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Whitworth University Parents' Weekend Sermon
Oct. 19, 2008
I'm sorry I'm late this morning. As I walked thought that door, I looked to my right, and the first person I saw in this building, and I don't know why, is Jack Burns. He's a faculty member here. Well, Jack, my computer wouldn't print my sermon. How many times have you heard that? At least I didn't say my dog ate it. I could have said that, but I don't have a dog. Anyway, sorry about that.
It's so great to have all of you here this weekend. I had to be gone most of this week. I hate to be gone the week before Parents' Weekend because I love walking among the students and hearing how excited they are to have their parents and their relatives and their grandparents come to visit. So they are excited that you're here, and we are, as well.
There's a lot going on this weekend. If yesterday I hadn't gone to the women's and men's cross-country meet, the women's and men's soccer match and the football game, I'd have a better sermon. But this weekend is about seeing our students, and it's great to see them. I know as you gather here today, you've been through a rough month in a lot of respects. World economies have been challenged, and some of you have suffered loss, but the very fact that you are here this weekend offers proof positive that what you didn't lose is worth way more than anything you might have lost. It's great to be with our families right now.
This morning I'd like to share a couple of Bible stories. A few summers ago I decided to write a book that looked at leadership through the eyes of incarnation. What I found as I was writing the book, which will be out in February, by the way, was that I kept thinking about pride and the role of pride in the area of leadership, and how toxic it can be. But in certain circumstances, pride helps. So I found myself, as you were preparing to come to Whitworth, thinking about pride in the area of family. There seems to be good pride that is healthy, but there is bad pride that can destroy and divide families. We only have one word in the English language for pride, and that's pride. We need more words for that emotion. I didn't have time to check on this, and I know I'm going to get corrected, but I'm positive that when I took Spanish and I spent a little time in South America, there were two words for pride. I think arguilla was good pride, and then there was sabrerbia – bad pride. I think you find both in families.
I can recall a very interesting incident with my father when I had graduated from college and was working in Chicago. I ran into my father having lunch with three of his friends. Kindly, they invited me to join them. I loved being with my dad, so I sat down at lunch. And for the 40 minutes or so that I was with them, I listened to my dad's friends talk about their kids and how great they were. They did have great kids, but dad just sat there and listened. He didn't really say anything. So when we were done with lunch, I was walking away with my dad, and I said, "Dad, you know, I noticed that those guys did all the talking when it came to children. How come you didn't say anything about your children?" I'm one of four, and the other three are a good bit older and were already quite accomplished. He said, "Look, they don't care about my kids any more than I care about their kids. And that isn't much." I know he didn't really mean that, but what struck me was that his friends may not have cared about what he thought about his kids, but I did. I needed to hear dad say, "Yeah, I've got good kids too," and to feel his sense of pride.
It's pretty interesting. I got up very early to get ready for this morning, and I heard my cell phone vibrating. It was our oldest daughter. This past Wednesday was her first day as the associate pastor of the Covenant Presbyterian Church, in Boise, Idaho. She was calling on her way to church. Her senior pastor is out of town this morning, so she was going to give her first sermon at this church. She said she was calling to tell me that she was wearing a blouse that I had given her: "Dad, I'm giving my first sermon in the blouse you gave me." Actually, it was a maternity blouse, but, she said, "If I tuck it in nobody will know the difference." She can do that because she's already had the baby. But when I hung up the phone, I realized her blouse wasn't the real reason she called me. She was calling me because she wanted to make sure I was proud of her. This was her first Sunday and her first sermon, and she wanted to hear, "Atta girl, good job, you'll do great, love ya, I'm proud of you." That seemed to be the most important message in that exchange, and she's a typical daughter. So, I guess that's an example of a healthy family pride that is good, the kind we need it in our families. And students, your parents need to know that you are proud of them every bit as much as you need to know that they are proud of you. It's an important part of being a family.
But then there's the not-so-good pride in a family. The pride that causes us to dig in, the pride that makes us stubborn. I recall the first time I heard somebody, maybe it was Jim Dobson, talk about the willful child. Yeah, well I've got three of those, and they've got two willful parents, and I think "willful human" is pretty redundant. We're all willful, and that can get in the way of relationships. It's not helpful when our mantra is, "Boy, I'm not going to budge on this." Our daughter and her husband named their new child Asher. They were influenced in that naming by the book My Name is Asher Lev, so I re-read that Chaim Potok novel. I was reminded how Potok writes so powerfully about tension between fathers and sons. In The Chosen andinthe Lev books there's a stubbornness that divides the father and the son. Now, part of the clash is between cultures, the Orthodox Jewish culture and the more Reformed Jewish culture, or Hassidic Jewish culture and secularism. So there's that clash. But undeniable in Potok's stories is the stubbornness that causes the father and the son to remain separated, and it's heartbreaking. That kind of pride is hurtful in a family.
