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A Father’s Faith

June 20, 2010
Sermon:  A Father’s Faith
Text:  Mark 9:14-29

 

I suppose that it has now been about twenty-five years since my sister Jeslyn and her family were vacationing at the beach.  Jeslyn was eight months pregnant at the time.  She went to the store one afternoon during the week to buy some groceries.  As she was walking across the parking lot, a car hit her and knocked her to the pavement.  Two tires rolled across her pelvic area.  The elderly woman driving the car knew she had hit something, so she put the car in reverse and backed up, again rolling two tires across Jeslyn’s pelvic area.  Jeslyn was badly injured, but her injuries were nothing compared to those of the child she was carrying, a little girl named Kathryn.  Because Jeslyn’s pelvis was broken in four places, Kathryn was delivered by C-section.  Both mother and daughter stayed in a Conway hospital for weeks before either could be moved to the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center.  Once finally transported back to Spartanburg, Little Kathryn was placed in the neonatal care unit.

 My dad and I wanted to visit Jeslyn and her baby at the hospital.  When we saw this precious little girl for the first time, we had an informal prayer of dedication.  We could not stay long, but it was long enough for a granddad and an uncle to see Jeslyn, Terry, and Little Kathryn. 

 Afterwards as we were driving home, I looked over at my father and saw one tear rolling down his face.  I said to him, “Dad, it’s never over, is it?”

Dad answered, “No, it’s never over.  This business of fatherhood never ends.  The children grow up and move away to another area.  They fall in love, get married, and have children of their own.  There are just more and more people to worry about, more and more of them to pray for.  I would do anything if I could take the pain away from my little girl.  It just takes a lifetime of faith and constant prayer to be a father.”

Parenting is not for cowards.  James Dobson has written a book by that very title.  His statement is absolutely true.  Being a father is not for the faint-of-heart.  It is a lifetime occupation, a fulltime job that begins the very moment a child is conceived and continues until our dying breath.

My sister and brother-in-law have six children that have come home this weekend for Father’s Day.  Of course, they have brought their children and marriage partners.  My brother-in-law was in the grocery store yesterday, pushing around a shopping cart overflowing with all kinds of food, supplies, and equipment for his children and grandchildren.  Right at the bottom were large packages of Pampers.  A person who came up to him looked with amusement at his cart loaded with all the groceries bought just for the weekend.  My brother-in-law reflected, “Somehow I had the idea that once our children grew up, I would be able to go to the grocery store and walk around with one of those little baskets.  It just isn’t that way.  Resupplying this bunch requires a quartermaster.” 

Being a dad is hard work that requires being on the job 24/7.  I learned early on that I could not be an effective father sitting down in a chair.  I had to be on the move.  Being a father requires a good bit of mobility.  More recently, I have learned that I cannot be an involved and engaged grandfather kicked back in a recliner.  I have to leave the chair and get down on the floor on my hands and knees in order to engage and encounter my grandchildren at their level.  This work – and it is work – even when it is joyful – and it is quite joyful – can absolutely physically wear out a grandparent.

The actor Michael J. Foxx, whom many of you know, appeared on the David Letterman Show.  He and his wife have four relatively young children.  Letterman asked Foxx, “How is that, being a father of four young children?” 

Foxx answered, “It’s pretty much a suicide watch all the time.”

That answer is absolutely right.  Think about being a dad, or for that matter, being a mother.  Parenthood is emotionally draining.  At times, parenting will absolutely sap all of your energy.  Spend a few nights beside a child’s bed in the intensive care unit or walk through the pain of divorce with a child.  An experience like that will absolutely leave you drained. 

Fatherhood is also an intellectual challenge.  Never mind whether you are smarter than a fifth grader.  Just dealing with a bedtime filibuster will test your wits.  One of our children used prayers to stall the inevitable lights out at bedtime.  He prayed for every uncle and every aunt by name.  He prayed for every cousin by name.  He began interceding for every person in his Sunday School class.  Then he started on all of the Mother Goose figures:  “Dear God, help Jack not get burned jumping over the candlestick.  Help Little Miss Muffet not be afraid of spiders.” 

When he began including those characters, I excused myself, saying, “You can pray as long as you want, but I’m leaving now.”

