The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A FATHER'S LOVE

Delivered 7/24/05
Text: Psalm 103:8-18
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

This was a birthday week around our house. Our son David turned 25. A quarter of a century. Hardly seems possible.

I remember it like it was yesterday though. Christie woke me up at 4:30 in the morning (Ladies, why is it always in the middle of the night?) - calm as you please she said, "David, I think you are going to be a father TODAY."

I wish I could have responded intelligently with something like, "Oh really, dear, what makes you think so? Are you feeling all right? Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable, sweetheart?" I would LIKE to have responded that way but in the pre-dawn darkness all that came out was, "Huh?"

Within a few seconds her words had cut through the fog. We quickly got up, gathered the necessities we had already set aside, hopped in the car (I hopped, she waddled) and drove to the hospital - an hour away - wondering all the way what we had forgotten (nothing, as it turned out).

We had attended natural childbirth classes before the baby came, so I was able to assist my wife with the breathing exercises that made labor more bearable for her (for me too, frankly, because at least I had something to do besides pace the floor). Then the nurse coming in to check on her progress, beginning with a look of cool professional detachment then suddenly, with an ill-disguised air of panic, telling the other nurse on duty to "Get the doctor because this baby is coming NOW!" Quickly, I changed into the green scrub clothes, followed along as they moved to the Delivery Suite, and within a half an hour, our son was born.

It was an incredible experience. Christie tells me that she will always remember the sight of me after it was all over - there in that brightly lighted room, equipped with all the latest gadgetry that science could devise, was this man with a mask jumping up and down and yelling, "Hey, hey, hey...That's our kid...That's my son!" It was marvelous.

When I finally came down from the ceiling, I came over to my wife's side and pressed my cheek to hers. We were both in tears from the joy of it all, and together we prayed, "Thank you, Lord, for this miracle, this new life you have entrusted to us." Then she said, "This was not nearly so bad as everyone led me to believe. Let's have another one!" Right!

After a few moments, I stepped over to the corner of the room where the special warming tray they use to help stabilize the temperature of new-borns was set up. David was lying there with those little arms and legs just flailing away in their new-found freedom. A big fellow - nine pounds, five ounces...a little horse...no idea where that came from. He was crying. After all, he had just been through quite a workout himself. I wanted to pick him up, but I didn't. I just stood there and looked...and grinned.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Good! Five on each hand. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten...yep. Five on each foot. Two eyes, nose in the middle. Perfect. MY son. Oh, how I loved that little child!

I confess, I had been a bit scared at the prospect of a new baby in the house. For a man to become a father for the first time in his mid-30's is a little late. My mother once told me that the Lord was very wise in setting things up so people would have babies when they are young - that is the only time in their lives they have enough energy to handle them! That worried me. I wanted to be a good father. Certainly not some gruff old tyrant who would explode every time the baby raised a whimper. I was not sure how I would react. I loved him. I wanted to be good for him.

I was concerned about the cost. Not so much for the pre-natal care and the birth itself - insurance would take care of most of that. I was worried about all I had heard about babies born these days costing a family astronomical six-figure sums for the first 18 years, and then there would be college on top of that. I was getting ready to start seminary back then - a second career after years in broadcasting. Christie and I had already heard the horror stories of young families going off to school and living on corn flakes for three meals a day because they could not afford anything else. Then, after seminary, there was the prospect of a vocation that is not known for its financial rewards. I loved that little boy. I did not want him ever to do without because of me. I wanted to provide WELL for him, and I knew that would mean big bucks. Scary.

I had been worried about my wife. Back then I loved Christie more than anything in the world. Still do, only even more today. I knew what difficulties many women have during pregnancies...ranging from general discomfort to absolute agony. I did not want ANYONE causing her pain, and would be livid if I found that someone had. But, this baby... Yes, he caused her pain, but I loved him anyway.

I was worried about the world into which our child was being born. We named him David, not so much after me but rather after the greatest of all the Israelite kings. Our prayer for him was that, as the David of old, he would come to be known as "a man after God's own heart." I knew that would be a mighty accomplishment in modern society where immorality and injustice are the rules rather than the exceptions. I knew that for David to live out the dreams we had for him would take something more than I could give him. I knew he would have his ups and downs. My hope was that I could be there to cheer him as he reached the heights or to help him up if he fell. But I knew I would never be able to handle everything, as much as I might want to. After all, I loved him.

As I continued to stand by that warming tray and gaze at my boy, I remarked to the obstetrician (who happened to be a long-time friend of mine) "Do you realize that in about fourteen years, this delightful little bundle of joy will think I am the dumbest man alive?"

The doctor replied, "Naw, he seems like a pretty bright kid...it won't take him that long." Hmmm! It did not matter. I loved him just as much. Twenty-five years ago.

When Erin came along three-and-a-half years later, it was much the same. There was the pre-dawn announcement that she was on the way (the middle of the night again, but five days LATE - no phone call, no card, no apologies, no nothing, just LATE!!!), the trip to the hospital, the expensively equipped Delivery Room, and VOILÁ... there was our little girl.

