Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Sunday, June 19, 2011
“The Goodness of God”
In a series of reflections around the dinner table, an anonymous writer wrote the following: “When I was a kid, my father used to read the Bible to us after dinner, a chapter or two a night. He went through the entire King James Version at least twice. My mother reluctantly went along with the ritual since she knew that religion was important to my father.”
“Every evening, after our plates were cleaned to his satisfaction, my father would settle back into his chair with the Good Book and keep one eye on us as he read aloud. Sometimes my younger brother would rest his head on the table and nod off. Our father would lean in and hit the table with a loud smack, right next to my brother’s ear.”
“The sound would startle all of us and snap my brother to attention – his blue eyes round and wet, bottom lip quivering. My mother would gather my brother into her lap and glare at my father as he continued to read.”
“We all learned to walk the line between tuning my father out and appearing respectfully alert. I’d stare blankly at his moving lips while I thought about the boy who’d been calling me on the phone. My mother might absent-mindedly pick at her arm. My brother would fidget in his chair.”
“Then one night, in the middle of the reading, my brother got up from the table unannounced and headed for the bathroom. My father jumped up so suddenly his chair went sliding across the floor and slammed into the cabinets behind him. He grabbed my brother’s arm, and our mother shouted, ʻBen, no!ʻ”
“Dangling my brother by his arm, my father hit his backside: smack, smack, smack, smack. Then he released my brother, who sat back down. ʻYou ask to be excused from the table,’ my father said.”
“I don’t remember if my brother cried. I do remember that my mother stood up and told my brother and me to get up, too. She informed our father that he could no longer force us to sit there while he preached at us like a hypocrite.”
After that day, “ . . . my father never read the Bible at the dinner table again.” (The Sun, Issue 399, M.H.N., Bend, Oregon, Harlan, Iowa, March 2009, pages 37-38)
Another story is told about the decisions we make - sometimes on our own, sometimes in response to the pressure we feel from others. “My father was dying at home from a rare type of cancer. My normally calm mother, a former nurse practitioner, was eighty years old and utterly exhausted from years of caring for him. For the past few weeks, she told me, he had been sleeping during the day but was wide awake and combative at night.”
“I began spending nights with them, my mother and I in the double bed, my father in a hospital bed in the same room. His personality and even his way of speaking changed, and I had to relearn how to communicate with him.”
“A lifelong devout Catholic, my father was losing his faith and worried that maybe there wasn’t a heaven after all. He was afraid to die. I promised that, as he died, I would stay with him and hold his hand. If he saw that he was going toward something beautiful, I told him, he could let go of my hand.”
“He visibly relaxed. ʻThat’s a beautiful story,ʻ he said.”
“On his last evening – it happened to be Father’s Day – I sat holding his hand until my mother said, ʻYou’re keeping him here by doing that. He needs to go. Let him go.ʻ”
“Reluctantly I freed my hand from his.”
“My father died while I was asleep in a chair across the room. For years I’ve been haunted by my broken promise to my father. Did I give him permission to leave his earthly life, or did I leave him alone when he needed someone most?” (The Sun, Issue 364, Name Withheld, Harlan, Iowa, April 2006, page 33)
The stories are very personal. They are as difficult for some of us to hear as it was for those who wrote them. In both instances, each writer chose to remain anonymous.
But both stories shed some light on our efforts to understand and appreciate our reading from The Book of Genesis, especially on this Father’s Day. Dr. Ralph F. Wilson of Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California points out in a Bible study series on the Names and Titles of God that “perhaps the most familiar Christian concept of God is as Father.” (http://www.jesuswalk.com/names-god/9_father.htm)
It is interesting that in his work to identify all of the references of father in the Bible that he was startled to discover that God is referred to as father in only ten verses of the Old Testament. By contrast, Jesus refers to God as father “hundreds of times” in the New Testament.
Wilson’s concern is if we are to understand the term father in the Bible, we must be willing to explore a different culture than our own. Gender equality and the rights of women are a relatively new phenomenon even in the U.S.
Not long ago women could not vote or inherit property in some states. While we may be critical of the treatment of women in other countries, we would do well not to get too haughty.
Wilson makes the case that “for most of history and in most cultures of the world, fathers have been the primary figure in families.” (Op. cit.) He refers to the work of Otfried Hofius who writes: “in patriarchal societies of antiquity, the father figure is endowed with two particular characteristics. On the one hand, the father rules as head of the household and the person to whom most respect is due, having absolute authority over his family. On the other hand, he has the responsibility of guarding, supporting, and helping the other members. Both of these characteristics are also present when a deity is described or addressed as father.” It would seem, then, that the father who was determined to read from the Bible at the dinner table was lacking in responsibility to his son. But it may also be said that the father who lay dying was given all due respect by the child who held his hand.
Wilson acknowledges that some of us may have had less than an ideal relationship with our own fathers. Some fathers may have been distant, perhaps non-existent, some even abusive. Often it is difficult for some of us to speak of God as a caring and loving father when we are faced with our own human experience.
It is very likely that the relationship between a father and child were no less different in Jesus’ day and time. But why would Jesus teach so strongly about God as his father, as our father? If this metaphor, as Wilson points out, could be rendered useless by some, why would Jesus risk doing so?
Wilson first says that theologically the metaphor describes the relationship of Jesus to God – as father-son, parent-child. Second, Wilson contends that Jesus is attempting to heal and bring wholeness to both men and women whose lives have been broken by their human fathers - to let you and me know that God loves us and will not do us harm; that God is a Father who will let us feel love and will not let us go.
It is this God who created heaven and earth and all that is. It is this God who, in the beginning, expressed delight in creation.
If God’s goodness is revealed to us in creation itself, what are we to say of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Southeast Asia several years ago or more recently on the northeastern coast of Japan? What are we to say of the tornadoes that have devastated communities throughout the U.S.? Or of floods and droughts throughout the world? What are we to say of every kind of natural disaster that has caused untold human pain and suffering? Where is the goodness of God in creation?
Yet we know about the goodness of creation – of its abundance that creates and sustains life. We see the goodness of creation all around us – of light and sky; of living plants and the fish of the sea; of the sun and moon and stars.
We rejoice that God has called and fashioned humankind in God’s own image – each one of us, boy and girl, woman and man. We know the first story of our beginnings, of our genesis, which asserts time and time again the goodness at the heart of creation.
Although it would be difficult amid the upheavals of the natural world to affirm the goodness of God in creation, we do so as an affirmation of our faith and not as a scientific explanation. In the beginning God created and God saw that everything was good and for that we give thanks.
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