24 May 2007

The Fragility of Fathers and Sons

I've teased my Dad a little lately, that he's running out of internal organs that he can live without. One has to keep a sense of humor about such things, in order to spite the devil who would have us despair.

It was almost four years ago that Dad began spitting up blood, late one Sunday night, and ended up spending the next month or more in the hospital. The first week was spent in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to cauterize an array of bleeding ulcers that had begun to rupture, one after another, in Dad's stomach. In the course of that week, he received over eighty units of blood, which is many times more than a body holds; so, my thanks to those who have donated blood, because my Dad was going through the stuff like my college buddy's old Dodge used to go through oil (we used to joke about how many miles per quart that car got!).

When it finally came down to it, the doctor told my Mom that Dad could live without his stomach, but he couldn't live without blood. Consequently, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, they removed his stomach. I had never heard of such a thing before, but that was that. I spent as many hours as I could at the hospital with my Dad, praying Matins and Vespers and reading Psalms, and waiting for him to recover. It was a long haul, for him and for my Mom, but they took it a day at a time, and eventually Dad went home again.

Now, this past month, Dad had to have his bladder removed due to a fast-growing cancerous tumor. The good news is that the cancer was still contained within the bladder, and therefore came out with it. But that's one more thing for Dad to live without, and another sobering reminder of his frail mortality.

My Dad's family hasn't fared so well, either, in the good health department, and I know that he has fretted about the genetic propensity for cancer and cardiovascular illness that he has presumably passed on to his descendants. Such is the legacy of death that we have inherited from our fathers and hand over to our sons. The wages of sin is death, and there you have it. I'm not falling apart completely, yet. I still have all of my vital organs, and most of my natural teeth, as well as my tonsils and appendix (as does my Dad!). But my body is slower and feels a whole lot heavier than it used to, and I have aches and pains in places where I wasn't previously aware of having places. Exercise would help, no doubt, but only to prolong the inevitable.

I recognize the curse and consequence of sin that my own children have gotten from me, in turn. Their eyes and their teeth are weak and problematic (although it is amazing what dentistry and orthodontia have done for my two oldest children). They get sick, they get hurt, and the day will come when they wear out and die.

It isn't only the fragility of our mortal bodies that we fathers and sons receive and hand over from one generation to the next. Our hearts and minds, our reason and all our senses have also suffered the fall into sin. The way we think, the way we feel, the way we react, it's all prone to sin. We get impatient and short-tempered. We forget things we ought to have remembered. We fail to do what we ought to get done. We're simply wrong about a lot of things, and yet suppose ourselves to have it all figured out. We are prideful and self-centered. The older we get, the more feeble we become, our foibles and eccentricities more pronounced. Love covers a multitude of sins, to be sure, and in many ways the quirks and idiosyncracies of our loved ones can even become endearing to us. Yet, sin exacerbates everything, such that our entire lives are permeated with flaws and weaknesses.

Please understand, I'm not saying any of this to complain about my Dad. I've been blessed with a wonderful father, who loves me, who provided for me as I was growing up and, most important of all, taught me the Word of God. It is that very Word of God that lays bare the truth of the matter, that we have inherited and pass on a terrible legacy of sin and death. It is harder to ignore when it requires the removal of important internal organs, but it is no less the case when our bodies are in relatively good shape. My short temper is a bleeding ulcer of sorts, and my selfishness a cancer of the heart, which are every bit as destructive and deadly as any bodily infirmity. As one father in the faith has written, the good that I would, I do not, and the evil I would not, I do. Who, then, shall save us from these bodies of death?

Thanks be to God, who has given us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ. For He is the Father who has given His own dear Son for us, who bore our fragility in His own flesh, made mortal by our sin, and suffered all the pangs and anguish of the condemnation we deserved. He took our sin and death, in order to give us His life, the divine life that He has with the Father from all eternity. That is the legacy He shares with us by His grace, the inheritance of life and salvation that is now ours as sons of God in Christ.

I've baptized most of my own children, beginning with Monica eleven years ago, and I've been struck each time by the fact that, as their pastor, as a Minister of the Gospel of Christ, I am thereby able to give them something that I cannot give them as their earthly father. The washing of water with the Word of Christ gives them a new Name, a new heart, a new and right Spirit, and a new Father in heaven. That their souls are not cleansed apart from this water that washes over their mortal bodies, is already a sign of the bodily resurrection for which their dear Lord Jesus Christ lays hold of them as His own precious possession. From me they received the sinful and deadly inheritance of Adam. From the Holy Triune God they receive the forgiveness of sins, new life and salvation, the adoption as sons, the anointing of the Spirit, union with Christ. This striking contrast was made all the more poignant for me, when my little Gerhardt was baptized by my colleague, and I witnessed the bestowal of this gift of life in place of the death that my son received from me.

Of course, the beauty is that we human fathers are given the privilege of bestowing that same gift upon our children, not of ourselves, but from Christ through His Gospel. As our own sin is forgiven, our unclean spirit driven out and replaced by the Holy Spirit, and the New Man daily rises and emerges in us, so do we pass on this Gospel to our sons and daughters. We love them, as we are loved. We have mercy and compassion upon them, as Christ is merciful and compassionate toward us. We forgive them, as we are forgiven, for Jesus' sake. And we catechize them in the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, unto repentance, unto faith and life. That catechesis was the best and most important thing my Dad did for me, and it is the best and most important thing that I can do for my own children; not only as their pastor, but already as their father.

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