When Fathers Fail

“I would run up to him, punch him in the chest, and tell him I hate him for not being there for me.
And then I would hug him and tell him that I love him.”
India had no idea what she was teaching me.  It was a warm, summer day and we were driving back from a Tigers baseball game.  I had the privilege of attending a game (while paid) along with four teenage girls from a residential group home. While I did that, my coworkers were in a meeting to hear that they would have to apply for their own jobs.  Not hard to see who won that day.
India had been very nervous – extremely nervous – as we approached Detroit and the stadium.  Her mother lived in Detroit and she did not trust her mother.  Even though her mother did not know we were going to this game, the very possibility made it hard just to walk from the van to the stadium.  But all went well and after the game I began asking a few questions: “What do you think you would have done if you had seen your mother?”  And then I asked the same question about her father, a person India had not seen in nine years.
Her statement above told me volumes that I had never fully realized before.  Your father is always your father and your mother always your mother.  I worked in the child welfare system, and I still was living in the lollipop and gumdrop land that imagined another person could simply fill a role where another person was absent or failing.  Adoptive parents or foster parents – or even me – they could just fill that role, right?

“India, what if you were adopted by a family and they loved you, what would that be like?”
Oh, that would be amazing.  I’d probably ask them all kinds of questions and hope they didn’t get freaked out because I’d want to be around them all the time.”
If you have worked with other people’s children, or been a foster or adoptive parent, you know how amazing that experience can be.  You know the love you can give and receive in that relationship.  Keep doing it.  But it took me years until India’s five-second comment made it sink in: God’s design is on purpose.  The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God.  That same design is passed on through us.  We leave our mark on our children because God left a mark on us.  It’s a marvelous pattern that we can’t explain.  Every parent-teacher conference that I attend leaves me amazed at how my children have traits of mine that I never taught. We carry our parents in us.
And that’s why India, even after not seeing for her father for more than half of her life, wanted to hold him and be held.  To love him and be loved.  She wanted to connect with her image-maker.

I pressed a little more.
India, what if you were adopted by a family, and they knew EVERYTHING about you and still loved you,
what would that be like?”
“Oh.  I think I would just…cry.”

India had just rocked and confirmed my view of God in one tiny conversation that I will always remember.  We fail as children.  Often.  We fail as adults.  All the time.  And there a nagging question in her minds, “What now?”  Children like India usually didn’t feel like they had a clean record by the time they met me.  In fact, they came with case files detailing why they were not with their parents, broken foster care placements, troubles in school and the community, medicine they were forced to take.  It’s a miniature prison record of all of their wrongs.
But what was any different about her than squeaky-clean me?  What about the car I crashed, the van window I smashed, the jerk I was in school or to my own family?  I didn’t have a written record like India, but I knew exactly what she meant. My father knew my failures, but certainly not all of them.  And my father is a pretty amazing man, but I noticed his failures too.  He did not walk with me 24 hours a day, tell me about every obstacle I would face, give me all the right answers. Even as an independent, strong-willed, know-it-all teenage boy, I still wanted the cheat sheet to life.
It just doesn’t work that way.

Shane Claiborne, in his book The Irresistible Revolution, makes a bold statement that there is no one who is truly fatherless, they just haven’t met Him yet.  They haven’t met THE Father, and we need to help with that.  He is pointing back to that design – that all of us are made in God’s image.  The challenge, of course, is that earthly fathers fail.  That can make it really hard to talk about God as Father.
Father’s Day is great, especially with social media.  People send texts, phone calls, post happy pictures and kind words and you get that warm, fuzzy feeling for a while.  You know what happens next?
And fathers fail.  We don’t talk about it much.  Well, we do, but not with much grace.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a day when I thought, “Boy, I sure parented perfectly today!  Can’t wait to do that again tomorrow!”  As a divorced father, the weight of that hangs on me every day.  The last bit of rope on a fraying marriage was that I didn’t want to do THAT to them.  But I did.
So where’s the grace?  The grace is in India’s words.  The grace is in knowing that no one is perfect.  My father has been around for every one of my days and married to my mother for 48 years and I can still spot his mistakes.  But I am loved and I love him.  He is my image-maker and I am his image-bearer.  He shaped, as many fathers do, my image of God the Father.  But he’s not God.  My dad doesn’t know all of my mistakes, not even close.  I don’t know his.
But God does.
And God is that adoptive parent who is running and calling to us to fall into His arms.  God is that one who would make India cry.  To take all the hurt and the pain and to love us right back.
The Shack is a powerful and controversial book because of what it does with the image of God the Father, or “Papa.”  Papa first appears as a woman to the main character, Mack.  Only later in the book does that change and do we learn why – Mack’s father was not a good man.  That had hurt Mack’s relationship with God.  How can God be good when fathers are so bad?  Most of us have stumbled over that hurdle.
There is brokenness all around.  Fathers fail, even the ones who are present every day.  And tomorrow is Monday.
But what if there is someone who still knows all about your failures and still loves you?
Good news.  There is.  Even and especially when fathers fail.
Happy Father’s Day.

