Walking in Integrity: A Father’s Day Sermon from the Depths

This is adapted from a Father’s Day sermon I preached today in the hospital chapels.

A few moments ago, we heard some of the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs speaking to fathers and children about their relationships. Proverbs also has a word of advice for us preachers in chapter 17 and verse 28: “Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his mouth is esteemed a man of understanding.” Preachers often share little tidbits about their own lives to help us connect with our congregations and build a bridge between the biblical themes we’re exploring and the nitty gritty of everyday life. But there’s a temptation that we have to resist, a temptation to overshare, to turn the focus onto ourselves and make it all about us. In those moments, the figure of Solomon calls out to us from the mists of time and legend: “Shutteth thy mouth, preacher!”

Today is one of those times that I’m in danger of focusing too much on my own stuff. It’s an especially difficult and challenging day for me, difficult and challenging to find a word of inspiration. Today, we celebrate Father’s Day. My own dad passed away less than a month ago, at only 61 years of age. We gathered together back in my hometown of Joliet, Illinois. Gathered as a family, with loved ones coming from Florida, from West Virginia, from Mississippi. We gathered and were supported by our friends and by his friends, from various times of his life. When the time came to lay him to rest, we gathered for a memorial at the same church with whom both he and I grew up, the church where he was baptized and married to my mom, the church where I was baptized and first preached the gospel and presided at the Lord’s Table. Standing where I first preached over 25 years ago, I offered a eulogy, celebrating him as a man whose love for his family was his major driving force, a champion who bravely faced the dragons of this life in the hopes that we wouldn’t have to.

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Altar prepared for Father’s Day worship services in the chapel.

In his sermon during the memorial, Matt Bassford, the church’s preacher, made a statement that my dad’s life story was in large part the story of his struggles with his flaws. That wasn’t an insult. It wasn’t insensitive. The challenges of this life left my dad with many deep wounds, many of the same kinds of destructive patterns that we treat here in this facility. Victories, moments of peace seemed for him always temporary, and then the battles would begin again. Though in his final months the toll his struggles had taken on his body was making itself deeply felt, his final months, I celebrated at the memorial and celebrate again today, were also a time of great emotional healing, a time of reconnection with loved ones, a time of reflection on his life story and the attainment of a real sense of peace and completion.

Even in those times in his life when his struggles were at their greatest, when it was all he could do to keep going on, his love for us was never in question. Being our dad was at the very center, the very heart and soul of who he considered himself to be. Flawed? Definitely. The moment growing up when we recognize that our parents aren’t perfect may be tough, but it’s essential to growing up. Perfection is not in the mother or father’s job description. Perfection is not, but integrity is.

“The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him” (Proverbs 19:26). To walk in integrity is to move toward knowing who we really are and toward acting with authenticity. Notice, I don’t speak of it as arriving at a destination, but rather as setting our sights forward and moving in that direction. Walking in integrity does not require that all of our convictions are true and that all of our actions are in line with those convictions. Rather, it requires that we be open to truths wherever they come from, no matter how challenging, that we form our convictions accordingly, and that each day we move closer to bringing them to fruition. Sometimes we may find ourselves feeling stuck, feeling as though the life we’re in doesn’t match who we know ourselves to be. We may not be able to snap our fingers and instantly transform. Instead, we commit to transitioning ever closer. It’s a lifelong project, and it helps to have supportive people around us, and to be those supportive people for those we encounter along the walk.

To walk in integrity is to recognize both our gifts and our wounds, our strengths and our flaws. It is to use the gifts we have in service of one another, to leave behind a world with just a little bit more kindness, a little bit more compassion, a little bit more cooperation, a world where we’ve cast our nets just a little bit wider. A world in which our children are blessed after us. To walk in integrity is to know our woundedness, and to seek healing, to know our weaknesses and seek recovery. A life spent struggling with our flaws is a life lived walking in integrity. It is the example we should hope every father sets for his children.

On this Father’s Day, while I continue to mourn his loss, still searing, still fresh, I am grateful that I had a dad who walked in integrity, even when he could only limp. My heart is with others for whom this day is difficult, because they, too, are grieving, or because their relationships call to mind hurtful memories. I’m grateful for all the fathers out there pouring themselves out in loving service for their children. We’re all in this life together, friends, and the work of forming and shaping the lives of the next generation, the work of fathers and mothers, is the holiest work of all.

