Genesis 48: 1-11 and Selected Scripture
Sunday, June 19, 2016
When I was growing up my grandfather always let his granddaughters to crawl into his lap, but never his grandsons. He told us that he wanted us to make his so proud that we’d “make the buttons pop off his vest.” We got the lectures about the need to work hard, tell the truth, respect your parents, and keep your hair cut short. The day of the funeral of my three year old brother Bobby, we were gathered in the living room when he broke down and started to cry. We were all ushered out of the room because the children shouldn’t see their grandfather cry.
He also had a soft side. Once a year we would have a “Grandpa No Day,” which meant G’pa couldn’t say no to anything we asked him. One year he took my brother, cousin and I to Canobie Lake Park. My grandmother pack a whole loaf of bread of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a bag of chips, and a box of Devil Dogs (my favorite). There was no limit on what we could eat nor the number of rides we went on.
My dad was much the same way. He showed little affection accept when we were little and played “pig pile” or did fake wrestling. The way he would show love was by doing things for us—like putting a new muffler on my car when I couldn’t afford it. When he was on his death bed I went up to the ICU room where he was on a ventilator. There was something I had to know before he died. I said, “Dad, I know there have been rough times in our relationship and we’ve had our ups and downs, but there’s something I need to know. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you tell me that you love me. Do you?” And through his ventilator and all the hook ups in that hospital bed he shook his head vigorously, Yes. And that made all the difference.
Were my father and grandfather mean-spirited, men without feeling, or simply clueless? I don’t think they were any of those things (though maybe the latter), but they were shaped by the culture they were raised in. Once upon a time, it used to be easy. The categories were neat and tidy. Everyone knew their job and their place. Men initiated, women responded. Men made the money, women cared for the children. Women nurtured the home and family, men took care of the house and yard. Men were stoic and unemotional, women were sentimental and emotional. Men sowed their wild oats, women were chaste. Men were leaders, women were followers. But the rules have changed in the past three to four decades. The categories don’t fit.
Sociologists estimate that there are as many as 2 million stay-at-home dads in the US right now. And fathers as a whole – stay-at-home dads or otherwise – spend almost as much time with their children as mothers do. Men do laundry, cook dinner, buy groceries, and drop the kids off at soccer practice (though in the studies I read women always think their husbands overestimate what they actually do.) Meanwhile, women write legal briefs, run for office, work construction equipment, and direct corporate mergers.
In spite of these advances there are strong cultural cues, maps, messages, whatever you want to call them, that are sent to men and boys in our society today (as well as women). Despite cultural norms, acting like men doesn’t mean being macho, arrogant, overbearing, rude, or harsh. That’s immaturity and, well, sin. Men, Christian men, are to love and serve through controlled strength. The power of godly men is shaped through the liberating work of Christ in our hearts and lives.
This morning I want to take a brief look at a father in the Book of Genesis who faced similar pressures that we do, but in an entirely different cultural setting. His name is Jacob. The Bible says that there is nothing new under the sun, and Jacob experienced many of the same tensions that father’s face today.
First, there was the reality of Jacob’s imperfection. Jacob did not have a great reputation as a young man. One day in his youth he was out barbecuing some beef tips when his older twin brother, Esau, came in from an unsuccessful hunt, famished. The aroma from those tips cooking smelled great to a ravenous hunter, and Esau begged for a plate full. Jacob said, “I’ll give you some, but it will cost you something. Namely, your birthright.” Esau said, “What good is a birthright if a man dies of starvation?” Jacob got his deal, but it was a raw deal.
Sometime later Jacob cheated Esau again, this time out of his inheritance. It was the custom that the older son would receive a double portion of the father’s estate when the father died. So Jacob, with his mother’s help, disguised himself as his older brother and manipulated his blind father into guaranteeing him the inheritance. That would be the equivalent of making someone sign a will under duress today. When Esau learned what had happened, he was furious and he vowed that he would kill his brother when his dad died and then Esau would get it all. So, Jacob fled for his life.
