Yesterday my siblings and I discovered a Father’s Day sermon preached by our dad, Rev. George Harper, at our Helena St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in June of 1962. His sermon began:
Something woke me up that night in 1932. A little boy, nine years old, I lay on my bed and tried to focus on just what it was. I could hear somebody talking. Suddenly I realized that Daddy had come home. It was after bedtime, but he had been gone all day, just as he had been gone all day the day before, and the day before that. We didn’t have a car, and no money for street car fare to town and back, so Dad had been walking.
I knew without looking that his leg which carried shrapnel from World War I was swollen twice its normal size, and I sensed without listening really that his news to mother was the same as it had been every day…miles of walking, dozens of doors opened at offices and factories, the same search for a job everywhere, and the same answer at every place: “No, we have nothing new. Sorry, Mr. Harper, we’d like to help you, but you know how it is. Check with us again later. Maybe something will turn up.”
But tonight mother and dad weren’t just talking. They were praying. God heard their prayers, and so did a nine-year-old boy; a father and mother praying not just for their own family, but for the other parents and families who had lost their income in the great depression. With all our family troubles, deeper and more serious than I could understand at the time, a father knelt by his bed and prayed for his neighbors and their troubles. And that prayer became an indelible part of me.
In his sermon, our dad then described his recent trip from Helena to Pensacola, Florida to see his parents. His father was dying. Dad continued:
When the crash of 1929 and the following depression had brought its full effect to Birmingham, Alabama, an industrial center, Dad was in partnership with others in a Metal Products Company. Unable to pay their bills, the other partners took bankruptcy and so cleared their debts from their books, if not from their consciences. But dad refused to do it. He said that he would pay back his creditors if it took the rest of his life to earn the money. In 1946, when I graduated from seminary, he paid back the last of that money.
It worried him that he couldn’t give his children all he would like to have given us in the way of things and spending money. But how much more he gave us he will never know! Because one day after I was a minister, and already a father myself, it struck me that the greatest gift my father could have given me was the one he did give: he made it easy for me to understand what Jesus meant when he called God “our Father.”
In his sermon, dad went on to describe a conversation with a girl at a camp when she described her own selfish, cruel father and why God the Father could not mean anything good to her. Dad knew that insisting on certain metaphors, even ones used by Jesus, as the whole truth about God could be damaging.
As Dad aged, his love of learning and his listening to the powerful women in his life expanded his God metaphors to include God as mother. Because of our mother and father, none of us Harper children had any trouble making that transition. My wife Pat made a feminist out of me, but my parents’ theology laid the groundwork.
Dad’s understanding of God and Jesus continued to evolve, so that by the end of his life, his concept of God was closer to that of Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being” though I think Dad thought of it more as the “Source of Love.” I like a phrase from a beloved seminary professor and process theologian, John Cobb: “the Call Forward.”
As he neared his own death, our father’s wisdom became simpler, but still mirrored Jesus: love God (how ever you understand that which is beyond us and calls us to the good) and love others as you love yourself. If Father’s Day conjures up images that help you do that, then have a Joyful Father’s Day. If not, let it go and follow the role models and beliefs that make you a more complete and loving and fulfilled person.