“Where are we now?
I’ve got to let you know
A house still doesn’t make a home
Don’t leave me here alone
And it’s you when I look in the mirror
And it’s you that makes it hard to let go
Sometimes you can’t make it on your own”
Bono from the song “Sometimes you can’t make it on your own.”
It is common at Advent to reflect on the humility of Jesus, the beauty of the Son of God becoming a helpless, fragile baby in a cattle shed, but I wonder do we in focusing on Jesus lose sight of the Father who we believe, sent his Son to earth, to save mankind. Surely much of our theology is based around the idea that ‘this and that’ happened “to fulfill what was said by the prophets”. While this may be true, surely the essence of why Jesus came was not to prove the veracity of Isaiah et al, but rather he came because of God’s deep abiding love for mankind. Jesus’ presence on earth was not the fulfillment of some mathematical formula, his presence was the result of unquenchable love. So during Advent I want to take some time to reflect on my own father and what we can learn about God through earthly icons that mirror His character.
My father, John Clark, was a mild mannered, generous, and gentle man. He was incredibly thoughtful of others, he was hospitable, and unstintingly loyal. He had an uncomplicated love for his family, his friends, and had an unmoving devotion to God. He loved to laugh, and had a very fatherly sense of humour.
One of the sad facts about my Dad is that, while he came from a fairly normal home, it couldn’t have been called particularly happy. He had a lovely Mum, and a Father that in later life tried to be a good Grandfather. However during his growing up years, my Father never remembered being told that he was loved, he was rarely given a compliment, and his parents moved house often at virtually no notice. This all fed together to mean my Dad grew up with a sense of insecurity, a low self esteem, and a lack of awareness that he had anything positive to offer the world. He used to recount how in his early 20’s he did an IQ test that showed that his intelligence was in the top 10% in New Zealand. The results of this test surprised him. He had never regarded himself as intelligent, and he had never been told that he was. Affirmation had sadly been missing from his life.
Everything changed around the early 60’s when one day at the start of a road trip he pulled into a book shop to see if he could find a book that a friend had recommended that he read. The woman behind the counter was called Dot Winger who quickly gathered my Dad didn’t realise the book in question, was a Christian book, nor that he was in a Christian bookshop. She said to my Dad that it would be best if he waited a few minutes for her husband to arrive. He did so, and was invited into the back room where Neville Winger proceeded to tell my Dad about a God that deeply loved him. My Dad left the shop that day a different person. He got into his car, and drove off on his long journey. He could only remember one song from his childhood in a Methodist Sunday school and so he sang it over, and over again at the top of his voice: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”.
My Dad’s life was turned upside down. A few years later he met my Mum, they married in 1966 and a year to the day later, they welcomed my brother Andrew into the world. 8 years later they had 4 of us kids. While my Dad was a very loving person, you wouldn’t really have described him as the big cuddly teddy bear type. He was reserved as perhaps was common for babies born during the Depression era. Yet in his early married life he realised he had never been set an example about parenthood or being a good husband. My Dad not being one for intuition set out to ask advice from good husbands and good fathers that he knew. He came back with a to do list that he tried to follow for the rest of his life. On his list of “how to be a good father”, were the importance of telling your children that you love them and of giving them tangible affection. As a child I don’t remember a day where my Dad did not turn to me and my 2 brothers and sister and say “I love you kids”, or “I love you Jonathan”, or “Your mother and I are so proud of you, we love you very much.” I can also remember that my Dad showed me physical affection every day of my life, whether it was to ruffle my hair, or to put his hand on my shoulder from behind while I was sitting at the table doing my homework. At the time I didn’t know anything different, and probably responded in my self-assured head “of course you do, what’s not to love!” Yet 6 and a half years after my Dad’s death I can say that the memory of those words and that faithful affection continues to make up a strong part of the psychological foundation of my life. I am someone who knows that I have been loved from my infancy. How my Dad turned around his own childhood! At the end of his life I could still hear the excitement in his voice when he answered the phone and realised it was one of his children. I still remember the obvious pain in his eyes as he realised he was going to be leaving my Mum alone on this earth. His sense of responsibility was all consuming, and made it hard for him to bare his final months, before he finally passed away on Father’s Day 2004. I look back with gratitude on my Dad’s life, and even to have been present at his death. Bono wrote the song above after the death of his own Dad. The lyrics speak pointedly of the pain and regrets we can carry after the death of a loved one.
