Sunday, June 15, 2014

Flowers For our Fathers

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 15, 2014

            On Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day, we honor the parents who gave us life, whether those parents are our kin by blood, by adoption, by marriage, by affinity, such as a favored teacher, or by preference for a beloved adult.
            When my son was a toddler, he received child care from a family in our church, Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado.  Bruce and Judy Douglass had a little boy about Mike’s age and a baby girl on the way, so Mike had a playmate in their son Scott and a baby on the horizon. 
            We weren’t sure what Mike should call these friends who took such a prominent role in his young life, but the boys quickly figured out that they had a Mama Kit and a Mama Judy and a Daddy Larry and a Daddy Bruce.  To this day, these pet names continue; everyone in these two families knows who Mamas Judy and Kit are and, likewise, Daddies Larry and Bruce.
            As Mike got older and began to bring friends around, I became Mumsy to Aaron and a couple of other boys, and we all graduated to being Mom Kit, Mom Judy, Dad Bruce, Dad Larry.  This, of course, was about the time Mike started walking 15 feet ahead of me or behind me when we had to go shopping for school clothes and he disappeared entirely when we entered the underwear department.
            Being Mom Kit and Mumsy to young boys made me acutely aware of my responsibilities as a parent.  And as single parents, my former husband and I took very seriously the fracture in our family and tried to shield our son from the worst of it.  But it changed our roles to some extent.  We had to stand in for the other parent on many occasions, particularly with discipline, and it was tough. 
            I like to think we managed about as well as it could be done; we lived in houses within walking or biking distance and Mike saw each of us just about daily.  But it wasn’t at all easy and I got a whole new appreciation for what fathers contribute to a child’s growth and maturity.  I could see clearly what my own father had done for me.
            When I started seminary in 1995, I was faced with the need to come to terms with many of the religious ideas I’d been brought up with, as well as the roles that had been instilled in me with that religious upbringing.  I needed to find my own ways of interpreting the gifts of that upbringing and discarding the ones I could no longer use.
            Many of my understandings of religion and sacred texts came from my father, the Baptist minister.  I strove to please him and, as the first surviving child in our branch of the Ketcham family, I enjoyed a close relationship with him. 
            My dad had grown up in northern Missouri with parents who had little education.  His father had had a hunting accident that destroyed his left hand, where he wore a steel hook for the rest of his life.  This injury made it impossible for him to continue to work as a railroad gandy dancer, but he had seven children and no other means of support.  So in about 1920, he turned to moonshine, commandeering my dad and his older brother into being delivery boys.
            My grandmother got nervous about her 12 year old son tangling with the revenooers and wangled my grandfather’s permission for my father, at this young age, to take a three day train ride, all alone, from Missouri to Pinedale, Wyoming, where he went to high school and learned to be a cowboy on a ranch in the Green River valley. 
             To me, my dad was a romantic figure, leaving a life of poverty and making a new life for himself and, later, for  the whole Ketcham family, who eventually came to Wyoming to join him.  To be my dad’s “pal” and go fishing and to learn from him to saddle and ride a horse was the highest of honors for me.
            By the time I went to seminary, however, he had been dead for 25 years and I had diverged seriously from that early Baptist path.  I had never discussed my changes of belief with him before his death and had had to make peace with our differences without any conversation to struggle through. 
            My mother had expressed her concern for my changes, my aunt was sure my dad was spinning in his grave, and I had a lot of baggage around religion and family when I entered Iliff School of Theology in 1995.
            So I felt a little wary about studying the Bible, which was a required course of study for all students.  I was pretty sure I didn’t know everything there was to know about the Bible, but though I liked some of what I knew, I was very uneasy about other passages and stories. 
            And it bothered me a lot that many people whom I loved dearly believed the Bible was the literal, inerrant, totally true Word of God, straight from the mouth and heart of the Creator who put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Like My Dear Dad.
            Getting ready to enter seminary, I was both excited to have scholarly men and women unfolding the meaning of such passages as a 6-day creation story, a water into wine story, and a bodily resurrection story and worried that perhaps even these learned professors would say that the stories were literally true. 
