18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.
A quick glance at the sermon title and the large banner on display in The Commons would suggest that this sermon will serve to provide the Biblical basis for our launch of the Letters from Dad ministry initiative. I will acknowledge that was central part of my original motivation, but my time with this passage drew me to more. Our focal passage is part Moses grand culmination teachings on what it meant to be the people of God. He wanted them to understand the great spiritual responsibility to they had for helping their children learn to walk in the way of God. Moses seems to understand the profound impact parents can have on their children’s lives. He describes a way of life where parents physically and spiritually wrapped their lives with the Word of God and lived lives of witness to their kids from the second they roses from the beds until the instant their eyes lie still in sleep and every moment in between. Moses wanted them to understand that their very future as a people were in their hands.
Dr. Tom Poston was my freshman English professor at Campbell University. He used one phrase so many times that it is forever embedded in my mind. The phrase is “words and symbols mean things.” He wanted us to understand was the words that we chose were important; that they had a meaning bigger than the moment. I have come appreciate this idea deeply over the years. The reason is that I have watched how the words spoken by parents and other significant adults can forever shape how people perceive themselves for the balance of their lives. Some of us were blessed by wonderful parents who freely and openly shared their love and affirmation. If this describes your life, celebrate. You have been given a wonderful legacy.
But there is another side to the story – of people forever wounded by the words their heard or the words they never heard. They have endured the pain of what happens when words move from directive to destructive; from command to condemnation. Over the course of my ministry I have listened as people wept as they told me about parents who called them stupid, or fat, or dumb, or useless, or worthless. These labels caused deep scars that seem to be reopened again and again throughout their lives. I listen as people talk about their quest to prove to their worth to fathers who were distant and cold. I listened as one man told me that his father had been dead for a decade but he still longed to hear his father tell him that he was proud of him. I listened to a woman who had stomach pains every time her mother came to visit, because she knew that no matter how hard she tried, things one would be perfect enough to please her. The reality is that our parents are the first to shape how we see and understand God. For some this is blessing, but for others it creates great struggle. It is difficult to believe that God the Father loves you when you regularly endured harsh treatment at the hands of the man you call Dad. It is equally hard to try to be a loving parent when you saw so little of it on display in your childhood. This is not what God intends.
In the height of the creation story we hear in Genesis 1:27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. We hear God’s grand creative act echoed in Psalm 139: 13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. The good news is that the God of all of creation made you in His image so that you can be in a real relationship with Him. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. No matter what messages you may have heard in your childhood, you are important to God. Galatians 3: 26 tell us; So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. You are a child of God, so precious to God that God would endure ridicule and rejection, and ultimately the cross so that you might draw close and be forgiven and be called beloved.
God’s great love for us is to be the model we claim in how we teach and treat our children. It is in light of God’s love our focal passage comes alive. Hear it again from Eugene Peterson’s interpretative translation, The Message. Place these words on your hearts. Get them deep inside you. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder. Teach them to your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning until you fall into bed at night. Inscribe them on the doorposts and gates of your cities so that you’ll live a long time, and your children with you, on the soil that God promised to give your ancestors for as long as there is a sky over the Earth. Moses is painting a picture of parenting born in devotion for God, where the desire to share a faith legacy is at the heart of who we are.
Moses envisions and the balance of Scripture anticipates the essential role parents play in shaping the spiritual journey of their children. It is at our side they will learn to pray. It is at our side they will see modeled time in set aside for worship and time to study God’s Word for us. It is at our side they will come to see a witness of what it means to walk in a loving relationship with God. Parents are the first spiritual teachers. This is one reason we are offering The Letters from Dad ministry program. Our culture does not teach what it means for men to share the depths of the hearts and the depths of their faith with those they love. All too often men are taught to focus on the work tasks and the sports talk and emotions get pushed to the side. This program will help guide men to open their hearts and to write purposeful letters to bless those around them. We focus first on Fathers because across the breadth of our culture overall women do a better job at affirming and supporting their children. Many remember the story of Jacob and Esau and the blessing from Isaac that Jacob stole from Esau. You may remember Esau pleading with his father for some kind of word or blessing for him. This is more than a Biblical story. Gary Smalley wrote a book entitled, The Blessing where he describes the impact on people withheld words of blessings from their Fathers have on people and the desperate need for people to find other ways to fill that need if the father is incapable of providing it. This lost blessing impact how people see themselves and feel about who they are as people. Fathers play a vital role in providing the spiritual blessing that children need in their walk of life and faith. It is a more important than many fathers understand and we hope that this program will help teach Dad’s and other men how to bless and affirm those who long to hear their voice. Your voice matters. Turn off the television, turn off the computer, turn off the cell phone and choose to have real conversations with your kids. Listen to them. Love them. Bless them.
In the days ahead we will find other ways to empower parents of both sexes but we start where we see the greatest point of initial need. I am excited about how the sign ups are going and hope that if you are a man in this church you will seriously consider being a part of this program.
But, parents are not alone. In addition, frequently we talk about the people outside of our immediate family that offered us a model of love and relationship. It is amazing the great good aunt or uncle or family friend offers for those who struggle to see a healthy way of love lived out in their parents. What I have learned is that kids are watching us – learning from us - and will model what they see in us. In my own life God provided a series of significant male teachers and coaches that chose to invest in me. In a critical moment God also brought step father and a mentor minister into my life whose shared guidance was essential for me. They helped me grow in confidence and find my voice as a man and minister. I am eternally grateful for the men and women who stepped into my life and helped love and shape me.
There are children in our community who need someone to step into their lives. Yesterday I took part in the mentor training for the KidsHope mentoring program our church offers to the selected students at Eugene Field Elementary School. Over the past five years you have heard testimonies from many of the mentors of what their time mentoring an at risk child has come to mean in their lives. I am profoundly grateful for those who are serving as mentors and for those who join me this year as the newbies. But, I want you to hear more than a word of support for this ministry endeavor for me. This is one of the ways we are trying to help live out our call to step into the lives of kids who desperately need someone to encourage them and to be their advocate. Marie has agreed to offer an additional day of training if there is someone who feels that God is leading them to become involved as a mentor in the life of a child. If this is something that God is putting in your heart, please see Marie after worship. These kids desperately need an adult who will come as the presence of Christ in their lives.
We who desire to become a people of God are also shaping how the children of this church family and our community will see and understand what it means to follow God. This means that parents, Sunday school teachers, GIGGLES workers, children’s choir teachers, KidsHope mentors, and all who encounter the children within these walls and beyond these walls are helping shape the faith walk of the children they call by name. They are watching us. They are listening to us. We have a sacred task and a sacred responsibility. There are no time outs and no do-overs.
Moses was right – being a people of God is reflection of the depths of our hearts and is to be the first thoughts on our minds in the morning and the last thing on our mind as we close our eyes. How we model that faith to our children and the others that God places is a central part of our call as the people of God. Place these words on your hearts. Get them deep inside you. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder. Teach them to your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning until you fall into bed at night. Inscribe them on the doorposts and gates of your cities. Choose to be living letters of love from God. Words and symbols mean things. Let your words point your children and all of those around you to the feet of God.