What Is Your War?

The other day I happened to notice that Christians was trending on Twitter.  Out of curiosity, I delved into the trend to discover the root of the discussion.  What I found was a significant reaction to the President’s address of recent executions in Egypt.  There were many people who were upset that the President did not directly refer to the slain as “Christians” even though that was the message relayed through news outlets.
I played out the possibility of the President directly making that remark and paired it with the strong, visceral reaction I saw on social media.  I came to the conclusion that the President was very wise for addressing it as he did.  Allow me to flesh this out.
Recent historical events have prejudiced much of the Western world toward anyone who claims Islam as their faith.  Terrorist events by extremists professing that faith have overshadowed the peaceful and law-abiding lives of the millions who fundamentally live out the Islamic faith.  To be quite frank, much of the vocal sentiment in the United States has been derogatory and dismissive of Islams.  Perceived as a threat and therefore an enemy, even professed Christians have given themselves a new enemy:  Muslims.
The theat of terrorist events are not bound to a political border.  Depending on your definition of terror, they are not bound to a people group either.  Unfortunately, however, if asked to assign the threat of terror to one group, most would have “Muslims” at or near the top of their list.
I realize that this not substantiated, but I’m simply relaying it as per my experience and observation.  Follow along for just a moment longer.  If the President had directly stated that the slain were Christians, it would have been a statement that only further narrowed the terms.  It would no longer be the Islamic State (IS) enacting terror against the Western world, but it would have been narrowed to Islam(ic State) against Christianity.  The reaction that I saw seemed to indicate that that is exactly what many people want to declare.
That sounds familiar.  A group of professing Christians calling for a military leader to ascknowledge and overthrow the enemy.  That’s what first-century believers wanted.  Any Messiah who would come would have to be one prepared to lead God’s people against the Roman enemy.  Jesus turned that view on its head.  He did not ride in on a war horse; he rode in on a donkey.  He did not overthrow the Roman empire with might; He died on their torture device.  And the Kingdom that Jesus ushered in is still in operation today.  A Kingdom that is about the ushering in of his second coming.
So I come again to this question:  what benefit would it have served anyone for the military leader of the United States of America to say that twenty-one Christians died at the hands of extremists who profess an Islamic faith?  None.  For us to even suppose that we can label with conviction the faith of any one person is to purport the duty of God.  I know no one’s heart, and neither do you.  For me to say with certainty that a Christian died is as foolish as saying with certainty that those who killed them were Muslim.  I know nothing of the sort.
Let us not take the short nor the narrow view of history.  Let us not take the short nor the narrow view of our world today.  God is holding open history until such time as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ shall return.  In the meantime, there is a mandate – a bestowed responsibility – to make the good news of salvation known to all peoples.  Did you know that Muslims are the largest group of unreached peoples in terms of having an accessible message of salvation given to them?  Did you know that the vast majority of Muslims do not know one single person who would call themselves Christian?
If someone has been given the good news, the key, the answer, who is responsible if someone does not know about it?  The person with the answer!  Salvation is a gift of grace through faith, and lest we forget that we are undeserving, we could begin to recount all of our sins together.  Shall we?
Do not lose sight of what is to be accomplished.  The Kingdom of God is entrusted to us – broken vessels striving for obedience.  I will win no one to Christ through hate.  I will win no one to Christ through force.  I will win no one to Christ by military might.  That is not the battle.  The battle is to discern between the two warring kingdoms in this world and to align with the winning side.  The winning side has allegiance to love, grace, and forgiveness.  If that is not how you want to end this battle, I would ask you, “What is your war?”

