Fathers get forgotten.
I forgot fathers.
My sermon was going to be about women of the Bible today.
I told many of you so.
The reason I remembered father's day was because Dan reminded me.
Fathers get forgotten.
We are becoming a culture in which fatherhood is optional.
When my son was born, the birth certificate paperwork was clear that even listing a father was optional.
And when it came time to leave the hospital, there was a very awkward moment.
Dan was holding JP in his carseat and I was in the required wheelchair,
And the nurses got this look on their faces.
And they very politely informed us that the only way to transport the baby out of the hospital was in his mother's arms, in the wheelchair.
I'm sure this is for liability reasons.
But why is a baby any less safe held by his father than his mother?
Fathers get forgotten, or worse, trivialized.
I heard that Homer and Marge on the Simpsons may be divorcing.
For years Homer, or his counterparts on shows like "Family Guy" and "American Dad" have ridiculed the American father as being overweight, stupid, and generally unhelpful to the family's well-being.
Blogger Francesca Biller points out that even the words "fathering" and "mothering" mean two different things to us.
"Fathering" means the biological act of begetting a child,
Whereas "mothering" means caring for and nurturing a child.
It's as though a father's job is done once the child is conceived, whereas the mother's job is ongoing.
And yet study after study demonstrates that children fare better if both parents are involved in their lives.
Children in fatherless homes are four times more likely to be poor.
Children in fatherless homes are 1.8 times more likely to die in infancy.
Children in fatherless homes are less likely to do well in school and more likely to end up in jail.
This is no surprise to us.
Seventy percent of Americans believe that the single greatest problem in our culture today is the rise in fatherless families.
Forty percent of children are now born out of wedlock, and the vast majority of these couples do not marry, resulting in about a third of American children being raised in fatherless families.
Among Hispanics and African Americans that percentage rises over fifty percent.
But the statistic you probably have never heard is the importance of a father in a child's religious upbringing.
A 1994 Swiss study revealed that if the father does not attend church, completely regardless of whether the mother goes to church, the child is 50 percent likely to become an adult churchgoer.
If the father goes to church irregularly, the child is about 66% likely to go to church.
And in families where the father attends church regularly, 75% of the children will become regular churchgoers.
If the mother attends church regularly but the father does not, 33% of the children, on average, will become religious.
If the father attends regularly but the mother does not, 66% of the children, on average, will become religious.
What does all this tell us?
It tells us that fathers are supposed to guide their children.
It tells us that fathers are supposed to provide for their children.
It tells us that fathers are supposed to protect their children.
And it tells us that fathers are supposed to love their children.
It tells us not to forget fathers.
The Bible tells us this as well.
The Bible tells us fathers are meant to guide their children:
Ephesians 6:4 says, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."
The Bible tells us fathers are meant to provide for their children:
Matthew 7:9 says, "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?"
The Bible tells us fathers are meant to love protect their children.
Psalm 68:5 calls God both "father" and "protector," suggesting that fatherhood and protection are linked.
The Bible tells us fathers are meant to treat their children with compassion, mercy, and love.
Deuteronomy 1:31 says that God carries us "as a father carries his son."
Luke 15 describes the loving father who runs to embrace the prodigal son.
1 John 3:1 says, how great is the love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God!
So the Bible describes what fatherhood should be, and the Bible describes God as Father.
Jesus called God Abba, which meant, roughly, Papa or Daddy.
It was an intimate term of endearment for a loving Dad.
Not everyone has a father like this.
For some of us, father's day reminds us of fathers who were not present,
The fathers we want to forget,
Who were disappointing, cruel, who were addicted to alcohol or addicted to work,
Who, God forbid, were abusive,
Or who in other ways did not fulfill the role of fathering that God designed and wanted.
For some women, keeping children from their fathers was sometimes an act of love,
Because they knew the father would not be a good influence in the child's life.
For some, father's day brings up a feeling of loss of never having had the opportunity to father children.
Yet I believe father's day needs to be expanded to celebrate all who do the work of fathering.
Fathering is not just a biological act; it is the guiding, providing, protecting, and nurturing acts that fathers provide.
And ultimately, who guides, provides, protects, and loves?
The Bible calls God "the father of the fatherless."
According to Scripture, fatherhood is not just the job of biological fathers.
It's God's job.
Which means that it's the church's job.
If there are all of these children in need of fathers to guide, provide, protect and nurture them,
Then we, as a church, are called to represent God in being a father to the fatherless among us.
I have told you that one very important factor in whether a child will go to church is whether the father attended church,
But another, equally important factor is whether the child connected with another loving adult in the congregation,
Who was close enough to that child to be like an extended family member.
If a child develops that kind of a bond with a Sunday school teacher, a youth leader, a pastor, or just a friend in the church,
And that adult helps the child to know God,
The likelihood of the child attending church as an adult rises over 50%.
So that's why we as a church need to step up in caring for children and young people.
For children whose fathers are present and loving, this is still important.
One of our problems in this culture is that we tend to place all the responsibility for raising a child on one or two people.
When actually, the community is called to teach our children.
I believe uncles, grandfathers, coaches, foster fathers, godfathers, and teachers all deserve to be honored on father's day.
In the Presbyterian church, when a child is baptized, we all make promises to raise that child in the Christian faith.
