Sayings that shaped me: “I know one thing”

Spent some good time in Atlanta last week and had a chance to meet face to face with David Park as well as eat some very good Korean food (which is almost a good enough reason to move to Atlanta). Shared with David a bit of my family history, and came from that inspired to share some of the phrases and meanings that shaped my world view. Today I tackle: “I know one thing…”

This phrase, “I know one thing” was spoken countless times in my youth and was directed usually towards one or the other of us children as a warning. We could, and often did, argue back and forth with my mother about almost anything. She was an exceptionally patient woman and tolerated far more “back talk” than most would. However when she uttered the magic phrase, “”I know one thing” all arguments were cut short. And yes, that is the extent of the phrase. She never did say what the “one thing” was, and we were too wise (and too scared) to ask. You see that statement indicated that whatever our objections and excuses, the time for argument and discussion was done and the time of obedient implementation had begun. None of us wanted to really know what would happen if we continued to argue. My mother had declared that she knew one thing, and if pressed we likely would have discovered that one thing had something to do with a switch, a bathroom, and a whole lot of crying.

What lessons have I drawn from this phrase and what has been its meaning in my life. In many ways, nothing at all. It’s just words my mother used to threaten us when she was fed up. But in other ways it is quite profound. Her statement along with countless others she and my father used over the years were in many ways nonsensical threats which we and they knew would never be carried out. Nevertheless, those words, and the featured phrase in particular delineated for us the limits of both our autonomy and of the power of our reason. It was a lesson, painfully learned at times, that there is a principle of authority present in the world to which reason and rights must bow. “I know one thing” meant that regardless of our opinion, reasoning or feelings about the matter at hand, our actions, indeed our will needed to bend to an authority higher than our own.

In light of how we think and understand or talk about authority now, this may seem arbitrary and my mother may seem to be some uncaring tyrant. Indeed this is far from the case. She was a loving, tolerant and extraordinarily patient woman. However she understood and instilled in me the essential truth that her rights and responsibility to establish the limits of my behavior and to set norms of conduct within the household did not derive ultimately from anything extrinsic to her position, whether the reasonableness of her request or the consent of the governed. Her authority was intrinsic to her status and her role as our mother. She was in fact quite reasonable, very sensitive to our needs and concerns, and altogether rather more solicitous of our requests for inclusion in the decision making process than many of her peers thought beneficial. At the end of the day though, she was in charge and held both the responsibility and the right to decide. She did not derive that right from us; it was inherent in her position as the mother.

My mother’s care and leadership in my life was a reflection, though a pale and flawed one, of God’s care and leadership of his creation. And just as my mother’s authority was inherent in her position as a mother, so too is God’s authority inherent in his divinity. Though God is good and loving and holy (and parents reflect that reality albeit imperfectly) his rights vis a vis his creation do not derive from that goodness, love or holiness. Our authority is derivative of our position in the created order and is a reflection of our being made in the image of God. His authority is inherent in his being and is a reflection of nothing. It is rather an emanation of his very self (if God can be called a self in any meaningful sense of the word). God need not appeal to anything outside himself to justify his authority. He is the author and therefore authority belongs to him.

This notion of intrinsic divine authority is not appealing. The arbitrariness of God in this respect is disconcerting in the same way that my mothers was. Some of her rules and decisions seemed to us at the time entirely arbitrary, lacking in sensitivity, immune to sound reason and flatly unfair. In hindsight I recognize the great wisdom, keen insight, and loving concern of many of her decisions, and those choices continue to guide my behavior today. Others of them remain inscrutable and indeed were only expressions of her own particular ways of doing things – which I promptly dropped when I left the authority of her roof.

At issue though is NOT the wisdom or loving nature of God’s decrees, though indeed they are perfectly wise and loving, that is not the basis upon which his authority rests. When we base our submission to God upon the loveliness or reasonableness of his commands, we set ourselves up to either mount a defense of those commands which seem unloving and unreasonable or to redefine his commands in such a way as to accommodate what we believe to be loving and reasonable. That was the original temptation of the garden; to reinterpret God’s commands in such a way that it became evident to our first parents that a reasonable and loving God would not withhold the goodness of the forbidden tree from us — surely he did not mean we would die.

I wonder how things would have turned out if when asked about the tree God had said, “I know one thing….”

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.