Monday, 6 October 2008

Honour your Father and Mother...

Having looked at four different levels of honour, intrinsic value, character value, achievement value and position value I want to explore four different spheres within position value. They deal with the four major areas of life where we experience authority, home, work, church and the state. Scripture addresses each of these areas as an important place for us to show honour. I particularly want to focus on the one area that is deserving of more treatment; honour within the home.

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Paul brings to mind something unique about the fifth commandment of Ex 20.12. Honour your father and mother that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth. It is the first commandment to carry with it a promise, Eph 6.1. It is almost as if God wanted to add an incentive to keep this commandment, because it has such a profound impact on our lives. The clear implication is that if we don’t keep it, things won’t go well and we won’t live long on the earth. Added length of days and life ‘going well’ are promised to those who fulfil this command.

Notice how this command to honour our parents is rooted in the position they hold as parents – not how good they were as parents. As with all those who hold positions of office, there are those who are good and those who are bad. Our honour of them is not rooted so much in their behaviour or their character. That is a bonus if they are good and honourable people. Rather, it is rooted in the simple reality that they are the ones who biologically brought us into the world.

The difficulty comes when we have to deal with the shortcomings and failures of parents. What is our attitude meant to be? What does it mean to honour in such circumstances? Consider Noah, a righteous man who one day got drunk and was found naked by one of his sons. This son, Ham, immediately told his brothers, Shem and Japheth. Instead of gazing on their father as their brother had done they entered the tent where he was lying by walking backwards and threw a garment over him to cover his nakedness. They continued to hold him in honour even when he failed.

Honour, which is essentially an attitude of heart, is always expressed through some cultural practice or tradition. For instance we honour birthdays by sending birthday cards and buying presents. We honour silver or gold weddings by special celebrations. But what cultural practices have we developed to honour our parents?

For some the notion of honour towards parents means doing what they say. This is clearly implied in Paul’s use in Eph 6.1-2. Paul begins by addressing children telling them to obey their parents, but then addresses fathers. The force of his argument rests on a contrast between obedience from the children and loving discipline from the fathers. Fathers need to be careful not to overcorrect their children, ‘and take the heart out of them’ as JB Philips says.

Our obedience is an indication of the submission and consequently the honour that we give to authority in our life. But we need to be careful here. Paul is addressing children not adults. Those still under parental authority. In the Bible submission is an absolute but obedience is relative. Submission is always an issue of the heart but obedience is an issue of behaviour. Thus we can be submissive and sometimes disobey!

Consider Peter and John who were sternly warned by the Sanhedrin not to speak any longer in the name of Jesus. Their response is telling. Whether it is right to obey God or men you judge – we cannot but speak of the things we have seen and heard, Acts 4.19-20. They submitted to the council and any punishment they would meet out, but they could not obey them. To do so would be to directly disobey the command of Jesus.

Scripture helps us to know when it is right to disobey those in authority, whether it is civil authority, parents, bosses or church leaders. Each one has legitimate authority but only to a certain degree. If they overextend their sphere of authority, we have every right to disobey, while maintaining a submissive heart. In other words we respectfully disagree!

So when is it right to behave this way? Experience and scripture have taught me that there are essentially three reasons for disobeying authority:

1. When it is contrary to what has been clearly and unambiguously taught in scripture. This is because the word of God is our ultimate authority. All come under its rule and judgement and it is therefore our highest court of appeal. When a person tries to use scripture to justify sinful behaviour, be they teacher, pastor, politician or parent then we have a right and responsibility to refuse to comply. The early Christians understood this principal, refusing to deny the Name of Jesus on pain of death. They submitted to the ruling of the courts that sentenced them to death (showing their honour of authority) but they would not deny Jesus (and through their disobedience they honoured His Name).

2. When it is contrary to conscience. This is outlined by Paul in Rom 14-15 and 1Cor 8-10. The human conscience is a sensitive instrument. It will not be argued with and does not listen to reason. Its verdict is all or nothing, right or wrong, good or bad. There are no shades of gray, no in-between areas, no ‘no man’s land’. To violate our conscience just because another tells us to is bad for our spiritual wellbeing. Martin Luther understood this when he stood before the Diet of Worms in 1521. He had to make a stand when his Protestant views were condemned as heretical by Pope Leo III.

