This weekend, our whole family will be gathering to celebrate a milestone in my father’s life: the 50th anniversary of his ordination in the United Church of Christ. He claims retirement now (though what this means is not entirely clear!), and the church where he and my mother worship (and where he has preached and conducted various services from time to time, despite the whole “retirement” thing) is having a big celebration this Sunday – the actual anniversary date. And words will be required from both my brother and me, though this has my father worried: he wanted to be sure that we understood that these were not to be eulogies as he is, thankfully, not yet dead.
And so I have been pondering these not-to-be-anything-like-a-eulogy words over the past couple of weeks. As is my usual methodology, I probably will not write them down, which means that I can’t be entirely sure what I will actually say when the moment arrives. I have been told that we should keep these words few in number, so as not to go on too long. A few words to sum up 50 years of ministry, which for me are inextricably linked with 50 years of fatherhood (well, okay, 46 in my case). It probably won’t be easy to do. I might not be able to keep it as short as hoped. My main concern is that it doesn’t smell at all of eulogy.
In my ruminating about all of this, I have kept coming back to something: a gift – one of many – that was given to me by my father, and lives very much at the heart of my own life and ministry. And that is the gift of a generous and loving God. Because let us make no mistake: the image of God that we carry with us, that informs the relationship we create with that God and that serves as the launching point into a Christian life, is initially given to us by someone else, someone who occupies an important position in our life. That “someone” may be a parent, clergy person, or other significant adult. It might even be a whole bunch of people, like a particular faith community. But somewhere along the line, someone has played a crucial role in telling us who God might be, and that image has set us on a particular spiritual course.
If we are serious about our spiritual life, at some point we will begin to reflect on that image of God that was given to us and in which we were formed. We may come to conclude that the God we are coming to know in our lives is nothing like the image we were given, or we may conclude that the image was basically sound but requires some adjustment in light of our experience. Or, we may find that the image matches well with the God with whom we are in friendship. This is part of the very essence of the spiritual life: testing various images and symbols against our own experience of the sacred.
There are those, of course, who are less reflective, and who accept the God images they were given without giving them much thought. They simply assume those images are true and, when those images find “hooks” in their own egos, they can easily mistake the image for the reality, and end up worshiping a God who is more a projection of their own ego rather than the God who is.
Today, I am very aware that so many people are given images of God during their formative years that are more about death than they are about life. They are given images based on a distorted reading of the Hebrew Bible, which is used to create a distorted understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus, and so for them, God becomes a figure who is more about judgment, vengeance, and strict obedience than mercy, forgiveness, and grace-filled compassion. Increasingly, we find that people reject this distorted, rigid image of God and, in the process, reject God all together, being unaware that there are alternative images of God that speak more truly in relation to their lived experience. And, also increasingly, we find that the most “successful” churches are those who insist on proclaiming a God of vengeance and judgment, mostly based on the idea that one can avoid God’s vengeance and judgment by being part of a select group. It is no wonder that such churches are large, because who doesn’t want to be part of an “in group”, especially if it means being “in” with God?
In my case, the early years of my spiritual life were shaped in large part by my father’s life and preaching. The image of God that I was offered during those years was an image of a God of generosity, love, and compassion. I was taught that God did indeed require things of me, but not in terms of an unattainable moral perfection. I wasn’t going to be perfect, and God knew that. No, what God required of me had less to do with my own righteousness and much more to do with seeing the needs of those around me and doing something about them. I was helped to understand that people carried with them tremendous burdens and deep brokenness, and rather than seeing this reality as a source of disappointment, God saw in this reality an opportunity for us – for me! – to be about the work of helping people lay down some of those burdens and heal some of that brokenness so that they could know themselves as beloved. And that is precisely the work that my father has been up to for these 50 years as a pastor and therapist.
And thanks to my father (and my mother deserves credit, as well!), I have always known myself as beloved. By them, certainly, but most importantly in an ultimate sense by God. There has never been one day in my life when I have questioned that or not known that in some way. And that is a tremendous gift for which there can never be sufficient gratitude. Because, in a fundamental way, it is the gift that has made all the difference.