The Danger of the Segregated Church

Take a quick walk through the neighborhood with me.  As I step out of my front door, I look over and see the well-manicured lawn of the Baptist church.  Steeped in tradition, they can boast of a pastor who has served them faithfully for decades.  On Sunday mornings the street is filled with shiny, clean cars and congregants walking in with smiles as bright as their clothes.

By the time I have reached my sidewalk I can see the brown bricks of the AME church that sits right next to the Baptist church.  Together they take up the block and have walls no more than eight feet apart.  Not quite as shiny as the Baptist church, this building is home to many church mothers and grandmothers.  As you walk past there on Sunday morning, you can hear the call-and-response preaching streaming through the windows.

As I make it out into the street, I can glance to the right and see the towering church that rests upon the face of a busy street.  Saturday mornings are filled with people of the community lining up to receive boxes of food to take home to their families.  On Sundays people drive in to the neighborhood to take their suits and dresses inside the stained-glass-windowed church before taking their out-of-place faces back home.

I live in mini-Jerusalem.

In fact, within one large city block that I can walk, I can come in contact with no fewer than 11 active churches.  As I do so, I can also say this: “Black, black, white, hispanic, white, black…”  I am sure you can do the same around you.  We all know the reasons: “I’m uncomfortable with their style of worship.” “I would not know anyone there.” “I don’t think my family would like it.”  What is the end result?  The same as it has always been.

There is an unspoken danger as we continue to flock together with like-colored sheep: as soon as there is a problem, we circle our own wagons even tighter.  You would have to have been on an intense media fast this week to not be aware of what took place in Ferguson, Missouri.  Just in case you missed it, a black male teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed in the streets.  Reports indicate that he was unarmed and had his hands held up.  Protests have led to significant tensions, conflicts and even now to looting.


Because as soon as you heard that a police officer shot and killed a black male you never once questioned the race or gender of the officer.  You already knew.  Frankly, I had to go to a news report this morning to confirm that the police officer who killed Michael Brown was in fact a white male.

Does that matter? Absolutely it does.  Let’s imagine that you are sitting in a predominantly black church tomorrow morning and a white male walks in dressed in a suit.  How do you feel about him being there?  And what is your response when the pastor laments the violence against young black males and the white man just sits there listening while everyone else affirms with shouts of “Amen!” and “That’s right!”  What if he is just there to learn more?  What if he was raised that remaining quiet while someone is talking is respectful?

Or take another side of it.  Now you are sitting in a predominantly white congregation and a black male teenager walks in to the service wearing khakis and a polo.  He doesn’t know anyone but he sits down next to your elderly grandmother.  What if he just wanted to see if the people that come into his neighborhood really care about him?  And what if, before the service is over, he gets up and walks out the back door and into the basement where the nursery is.  Do you think someone gets up to follow him….just to check?  What if he is looking for a quiet place to call his mother and tell her that he will be home in fifteen minutes because he was taught that it is disrespectful to show up late?

Your segregated church is a problem.  If you don’t believe so, take a look at this picture: image

If you continue to operate as a segregated church, your community is never more than 15 minutes away from that being the scene where you live.  There is an us.  There is a them.  And all of your wishing for a more diverse church – if you even want that – has made no changes.  Why?  Because no one who does not look like the face of your church is going to feel comfortable just coming in!  You have to be the one who creates the change, and it should start by you going somewhere else, not your token “I invited a black or white friend” on Sunday morning.

Can you imagine if God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus kept on having a good time in heaven and said, “Hey, any time you want to come check us out, feel free!”  You know how that would go.  NO! Jesus moved into the neighborhood, and thank God he did! Instead of being the them, Jesus became the us!

You have two choices, and they are the same whether you are black or white: do nothing or something.  Both choices have predictable results.  If you do nothing, your son, grandson, or nephew could be shot in the streets for running while braided.  If you do something, maybe he won’t.

