Disclaimer: I have personally seen zero episodes of Dan Fogelman’s American television drama “This Is Us.” But a rabbi friend of mine named Ray is a big fan of the show, and he talks about it all the time. He recently told me about an episode where a father is perpetually telling his daughter how great she is, how much he loves her, and how pleased he is with her. She lambastes her father for his constant compliments, and she bawls him out because she feels that he would never feel so compelled to lavish her with such praise if he weren’t – in fact – overcompensating for her obvious and various flaws and inadequacies. She is adamantly unwilling to see herself the way her father sees her. She wallows in self-loathing and self-pity. The episode paints a very clear picture of a daughter whose identity is fettered to the way she feels rather than the love of her father. One day her father secretly films her playing the guitar in her room (he aims to capture evidence of her undeniable talent, and thus convince her that his praise isn’t the mere obligatory flatterings of a father). When she discovers what he’s done, she’s furious! However, while her father is away one day she watches the video. Unbeknownst to her father he has not only captured proof of her musical talent, but because there’s a mirror behind her he has also inadvertently captured raw footage of his indisputably genuine delight in her. The countenance of her father’s face as he smittenly savors the singing of his daughter embeds itself in her heart and imagination, and she is changed …she has now contracted the holy infection of seeing herself as her father sincerely sees her!
The Holy Spirit has – in no uncertain terms – told me that the theme of 2018 (and life eternal) is Entering the Joy of Our Author & Father! How – you ask – has the Holy Spirit conveyed this vision and theme so clearly to me? Well, it actually started back on November 26th, 2017 in Xian China when my friend John walked my wife and I through a portion of God’s inerrant and inspired letter to the Hebrews where God says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” There is a very direct and obvious emphasis on JOY in this command. I get to participate – via submitting – in the joyful pastoral calling which God has placed on my brothers & elders Jason Piteo, Eric Hampton, and Jon Wilkinson! And I get to experience joy insofar as the members of ECPC choose to defer to me as pastor! My friend John rightly pointed to this passage’s emphasis on how right and proper it is for leaders to long for such joy (and lament the absence of it when people prefer to grumble and fume). But even in seasons of severe grumbling and grouchiness the joy and love of our Author & Father prevails! For instance, the Holy Spirit’s workmanship in the lives of men like Moses, David, and Paul reveals that even when these men were relentlessly opposed, attacked, and misunderstood they mediated for the church, deferred all anger and vengeance to the rightful owner, and sincerely said that they would forfeit their redemption if it meant that their enemies might be saved! Being a grouch is exhausting and oppressive …the joy of our Author & Father on the other hand is the lavish landscape of liberty, because it is the hogshead of grace!
As Robert Farrar Capon said of the Reformation, “It was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace! Bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The Word of the Gospel – after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps – suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.”
This imagery of grace-centric libation lavishness conjures up memories of the first of Jesus’ signs. You know how sometimes the Holy Spirit belabors a specific scene from Scripture with you. He orchestrates it in hauntingly serendipitous fashion …He’ll have your rabbi friend Ray carry on a 50 minute conversation with you about the first of Jesus’ signs at the wedding in Cana. The last time you heard from Ray he was going on and on about something from Paul’s letter to the treasure in Rome, but now he’s fixated on this Jesus turning water into wine business. Then, the very next day you are conversing with your friend Brian who is reading and relishing Paul’s letter to the elect in Colossae, but all-of-a-sudden he abruptly connects the themes of the letter to the first of Jesus’ signs at the wedding in Cana and the superabundant joy dramatically being offered to the undeserving guests! And just the week prior you were thrust into deep-thought re: the baptism of your son whose name is Winston, which literally means Wine-Stone (a.k.a. House of Merriment & JOY!). And then your friend Ravi keeps telling you that you need to read a particular book by Henri, which is essentially a deep-dive into the story of the prodigal son and the lavish, joy-filled, party-central affection of his father. And then you have to attend a fairly humdrum presbytery committee meeting, and you of course you must do something to combat the onslaught of ennui; so you do that thing where you just flip the Bible open at random and start reading …and here’s what you see, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And then you are randomly invited to attend a staff retreat of an organization that you’re affiliated with, but you’re not actuaon staff …the executive director simply asks you to be there so that she can introduce to some people. So you go to the staff retreat, and the theme of the retreat is fatherly love (no joke, that’s the theme! …and at least a handful of the employees present are dyed-in-the-wool non-Christians). The retreat kicks-off with the executive director showing a video of a guy telling his story about how he always longed for the affirmation of his father. His whole life was a testimony to every son’s desperate longing to hear his father say, “You are my son, with whom I am well pleased!” This guy’s story was exceedingly tragic …his dad never affirmed him, but only ever told him to work harder. So he’d work harder; he’d force himself to score the winning goal in his hockey games, he willed himself to become the valedictorian of his graduating class …and yet every time he looked out into the crowd his father’s seat was vacant. Eventually this guy left home, got a good job (triple$$$), got married, had kids …and then one day he got a phone call from his mom informing him that his dad was dying of cancer. He took a leave of absence from his job, got his wife and kids square away and left to be with his dying father for an indefinite period of time. His parent’s house needed work – so the guy did all that needed to be done on the house. His dad owed back taxes – the guy paid them for his father. Within days of his dad’s death, the guy candidly asks his father, “Have I ever done anything to make you proud dad?” His dad’s reply …“I can’t think of anything.” The guy is devastated and utterly dejected. His marriage falls apart, and he goes bankrupt. At this point the whole video basically becomes an infomercial for self-helpism, but I’m left pondering the one Scriptural citation on the handout given to me when I walked through the door as an attendee of this retreat, “That they may all be one, JUST AS YOU, FATHER, ARE IN ME, AND I IN YOU, THAT THEY ALSO MAY BE IN US!, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me (John 17:21).” This desperate need for Fatherly love is found & fulfilled in Christ alone! This relentless invitation and desire of the Messiah to draw us into the joy of our Author & Father (that they may be in Us!) is incessantly extended to us in the Word that became flesh and dwelt amongst us!
The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing. – Zephaniah 3:17
This is us! We are the daughter perpetually being praised by our Father! It’s not His obligation, it is His genuine joy! And we are unceasingly summonsed to enter!