There are certain phrases that capture the human imagination and express something so deep and so powerful that they become a kind of montra for us. One of those phrases is: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.” You just listen to the rhythm of this phrase, and you know it almost sings itself: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned.” BLESS you, because you have sinned? Don’t you mean: FORGIVE you? Yes, but it’s the same thing. Except, because I have sinned, I need the blessing even more. The blessing of the father. My mother loves me anyway. But what about the father? When we are sinners, how do we get the blessing of the father? By doing penance? So we have the image of the penitant, sitting down in the confessional, transferring perhaps to a stranger, the primal need for the blessing they cannot get from their own father. What penance can earn you the blessing that should be your birthright?
Esau was tricked by his brother Jacob out of his father’s blessing. Esau should rightfully have had it, as the oldest. But Jacob pretended to be his older brother, and because his father’s eyes were dim with age, he mistook him for Esau and gave his blessing to the wrong son. It didn’t matter that it was intended for someone else. There was such a magical quality to the words and the act, that once bestowed, it could not be withdrawn. So Esau was left totally traumatized and desolate, beseeching his father: “‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me? . . . Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept” (Genesis 27:36-38).
Our hearts go out to Esau. What an awful cry of anguish went up from his soul, for that blessing from his father, lost then for him, forever.
Jacob got the blessing. This is the same Jacob that strove with the angel of God, wrestling with him all night, refusing to let the angel go until he blessed him. That same Jacob, who was then named “Israel”, because he strove with God and won. That’s the son, who went out into the world with his father’s blessing. That’s the son who became the Father of the Chosen People, because he was blessed by his father.
It’s hard to be a father. You don’t have to be a father to know that. It’s easy to see that it’s hard to be a father. I was in the grocery store awhile back, and I couldn’t help noticing a man, who was trying to do his shopping with a little boy, who was crying and wailing from his perch in the cart, unconsolably. The father was murmuring under his breath: “Now, Dan, calm down, control yourself, be patient, just a little longer. We’re almost through, almost through. Calm down, Dan, boy.” I said to the man, as I went by with my cart: “Little Danny’s having a hard time there, eh?” The man looked at me and said, “I’m Dan.”
Not that mothers don’t have trouble with children crying in the store too. Of course, we do. But men are often just not expecting to have to deal with that kind of thing. And although women often have little training in childrearing, men often have none. Which reminds me of the story about the man who filled out an application for a job. The interviewer read the form and then said: “I see you have no experience at this kind of work.” “That’s right,” the man said. “But you’re asking $1,000 a week,” continued the interviewer. “Isn’t that a lot of money for someone with no experience?”
“I don’t think so,” said the man. “The job’s bound to be a lot harder when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
We’re in a new world where we’re trying to figure out new ways of living together and it’s not easy. It takes at least 10 years to begin to get to know your wife. How much time do you have, to get to know your children? You probably know the Harry Chapin song:
The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
When you comin’ home dad?
I don’t know son.
But we’ll have a good time then, boy.
I know we’ll have a good time then.
The baby’s out of it and the cat’s in the cradle, before you know it; the song is absolutely right. And your little boy blue will have jumped over the moon with somebody else, before you’ve ever gone fishing with him once, if you don’t watch out. “Bless me father.” We know how children spell love. They spell it T-I-M-E.
A father and his son were working on the lawn together. They had made an initial bargain that the son would sweep the sidewalk for 50 cents. As they were nearing the end of the job, the boy stopped and leaned on the broom. “I tell you what, dad,” he said, “you don’t have to pay me. Just play a game of basketball with me.” Time isn’t money. Time is much more important than money. “Bless me father.”
I know myself that when I’m disturbed by some compelling problem, or preoccupied with some urgent task, it’s virtually impossible for me to be really present with and for my children. I’m distracted, and my thoughts are absorbed elsewhere. I know that must be the case for many men, especially those who are involved in very competetive, conflict-filled, emotionally exhausting job situations. They may be in constant inner turmoil and anxiety, so that they just cannot focus their attention on any real relationship, let alone one with children, which is often, very demanding.
Some men just assume too, that their function is to be at their job full time. I saw a man on the Oprah Winfrey program once, who said he did not have even ten minutes a day to spend with his three children – not even ten minutes to split between them. The concerned audience was trying to suggest how he could pack his sport bag a little faster so he could at least squeeze a few minutes into his schedule for his children. But the most amazing thing was that When they asked him why he had to be gone so much, he said: “Because I want to give my children more than my father gave me, as every man does.” It reminded me of what a dear elderly woman shared recently: “What children need is not presents, but presence.” “Bless me father.”
Arthur Janov says, in his book Prisoners of Pain:
The ideal environment for a child would be modeled after the agrarian one where the child is with the parent during the day either in the fields at work or in the home, so that somehow during the first years of this life he has a true family rather than parents who are rushing here and there, trying to make a living.
