About ten years before I became a father, myself, I got a window onto fatherhood that got me thinking about the kind of dad I hoped I would be when the time came.
Many of the dads here will probably agree with me that the most important training we get in that department is from our own fathers.
That is certainly the case with me.
But I don’t think I had given that much thought, particularly.
Until one day.
It was spring, and the JV baseball team at the school where I was teaching was having a lackluster season.
But the catcher of the team was in my C block English 10 class, and he’d been trying to get me to come all season, and I felt guilty for not having gone, so, on this particular May afternoon, there I was, with a handful of other parents out to see the game…and an away game, no less.
It was a lovely, spring afternoon in Wilmington, with the trees in full flower and the sky impossibly blue.
Or, I should say, it was a lovely afternoon until the bottom of the fourth, when one of the parents from the other team playing started loudly complaining about umpire.
Now, I have to say, speaking for myself, I don’t particularly notice that kind of thing right away.
I’m from Brooklyn. People from Brooklyn talk back. Most of the games I’ve been to involve seats so far away from the field that you get nosebleeds up there. In seats like that, you can say whatever you want, and that’s kind of part of the fun.
But this was different. We were all right there. And so it wasn’t long before everyone in our little group was uncomfortably aware of the man in the Titleist visor loudly complaining. And it really wasn’t fun.
“Oh come on, Ump,” he burst out loudly at one point when the umpire called a strike.
Then when that batter went down a few pitches later, he said, “Oh for crying out loud.”
You know that look you sometimes shoot each other? The one that says, “What on earth is going on?” Well, there were a lot of those looks pinging back and forth through our section of the bleachers right then.
And then with the next batter and another couple of pitches, he said, “This guy’s an idiot.”
“Whoa, sir,” said one of the moms on our side loudly at that point.
But it turns out that this was all just the prelude.
It was at the bottom of the next inning when guess who’s son came back up to bat?
“All right, P.J.,” he shouted, “All right!”
Well, poor P.J. whiffed the first pitch.
The man stood up in the bleachers. “Come on, son, come on. DO IT,” he said.
The next pitch game. P.J. swung like he was going to hit that ball straight to New Jersey, whiffing again. Strike two.
“COME ON, SON,” he shouted, “GET IT TOGETHER.”
At that point, the other coach turned around over on his bench. Our parents were about to call DCFS.
Well, thanks to a decent pop and the fumbling from our shortstop, who tripped, P.J. actually made it to first base. The man in the bleachers celebrated with characteristically poor form.
I wondered for a moment if anyone over there was so lame as to actually let him share a high five with them, and was reassured that the answer appeared to be no.
But as happens in baseball, this dad’s joy was short-lived.
Because on the very next pitch, the batter knocked the ball back toward our shortstop, and this time our shortstop didn’t trip. He scooped up the ball and tossed it over to second just in time.
P.J. was tagged out.
You know those moments when everything just seems to sloooooow dowwwwn?
Well this was one of those, because I could see that the dad was leaping off of the bleachers and running onto the field to start shouting at the umpire like Billy Martin in the t.v. baseball of my childhood.
I saw his son’s coach leap up and try get him back to his seat.
But it’s the next moment that I really want to remember.
Because it was then that I saw our coach, like Atticus Finch in the trial scene of To Kill a Mockingbird, slowly, calmly, collectedly, get up from the team bench, and walk over to the home plate umpire with a weary smile.
He waited a moment. Stood just to the side.
The face of the man, the umpire, and the other coach were all various shades of red and purple…and you couldn’t make out the words…well, except for, you know, some….
“Excuse me, sir,” our coach interrupted at least.
“Coach….” said the umpire warily.
“Sir,” he repeated. “I think we’ll take our run now.” He smiled again. And then he went back and sat down.
And it was as if, all of a sudden, something else managed to kick in.
It’s like when you are trying to jump start a car and suddenly the sputtering engine revs like it’s supposed to.
The umpire nodded. Then he turned, faced the bleachers, pointed to our bench and said, “Score one home run. Sanford.” Then he turned to the man, “Sir, you’re ejected from this game. Get off my field. NOW.”
And after another moment, with his son’s coach taking him by the arm, off the man went to sit out the rest of the game in his car.
You see, I don’t know what the rule is here, but in Wilmington, Delaware, when a parent charges onto the field, it’s an automatic home run for the other team.
But I hope that you’ll see that in that moment, it wasn’t about a home run, or winning a baseball game. It was about quietly making sure that something else finally kicked in.
That’s what made it a moment of moral grandeur. It was a moment when somebody finally stood up to say, “Enough.”
It was a reminder in an unimportant game during an undistinguished season that fair play matters. Because fair play always matters. And character always matters.
Actually, those are the things that really matter, whatever the game may be.
And I thought to myself, that when I’m a dad, I want to be like that guy.
Of course, not all fathers out there do.
As we know all too well, P.J.’s dad isn’t the only one who didn’t seem to get the memo, and the children of those Great Santini types often have the baggage to show for it.
Also, it will probably not surprise you to learn that for many people, their relationship with God begins as a kind of extension of the relationship they had with their parents—and in particular, their relationship with their fathers.
So many of the people who decide to reject faith altogether, and who speak of God as angry, judgmental and supremely to be feared are remembering the flaws of human fathers they have known.
I find it hard to blame them.
Imagine, for example, what P.J.’s understanding of God must have looked like.
But the instinct of Scripture is to try to describe God not as angry, or as simply a remote, stern, lawgiver. The instinct of Scripture is not to imagine fatherhood, or God our Father, as the guy who shouts at us from the stands.
If you read the Bible attentively, what you find is a God who is more typically like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son—a God who worries sick about us when we’re off doing our thing. But who nevertheless gives us the space to do our thing.
The God of the Bible is much more like the God in our reading from Isaiah this morning—a God who calls and calls for us, who reaches out to us, who wants good things for us, who gets exasperated with us, and who winces in those moments when, for whatever reason, it seems as if we can’t get out of our own way.
But God never stops loving us.
There are a lot of people who would be astonished to learn that God’s fatherhood isn’t really about control, or about pushing perfection.
God is more about dusting us off when we fall and sitting us back on the bicycle.
God concern is about teaching us to try. And to keep on trying.
God knows that we aren’t perfect now, and that we never will be.
But that’s not meant to be cause for punishment or shame.
If you read the Garden of Eden story, or Tower of Babel story, or the Noah story, or the David story, I think you’ll conclude that God must have made His peace with that a long time ago.
And God’s definitive response is the Gospel story.
God responds to us at our worst by loving us, anyway, and working even harder to show us the way to the life He promises us in Him.
God works to bring something good out of the worst and darkest things we humans go through. No matter what it takes. No matter how high the price.
That’s the kind of father He is.
That’s the God that people need to hear about.
Especially in these days, I think…these days when we’re remembering Charleston and still mourning Orlando, and watching the news in the meanest political season anyone can remember.
We need to tell people about the love of the father, which does not condemn us, but forever reorients us, and believes in us, and counts on us.
God knows that, despite our imperfections and our undeniable shortcomings, each of us can still be a force for good, a voice of reason, and a source of kindness.
His delight is to see what we do with His gifts.
That is God’s understanding of what it is to be a father.
On Father’s Day, may we be especially grateful for all the men in our lives who heard God’s call to go and do likewise.