Jacob’s reputation in the land of Canaan was one of a schemer, a con man, somebody not to be trusted. That’s the kind of reputation most fathers want to prevent their children from learning about. Jacob did not have an untarnished reputation, and the sons knew about it. Most of you know some things about your dads that were or are imperfect. Maybe he was prejudiced or greedy or a heavy drinker or a womanizer. Or maybe he was insensitive, a work-a-holic, or had outbursts of anger. When you first discovered those flaws you were disillusioned. But be realistic. There’s no perfect father. I’ll also bet for many of us that was never the whole story. You also remember your dad as kind and compassionate, as the one who went to your sporting events with you or was maybe your coach. He taught you how to change the oil on your car and balance your checkbook. He felt badly for you when you broke up with your first girlfriend. So don’t have an unrealistic standard but a balanced one.
Another tension of being a father is not repeating the shortcomings of your dad, even if your dad was essentially a good and decent person. You’ve heard the cliché, “Like father, like son.” But there are some areas where we might like to do just the opposite of what our fathers did. For example, maybe your father was not a good handler of money and you’ve decided to learn from his mistake and to be more careful in how you spend yours. My dad was never that affectionate around my mother or with his kids. I decided that was something I missed growing up, so I try to show a lot of affection to Peggy and my kids.
Another tension Jacob faced was in providing for his family. In an agrarian society, he was the chief breadwinner. In our day, both husbands and wives work and share the load, but dads, for any number of reasons, still feel the pressure to provide an income. God blessed Jacob, and he became rich. Genesis 30: 43 says, “Jacob grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maid-servants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.” He promised God that he would give back a tenth of everything he made, and he was generous with his sons.
But famine hit the land, and Jacob became desperate. He had eleven sons and a number of daughters and grandchildren. In fact, the Bible tells us that Jacob felt responsible for the 66 people in his clan. When this severe famine came, he sent his son to Egypt to buy grain so that he could find some way to sustain his family.
That’s a strain that fathers can feel today. With the downsizing of many corporations, new skills being required and technology replacing human labor, there are a lot of dads who live with the constant pressure to try to make ends meet–especially if they are the chief bread winner. For good or for ill, men, perhaps more than women, can draw much of their identity from their work and livelihood. It feels demeaning if we can’t provide for our families with their needs and wants or if our job is at risk.
One of the best ways to help relieve that stress is to be prudent in your spending and to be supportive. If your family is well off financially, express gratitude. Don’t take it for granted, because every dad wants to be a hero in his children’s eyes. But if your father is like most of us and has to struggle to make ends meet, learn to be content with what you have. Tell him thanks for working so hard to take care of you. And occasionally take dad out to eat or to a movie or get him something nice–instead of asking for twenty bucks to go out yourself.
I know there are many exceptions to this where mom is the chief bread winner and dad is quite secure making less or being a stay at home dad. So the same principles can apply to mom and to the whole family: express gratitude, support one another, and spend wisely.
The greatest challenge Jacob may have faced was that of trying to be a positive influence in his home. Even though Jacob was imperfect, he tried to be a spiritual guide to his family. Even though he was an old man and his sons were grown, Jacob called all twelve of his sons, and he blessed them individually. He said, “Rueben, you’re going to excel in power and honor. Judah, your brothers are going to praise you, and your enemies are going to be conquered by you. Dan, you’re going to provide justice to people. Asher, your food is going to be rich.” One by one he blessed his children. With all the imperfections in this family, these twelve sons became heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Christian fathers feel an urgency to be a spiritual influence on their children, and that’s good and right. But it’s also hard because we worry about opioids and guns in school, sexting, bullying and youth suicide and all those things that are countering the values we want to impart. We don’t always know how to bless our children and keep them walking
Gary Smalley wrote a book some time ago called The Blessing in which he encouraged modern fathers to pass a spiritual blessing on to their children. He said that it’s more than taking them to church or praying with them at meals and bedtime or setting a good example. He talks about five practical ways to pass on a blessing.
Number one is a meaningful touch. Jacob embraced and kissed and laid his hands on his sons and grandchildren. By giving a hug or a touch or an arm around the shoulder or butterfly kisses or nuggies, we communicate love and a blessing to our kids. We let them know that we like them, that they are valuable, that they are worthy of touching.
