Another Word for Worry
June 16, 2013
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Second Samuel 12:7-13; Galatians 2:16-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Once at a retreat we were asked to put ourselves at the foot of the cross and really see Jesus hanging there, in his body. But all these movie images kept getting in the way for me, all these Hollywood actors with beards, so I started substituting people I know and putting them on the cross as a way of feeling a deeper connection to our Lord.
I put Barb’s grandfather on the cross. I put a woman I know. And suddenly I saw my youngest son hanging there, in his red and black soccer uniform. He was about ten then, this wonderful little boy, and suddenly he was hanging there, nailed to a cross, and for a moment it just overwhelmed me.
I thought, so this is what God the Father felt that day.
I don’t know why when we think of the metaphor of God the Father we always think of power, of God as tyrant or dictator, because my experience as a father hasn’t been of power at all. Not on the nights when I used to wait for my kids to come home. Not when I have to watch them struggle and suffer now, as adults, and there’s nothing I can do.
“Another word for father,” says the poet Li-Young Lee, is “worry.”
All three readings today give us perspective on fatherhood, here on Father’s Day.
Fathers should be like kings in a way, they should have a certain authority, as mothers should, too, and I really worry when I see how reluctant many fathers are to set boundaries, and how little respect children show their fathers, and what misery results, for everyone. But the first and second books of Samuel are in part a critique of kingship, of how power can corrupt, as it has corrupted King David, who is guilty here of adultery and murder and deception, and what’s most kingly about David, really, what’s most manly, is how quickly he humbles himself and admits his sinfulness, how sincerely he asks for forgiveness.
Paul’s great insight in Galatians is that the pattern of the life of Christ should be the pattern of our lives, too, and what defines this pattern is powerlessness, is the crucifixion. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says, “and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Christ who turned manhood upside down. Christ in his gentleness. Christ who gave himself away.
What’s so interesting about the gospel reading today is that it’s the woman who is finally the model, the sinful woman who bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears.
This isn’t Mary Magdalene. The story doesn’t name the woman. Mary Magdalene is elsewhere singled out in Luke as one of the women who “accompany” Jesus and the twelve apostles on their journey, “providing for them out of their resources,” and in all four gospels she is the first person at the tomb, the first post-resurrection disciple. It’s only later tradition that makes her the prostitute, and maybe as a way of trying to diminish our sense of the power and authority of women.
But even if Mary is the prostitute here, the point is only stronger. Matthew was a tax collector. Peter was a liar, a traitor. In the gospels everything is inverted, everything changed, and what this woman does, Jesus says, we should do, too: we should welcome, we should serve, we should get down on our knees.
I think of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, this great twentieth century Catholic leader. I’ve been reading her diaries the last few weeks, and what strikes me most is her realism and honesty—how she is willing to admit to her fatigue and her discouragement, in her work for the poor—and how she always sees these challenges as graces:
I need to overcome a sense of my own impotence, my own failure, and an impatience at others that goes with it. Such a sense of defeat comes from expecting too much of one’s self, also from a sense of pride. More and more I realize how good God is to me to send me discouragements, failures, antagonisms. The only way to proceed is to remember that God’s ways are not our ways. To bear our own burdens, do our own work as best we can, and not fret because we cannot do more or do another’s work.
Being a father is a wonderful thing, too, of course, happy and fulfilling most of the time. I love being a father. But I think any family is a lot like one of the Catholic Worker houses Dorothy Day founded, and I think her attitude here is exactly the attitude Christian fathers should have. We should surrender our pride. Bear our own burdens.
Last week I had lunch with a young father. He was a student of mine years ago and has now become a close friend--he’s a good, kind man--and he was worried because his ten year old son had been lying to him about a series of little things. My friend was angry at the lies, and that made him feel guilty, and he knew that there had to be some kind of punishment, though he hated the thought of making his son suffer.
What I told him was not to feel guilty about anger. Sometimes fathers need to get angry, if they do it in the right way. What I told him was not to feel guilty about punishment—he had taken away his son’s computer for a couple of days—that was good, I said—stick to it—though I liked even more that he was planning to soften the punishment after the first day, to let his son have the computer back sooner, once the point was made.
But what I really wanted to say was that to be a father is to feel love and pride, yes, but also worry and doubt, and that in our worry and in our doubt we share as fathers in the suffering of Christ and in the suffering of God himself. What I really wanted to say was that as fathers we of course want our children to be happy and we will of course do anything we can to make them happy, but that we need to give our children the freedom to suffer, too. We need to allow our children to join us on the way of the cross.
I wanted to say something about the great mystery of free will. That God the Father doesn’t compel our obedience. That God the Father gives us the freedom to disobey, to turn away, and that in that space, in that gap, is all our humanity and all our grace and all our opportunities to learn and grow and to become the men and women we can truly be.
I wanted to say what Li Young Lee says, in his lovely poem.
Another word for father is worry.
Worry boils the water/ for tea in the middle of the night.
Worry trimmed the child’s nails before / singing him to sleep.
Another word for son is delight. / Another, One-Who-Goes-Away.
So many words for son. / But only one word for father.
And sometimes a man is both. / Which is to say, sometimes a man
manifests mysteries beyond / his own understanding.