Post Father’s Day thought

This past weekend, I spent some time with my father and siblings, but not primarily because it was father’s day weekend. No, we gathered together for a funeral of another man, the father of a family friend who is almost like family to us… you get the picture?

Anyway, my father preached the sermon; I and my eldest brother took turns on the drums. My other brother and sister sang. We did what we do as a family: serve in ministry. Some people have family business – we do ministry. Before we arrived at the church, one of brothers and I stopped by the local drug store to buy a father’s day card. It took us 5 minutes to pick it out. We threw some cash and a gift card in there and when we got to the church corralled our other siblings to sign the card and contribute so it could be said to be “from all of us.” That was it. No fancy tributes, or dinners, or ugly neck ties; just a card and some cash. Are we bad children?

As I reflect on Father’s Day more broadly, my mind is drawn to the ways we think about fatherhood in our society. By and large over the last 50 years, fatherhood in general has taken a pretty big hit. Many problems (rightfully so may I say) are laid at the feet of fathers who were absent, or present but distant, or never said “I’m proud of you” or who didn’t take their sons out into the woods on some vision quest. There have been colossal failures on the part of many men to be adequate fathers to their children.

But part of me wonders how much has really changed, or is it just that we expect more than we once did, and are therefore disappointed when it doesn’t happen? For men in my father’s generation, to be a good man was simple to go to work every day, provide decently for your family, and avoiding being a drunk or abusing your wife. If he was a Christian you could add in taking his family to church and modeling a Christian life. Everything beyond this was gravy – if he did it good, if not then oh well.

As I sat yesterday at my Dad’s church listening to tributes being given to fathers and father-like figures, I realized how much that model is still the ideal for many people, and I began to wonder how much of what we expect fathers to be and to do is condition by social status and economic circumstances or even by ethnic culture. Could it be that in order to be the ideal Christian father as defined by evangelical America you have to be college educated, middle class, suburban dwelling with enough leisure time to read books about parenting, take your wife on date nights, and play baseball with your sons while mowing the lawn and helping your wife with the housework? The truth is, I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, except for White people on T.V. and Bill Cosby.

My father is a good man, and a good father. His failures are numerous: he never took me fishing, I never remember playing catch with him in the backyard, and he took scant interest in my, admittedly, obscure childhood obsessions with all things nerdy. But he loved me, and he loves me still and of all the things I’ve doubted in my life, his love for me has never been one of them. And when I’ve found myself most discontent with him is when I am comparing him to some fictitious ideal that doesn’t really exist, and if it does, my father can never be. My dad worked every day to provide for us, he never abused my mother; he whipped us when we were bad and was excited when we performed well. (There were no rewards for being good – that was an expectation and why should we be rewarded for doing what was expected?) He did the best he could and the failures he’s had are only human.

At some point it just has to be good enough. None of us are perfect – no, not one. None of our fathers were perfect. They failed and so will we. At some point it simply has to be okay that our Dad’s didn’t often (or ever) say “I love you” because they stayed when they could have left. At some point it has to be good enough that our fathers nodded grimly and allowed a small tear to fall down their cheek because they didn’t have the words to say they were proud of us. At some point, it has to be ok that providing a warm house, hot food, and a warm bed was the best way some of our father had of showing their care. Maybe we will do better than they; somehow I doubt it. Whatever mistakes of their we avoid, we are certain to pick up an equal number of our own to compensate.

So Happy Father’s Day to all you dads, uncles, older brothers and father types. Give yourself a break. Simply being there counts for more than you know.

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The Jesus I Always Knew

One of the images of Jesus that permeated my childhood understanding of the gospel story – conveyed powerfully in sermon and in song – was of the man of sufferings, acquainted with our sorrow and our grief. Not only that, but the often explicitly stated idea was (as an old song says), “He didn’t have to do it, but he did.”

Jesus was the locus of our affections, the object of our adoration, the one to whom all our loyalty was due. To deny him was understood primarily in terms of incredulous ingratitude. After all, who else has loved us as he did? And even more, he didn’t do it because he was our parent or anything like that. He did it just because he wanted to. This was (and is) a compelling image. Certainly it is not the only one, but it is powerful. Even now I often think of sin as being disloyal to one who has been so loyal – so faithful – to me.

Why is this theme emphasized so often in the Black tradition? Why is the idea of a suffering savior so powerful? I don’t have a full answer, but I suspect it has to do with the unjust nature of his suffering. For a people whose very identity has been forged in suffering and who have experienced over and again state sanctioned injustice – such a savior is in many ways the only one who can make sense of that suffering. That is why so many times in my youth the preacher reminded us that Jesus was marched, “from judgment hall to judgment hall,” and that they, “whipped him all night long.” Not only that, but Jesus “hadn’t done nobody wrong,” and he “never said a mumbling word,” against those who treated him thusly.

At so many levels then, this Jesus by his life and example speaks to Black people who were unjustly stolen from our homeland, made to suffer under horrendous conditions, had our dignity and humanity systematically denied, and even after we were “freed” continued to suffer innumerable assaults on our dignity until this present day. Jesus knows what that is like.

In the last few weeks as I’ve moved back and forth between the “Black church” and “Korean church” worlds that I occupy, this issue of gospel contextualization has come up again in powerful ways. By the way, if you want to induce a small measure of Christian schizophrenia try leaving a Korean Presbyterian church service and going directly to a Black Pentecostal church service. Warning: be prepared for more than a little dissonance (to put it mildly – but more on this in another post).

I see plainly and from my own experience how Jesus is made real (incarnated) in the Black church experience, but who is the Jesus of the Korean church? I am reasonably sure that 1st generation Korean Christians have made Jesus real in their lives and experience, but I wonder how deeply that has happened for the 2nd generation. Clearly the language and images of Jesus are not exclusive to any people group, but what images and understandings of Jesus and of the gospel have the greatest resonance for this group?

If the way Jesus is presented is always as the oldest son who got things right and against whom you are always being compared by your parents (Jesus healed the sick, so you should be a doctor. Jesus was such a good student he impressed his teachers in Jerusalem; why can’t you be like him?). If this is how Jesus is known, then he is merely a stand in guilt inducing figure reinforcing the most challenging aspects of the Asian parent-child relationship. On the other hand if the gospel is presently mostly in terms of forsaking everything to follow Jesus, even family relationships, then it ends up calling 2nd gens entirely away from some of those things that make them Korean.

What is needed is not a new Jesus, but a new way of making the gospel real to the challenges and opportunities of the 2nd generation that makes sense of their reality and calls them into radical relationship with the Lord. It is up to them to write the lyrics of the Lords song in the strange in between reality in which they find themselves. The gospel can never be borrowed, but it must always be made ones own – and not in an individual sense only – but in community.