A Pastoral Word for the Imperfect

Without doubt yesterday (Father’s Day) was a day of mixed blessings.  For every family that experienced a glorious day of togetherness there were throngs of us who muddled through the day with a sense of incompleteness and wonder.  After church services I made two pastoral calls, one to someone whose father had died the day before and another to a friend and a father who’s son is no longer able to wish him a happy day.  For a host of us yesterday was a day when finding the silver lining in a dark cloud was a matter of faith and not sight.

For me yesterday presented one of those “life is a cruel joke” moments.  While walking across the campus at Georgetown University I approached a group of three female college students, one of whom reminded me of my daughter.  As I passed them one of the girls looked to another and said, “You have the most awesome family!”  Another added,  “Everybody should have parents like yours!” I couldn’t help but wonder about what made the parents so “awesome.” Was it a new car presented for a semester of straight A’s at Georgetown? An upcoming family vacation in Europe?  Doubtful that what made this girl’s family awesome were years of pretense and isolation that eventually led to honest negotiations resulting in multiple household addresses.   But who knows?

It’s ironic that a more or less singular picture of the perfect family became an icon for Christianity in the twentieth century.  From the outset the Hebrew Scriptures portray families plagued by multitudes of dysfunction.  After a period of perfection that lasts about as long as the proverbial blink of an eye the first families of God, beginning in the garden and continuing with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and ending with Joseph, are hardly picture-perfect. These stories are riddled with sibling rivalry, favoritism and questionable parenting.

In the New Testament stories about the importance of community – caring for those whose for whom familial structures of support have gone missing – are paramount;  there’s nary a narrative about a perfect family.  Aside from the Holy family itself (which has controversial beginnings, to say the least), most implications of families are only implied via stories related to Jesus’ acts of healing (Jarius’ daughter, Peter’s mother, the parents of the man blind from birth in John, etc.). Even Luke’s brilliant and poetic story of the Prodigal’s son, in the end, is beset with still unfinished family business.

For those who found yesterday difficult, even if by means of hyperbole the stories of Holy Scripture can be helpful. We aren’t told if Abraham lost any sleep after binding his son Isaac but we can imagine that he did when in another story we are told that he was “distressed” when he cast off Hagar and his  “other” son into the wilderness.  Did Rebekah lament after manipulating one son to steal another’s blessing?  Were Joseph’s brothers haunted much by the fact that in the midst of their jealousy they lied to their father about Joesph’s death rather then telling him that they sold their brother for twenty pieces of silver? In the end of that story, when Joseph reveals to his brothers that he is in fact their long lost brother (and the one who holds their future his hands) he tells them “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Later Joseph “kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.”

Time and time again in the bible many painful realities become, in due course, opportunities for God’s glory to be revealed.  As people of faith seeking silver linings to life’s dark clouds we can say that no situation is life is devoid of God’s redemption. We know that our lives and our families (whether together or apart or muddling through) are far from perfect but, somehow, never far from God’s guiding hand even (and perhaps especially) when we feel like covering our nakedness with sackcloth and ashes.  Some of us struggle with greater issues than others but every one of us at St. Alban’s is a member of a family of faith – a family of love and support with a loving Father despite our imperfections.  Knowing this, and after what for many of us was a difficult day yesterday, today we can move forward.


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6 Responses to A Pastoral Word for the Imperfect

  1. Masterful and intriguing. Particularly the biblical perspective. I heard Rabbi Amy Schwartzman preach a sermon on Abraham and Isaac from Sarah’s point of view. She said that it never surprised her that Sarah is not mentioned in Abraham’s return “to his young men…and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.” Sarah is only mentioned as having died at 127 in Kiriatharba in Canaan and that Abraham “went in to mourn and weep for her” and to find a burial place for her body. Amy’s perception was that Sarah could not bear the thought that this child of her old age had nearly been taken from her by her husband and that she had turned away from Abraham. I realize this is midrash at its best, but I also think that there just might have been holdover issues in the family from the episode with Hagar and her son by Abraham.

  2. Janis Grogan says:

    Hi Jim,

    You have pointed out so well that “normal” families are dysfunctional ones; how true. Our Benedictine group met today for a pot luck lunch. Your ears should have been burning because your sermon yesterday was praised and discussed at length. I am so sorry I missed it. Lisa, our daughter, and her husband and children and I went to have a special Fathers’ Day Lunch with Gene at Copper Ridge. Although I won’t be able to feel the passion with which you spoke, I am hoping that you have some form of your sermon available for sharing so I won’t feel completely bereft.

    Fondest regards,


  3. Ann Ramsey-Moor says:

    Great column. For what it’s worth, Fathers’ Day pain can have many different foci. There are some of us who double down and celebrate with our present families precisely because we have something together that we didn’t have with our own fathers. Mine, while still living, stopped keeping up with my life about the time I graduated from college. The loss is not insignificant.

  4. bob Witten says:

    Jim, I’m still reeling from the staggering brilliance of your Sunday sermon. To those of you who missed it, RUN, do not walk, to listen to the audio tape. It was so illuminating and powerful, a tremendous response to very challenging scripture. As for your Daily Cup, Fathers Day is a collision of emotions for me. At the very high end is the love and presence of our sons for lunch, at the other end is missing my Dad, dead and buried in Arlington these past three years. Still, I rejoice in his love and teachings. I’d never have learned my knots, or one end of a wrench from the other, if not for him. But just once more, I’d love to share a Martini with him and yell at those “damn Redskins!”. For those who have a hole in their lives on such a day, my sorrows. All the best, Bob

  5. Birgit Haylock says:

    Thank you Jim for this. Yesterday was painful — watching an elderly father lost in his own mind and trapped in his body and trying to console my son whose father failed him when he needed his support the most. Rough day all around. Could definitely have used one of your brilliant sermons…

  6. Jerry Montalbano says:

    I thought the son was prodigal.

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