And he goes on to say:
In a lifetime of deprivation there are a few experiences that stand out in the minds of most of us. Those experiences are absolutely critical; and they are usually good ones. For example, I remember volunteering for the Navy during World War II, and I had to go down to the naval office to apply. I sat down with an older man, who sat directly across from me and said in a very slow, measured, and kind way: “What is your name?” I told him my name and he looked at me and repeated it, very slowly, and then spelled it out. I felt an incredible feeling of warmth and some strange sensations I had never known before. That experience stuck in my mind for many years, until during Primal Therapy I suddenly realized that that was the first time that anyone had sat down and talked to me in a slow, measured, and kind way – even if it was only to ask me my name. That experience produced such warmth and relaxation that it remained lucid for decades afterward.
Many people remember that a single experience, such as meeting a man who was fixing a boat or an engine and who talked to them nicely or offered to show them something about it, changed the direction of their lives in terms of the interests they took up. Or they had a teacher who was warm and kind, and that determined the direction of their life’s work. The single expereinces of some interest, warmth, even just momentary undivided attention, endure for a lifetime and even direct and shape that life. This is especially true if they stand over against a total lifetime of barrenness, or a lack of itnerest and warmth,:,especially from the father. Because the mother is supposed to love you. “Bless me father,” for you know I have sinned, and your blessing means that I am forgiven, not just automatically loved, as I am by my mother, but forgiven and loved, in spite of my sin.
I once wateched Margaret Truman tell a t.v. interviewer that her father had told her when she was talking to him about what she might do with her life, that: “Children of famous men are never famous themselves.” It had been years before, but I could see the pain still vivid on her face, as she repeated it. Not that it’s so great to be famous, but it was certainly an example of a father giving his child, instead of bread, a stone (Matthew 7:9).
There are not only prodigal sons. There are also prodigal fathers. They squander the riches of their lives away from home, and the worst part is they don’t even know they’re doing it sometimes. Because they don’t know that their most valuable posssession is time. They spend the time elsewhere and send the money home, and think that’s not only o.k., but good. Grandfathers are very important too, because as one child put it; “they are the only ones who have time.” My own father just died and I was so sad to realize that I never asked him to give his blessing to my children. He would have been glad to, of course, and certainly he did in hundreds of unspoken ways. But to have specifically spoken the words would have been a light in their lives forever. By the New Testament times, Jesus could tell a story about a father who was not limited to only ONE blessing. He could love both of his sons fully. And he could go on loving the one who behaved extremely badly. If you really think about living through the story of the prodigal son, it will give you pause. And a lot of people do live through it nowadays.
The temptations and desolations that children can fall into in our society are mind-boggling and the forbearance and patience these call for in parents is equally mind-boggling. We have to project parables now in which the father is bringing out the third and fourthfatted calf, because he is called upon again and again to radically forgive and bless. But I’ll tell you, the real horror stories are when the father cannot find the resources to do that, and instead, shuts the child out. It’s not easy. It’s tremendously difficult, what many parents are called on to forbear nowaday. I suggest saying to yourself: “This is a test, this is only a test.” It IS a test, often a gruelling one. But what is at stake is so very, very precious. The race is won or lost in the passing of the batton, from generation to generation. If you drop it between you and your children, it is a great, great loss. We really have to keep a fatted calf in the freezer at all times, so to speak.
The dominant image of God is that of a father. This is because men have the most power in our society, which also means they have the most power to bless. It is very important to children to have the blessing of the father. Without it, they are mentally, emotionally and in one way or another also physically deeply, deeply hurt. The pain and damage of this lack of the father’s blessing can be overcome, but only with tremendous struggle and only because the love of God the Father can compensate for any and all loss, finally. But even God wrestles with this one. The very last verse in the very last book of the Old Testament is about this. The last word spoken on the coming of the new age is: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6).
We have tended to fill our children with shame, because a shamed child is more easily dominated and controlled. We need rather to fill them with blessing, and that simply means forgiveness, love and the intense focus of our gracious presence with them. Sure, we don’t always know HOW to do that. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. talked once about the time he almost died of a combination of pleurisy and pneumonis, and for days he was barely conscious. Every day his father quietly entered the room, pulled up a chair and said; “Don’t say a word, son. I’m just going to sit here with you.” And he’d take his hand without himself saying another word. We depend so heavily on words in our society. We think if we can’t communicate with words, there’s nothing else to do there. But the strongest communication is non-verbal. About that silent presence of his father in the room, Coffin said: “It was consolation itself.” And he went on to say: “That’s the way it is with Emmanuel, God with us.”
It is rare indeed to have the power to mirror the presence of God Almighty in a human relationship. This is the power a father has with his children. And you don’t have to know what to do. The thing is in being there. Staying there, constant through it all. That’s a lot, but it may be the ultimate blessing. “Bless me father” is the ultimate confession and the ultimate prayer.
So it is most appropriate that we all pray to our “Father” in heaven, to bless all fathers, who hold the power of enabling each generation to pass on the blessing, by blessing their own children. May God bless the fathers, so that they have the strength, forbearance, forgiveness, love, patience and time to rejoice in the great power they have to bless. May they give this blessing, which is indeed their children’s birthright.
Kathy Peterson is Pastor of Palos United Methodist Church in Palos Heights, IL.