If You Know Me, You Know the Father

This is my first Father’s Day without my dad, who passed away suddenly in January. Still processing his death nearly six months later, I find solace in Jesus’ promise, nestled in the Gospel of John, that God’s house has many rooms reserved for the saints who pass from this life. I get some peace (and a laugh) from imagining Dad hanging out with the saints, both noble and modest, in God’s grand hotel. Dad was an insatiable socializer, so he probably makes his way around most of the rooms of that divine establishment each day, sharing shards of gossip he picked up from the rooms he had been in before, and asking each of his hosts the same question he asked his children, siblings, or friends when he dropped by their houses in this life, usually unannounced: “You got any coffee?”

Just a few verses after John’s Gospel offers us this image of eternal fellowship in God’s abode, Jesus assures his disciples, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Like all the language we use to capture the essence of God, describing God as “Father” is an idea borrowed from human experience to try to describe the indescribable. And with due acknowledgment of the problems that “God the Father” language has created, I still think parental language discloses something important about the character of God. Like the ideal parent, God possesses undying and unconditional love for us, and is willing to do whatever it takes to be in relationship with us. And by referring to himself as God’s Son, Jesus’ parent-child metaphor tells us something essential about him too. As the ideal dutiful son, Christ is the reflection of the best in his Father’s character.

The metaphor of father and son captures important truths about God in Christ. But I think it also can tell us something wise about what it means for some of us to be fathers and sons. For when the Bible borrows the idea of fathers and sons to describe God in Christ, it transforms how we think about human fathers and sons. God becomes our ideal for those roles, the new standard for those relationships. The character of God redefines what it means to be a father. The devotion of Christ redefines what it means to be a son.

If Jesus is a model for the ideal son, then one thing his model suggests is that sons are supposed to be the best reflection of their fathers. Perhaps that is an important reminder, especially on Father’s Day, especially for the son of a father who can no longer be seen. Perhaps it is a reminder of my duty to ensure that people who never knew Bill Davis before he died nonetheless feel as if they know a little bit about him, because they have been around me.

I think that is already the case, even without a ton of effort on my part, a testament to how powerful an influence my dad has been on the person I have become. I have lived a very different life than my dad did; that was part of his intention for me, I think. Dad was a manual laborer his whole life, a coal miner until he was injured, and then a highly skilled amateur mechanic, electrician, welder, and builder all his life. By contrast, I have spent nearly my entire working life behind a desk, in a pulpit, or in a classroom. My dad had just a high school diploma, and by his own account, achieving that was not a foregone conclusion! I went to college, and I eventually earned a Ph.D. My dad lived in economically strained circumstances his entire life. I have a secure teaching position with tenure. Except for his time in the Army and a brief stint in Cleveland, my dad lived his whole life in his hometown, a tiny mining town in western Pennsylvania. I am not much more traveled, but I haven’t lived in my hometown for thirty years.

Dad and I lived very different lives, and yet, if you know me, you know my father—at least a bit. That’s how much he has shaped me as a person. I’m not nearly as talented at building or fixing things as he was, but I love doing it—and I hate hiring other people to do my chores—because of him. My love of the outdoors and manual labor, my strong preference for cheeseburgers over formal dining, the fact that I am infinitely more comfortable in my garage than at any college function, and my penchant for seeing class injustice everywhere all come from being his son. His blue-collar work ethic, his impressive problem-solving skills, his silly sense of humor, his habit of helping strangers, his militant insistence on holding doors for other people—I can see those reflected in me.

Some of the character I inherited from him makes me a stranger and pretender in the academic world I now occupy, but that just means the reflection of the father shines bright in the son. I used to try to mask it when it seemed professionally out of place. Now I celebrate that I am the token hillbilly on my school’s faculty. If you know me, dammit, you will know my father also.

On this Father’s Day, while I am missing my own dad, the Gospel offers comfort in the promise of a future together again, in the many rooms of God’s communion. In the meantime, though, it also gently reminds me that there is work still to be done to discharge the duties of a son to a father, namely, to live my life that others will know the best of my father. But that responsibility is also consolation. It reminds me that those we lose to death are never truly gone. As long as their lives and legacy are reflected in us, we remember, cherish, and honor them. Those who are no longer here with us nonetheless live on, in our love and in our character, even while we hope for a future in which we can share coffee and gossip with them again.

