Like a Father’s Prayer
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
June 20, 2021
1Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Well, Happy Father’s Day! Hopefully, those of you who have fathers who are living have been able to express your love to them or are going to get together with them at some point. I imagine this is a day of memories – memories of our fathers if we knew them, and for those of us who are fathers as well. Memories that I pray will be of good and blessing times, even though fathers aren’t perfect. It makes me remember that part of remembering often requires a healthy dose of forgiving. Lord knows my kids have a thousand things to forgive me for and I pray they do and will!
But as I think about prayer and fathers, I realize I never saw my father pray. Now, granted, he has been gone for over 50 years and I was not even 10 when he died, but I don’t remember him praying. That is not a judgment or a criticism just an observation to say this: often we men are not known for our “spirituality,” at least in the common depiction of the typical American male. The typical American male is supposed to be a cowboy or a corporate executive or in old TV days the one who “Knew Best.” I don’t know that spirituality is something held up as a high value for men in our culture, perhaps except among Catholics whose sons are priests!
So, as I read and listen to Paul’s words to his friends in the church in Phillipi I have a sense of this being a kind of father’s prayer for his spiritual children. Now, no doubt, Paul was a spiritual man. His life is well-documented in the Christian Scriptures for us. He was a devout Jew, a leader. When he encountered the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ he was transformed spiritually and became a leader – perhaps the most influential of all the earliest believers in Jesus Christ. His writings are often prayerful and always deeply spiritual.
So, this morning’s passage is an example of what I would call a “Father’s Prayer.” I am not so interested in trying to break down Paul’s meaning and interpret every phrase so much as I want to try to capture the essence, the “spirit” of it, if you will and reflect on that for what lessons it may hold for us today as we celebrate Father’s Day 2021.
In tone and overall tenor Paul’s words are warm and loving. There is a sense of deep affection, pride, and hope for the people he is writing to. He “thanks God every time he remembers” them. I found it especially touching when he speaks about how they share in the gospel with him and he has confidence God will bring what he began there with them to fulfillment – and he says, “it is right” for him to feel that way because he says to them, “you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me.” We would expect him to say he holds them in his heart, but he says they hold him in their hearts! And there is a sense of gratitude and pride I think in his words.
He goes on to say, “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that… [they will have] produced the harvest of righteousness and justice that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Now, as I end my ministry here in the coming week, I can’t think of a better prayer to pray for you. “That your love may overflow more and more… to do what is best… producing a harvest of justice and righteousness to the praise and glory of God.” I may not be a “Father” in the sense of being a Catholic priest, and certainly not old enough to be everyone’s father but nevertheless that is my “fatherly” prayer for you as we prepare to part as pastor and congregation.
My thought is that the harvest of righteousness and justice Paul prays for begins when we have a sense of gratitude for God’s blessings. I think Paul’s prayer is rooted in a grateful heart and spirit. As a father, I know have learned a lot about gratitude from my children and other children. I was reading a devotional by Rev. Cameron Trimble, [ Piloting Faith devotional, June 11, 2021], who told a story about a man invited to have dinner one night with a family. “When they sat down at the table, the mother called on their four-year-old son, Christopher, to say the blessing.
"Christopher, will you say grace tonight?" she said.
"Oh, Mom, do I have to? I don't know how," complained Christopher.
"Sure, you do. It's your turn. Just tell God what you are grateful for tonight."
Then, like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, four-year-old Christopher began to pray. With one eye devoutly closed in prayer and the other eye discreetly open so that he could look around as he prayed, Christopher thanked God for everything in sight.
"Thank you, God, for the chicken, the roast beef, the brown gravy, the potatoes, the tomatoes, the cantaloupe, the slaw, the baked beans, the salt, the pepper, the knives, the spoons, the forks, the place mats, the tablecloth, the napkins…" and on and on he went, naming everything on the table. His brother and sister snickered.
"Thank you, God, for the table, the chairs, the floor, and the drapes, the tea, the ice and the sugar, the Sweet' N' Low, the lemons, the ketchup…." Finally, Christopher thanked God for all the people at the table, calling them all by name. He ended by thanking God for his dog who was under the table. He thanked God for everything he could see, except for carrots (he later said that he doesn't like carrots.)
Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, once said, "To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything God has given us - and God has given us everything." Apparently, Christopher knew that and decided to teach that to his family, Rev. Trimble commented.
So, I am always going to remember this congregation with gratitude for all you have taught me and for all the ways we have shared in the gospel of Jesus Christ together. My prayers will always be an expression of gratitude for what you have done and what you will do. I do pray that God will continue to complete his work in you, and I can pray in complete confidence that God will, and you will. I suspect Paul had too many memories of ministry shared with the people of Philippi to go into detail, and I know I certainly do too.
Going back to the thought that I don’t remember seeing my father pray, I wanted to share one more thing. Some years after his death I came across something in a book that was a family heirloom. It is a book of “Best Loved Poems of the American People.” In the front of it was and is an old half sheet of paper. You can see that it is almost translucent it is so old and fragile. On it are some words typed that are quite profound. The author is not cited, although they sound much like the words of the writer of the Desiderata, a man named Max Ehrmann. But even more precious to me is the handwritten note on the back. Now, I don’t know if they were written by my father but somehow, I have the vague recollection that my mother – also long since passed – once told me it was, and that she found it when she was going through my father’s things after his sudden death at age 48 of a heart attack. She may have told me it was read at his funeral, but honestly, I don’t remember that directly.
All that said, here is what was written on the back of the sheet of paper:
“This was my ‘philosophy of life’ I would like it to be yours, it is wonderful, a religion.”
And the words typed on the front read:
“IN THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE”
“In the time of your life, live – so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away.
Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart. Be the inferior of no one, nor of anyone the superior.
Remember that every person is a variation of yourself. No one’s guilt is not yours, nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness but not men of ungodliness or evil. These understand.
Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
My prayer for the time of your life. May Paul’s words echo and be fulfilled in us as we continue on this journey called life. And may your Father’s Day and mine be filled with gratitude, hope, and life, in this time of our lives. That is my prayer.