Luther respectfully but boldly stated, "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." Someone else’s freedom is not meant to be the basis for our decisions. Scripture and conscience have that title – no-one else. (Check out this site to see the movie clip of this scene. It stars Ralph Fiennes and Peter Ustinov)

3. When it is contrary to Civil Law that upholds scripture. When those in authority ask us to do things that are illegal, we have every right to refuse. The NT writers encouraged believers to keep and obey civil law, including paying taxes. This was part of honouring those in positions of power. To take or sell illegal drugs is a clear violation of law. These are examples of where we must take a stand for the truth.

Now here is the challenging part. We are allowed to disobey but not to rebel! What’s the difference? Rebellion has more than a behavioural aspect to it. Obedience focuses exclusively on behaviour. But rebellion conveys an attitude of heart. I can remain humble and submissive to someone in authority and still refuse to comply with their request if it violates any of the cases outlined above. The real issue is my demeanour. Do I came across in a disrespectful manor, arrogant and judgmental or do I appear respectful in disagreement?

Take the example of Hannah in the OT; a woman in deep sorrow who is pouring her heart out to God. Eli completely misjudges her and accuses her of being drunk, 1Sam 1.12-14. Notice how respectful she is in her reply to him, 1Sam 1.15-18. We know from the text that Eli is not pleasing God and his entire house will be severely judged, 1Sam 2.27-36. Yet he is the one who proclaims over her life the promise that God will answer her request, 1Sam 1.17.

Now let’s get back to the issue of honouring our parents. It is almost a given today that teenagers go through a rebellious phase. My concern is that we help them realise how unhelpful it is to develop entrenched attitudes of resentment towards their parents. There will come the time for all children to enter adulthood and be their own person. Such a time may well involve disappointing the unreal expectations of parents. Saying no in effect to what they want. We transition from obeying them to making our own decisions and being responsible for our own lives.

But while we do this we must maintain an attitude of honour. This is hard for both sides. A wise parent will give more and more decision making power to their child as they grow up. Especially as they approach adulthood. I have seen children grow up and remain paralysed from making decisions because they are so used to doing everything their parents told them. They have not learned to decide for themselves. Given that it is also the time when many leave home and go to university is it any wonder that they lose their moral compass.

In the case of my own father I have walked a difficult road. Whilst he was a God-fearer he had no personal faith in Christ when I was growing up. My own encounter with Christ in my early twenties was dramatic. It changed the course of my life literally. I left University 9 months before completing my degree in Civil Engineering to go to Bible College. My father’s only way of understanding this event was to think I had been brainwashed. Our parting words when I left home were bitter. He expressed his disappointment in me and I charged him with being a judgemental Pharisee!

We didn’t speak for 6 months. When we did it was strained to say the least. Yet I desperately wanted to honour him, but not at the expense of my own conscience and what I believed to be obedience to Christ. I wrestled with this issue constantly. I felt the Lord tell me to visit him regularly, (I tried to do it monthly), always send a father’s day card and remember his birthday. These small tokens were my attempt to still communicate that I valued him.

This strain went on for years. He refused to attend my wedding and I never received any affirmation from him when I entered full time ministry and began to lead a church. I cannot recall one time when he looked me in the eye and said ‘I love you’. I had to learn to receive these affirmations from my father in Heaven.

Years later I was speaking at an International Bible College on the subject of ‘The Fatherhood of God’. I woke early one morning with the clear sense God wanted to speak to me. At sat at my desk with pen and paper and a Bible to hand. I felt a clear impression that I was to write a letter to my father – saying how much he meant to me. ‘Tell him what a hero he has been to you’, was the clear sense I was left with.

I struggled with this thought for some time. “My father, my hero – you’re kidding me”, I thought. But I couldn’t shake this idea. In fact, I felt that if I didn’t comply with this prompting my teaching ministry in the College would be completely ineffective. I prayed.

