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My father’s greatest lesson

By Charles Qualls

I guess I owe you boys an apology, son.” When my father spoke those words, he caught me off-guard a bit. We were driving across my hometown, just the two of us. He was in his mid-80s and I was about 50. “Why would you say that?” I asked. He responded, “Because I did the best that I knew how to at the time. But I look back and realize the long hours I worked made me miss your growing up. A lot of ball games and concerts and knowing you in ways that your mother knows you. I’m sorry. We won’t ever make that up, and I’m just now understanding that.”

I recall thanking him for providing for us. We never lacked, and felt genuinely loved. I told him that I wasn’t as sure that he needed to have any regrets. I did acknowledge the tradeoffs he made in running his own business, though. The relational gap he acknowledged was real. Silently, I reflected I had long-since conceded that it mattered only to me, and never would to him. This was a surprise, then.

I don’t believe his dementia had begun just yet when that happened. I say that with some certainty. Little did we know then that my dad was about to begin his years long cognitive retreat. One of the early telltale signs was that his fixation on old photos and stories from the past ratcheted up a couple of notches. But when my dad taught me the last big lesson he probably ever will, he was still making deep meaning of his reflections.

This past Sunday was Father’s Day. At our church, we’re in a June sermon series titled “I put away my idols.” This week we focused on putting away the idol of “family.” Along comes this story from Matthew 12: 46-50 that we don’t know what to do with. If you read it, some of you will say that you didn’t know this story exists because we act like it doesn’t.

I don’t know about you, but our Dads can be a treasure. My Dad protected me when I was scared. If he was home, he let me follow him around thinking I was helping him. He taught me how to do things, and he provided for us quite literally by the sweat of his brow. There are certain issues of integrity and ethics I learned from my Dad.

What Jesus illustrates for us in this narrative, I think, is that family life can be a little messy sometimes. We may even have hard choices to make in life regarding our kin. Because the greatest enemy of good family is making an idol of family, including our fathers. When our expectations don’t allow room for less than perfect, we’re set up for trouble when it comes to family.

I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating. Someone has said that our real family lives begin the day we wake up and admit that we’re not the perfect family like the one in the Norman Rockwell painting. We travel through life with blood-relatives and with “chosen” family. In any form, family just doesn’t work as an idol.

Our Dads can’t live up to the comparisons, nor can anyone else. You can’t find fault with people trying. We should strive to have good homes and we should hope for great fathers. But sometimes the expectations are impossible to live up to. They can choke the life out of whatever goodness might actually be there.

What Jesus does here is not easy to read. By the time of this story in Matthew, Joseph appears to be gone. Many speculate that he may have died early in Jesus’ life. Now, as in John 3, Jesus’ family seem to want to reel him in a little and bring him home. Our Lord will have none of that. Thus, what sounds harsh to our ears is Jesus making a tough decision about how he will manage his relationships with chosen family versus kin.

We forget that something big was about to happen. And it wasn’t going to depend on his blood relatives or even the Twelve. This Jesus doesn’t always play by our rules. This Jesus, if we can just hang with Him and trust him, may be showing us that family — including our fathers — don’t always have to be perfect. My dad hung with me, and right here at the end, I am so glad I hung with him.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is pastor of Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.