessing God looks at ESPN that way, too. My dad longs to bridge cultures in a way that God longs to be a universal God to all of us, not just Americans or Westerners. All told, this Father’s Day I’m grateful that the title given to my dad (father) is such an apt reflection of my Heavenly Father. It’s made for a clear vision of who God is in all His power and mercy. I love my dad and I love God. Happy Father’s day!