Roll Up for the Mystery Tour

My dad, Robert Gregory Childers, passed away on May 22, 2017, from complications of throat cancer. He was 61. At his memorial service at the Joliet church of Christ, Joliet, Illinois, on May 27, I had the honor of delivering this eulogy. The Joliet church is where both he and I were raised; he was laid to rest in the same room in which he was baptized and in which he was married to my mom, the same room in which I was baptized and first preached the gospel.
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It doesn’t take much for me to become nostalgic. In the defining and transformative moments of life, when we return home and are reunited with loved ones from days gone by, it’s only natural that most of our hearts get carried back on waves of wistfulness into the past. For me, though, it doesn’t take a day like today to send me back in time. I can be at Jewel’s buying Dean’s cottage cheese in the rectangular containers they came out with a few years back and start daydreaming about the good old days when it came in round containers—like it’s supposed to. Then my mind will jump to how my dad and I in our bachelor pad days could both live for practically weeks at a time off of cottage cheese and pickled beets—on the same paper plate, but not mixed together; we’re not animals. Then my internal time machine will kick into turbo mode, and I’ll think of how that cottage cheese and beets never tasted better than when they were sharing a plate with my grandma’s pot roast on a Sunday afternoon, the whole family gathered around the table, except for my grandpa, who was sitting enthroned on his easy chair around the corner.

My dad worked a swing shift for years, so he’d only be able to join for Sunday dinner every few weeks. How many Sundays like that were there? Dozens? Maybe a hundred? We don’t really notice them as anything special. World News Tonight doesn’t report that the Childers family is having pot roast. And cottage cheese and beets. But standing there in my time machine in the dairy cooler at Jewel’s, sort of breathing in my whole life all at once, events and ideas that I thought were so big, so important don’t even register, as if my priorities somehow perfectly managed to consistently bear absolutely no relationship to reality, and those little, ordinary moments, moments like my dad being off on a Sunday and being with us around the table, or sitting with us around the TV after a long day’s work, or tossing my brothers up in the air and catching them, or making goofy home videos, or watching Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla for the thousandth time, which he accidentally taped over some of his goofy home videos, and seeing him box in his seat along with the fighters, making his unique and absurd punching sound, or picking up his guitar about once every ten years, flawlessly playing a song he just heard on the radio start to finish without any practice, or, lately, calling and spending an hour talking about what we each made for dinner, talking just long enough to make sure that our dinners got cold. These moments that don’t seem to matter all that much, it turns out, are the only ones that do.

On November 27, 1967, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album was released. Whether my dad, then 11 years old, made it to the store the day it came out or just very soon after is one of those facts that the great chroniclers of world history, in their negligence, failed to record. The Beatles provided my dad with the soundtrack for his life. I can vividly remember my dad’s devastation when John Lennon was murdered. I was only a year old, so that memory has to be imaginary or from a dream, but that I would somehow put together such a false memory and have it feel so real is a testimony to how deeply steeped my dad’s heart was in the Beatles’ body of work. In the title track of that 1967 album, with their distinct and hauntingly beautiful harmonies, the Beatles called out the invitation to roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour.

I expected that picture of a magical mystery tour to strike me as an image of the end of this life and the transition to what comes after. And maybe it is. But that’s not the way that song has been speaking to me the last few days. It reminds me less of this life’s end than of its beginning. For my dad, for all of us, life is the real magical mystery tour. As a 23 year old train engineer with a young pregnant wife at home, he couldn’t have expected to be laid off, to greet the birth of his first son pumping gas part-time and struggling to rebuild his life when it had barely begun. Like all of us, he couldn’t know what twists and turns life and health and love would take him down. Like all of us, he couldn’t know what would greet him around the next curve and the one after that, whether it would be a moment of joy or a dragon to face. It’s no secret that my dad’s mystery tour put him face to face with a number of dragons, and that those dragons often left him deeply, deeply wounded. But there is no shame in being wounded in battle. His wounds just made it that much more honorable, that much more noble, when he got back up and continued to fight. That’s what a champion does.

And that is who my dad is. A champion. Our champion. Whatever life threw in his path, even when his struggles were at their greatest, even when his wounds were at their deepest, there was not one second—not one second—when we didn’t know that the driving force in his life was his love for us, for my brothers and me, for his grandsons, and most recently, for a granddaughter that’s on the way. No macho nonsense ever prevented him from showing and expressing his love freely and openly. There was never a question that the reason he could get back up and fight the dragons of life again was so that we wouldn’t have to.

For the last few years, and especially the last year through multiple rounds of cancer treatment, false hopes and fresh disappointments, my dad has suffered through great sickness. Despite how sick he was, though, this last year has been, in a sense, in the most important sense, the healthiest he’s ever been. He used the time to reflect deeply on the relationships and events of his life story, of his magical mystery tour, and awakened to a real sense of meaning, a real peace, a real and well-earned sense of completion, that his has been a life well lived. He reached out and strengthened his bonds with family members separated by miles and years. His eyes were reopened to happy memories long obscured by later hurts. Though the thanks I owe the people of this congregation extends back much further than the past year, it means the world to me and to all of my family that he had your friendship and love to accompany him on this last leg of his magical mystery tour.