The brilliant, evocative author Walter Wangerin, author of the “Book of God”, tells one of my favourite stories about his own Dad and his childhood. Wangerin says that he was the son of a Lutheran minister who aside from pastoring also regularly worked in his tool shed skillfully crafting wood. He used to watch his father chopping wood and think “Wow, my Dad has the strongest arms in all the world!” In fact he would often as a 5 year old walk on to his front porch and shout at the top of his lungs to all who could hear: “MY DAD HAS THE STRONGEST ARMS, THE STRONGEST ARMS IN ALL THE WORLD!”
As it happened Wangerin was also the oldest in his family and used to like to climb a particular tree in the front of his garden when he wanted to escape the noise and unwanted distractions of his younger siblings. One particular time, he was up in the tree living in his own world, and had become oblivious to the fact that the blue sky had suddenly become black with the colour of an impending violent thunder storm. As the rain began to fall and the wind picked up markedly, little Walter was brought to his senses. He suddenly realised he was at the top of a huge tree, the branches of which were being wildly shaken by the wind. Unable, or fearing to climb down the slippery wet wood he started to shout for his Dad. Over and over he shouted until his father emerged from the house, quizzically wondering why his son would have chosen to climb a tree in the middle of a thunder storm.
“Jump to me” his father shouted, “and I’ll catch you.”
“No, you have to come up here and get me…”
“Just jump to me and I’ll catch you.”
“No you have to come up here and bring me down!”
Suddenly the tree was blown by a huge gust of wind so that Walter was hanging precariously, while the tree bent like a bow. As the wind eased the tree went springing back to its usual shape, acting like a slingshot, and propelled Walter into the air. It was at this point that he says his life flashed before his eyes, and he started to look back over his life and repent for all the bad things he ever did, just in time before he met his Maker.
He came down like a stone but rather than falling to terra firma he landed safely in the arms of his Dad. He looked up into his father’s eyes, and said the words, “Wow, my Dad has the strongest arms, the strongest arms in all the world.”
Now I believe that we can also gather great swathes of maternal images of God, as a “mother hen”, and as “a mother holding her baby close to her breast”. Yet I guess in this piece I have tried to focus on God through the stories of two particular fathers. Walter Wangerin told this story in the context of a woman that had come to him, because she was struggling with a loss of faith. He said to her that sometimes we need to “fall into the arms of grace.” He made the point that we often recite creeds, and yet struggle to believe God with our lives. Walter had recited the creed of his Dad’s strong arms, and yet only really believed it once he had fallen from a great height and been safely caught by those same, strong arms.
Today, as we reflect on the arrival of “God with us”, let us remember that God became one of us because he had a deep, deep love for us. His love doesn’t express the picture of a removed, uninterested God, going through the motions as he mechanically sends his Son to earth. Rather there is this wild picture of shepherds, astronomers, and a bewildered couple called Mary and Joseph, being visited by angels informing them of how incredibly blessed they were to be part of this unlikely story. Simeon days later said these words, “now let your servant depart in peace, because my eyes have seen your salvation.” Jesus is our salvation. If we feel like the woman who spoke to Walter Wangerin with fear in her soul, as she spoke of her growing sense of being removed from God, then let us fall into the arms of grace. Let the words of our creeds become reality in our life, as with our lives we say “I believe in God”. My Dad gave me an unbelievable ringside seat of what God’s nature and character was. I pray that wherever you are tonight you will sense the presence of a God who looks at us and implores us to entrust ourselves into his care.
I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford
I need Thee, oh, I need Thee, every hour I need Thee
Oh, bless me now, my Savior, I come to Thee
I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby
Temptations lose their power
When Thou art nigh
I need Thee every hour in joy or pain
Come quickly and abide or life is in vain
I need Thee every hour, teach me Thy will
And Thy rich promises in me fulfill
by Annie S. Hawks