Try debating a college sophomore on any topic of their choosing.  Keep in mind that the word sophomore is composed of two Greek words:  sopho for “wisdom” and moros for “fool.”  A sophomore is a wise fool.  Debating a college sophomore will fatigue you.

Beyond the sheer physical exertion, the emotional drain, and the intellectual fatigue, parenting is a constant spiritual challenge, one that requires much prayer. 

Someone asked a man in the lumberyard one time, “How did you raise all those boys?” 

He answered, “I wore out the seats of their pants, and I wore out the knees of my pants.”

Parenting requires a lot of prayer. 

I worked in a child evaluation center for a time in Louisville, Kentucky.  Parents often came to me and said, “Something is wrong with my child.”  The truth is that sooner or later, most parents know the horrible feeling in the pit of their stomach when something – whether it be a high fever, a broken bone, or a developmental disorder – happens to a child.  “Something is wrong with my child.”  We would do anything to find someone who can just help our child.

In today’s text, Mark 9, we read about a father who has heard about Jesus’ healing of others and wants help for his own child who is ill.  In the first century, many illnesses such as epilepsy were attributed to evil spirits.  The description of the child’s symptoms clearly illustrate that he has grand-mal seizures associated with epilepsy.  You can see there that the illness has deeply affected this father.  To say that this father of an epileptic child wanted help is a gross understatement. 

I know the horror that father feels.  I spent one cold January night holding our six-year-old son in my arms as he was having seizures.  I stopped counting at forty-five.  The inability to help my son gave me such a helpless feeling.  The next morning, I rode on the subway under the streets of Boston to the Harvard Children’s Hospital looking for help.  “There is something wrong with this child.  Could you please help?”

It is almost a cliché to say that a distressed parent should bring an ill child to Jesus.  People can talk about Jesus as if he is their best friend, their next-door-neighbor, and be pretty smug or glib.  The truth is that Jesus is the Great Physician.  The truth is that we do have a friend in Jesus.  The truth is that Jesus can help.  The truth is, that, for a desperate parent, it is no platitude at all to say, “Go to Jesus.”  It is the gospel truth. 

The father is frustrated by the fact that the disciples had been unable to help his son.  He tells Jesus, “I brought my son to them, but they could do nothing.” 

When Jesus hears these words, he mildly rebukes the disciples.  He has been on the Mount of Transfiguration where some of his disciples wanted him to stay.  Instead, he chose to come down, immediately encountering this desperate father pleading for help. 

Jesus instructs, “Bring the boy to me.”  As if on cue, the boy has a seizure.  Jesus then asks a clinical question, “How long has he been like this?” 

The father answers, “He has been like this since he was an infant.  If you can do anything, please help us.” 

Jesus responds, “‘If you can’?  All things are possible to those who believe.”  I wish Jesus had not made that statement, though I am not quite sure why.  Perhaps it is because the sentence sounds a little harsh, even a bit judgmental.  I suppose that if he had not answered in that way though, the father could not have responded with the most honest, the most authentic, affirmation of faith in all of Scripture.  This father gives a single statement about his faith:  “I do believe, Lord; help my unbelief!”  What honesty!

We are all at the same place with this father.  We are all caught betwixt and between belief and unbelief.  None of us has perfect faith.  When we want help for a child, we believe help is available.  We can go to doctors and counselors and all kinds of people.  We believe, but we also wonder.  We have our doubts.  Once again, I am right there with this father who says, “I believe.  I brought him to you, didn’t I?  I am hoping against hope that you will be able to restore my boy.  Of course, I have my doubts, but look.  I am asking for help.”  This father, an honest man, is on the horns of a faith dilemma.  He has an imperfect faith, but Jesus does not require perfect faith.  Remember that he said to the disciples, “If you have faith just as small as a mustard seed,” which is not much, “remarkable things can happen” (Matthew 17:21). 

I find myself caught there, too.  I am betwixt and between belief and unbelief so much of the time.  I see many of you at that point much of the time, too.  Our faith does not have to be perfect.  It does not have to be complete.  If we have just that much faith, it is enough.