So this morning I want to tell two stories – one about bad pride, one about good pride. And before I tell you the story about bad pride, I want to remind you that we can't take this too lightly. It's very interesting to me that our churches and our mainline denominations are teetering on the edge of division over things such as homosexuality and abortion. There are 119 warnings in scripture about pride, and the danger of pride, and no denomination seems to be teetering on the edge of division over pride. It seems to be the okay sin. It seems to be the one where we say, "Oh, I wish I didn't have that, but you know, I'm only human." God is not a good sport about pride. It'll kill us, it will hurt our families, it will hurt our marriages, it will hurt all of our relationships, so we need to take this business of pride very seriously because it can destroy us. Satan knew what he was doing in the garden. He went after the pride factor: "Wanna be like God? That'd be pretty neat." He knew that pride was the pathway to destruction, so we need to take this seriously.
Okay, my bad pride story, I love this story. I re-wrote it slightly, but I didn't take too many liberties. It's the story about Naaman. Actually, both my stories take place in the same place. First story. Naaman was an army commander. You can read about this in II Kings 5. Naaman was a commander in the Syrian army. His master loved him. Apparently he was a good man and a very successful soldier, but he had a big problem: He had leprosy. As the story goes, in a battle with Israel, some soldiers for Syria had gone out and taken captive a little Israeli girl and had given her to Naaman's wife to be her slave. One day the girl said to her mistress, "You know, if my master would go see the prophet in Samaria, he would be cured of leprosy."
So Naaman went to the king and told him what the girl from Israel had said. "By all means, go, I'll send a letter to the king of Israel," said the king. So Naaman left for Israel, taking with him all kinds of money and clothes for his healing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read, "With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy." As soon as the king of Israel read his letter, he just tore his clothes, he was so upset, and he said "What am I, God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this guy send me someone who needs to be cured of leprosy? He's just trying to pick a fight with me." Now, when Elijah, the man of God, heard that the king was so upset, he said, "Why have you torn up all your clothes and gotten all upset? Just bring the man to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elijah's house. Elijah did not even come to the door. He sent a messenger to say, go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed. Naaman was so upset. "I thought that he would at least come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand and cure me of my leprosy. And furthermore, the rivers in Damascus are way cleaner than the water in Israel. Couldn't I wash in them and be cleaned?" So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman's servants, however, went to him and said, "Look, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, you would have done it. This isn't that hard; what do you have to lose?" So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times just like the man of God told him to. Now, I have to stop right here, and this might disclose my own irreverence, but this is a funny scene to me. This servants standing on the bank of the Jordan, while their boss is dipping himself seven times in the water. I mean, can't you just picture this? "Ah, sir, you need to do this; this is tough; we're here with you; we'll be with you." And so Naaman goes into the water, and the servants burst out laughing until he comes back out of the water. "We're still with you sir; keep at it; six to go." Maybe that didn't happen, maybe they were praying "Dear God, help this guy get cleansed because he's gonna be mad at us if he doesn't."
So I don't know what they were doing, but anyway, it worked. His flesh was restored; he became clean, just like a young boy. Then Naaman and the attendants went back to Elijah. Naaman said. "Now I know that there is no god in all the world except the God in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant" (remember, he brought all this stuff). And the prophet answered, "As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing." And even though Naaman urged him, he refused. There's a little more to it if you want to read it. It's a great story.
Now, most people think this story is what we call a typology. It's a picture; it's a typology of the cleansing we experience though the blood of Christ when we are washed of our sins through His sacrifice on the cross. But I also think that this is a story about pride, about stubbornness. This is a story about the bad pride, the kind that says, ‘Because of my stature, because of who I am, I know best'. And in a family situation, it could be the parent: "Look, I'm the parent, and I know best." It could be the college student (children suddenly become very knowledgeable when they go to college), saying, "Hey, I'm the college student, I take classes from Terry McGonigal and Pam Parker and Jack Burns. I know what's going on here." Whatever it is, it's this stubborn "I know best" that creates the problems. And isn't it interesting who knew best in this story? It was the little slave girl and the servants. God continues to confound the wise of this world with what the world considers foolishness, but it isn't always easy to reach that point.
I recall our younger daughter's junior year of high school. It was just a hard year for Bill and Bailley. I couldn't figure it out. I talked to Bonnie about it, I talked to a couple friends about it, but she just seemed distant. Finally, I asked myself the question Naaman's servants asked him, "What have you got to lose?" So one Sunday after church, I sat down and I said, "Bailley, I need help. From everything I can tell, I'm being a horrible parent to you. Can you help me understand how I can be a better parent?" Now, on the one hand, that's a pretty easy thing to do – to just ask your kid how to be a better parent. But on the other hand, that's a hard thing to do, to ask your child to be your counselor, your advisor on how to be a parent. But who would know better than she? And she told me what I had been doing that was hurtful to her, that was causing the separation. And I think there's a sense in which that was my first dip in the Jordan, and I began to understand what I needed to do to be a better parent for Bailley.