We have godparents in the Presbyterian church because we recognize that the instruction of the child can't all be laid on one or two people.
We have done some things in this church over the past year that seem small.
We re-started the children's message.
We re-opened a Sunday school.
We had a confirmation program.
We are taking young people to a conference.
We are holding Operation: Parents' Relief Week.
Grace McCullough began knitting little lovies for children born to at-risk moms.
These acts are participating in the work of raising our children.
They are fathering and mothering acts.
We talk about them as ways to grow our church and to reach out to families.
But more importantly, we are being a father to the fatherless.
We are helping parents to raise their children, to guide their children, provide for their children, protect their children, and love their children.
This Operation Parents' Relief Week is a key mission of the church: to help parents to raise their children.
To help tired parents with free childcare.
So every one of us is called to step up and to help out.
If you physically can't run around after kids, bring in a box of goldfish crackers, buy a playground ball,
Invite your neighbors, your grandkids to come and be a part of this.
Because parents need help,
And kids need to know they are loved.
We may forget fathers.
But God does not forget to be our father.
And we, in the church, can't forget either.
Michael Lindvall tells the following parable about what it means to be a father to the fatherless.
Rev. David Battles is approached after church one Sunday by Angus McDonnell, a church elder.
Angus tells Battles that Larry, his son from Spokane, will be in town over Thanksgiving, along with Sherry, his wife, and their new baby named, believe it or not, “Angus Larry.”
“They’re going to call him ‘Skip,'” the elder Angus adds. He goes on to say that with Sherry’s folks living nearby, this Thanksgiving is going to be a big reunion.
As such, the Sunday following would be a perfect time to “do the baby,” as Angus puts it.Rev. Battles invites the elder into his office. He talks about the integrity of the Sacrament of Baptism. He asks Angus about Larry and Sherry’s church affiliation in Spokane, and explains it would be best for Skip to be baptized in the church where he will be raised. He goes on to talk about the need for parents to be committed in their faith to the rather sweeping and deep promises of baptism. Angus catches Battles’ drift. Larry and Sherry ought to find a church in Spokane and have Skip “done” there.
Angus listens politely, thanks the minister for his time, and leaves the office with Battles thinking the matter is settled. But Angus makes a few calls and at the next meeting of the session the baptism is approved 9-0.
So, on the morning of the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Rev. Battles “does” little Skip. In the North Haven congregation it is a tradition that the minister asks, “Who stands with this child?” before asking the questions of the parents. All the relatives of the child then rise and remain standing through the rest of the baptism. When Battles asks the question, four pews worth rise to their feet eliciting giggles in the congregation.
After church, everyone returns home to leftover turkey, and Rev. Battles goes back into the sanctuary to turn out the lights. He notices that someone waiting to talk with him; a quiet woman named Mildred Cory who always sits at the rear of the church and usually slips out quickly when worship is through. Mildred seems at a loss for words. Finally, she says that her daughter, Tina, just had a baby, and, well, the baby ought to be baptized, shouldn’t it?
Battles suggests that Tina and her husband call him to discuss it. Mildred hesitates again, and then, catching and holding Battles’ eyes for the first time, says, “Tina ‘s got no husband; she’s just 18, and she was confirmed in this church four years ago. She used to come for Senior High Fellowship, but then she started to see this boy who dropped out of school…” Now the story tumbles out fearlessly: “…and then she got pregnant, he left, and she decided to keep the baby and she wants to have it baptized here in her own church, but she’s nervous to come and talk to you, Reverend. She’s named the baby James – Jimmy.”
Rev. Battles brings the matter up at the next session meeting for approval. Battles explains that Tina is an unwed mother and that he doesn’t know who the father is. They all know who the father is, of course; this is a small town. The father is young Jimmy Hawthorne, who is completing basic training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The discussion is awkward because of the picture they all have in their minds: Tina, who looks young for her age anyway, standing up there, teenage spots and all, holding little Jimmy in her arms; big Jimmy long-fled to North Carolina; and Mildred Corey being the only one who stands when the question is asked. It hurts to think of. But the session approves the baptism and schedules it for the last Sunday in Advent. As always the Sunday before Christmas, the church is full.
Down the aisle comes Tina, nervously, briskly, shaking slightly, holding month-old Jimmy. A picture of young Mary holding her first-born son suddenly comes to Battles’ mind. Would she have felt as out of place in her home synagogue considering her circumstances?
Rev. Battles reads the opening part of the service and then – looking for Mildred Cory and finding her sitting strangely out of place in a front pew – asks the question: “Who stands with this child?” He nods at Mildred slightly to coax her to her feet. She rises slowly; looking to either side self-consciously, and then returns his forced smile. Battles’ eyes go back to the service book perhaps a little too quickly. He is just about to ask Tina the questions required of the parents when he becomes aware of a movement in the pews. Angus McDonnell had stood up, his wife Minnie beside him. Then a couple of other elders stand. Then the sixth-grade Sunday School teacher, a new couple in church, and soon, before his incredulous eyes, the whole church is standing with little Jimmy. Tina is crying, overwhelmed by the extravagant expression of grace and support. Mildred Cory is holding on to the pew as though she is standing on the deck of a rocking ship, which, in a way, she is.
Who stands with these children?
We all do.
Christian fathers are called to represent God in their children's lives.
And we are called to stand beside them.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.