A freshman who had had epilepsy since he was a child entered a university here in our state.  His medications were all very effective, working at a therapeutic level.  This student made friends with others who were part of a Christian fundamentalist movement.  They told him, “If you have faith, you will not need to take medicine.  Jesus will heal you of your epilepsy.”  Over time, they convinced him that he did not need to take his medicine.  They anointed him with oil and declared that he was healed.  A week later while taking a bath, this boy had a seizure and drowned. 

His mother and father, whom I know very well, came to talk with me.  Even though they, too, were both in ministry, they had many questions about faith at that point.  The student’s father told me that when he confronted the leader of that fundamentalist group, he was told, “Your son did not have enough faith.  If he had, he would have been healed and not have died.”

Jesus does not require perfect faith.  “I do believe, Lord; help me overcome my unbelief!”  Mustard seed faith is enough, though we surely want our faith to grow.  Faith does not have to be quantified in order to be pleasing to God.  It takes a good bit of faith to give your child medication that has been carefully researched and studied.  It takes a good bit of faith to take your child to a skilled physician or counselor who has been trained.  It takes faith to believe that Jesus can minister to us through modern medicine no less than he can minister through the anointing with oil.  Christians must see that the healing power of God works in many, many ways.

It is also important to remember that God does not heal everyone.  A miracle, by definition, is “out of the ordinary.”  Do you remember Paul’s experience?  He prayed that God would remove a thorn in his flesh.  What was God’s answer?  “No, I am not going to remove the thorn in your flesh.  My grace is sufficient for you” (II Corinthians 12:9).  Who among us has not experienced the sufficient grace of God that comes even when our maladies cannot be healed?  That in itself is a kind of healing of the spirit.  God gives us grace sufficient.

Paul learns a lesson from God’s refusal to grant this request for healing.  He says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).  He learns that when his own strength fails, he has strength beyond his own.  He has the strength of his Father in heaven.

The faith of the father in this episode knows that his own faith is not perfect, that his own prayers are not perfect.  The prayers of a father are sometimes groans, sometimes a sleepless night.  The prayers of a father are sometimes gutturals that are too deep for words.  The prayers of a father are often squeezed through tears that are choked back in moments of desperation. 

“Help us if you can…I believe as much as I can.  Please help.”

On Wednesday of this week, Ben, our eighteen-month-old grandson, curious as he is, decided to investigate something he saw his mother using on her hair.  He reached to the top of the counter and grabbed a hot curling iron, severely burning the palm, fingers and back of his left hand in the accident.  He was treated in an emergency room here in Spartanburg; but on Thursday, Ben’s mom and dad, Scott and Betsy Claire, took him to the University of Georgia Medical Center in Augusta.  A medical team, including pediatric burn specialists, examined Ben.  On Friday, he had outpatient surgery that was pretty extensive.  The doctors removed dead skin and applied what is called a skin patch over his burns.  The healing process is going to be long, but the prognosis for healing is excellent.  Doctors expect Ben to make a full recovery.

I am not sure that any of the rest of us will ever recover from that episode.  Parents and grandparents encounter many scary events with little ones.  In the blink of an eye, their inquisitive and curious nature can get them into trouble.  I have been so proud of the way Scott and Betsy Claire have handled this situation.  They have been level-headed and calm as much as they could be.  They have responded to this situation with all the faith they could muster. 

A major part of the faith of parents is learning that our children do not really belong to us; they belong to another, a Father in heaven.  We dedicate children as a manner of committing them to the Lord.  First Presbyterian Church, where Scott and Betsy Claire are members, also dedicate their children.  They use water in order to baptize them.  We do pretty much the same thing, but we dry clean them. 

A parent who has faith will find themselves dedicating their children to the Lord every single day.  My dad was right.  We think that one day we will be through raising them.  No.  They go away, get married, and have children of their own.  As far as I can tell, parenting is a lifetime commitment.  It goes on and on and on, requiring much faith and much prayer.

Fortunately, we have a Father in heaven who loves our children and us very, very much.  I hope all of you men have a happy Father’s Day.  When I see Ben today, I will remember who his Father really is.  Would you do the same?

Have you committed your life to Jesus Christ?  If not, could I invite you to open your heart and open your life to Christ?  It is simple to do.  It begins a wonderful life of adventure.  Do not wait any longer.  

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2010
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