It was love’s voice calling through the Beatles that extended to him the invitation to make a reservation. It was love that called out to him to roll up and let it take him away. And for 61 years he did. May his love continue to echo through this world in our lives.

Easter Reflection

Mercifully short mini-sermon from an Easter celebration of scripture, sacrament, and song at the hospital chapel today:

All living things have a survival instinct woven into them. People are no different on that account. It seems, however, that we human beings are the only creatures that know that we will die. That knowledge can feel like the cruelest of jokes the universe has ever played. We try to live lives of purpose, of meaning, to use the tools of our selves and our relationships to craft something real. But then death comes, snuffing out our flames. We don’t see what becomes of our work, of our life, of our love, and the whole notion of there being some purpose, some great meaning to our time in this world begins to smell like a mirage, an illusion.

 The disciples of Jesus in the gospel had such great hopes. As he went around the countryside doing good and proclaiming the kingdom of God, as he entered in triumph into the holy city of Jerusalem, they just knew that everything was about to change for the better. This was to be the moment of their salvation. And then he is caught up by the enemy. Caught up by the cycles of arrogance, of injustice, of oppression. Caught up by the chief priests, yes, by the Empire, yes, but also by the greatest and most powerful of all tyrants: Death itself. And it is all over. Hope has come to nothing.

 But that is not the end of the story.

For the Christ we meet in the gospel is risen, never more to die. The enemy is vanquished. Christ, the firstborn of the dead. Christ, who ransoms us from the powers of the age. Christ, who is God’s own way of reconciling us to the divine self, of reaching down and bringing us into the divine reality.

 In conversation with the grand story of Christ’s resurrection, we take strength to live in the faith that life need not be without meaning, that WE need not be without meaning. And we meet the risen Christ in all those things we use to craft meaning in our own lives. We meet the risen Christ in the sacred story, sacrament, and solidarity of our faith. We meet the risen Christ in the beauty of nature returning to life in springtime, in art and music and literature, in the ecstasy of falling in love, in the mundane work of being family. Most powerfully, we meet the risen Christ when we heed the message of the gospel that the life most fully and most vibrantly lived is the one in which we give of ourselves in loving service to others, especially those who are the most needy and those who are the least loved. May we be strengthened by our gathering around the Lord’s table today to renew our commitment to this gospel life.

 

Apostle of Empathy vs. My Monkey Mind

In the current cartoonishly polarized political climate, it seems that one without strong opinions is simply not paying attention. I encounter perspectives that are not only different than mine, but that seem obviously poised to make the world a much worse place, people elevated to positions of power that seem obviously incompetent. I hear the voices of those who support these people, these perspectives, and I find them exasperating. I can’t understand how anyone doesn’t see what I see and, in my stubborn humanness, I want to get angry or to ridicule. My monkey mind grasps at cheap and easy explanations: capital-T They must be wicked or stupid. And in that moment, whatever Their people and policies may or may not achieve, I have indeed made the world worse.

If ever there was an unsympathetic Them, a Them whose ideals were destructive, whose rhetoric inexcusable, it’s the Westboro Baptist Church. In this moving and very important TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper shares the story of her transformation from Westboro hatemonger into an apostle of empathy. Scorning and mocking her didn’t make her change. People deciding that because her ideals and rhetoric were toxic–as they were–that her reasons for espousing them didn’t matter didn’t make her change. Writing her off as wicked or stupid didn’t make her change. What made her change was being engaged where she was, person to person. Without ever pretending that Westboro’s message was acceptable, people took the risk of getting to know her. Her enemies took on flesh, as it were, and dwelt with her.

My gut remains a very human gut, so I can’t promise my thoughts on those who espouse a different politics than I do these days won’t ever again go to an unhelpful place, nor even that I won’t ever again lose my temper and speak carelessly–I am, after all, a hairy red person whose mouth runs substantially faster than his brain, which has still not left 1995. But I hope to keep trying to engage and understand what leads good people to embrace what seem to me to be obviously bad ideas. And I’ll keep wondering what cherished ideas of mine I’ll one day look back on and think were obviously bad.

 

The Gospel according to Legos

This is adapted from a sermon I preached today at the hospital chapels in Lexington.

Imagine that you’re sitting in church on Sunday morning. The preacher has just got started—you’re not even checking your watch yet—and in walks a man carrying a bucket of peanuts. He plops down next to you and starts going to town, cracking open the peanuts, gobbling them up, and tossing the shells on the floor. When I imagine this, I envision turning my head 360 degrees—Exorcist style—to give him a seriously dirty look. I can even imagine mean old Chaplain Jeff pulling him aside and explaining to him what he’s doing wrong.