Professional golfer Greg Norman had a reputation for intimidating his opponents with his ice-cold stoicism. He learned his hard-nosed tactics from his father. “I used to see my father, getting off of a plane or something, and I’d want to hug him,” he recalled once. “But he’d only shake my hand.”
After leading the 1996 Master’s golf tournament from the start, Norman blew a six-shot lead in the last round losing to rival Nick Faldo. In a Sports Illustrated article about the occasion, Rick Reilly writes,
Now, as Faldo made one last thrust into Norman’s heart with a fifteen-foot birdie putt on the seventy-second hole, the two of them came toward each other, Norman trying to smile, looking for a handshake and finding himself in the warmest embrace instead. As they held that hug, held it even as both of them cried, Norman changed just a little. ‘I wasn’t crying because I’d lost,’ Norman said the next day. ‘I’ve lost golf tournaments before. I’ll lose a lot more. I cried because I’d never felt that from another man before. I’ve never had a hug like that in my life.’
Touch your kids.
Second, Smalley says we pass on a blessing through verbal affirmation. Children long to hear their dads say, “I’m proud of you.” “You’ve done that well.” “I love you.” One psychologist said the greatest gift we can give to our kids is the knowledge that there is someone who is absolutely nuts about them.
Another sports story. Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene once asked Michael Jordan why he wanted his father to be in the stands during a game. Jordan replied, “When he’s there, I know I have at least one fan.” Can you imagine? Has any athlete had any more fans than Michael Jordan? Even the great Michael Jordan needs loving, emotional, loyal support from his dad. We all need regular reminders that others are behind us even when we aren’t at our best.
Third, we pass along a blessing by attaching value. To bless means to honor. We honor our children by letting them know that they are valuable to us–they’re the most important people in the world to us. That means we sacrifice time for them. That means we look them in the eye when we talk to them, and we stop and listen to them. We apologize when we’re wrong. We have high standards for them and hold them responsible for their lives.
It is said of Boswell, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson that he often referred to a special day in his childhood when his father took him fishing. The day was fixed in his mind, and he often reflected upon the many things his father had taught him in the course of their fishing trip together.
After hearing about that particular excursion so often, it occurred to someone that it might be interesting to check the journal Boswell’s father kept to see the incident from a parental perspective. Turning to that date, the reader found this short entry: “Gone fishing today with my son; a day wasted.” What you may think is a day wasted, a child may experience as a life-affirming moment.
The fourth way we pass along a blessing is by picturing a positive future for them. Jacob pronounced a positive future on Rueben and Judah and Dan and Asher and the others. We can bless our children by attaching high value to their gifts and then picturing for them a positive future. “You’re really good with people. You’d make a great counselor some day.” “The way you love animals, you’d be a good veterinarian.” “You want to be a firefighter. That means you’re courageous.” “The way you love church, you’re going to be a great leader in the church some day.”
The fifth way that Gary Smalley says we bless our children is by an active commitment. It’s not enough to speak the words. There has to be willingness in the parents to sacrifice for the child, to pray with them and for them, to spend time in helping develop their gifts, to spend money for lessons and for higher education.
Truth be told, many men still find it difficult to do some of those things and to verbalize how they’re feeling and to pass along a blessing. A spouse can sometimes help Dad do that by communicating to the children what he says to you in private and to encourage him to tell them to their face. My dad, for instance, was a home grown Yankee with all the characteristic traits. He found it hard to talk about his feelings, especially with his kids. My brother and I were working on some project together and he said to me, “You know what Dad said about you last night?” And I thought, Oh brother, what smart Alec remark might that have been. “He said, ‘ya know the thing I love about Norm is that he can take a sack of manure and tell you it smells like a bed of roses.’” I never knew my Dad felt that way about me. And I’ve never forgotten that. Dads, tell your kids what they mean to you.
And kids if your dad does something right or if you appreciate something about him, tell him. He’ll act like it’s nothing, but I guarantee you, he’ll remember it the rest of his life. You have no idea how much your father loves you, although it might be difficult to express at times.
So fathers, bless your children. And children bless your fathers. In so doing we will be blessing God. Amen.