I am white.  My sons are black.  And white.  And when I really get it right, I know that my family is black, white, Korean, Italian, South African, Australian, Russian, Iranian, Iraqi…

It’s simple.  And your solution is so remarkably easy that you’d almost miss it.  Again, Jesus comes to your aid with your answer: 

“And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You.’  But He answered them, saying, ‘Who is My mother, or My brothers?’ And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.'” (Mark 3:32-35, NKJV).

Go find your brother and your sister and your mother.  Don’t let the first time you meet them be when you finally realize that you have the same Father.

My Problem with Grace: Part 3

We often do not discover our problem with something until it is right in front of us.  For example, I had no problem with asparagus until my mother encouraged me to try it and offered that it was “good.” Her words did nothing for the smell, appearance and texture of the food.  I believed that she liked asparagus, but I insisted that I did not.
The same seems to be true of grace.  I have been the one to encourage grace and promote its goodness.  But, unlike my mother, I have not been tasting what I myself am putting on other plates.  Be careful of the chef who does not eat his or her own cooking.  In my first post I shared how I learned to allow my slate to be wiped clean rather than remaining hung up on my imperfection.  In my second post I shared that I had to humble myself and acknowledge my own insufficiency.  This third part may have been the hardest, but also the best.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – Ephesians 1:4,5

While I was uncomfortably waiting inside the bank, I thought I should seek out another option.  Maybe the bank would not be able to help me with the impending shortfall I was facing.  I took my phone and sent out a text for help.  An offer came back, but it would not be available until Monday – the day that I needed it.  Before I could finish the conversation, I was called into the bank office.  A proverbial dash, like the one after Ephesians 1:5, was hanging over my cry for help.
As I walked out of the bank office assured that my payment could still process, I glanced at my phone.  I had one text message with one word: “Done.”  In other words, not only would I have the amount that I needed, I would have it in time.  What a relief.
A few days after that, I received this text from that person:  “I’m very glad you asked me for money.”
That seemed to be an odd statement to make.  So I asked, “Because?”
I received this response:  “I know a lot of people that need it won’t ask, you did a lot for me and I’m glad I’m able to help in some way.”
Isn’t that so true of grace?  How many people need it but won’t ask?  How many people know they need it and won’t ask?  And how many people need it again and again but allow their pride or sense of self-sufficiency to prevent them from making that request?  Put me in that final category.

Verse 5 of Ephesians 1 ends with a dash, a “wait-for-it” type of marking.  Here is what comes after that:
to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. – Ephesians 1:6
There’s that word again: grace.  Freely given.  Freely given in the One he loves.  I have tried to repay my debt, not only with my friend but also with God.  I want to “make it right” or “even out” what has been done.  So not only do I get hung up on mistakes and have difficulty admitting my failures, but I also do not receive well.  As soon as I was able to repay what had been given to me by my friend, I made my intentions clear.  The loan was appreciated and I was ready to settle up.  The response I received was not what I had expected (nor hoped) to hear:
“You know I won’t take it.”
What?  I cannot repay? But how am I supposed to settle the score?  Don’t we do that with grace?  How often have you treated grace like a loan to “get you by” in a tough spot instead of receiving it for the gift that it is?
Ah, but grace is not about settling the score, at least not on our end.  Grace is freely given in order to settle the score from God’s perspective.  This morning I asked my sons about the word “reconcile” after we heard it in a song.  “Reconcile” is one of those words tossed around in Christian-ese, but we often miss the application it has to the accounting world.  (Those of us who have reconciled bank statements should understand.)  In that sense the word points toward accuracy and an accounting for of all transactions.  That’s grace.
We’re imperfect.  We’re woefully short.  We receive grace to balance out the account.  But it’s not a loan, so we cannot repay. If the account has already been settled and the cost paid, how would we make things even again?  How do you repay adoption into a relationship so undeserved?  How do you repay love?  (Many of you will try on Valentine’s Day.)  You cannot.
We are not used to gifts without conditions, so we may struggle to only receive.  It’s not that we cannot respond at all, for grace does compel us to action.  But the very simple point is that we cannot repay grace.  We can, however, respond in love.
I like asparagus now; my mother was right.  It makes me wish I had tried it sooner.  And people were right about grace as well.  In fact, I was right about grace.  I knew it was good.  The difference is that I now have a taste for grace, and I hope you do as well.  Don’t wait any longer to try it.