Sometimes we have to humble ourselves in order to hear what our children are trying to say. And children, students, sometimes you have to humble yourselves in order to hear what your parents have to say. And if you are stubborn, and if you are proud, you won't hear. Sometimes humiliation is the only way that God can get your attention so that you can hear.
About nine or 10 years ago I was invited to speak at a conference for a group of evangelical publishers who were meeting in Hilton Head, South Carolina. I was speaking on Monday morning, and the after-dinner speaker for Sunday night was Jim Bakker, Mr. Tammy Fay Bakker. He had recently been released from prison for bilking all these people in the PTL Ministries. I didn't know that he was the other speaker when I said I would do this, but as it turned out, Jim Bakker said something to me that was worth the trip. During dinner there was a table of about six of us. I asked Jim, "Where are you living now?," because he had been in prison in Minnesota. He said, "I'm living with my son in Los Angeles in a project, and we're trying to have a ministry for the people in the project. My son has been doing this, and he invited me to come live with him." And I said, "Wow, you must be pretty proud of your son; that's pretty cool."
He said, "Well, I was a horrible father. I was so self-absorbed, I was so wrapped up in myself. When my son would have a birthday, I would hand him a catalog and tell him to circle everything he wanted. Then I'd take that catalog and give it to my secretary and I would say to her, ‘Buy everything that's circled,' and she would have it sent to him. I thought I was giving him everything he wanted. Well, when I had been in prison for six weeks or so, my son came up to visit, and we sat there in the visitation room." Incidentally, I've been in a lot of these rooms; I used to do seminars in prisons, and visitation rooms are humiliating. You're standing there with your relatives, you've got guards around you, you're in close quarters, there's just nothing good about it.
At the end of the day, as his son was leaving and they embraced, his son said, "Dad, this was the best day of my life." Wow, that's amazing. This kid had just spent all day in a rotten prison, and he tells his dad that this day had been the best day of his life, because it was the day that he'd had his father's full, 100 percent attention. Just a kid and his dad. And Jim Bakker had been racking up all this junk, and giving this kid anything he wanted, and that wasn't nearly as good as a day with his dad.
Now, I'm telling you, sometimes, we have to go to the Jordan in order to hear, in order to get rid of our stubbornness. I believe that Naaman didn't get sent into those waters in the Jordan, those dirty muddy waters in the Jordan, seven times in order to get rid of his leprosy. God could have done that with one Presbyterian sprinkling. I mean, Jesus just touched a leper and the leper was clean. Elisha could have said "You go once." He didn't go seven times in the Jordan to get rid of his leprosy. Elisha told him to go seven times in the Jordan to get rid of his pride. That's what it takes. Sometimes it takes that kind of humiliation to wash away our bad pride. Okay, there's my bad pride story.
I've got a good pride story. Same location, same act. So, John the Baptist was busy baptizing, that's how you get the name John the Baptist, and he's there baptizing at the Jordan, and Jesus walks up. Now remember, John the Baptist is the one who identified Jesus. John the Baptist is the one who stood there, and as Jesus was walking by, he turned to his disciples and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He who comes after me is before me. It is he of whom I spoke; I am not worthy to untie his sandals."
John is busy baptizing, and Jesus walks up and says, "John, I want you to baptize me." "Whoa. We've got this backward; I'm the one who needs to be baptized, Jesus. I can't do this." And Jesus says, "No, you have to do this, that righteousness would be fulfilled. Do it now; you need to do this." So John baptized Jesus, and when Jesus came out of those same muddy waters out of which Naaman emerged, the heavens ripped open and a voice thundered across the ages: "This is my boy; I'm proud of him. This is my child; I'm so pleased."
I cannot believe that. That God, in whom there is no insecurity; that God, in whom there is no need for approval; that God, in whom there is no insufficiency, says, "This is my child. I'm pleased." I mean, when you hear some parent yell at the soccer match, "Hey, that's my daughter who just made that assist," you kind of roll your eyes. But there's a very real sense in which God said that about His son. "This is my child. I'm pleased. I'm proud". I don't know why God said that, but when you think about it, it's pretty amazing that God would make this declaration.
Maybe part of God's motivation was to send a message to us. To let us know that this is the declaration that our children need to hear. And remember, students, it is also the declaration that your parents need to hear. This is my family member; I'm proud. I'm proud to be a part of this family. I'm proud that my parents love me and have taken care of me. And I'm proud that my child is going to school to become a better person. There's a healthy pride where we feel this deep sense of affirmation and this deep sense of love. Not the kind that's boastful, not the kind that's self-centered, not the kind that's stubborn, not the kind that willful, but the kind that says, "You know what? This is my parent; this is my child. I'm pleased."
Will you pray with me? Gracious God, somehow take away the pride that makes us stubborn and the pride that causes us not to listen. Give us good pride, the pride that makes us know we are loved, by You and by our families. In Jesus name, Amen.