             I need not have been concerned. My Hebrew Bible professor was a top scholar in his field, a master of both the Hebrew and Greek languages, skilled in presenting the research that has gone on for centuries to reveal the culture and history of those ancient times, and a really funny man to boot.
            He unfolded for our class the mysteries of this set of books, supposedly sent by God yet bearing evidence of several different very human authors and editors.
            For example, in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the writing style, the use of different terms for God, chunks of text that seem to have been inserted later by an editor, all betray different minds working to set down in writing the worldview of a prehistoric people who knew nothing of science but did know how to shape a creation story into something meaningful for that culture.
            We learned that there were actually two very different creation stories, one in which it took 6 days to set the universe and earth and living creatures in place, and another in which humans are created first. In this second story, the first man and woman receive names: Adam, which signifies “everyman” and Eve, which means “Mother of all living”. These then were symbolic names, not actual monikers. And the two stories seemed to indicate that there were at least two different story-tellers.
            We learned about the context in which the purity laws in Hebrew scripture are distinctly apropos to those ancient times and reflect the ways by which a beleaguered people maintained their distinctiveness as a community and discouraged any act which did not further this cohesiveness.
            The punitive nature of these purity laws, which have often been used against sexual minorities, women, and children, was a factor of the times in which those early people lived and clearly out of place in our culture today.             At the same time, other laws reflected universal human moral precepts: don’t steal, don’t covet others’ property or partners, don’t murder, take time to rest, honor your elders.
            We learned to “unpack” the passages of the Bible to reveal the culture and mores of the writer, to find the original meanings of words and put them together to understand what the author meant by his or her words, to reveal the structure of the society in which the author lived, and to find meaning in it for our time, where possible.
            We learned to look at scripture metaphorically, not literally, and I have to tell you, this was hard for some of our more conservative classmates, some of whom bailed out and went down the street to the Southern Baptist seminary nearby.
            When we had completed our term of study of the Hebrew Bible, we turned to the Christian New Testament. Our professor was a young woman, an observant Conservative Jew whose doctoral thesis had been on the years linking the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures.
            She too was a challenging and stimulating teacher, unfolding the differences in theology within the first four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
            We learned that these books had been written up to 100 years after Jesus died, that they were similar in some places and very different in others, that the names of their authors were probably not actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but that these names had been given to lend their stories credibility.
            Each author had a particular bias about Jesus’ life and told the story with a certain slant, emphasizing certain aspects over others. In some, there is no birth story or the birth story is very different from the others; in some there is a resurrection story; in each book, some details are identical to the other books and other details are different.
            During our yearlong journey in understanding the Bible not only as traditionally sacred literature but also as a guide to early religious and social culture, we learned the skill of “exegesis”, a term that refers to the critical analysis or interpretation of a word or a passage, particularly of religious texts.
            There are several lenses to use in analyzing a text. I was reminded while writing this of just how complex this task can be, dissecting a text for its historical context, its original sources, its setting and the traditions of that setting, its unique message, the meaning of its story and who its author might be, the ethical implications of the text and the comparison of it to our own time and place in history.
            Each term, we were assigned the task of “exegeting” a passage from the scripture we were studying.   At the end of one term, we had been assigned to choose one of the methods of exegesis we’d studied, take one of the Psalms, and explain it, amplify it, unpack it using that method.
            Because this particular assignment became very important to me, I’d like to share part of it with you because it affected my sense of my father and his meaning in my life.  I had chosen the “personal” method of exegesis, relating a text to my own personal life.  (PAUSE)
            I’d been sitting at my kitchen table with books and journal articles piled around me, studying Psalm 121. I’d read it over and over, enjoying the poetry of the King James version instead of our more prosaic study RSV.
            Let me read it to you in the KJV text:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.   
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