And what is he doing wrong? He’s not killing anybody, of course, but we have rules, after all. They may be unwritten—there’s no stone tablets explaining that church isn’t the Lonestar Steakhouse—but we have a certain way of doing things, and this man’s behavior is simply outside of the bounds of our rules.

Now imagine that he begins to share his story. He shares that his parents died when he was a child, that he got mixed up in drugs as a youngster, that it has really messed with his head. He shares that he’s lost and lonely, that his struggles make most people want to turn the other way, and that those who do bother to speak to him mostly just give him lectures about society’s rules that he can’t quite seem to understand. Then he shares that he hasn’t been in a church since he was a child and that he thought maybe, just maybe, he might find some people here who would accept him as he is, who might welcome him and in whose fellowship he might start to rebuild his life.

Well, in this—I promise—imaginary story, guess who now feels about three inches tall? Mean old Chaplain Jeff.

Jesus gives us a mighty tall order today (Matthew 5:38-48). “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Jesus told me to sit at the piano until I figure out how to play the Hymn to Joy, I’d starve to death before I figured it out, because I haven’t touched a piano a day in my life. Yet I’d still knock that one out long before I began to live up to a call to be perfect if perfection is understood as following all the rules without any misstep.

Rules, laws play an important role in our lives. We often hear people speaking of us as a people of laws, a nation of laws. I’m sure they mean well when they say that, but I’d like to suggest that that’s not the case at all. I wear glasses, and my vision is so bad that I desperately need them. Without them, the world is a blur of unrecognizable colors and shadows. I’d be lost and maybe dead without them. There is a woundedness in my power of sight that my glasses help to correct, to guide me when I’m fixing to—maybe even literally—fall off a cliff. But my glasses don’t define me. They don’t make me who I am. I am a person with glasses, but I am not a person of glasses. In the same way, I’d offer that we are a people, a nation with laws, with rules that nudge us in the right direction when we’re liable to stray. But we are not a nation of laws.

Instead, as Christians, we are called to be a people of love. Rules, laws are valuable only insofar as they empower us to become just that. In themselves, they have about as much value as my glasses do when sitting unused on my night stand.

The heart of biblical law is love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18). Jesus in the biblical story did not come to abolish the law. He didn’t come to enforce the law, either, but to fulfill it by setting the example of complete, self-giving love. Perfection is not following all the rules for the sake of rules. The perfection advocated by Jesus is being authentic, being whole, being complete persons of integrity in ourselves and among each other. We find that wholeness, not in isolation, not by ourselves, looking out for what we think is in our own best interest, but by being in a relationship of gratitude, and of self-giving love with God, with ourselves, with our environment, and with one another.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping barefoot on a Lego building block, you know that there are few greater agonies known to man. That tiny, rectangular block has the power to send inexplicable shockwaves of devastation into the bare human foot. When foot meets Lego, the result is always Lego, 1, foot, 0. We suffer, and the Lego goes on about its business like nothing happened. The simple, obvious lesson is that people aren’t Legos.

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Since we’re not Legos, we don’t grow just by adding pieces to ourselves. The great and beautiful mystery of this adventure we call human life is that we grow, we become more whole, more complete by giving away and sharing parts of ourselves with others.

Jesus calls us to offer ourselves to one another, to be built up and made perfect by celebrating the gift that is our life by becoming gift to others, by being people and a people that welcomes and cares for not only those we know, those we like, those who make us comfortable, but those who are different, those who are strangers, those who frighten us.

Rules, laws are there to guide us in our journey toward more perfect love, but there are merely pointers, merely signs along the way. They are not the destination. Laws cannot make us perfect, they cannot make us whole, and laws cannot be allowed to get in way of the Law, the call to be in loving harmony with all creation, with God, and with one another.

Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the account of Jesus’ ministry that is the most inspired by the ancient Law of Moses, that values laws the most, that raises a cautious eyebrow at the more freedom-focused thought of the Apostle Paul, yet even there, in such a Torah-centered gospel, when Jesus encounters people focused on following the rules and overlooking the greater, divine Law of perfect love, he does not hesitate to say, “you have heard it said ‘so and so’—said in the Bible, no less—“but I say unto you, no. Love one another.”

This sentiment was beautifully encapsulated by St. Augustine long ago: “Inasmuch as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love is itself the beauty of the soul. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what you will.”

In our imaginary story of the man with the peanuts, mean old Chaplain Jeff may have been a stickler for the rules, but in being so I fell further from the perfection modeled by Jesus, while our poor, broken guest, reaching out in vulnerability, searching for meaning and love, was well on his way.