Father Fails, Father Wounds and Heavenly Father Love

Return of the Prodigal Son
Image via Wikipedia

Today is Father’s Day, a day when we honour and thank our earthly father’s for all that they have done to us.  And while thanking and honouring fathers is a good thing, in the time that we have together today, we should also recognize that, in our society, we send mixed messages regarding how we feel about fathers.  Fathers are often portrayed as buffoons on TV and in movies (e.g. Homer Simpson).  Fathers are not valued to the same extent as mothers.  There is a story told about a card company that offered free cards to any prisoners in a certain jail that would like to send a card to their mother for Mother’s Day.  Almost all the prisoners wanted to send a card to their mother and so they lined up in long lineups to receive their card.  Encouraged by the response, the card company decided to offer free cards to the prisoners to send to their fathers on Father’s Day.  But only a handful of prisoners lined up to receive a card.  Also, while Mother’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year for phone companies the volume of calls on Father’s Day is much the same as any other Sunday.

I think that there are reasons for these conflicted emotions we feel about fathers.  They are, I believe, a result of Father Fails and Father Wounds.  But what I hope to do today is point you towards Heavenly Father Love, towards your ultimate Father who loves you with an infinite, unconditional love.

Father Fails are failures on the part of men to be the kind of fathers that God is calling them to be.  And three of the common ways that fathers tend to fail, and I am including myself in this, is that we value possessions more than our children, we put our pride before our children, and we offer conditional love and acceptance.

And when we, as fathers, fail, we cause a Father Wound in our children.  Now some Father Wounds are due to a misunderstanding.  Sometimes a child has an expectation of their father that is unrealistic, but they are hurt because their father does not measure up to their expectations.  Much of my life has been a quest for an ideal father.  When I was younger, I would have vivid dreams about my father and me fighting together against hordes of bad guys.  But God did not give me Chuck Norris to be my father.  He gave me Purvis Paulgaard.  And for years I would struggle over the difference between the father I desired and the real father that God gave me.  I now realize that God put that desire for an ideal father in my heart to bring me closer to him.

Other Father Wounds are due to Neglect.  Father Wounds of Neglect happen when a father fails to give the time, energy and attention that are needed to nourish a thriving relationship with his child.  In the movie Click, Michael Newman, played by Adam Sandler, is given a remote control that allows him to fast-forward, pause and rewind his life.  In one scene, he rewinds to the last time he saw his dad and he sees how his neglect has wounded both his son and his father.

Fathers can also wound their children through Abuse.  Abuse can come in various forms:  emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse or sexual abuse.  The University of Victoria’s Sexual Assault Centre states that 80% of all child abusers are the father, foster father, stepfather or another relative or close family friend of the victim.[1]  Perhaps it is not so surprising that there is ambivalence in our society towards fathers.

When the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were muttering disdainfully about Jesus hanging around with sinners and eating with them, he told them three stories to illustrate God’s passion for lost people and his joy when a lost person comes home. The third of those three stories was this one:

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)

Many of you may know this as the Story of the Prodigal Son, but Jesus is telling us about a father that has two lost sons:  the younger son wants his father’s money more than he wants his father.  And so he rebels against his father and demands his share of his father’s estate, then spends it foolishly.  The elder son also wants his father’s money more than he wants his father.  But this son seeks to get his father’s estate through external obedience.  Both sons are out of sync with the father’s heart.

But this father does not give up on either of his sons.  Even though the father was most likely humiliated by his younger son’s brazen request, he gave him one-third of his estate.  Even though that son wasted his riches on a sinful lifestyle, the father stood at the end of the road in the village each day, watching and waiting for his son to return.  In that time and culture, it was considered disgusting for an adult man to run or bare his legs in public.  And yet this father willingly brought shame upon himself as he gathered up his cloak around his hips and ran towards the younger son that he saw off in the distance. This father completely forgave and unconditionally accepted his younger son even before the son confessed. Though he must have smelled like a pig, which was especially disgusting in Hebrew culture, the father wrapped his arms around his son and kissed him.  He welcomed him back, not as a hired hand, but as a son and he ordered his servants to begin preparing for a huge party to celebrate the return of his younger son.

For his older son, the father does something else that Hebrew fathers never did:  he lays down his pride, leaves the party and goes to him to plead with him, not for a change in behaviour, but for a change in heart.  “Join with me in my joy over the return of your brother!” the father, in essence, is saying. “You will have all of my stuff, but something far more important is happening right now, and I am inviting you to come in and be part of it.”

Through this story, Jesus is revealing the heart of God the Father to the world.   Jesus is telling you that you have a Father in heaven who accepts you unconditionally and loves you with an overflowing, abundant loveHe shamed himself for you by giving up his Son Jesus to die on a cross.  The all-powerful creator of the universe humbles himself by coming to you each day, watching and waiting for you to return home to him.  He forgives you even before you have a chance to confess, and celebrates your return with a party. You are more precious to him than all the riches of heaven and earth.   And he pleads with you to join with him in his joy over the return of others.

If you are a father who now sees how you have failed your children, remember that every father is also a son.  You are the son of a Father who loves you and forgives you and encourages you with his Spirit to start over and try again to be a good father to your children.  We can never get it right all the time, but it is very important that we keep trying.  If you are a child who bears a Father Wound, remember that, even though your earthly father has hurt you, you have a father in heaven who never will.  Trust in him and allow the love of his Son, Jesus, to heal your wounded heart.  Ask him to help you forgive your father with the help of the Holy Spirit.  And if you have been blessed in any way by your earthly father, today is a good day to thank your heavenly Father for the good gift he has given you.  And if your father is still alive, today is a good day to thank him too.

About 160 years ago, renowned Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was sentenced to death by firing squad for criticizing the Czarist regime.  At the last minute, the sentence was commuted to ten years exile in Siberia.  During his journey into exile, Dostoyevsky was given a New Testament which became a source of great comfort to him for the rest of his life.  He was especially attracted to the story of the Prodigal Son for it showed him the way home to his Father.  Even years later, as he lay dying, this story was still important to him. His daughter Aimee describes what happened:

“He made us come into the room, …and, taking our little hands in his, he begged my mother to read the parable of the prodigal son. He listened with his eyes closed, absorbed in his thoughts. ‘My children,’ he said in his feeble voice, ‘never forget what you have just heard. Have absolute faith in God and never despair of His pardon. I love you dearly, but my love is nothing compared with the love of God. Even if you should be so unhappy as to commit some dreadful crime, never despair of God. You are His children; humble yourselves before Him, as before your father; implore His pardon, and He will rejoice over your repentance, as the father rejoiced over that of the prodigal son.'”[2]

A few minutes later, Dostoyevsky breathed his last breath and died in peace, comforted by the message of Jesus: You have a father who loves you and that makes all the difference in the world.  Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 19 June 2011.)

[1] “Abuse Statistics,” Child Abuse Prevention Website (Internet; found at:  http://www.safekidsbc.ca/statistics.htm; accessed on: 18 June 2011).

[2] “Dostoyevsky:  A Lengthy Biography,” Sermon Illustrations (Internet; available at: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/d/dostoevsky.htm; accessed on 19 June 2011).


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