In that moment a picture emerged in my mind of my father. Little pieces of information he had shared over the years came together like different pieces of a jigsaw and I began to see him differently. The piece about the time he lost his mother at the tender age of 15. The struggle he had as the 5th child with a father who was away at sea most of the time. As a famous Captain of ships my grandfather had little time for investing in his own sons. His older brother who got a local girl pregnant and so was shipped off to the States to preserve the family honour – a brother he would never see again.

I remembered the piece about his own father who was so inept at handling finances that he brought the family to virtual bankruptcy. My father took over the control of those finances at 16 and within four years had turned things around only to be accused by his father of taking money for himself.

Then there was the piece about going through the Second World War and losing friends; a marriage during that time that ended with his wife running off with someone else. The hope that returned when he met my mother – a beautiful Italian, who told me she had never met a kinder man. Then I remembered all the times as a young boy that we spent together working on cars; every Saturday until the Sports came on in the afternoon! We stripped down carburettors, changed air filters and fitted radios together – for hours.

I remembered the time I came home drunk at the age of 16. My father didn’t want to speak to me. I cried like a baby I felt so ashamed. He heard me crying and promptly plonked me into a cold bath while plying me with black coffee. At no time did he berate or scold me. I think you’ve learned your lesson was his only comment.

As this picture emerged I felt so much of the pain he had carried and I wept. Considering all the building blocks that were missing in his own experience he really hadn’t done too badly. By this time I was a father of four. My own shortcomings were more evident to me. So in those quite, reflective hours I wrote my letter and sent it off first post.

Months later I was visiting home and noticed a softening in his tone. We didn’t speak of the letter but I asked my mother if he talked about it. Her response was telling. “He didn’t speak about it, but I have only seen your father cry twice in our married life; once when his brother died and the other time, when he read your letter”.

It didn’t end there. God kept prompting me to hug him and tell him I loved him. My father is ‘old school’. Big boys don’t cry and men show affection by a handshake – that’s it! The first time I succeeded in hugging him was awful. A flight of stairs led to his apartment and the front door opened directly on to the stairs. As he put out a hand to greet me I pulled him off balance towards me. He fell into my arms and I hugged him. It was like hugging a plank of wood. Not much response except for a lot of coughing and obvious embarrassment on both sides.

Alongside of all this my own brother, a Baptist pastor by this time, was extending unconditional love to our father, caring for him and hosting him on the many visits he made down to Essex. As I softened in my judgement of this man he softened. It seemed so unfair that God would expect me to father my father, to take the initiative he should be taking. But this is exactly what He wanted. I had more understanding than he did and so I was more accountable.

He eventually came to a real faith in Jesus and my brother and I were present at his death. My children only remember the wonderful man who was soft, tender and always interested in what you had to say. When he died I was clearing out his things. I found my letter. Carefully preserved in its original envelop. Here is an extract.
As you read it, my prayer is that you to will be able to find a way to bring honour to your parents and perhaps see a different and more accurate picture of whom they really are. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write your own letter. For those of you who are wondering, I went back to University and gained a Masters degree in Management Learning. My father was there at the graduation! "It was worth the wait", was his only comment!

Dear Dad
......I’m going to be preparing a series of talks on the Fatherhood of God. I couldn’t help thinking about my childhood and our relationship in the process. I think I’d probably embarrass both of us if I tried to say these things face to face; so these scribbled words are my attempt to share some deep feelings. I just want you to know what a great dad I think you are. You were, you are and you always will be my hero. I only hope I can be half as good with my kids as you’ve been to me. I still remember very vividly the hours we spent together working on the A40, the Popular, the Vauxhall and the Cortina. It was those ordinary moments that still mean so much. I don’t know how you see yourself but I want you to know I think you’re the best. I am full of admiration for you. The knocks in life did not make you bitter and hard they made you soft, tender and understanding. You’ve taught me not to judge people by their outward appearance but to be accepting of peoples faults, (we all have them). I’m so grateful to you, Dad – thank you for being you. Love as always, Peter