There was another visit to the warming tray. Again, everything was in the right place and she was crying her little lungs out. To be truthful, Erin cried from the moment she was born for about four solid hours. Needless to say, that was not the most reassuring sound a father can hear. I began to wonder, "Is this what I am going to be in for with her?" I had heard from more people than I care to think about that if their SECOND child had been their FIRST, there would not have BEEN a second. We had hoped we would get one as good as David (because he had been terrific), but I was getting a little worried.

I asked the nurse if maybe the baby might be hungry, but she replied, "No, that's not the problem...newborns have enough food in their system to take care of them for three days." I remember thinking to myself, "Big deal! I have enough food in me to last for three MONTHS but that doesn't keep me from getting hungry." As it turned out, that WAS Erin's problem and as soon as she got some dinner, she quieted down and, as you all well know, she has been a delight ever since.

There were a number of things that David and Erin had in common, but one in particular stands out: we loved those children before we ever saw them. For all those months before each was born, ever since we had known they were on the way, they had been special to us...before we knew whether they were a he or a she...before we knew whether all the fingers and toes were there (and it would not have mattered anyway)...before we knew anything about them other than the fact that they existed, we loved them.

You know there is nothing unusual about that. Any of you who have ever been a parent have experienced the same thing. But, have you ever thought about WHY? If you have, you know there IS NO REASON!!! You love that little baby just because it is yours...period. And that kind of parental love is the only kind of love I can think of that is TRULY unselfish. Husband? Wife? Mother? Father? You love them because of something they have done or can do for you. But it is not that way with your kids. When you bring them into the world, they have nothing to offer you except your own personal portion of "blood, sweat and tears." They are going to cost you a fortune. They are going to keep you up at night (either feeding them when they are infants or worrying about them when they get older). They are going to cause you pain (either the direct pain of the punishment that children can inflict or the INdirect pain of suffering along with the pain our kids inevitably feel). Yes, by the time they reach about age fourteen, they DO think you are the dumbest person alive. And the list could go on and on. No, we do not love our children because of what they can do for us; we really love them in SPITE of what they do TO us. But it does not matter - we love them anyway.

There is wonderful theology in all that. I remember becoming aware, as we awaited David's arrival, that the God we call FATHER feels the same way about HIS children...you and me. Until my son came along, I had never thought of that. I grew up praying, "Our Father, who art in heaven..." I read the hundreds of times God is called "our Father" in the Bible. Perhaps as a young boy the simile of God as Father did not have the same positive implications for me as it does now. My own father loved me, cared for me, provided for me, forgave me when I did wrong. But he was also the BOSS! He was the image of authority. He was the one who said, "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" and I had better listen. You see, he had this ruler that was eighteen inches long and a quarter inch thick that he called "the persuader." My thoughts of a kind and loving father were tempered by what I saw in that ruler. But with the coming of our David I began to see things from a new perspective. I know that my Dad loved me, but just how much I did not know until I had a son of my own. There were no limits to my father's love for me, but only after I felt the same way toward my own children did I realize it. And only after I experienced those feelings did I begin to understand why God told us to call Him "Father."

Think of those words we read earlier in the 103rd Psalm: "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear (or give reverence to) Him." Words that many of us who were nurtured in the King James Version recall as "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him." You could really substitute LOVES for "pitieth" or "has compassion" in the verse and get an accurate meaning. God loves us like we love our own kids! Not because of anything we can DO for God, but, frankly, in spite of all we do TO God. God loves us like a father.

Actually, God loves us even BETTER than that. Do you remember what Jesus said? "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" Wow!

Does that mean that our every wish will be granted, that all our dreams will come true? Of course not. My children have asked me for many things over time that I refused to give. As much as they might have been convinced that their requests were perfectly reasonable and the soul of good sense, I knew better. Some of their heartfelt desires would have done them more harm than good - so I told them NO...not because I do not love them, but because I do. And since the wisdom of our Father in heaven is even greater than our own, we can trust that the divine refusal to grant all our requests is also for our ultimate good.

I remember an incredible moment during the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992.(1) Britain's Derek Redmond had dreamed all his life of winning a gold medal in the 400-meter race, and his dream was in sight as the gun sounded in the semifinals. He was running the race of his life and could see the finish line as he rounded the turn into the backstretch. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain go up the back of his leg. He fell face first onto the track with a torn right hamstring.

As the medical attendants were approaching, Redmond fought to his feet. "It was animal instinct," he would say later. He set out hopping, in a crazed attempt to finish the race. When he reached the stretch, a large man in a T-Shirt came out of the stands, hurled aside a security guard and ran to Redmond, embracing him.

It was Jim Redmond, Derek's father. "You don't have to do this," he told his weeping son.

"Yes, I do," said Derek.

"Well, then," said Jim, "we're going to finish this together."

And they did. Fighting off security men, the son's head sometimes buried in his father's shoulder, they stayed in Derek's lane all the way to the end, as the crowd gaped, then rose and howled and wept.

Derek did not walk away with the gold medal, but he walked away with an incredible memory of a father who, when he saw his son in pain, left his seat in the stands to help him finish the race.

Twenty-five years of parenthood. I survived, despite my mother's warnings! Not only survived, but thrived. Our children are special for more reasons than I could ever say. They have given us so much, and that includes the wonderful gift of helping us learn something special about God...that, more than we might ever imagine, we are really and truly loved.

Amen!

1. Quoted from "Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks", Wayne Rice, 1994

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