            I’d always thought these words were beautiful yet in my post-modern skeptical frame of mind, I’d dismissed their literal meaning, and then …
            As I sat at the kitchen table, looking over my stack of articles and notes, trying to find the right approach, one that was scholarly but also personally meaningful to me, unbidden music came into my thoughts, as it often does when I’m pondering.
            An old Sunday School song: “Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand; sheltered o’er, sheltered o’er, with his love forevermore. No ill can harm me, no foe alarm me, for he keeps both day and night. Safe am I, safe am I, in the hollow of his hand.”
            The song sang itself over and over. I closed my eyes and tried to let myself feel where it was coming from. 
            …….Noise in my ears, a roaring. Rain down the back of my neck, my wet sneakers desperately trying to find a toehold on the steep slope. A long way down to rocky Crescent beach beneath me, the sound of sobbing, and a deep voice----“hang on, honey, Daddy’s coming”.
            My father’s gasping breaths, his anxious face, and then his strong arm scooping me up and carrying me bodily up the ocean cliff to the safety of the path there at Ecola State Park, as the rest of my family hurried up the trail to us.
            We had been walking on Crescent Beach when someone commented that we needed to be careful because the tide was coming in and we could easily be cut off and stranded by the rising water. I had panicked, as six-year-olds will, and had, in my fright, climbed halfway up a steep, grassy cliff before getting stuck--unable to go up or down--and clinging precariously to wet hummocks of slippery seagrass.
            My father’s quick action and strength had rescued me from terror and possibly serious injury, and as he held me tight, once we were safe, it seemed as though a miracle had occurred.
            At the top of the headland, my mother scolded and hugged me, while my sister looked on wide-eyed. My father leaned against a tree and tried to breathe. The desperate trip had cost him dearly. “Merritt, are you all right?” my mother was alarmed.
            “I’m not sure--let me rest a minute. I can hardly breathe and my chest hurts. But Betsy's okay, that’s the important thing.”  

Psalm 121, a child’s version
“I lift up my eyes to the hills,
Where is someone to help me?
My help comes from my father who is coming for me,
He will not let me slip from the cliff,
He is always alert to his child,
He who keeps me will neither slumber nor sleep.
He will keep me safe,
He will protect me from the terrors of the day and of the night.
He will protect me from all evil, he will save my life.
He will carry me to the path, he will be my help forevermore.”

            My father acted in the same way that your own fathers were likely to act, when you were in danger.  You yourself may have had occasion to save your own child’s life, or the life of another person.  What does a child learn from this behavior from a father or a father figure?
            I believe that I learned to trust because of my father’s faithfulness to me and my family.  I learned that I was worthy of the risks he took to carry me up that steep cliff (and if you’ve ever looked over the edge at Crescent Beach below the Ecola State Park lookout, you know how steep it was).
             I learned many things from watching my father, over the years.  I learned resilience and faith in my own ability to do hard things.  I learned to love unconditionally.  I learned to emulate my father’s passion for public service.  I also learned that ministry was a hard profession and that I needed to take care of myself so that it didn’t kill me, as the stress eventually took a toll on my father.  I learned to think independently and to be my true self.
            What have you learned from your father?  We learn valuable lessons from both the positive and negative behaviors of our fathers.  My dad was the target of his angry father’s belt and he learned that he never wanted to strike his child, for any reason.  He spanked me once when I was young and it upset him so badly he never did it again.           
            I invite you to think about the learnings you received from your father or from a father figure in your life and speak them out after a few moments of reflection.  What did you learn from your father?  (Cong. response)
            Thank you.  Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN:  #78  Color and Fragrance, one of the hymns that Norbert Capek wrote for use in the original Flower Communion.
            As Arline extinguishes the chalice, let’s pause for the benediction.
BENEDICTION:  Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place.  Let us go in peace, remembering the lessons we received from our fathers and our father figures.  May we use the negative lessons to grow in wisdom and may we use the positive lessons to offer greater love to the world.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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