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.

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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.