Called by the Spirit

For the next three weeks (June 5, 12, and 19), I have the great pleasure of leading worship with my friends at Putnam United Presbyterian Church, in Putnam Station NY. Next week also marks the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church USA. The kind folks at Putnam have hosted me as a guest preacher for over ten years, so I am deeply grateful that they were willing to share this milestone with me. It is so much more meaningful to observe my ordination anniversary with friends, and what better way to observe it than with a small Presbyterian congregation that reminds me of the one that raised me in the faith? So if you’re in the area this month, drop in for worship at 10 a.m. I am certain you will find the people at Putnam United as warm and welcoming as I have all these years.

Hope in the End Times

I had the pleasure of preaching on the First Sunday in Advent in my home church, the Congregational Church of Middlebury (VT). The theme of the sermon was “Hope in the End Times.” What do biblical depictions of apocalypse have to do with Advent waiting, particularly in a moment like ours? Is there actually hope to be found in predictions of the world’s end? I believe there is, but not where you might think. The sermon begins at 30:30.

Labor Day: The Day of the Prophets

I grew up in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania. For many years, Colver was a typical company town, reflecting the power differential between miners and mine owners, and reinforcing mining families’ total dependence on the company for income and services. Even the name of the town reminded its citizens of company dominance, deriving as it did from a mash-up of the owners’ names: Coleman and Weaver. But by the time my father returned to his hometown to work in the mines, the industry’s influence over the town and surrounding area was mitigated by another force, the labor union. Once free as “job creators” to dictate the working conditions and living arrangements of their employees, coal companies now had to negotiate with the collective power of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

For most of my childhood, the United Mine Workers were led by Richard Trumka, who passed away recently after a lifetime of advocating for the American laborer, in roles with UMWA and the AFL–CIO. For his part, my father was active in UMWA District 2, Local 860, even after a back injury ended his active employment. Dad hurt his back when I was seven, but by the early eighties his fellow miners found themselves unemployed as well, displaced by the end of workable coal strips underneath our sleepy town. The coal industry remains the centerpiece of Colver’s history, but by the time I became a teenager, the mine’s demise (and the absence of any substitutable prospect of work) was the defining reality of the present.

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This summer I have been watching a CNN documentary mini-series called Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury. One historian on the show invokes the saying, “the past is never the past,” and goes on to remark that “if there is one place on earth where that is true, it is Jerusalem.” What makes Jerusalem the most conflicted place on earth is the number of communities who lay claim to the city, especially the historical depths of those claims. The three Abrahamic faiths all claim Jerusalem as a holy city, and their adherents regularly make pilgrimage to it. The importance of Jerusalem has led to millennia of contested claims to the city that continue to this day, for Jerusalem physically captures a sense of the holy for the groups who lay claim to it; it symbolizes something important about the identity of those communities. To lose the city is to be displaced, to be cut off from the sacred in a visceral sense. This isn’t just about territory. It is about belief, identity, a sense of grounding in the moral cosmos, a connection with the holy. The city’s religious significance—and the Abrahamic faiths’ inability to imagine it as a shared space—is what makes the history of Jerusalem so tragic.

The conflict around Jerusalem is a particularly painful example of the intense importance of place to our sense of meaning. We are embodied creatures, so time and space are important to how we understand ourselves and our place in this world. Our sense of place reflects and gives identity, and when we are disconnected from meaningful places, we feel displaced—rudderless, vulnerable, perhaps not really ourselves.

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Using Culture to Inform the Church

‘Leading Theologically’ guest makes the case for fearless, faithful preaching around the Fourth of July, Labor Day — even Super Bowl Sunday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Many preachers get a little antsy about preaching on and around secular holidays, among them the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Mother’s Day — and that biggest secular holiday of all, Super Bowl Sunday. In their minds, the culture and the church ought to be kept at arm’s length from one another.

But the Rev. Dr. James Calvin Davis, the guest Wednesday on the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty’s podcast “Leading Theologically,” said he welcomes opportunities for culture to inform the church.

Read more at Presbyterian Mission.

He Is Risen!

Happy Easter! Below is the text of an Easter sermon I preached a few years ago at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont. And here is recording of the whole worship service. Hope you have a blessed Easter.

Witnesses of These Things

I was having breakfast with a friend of mine this week, a colleague at the college, and the subject of church came up. My friend grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but he doesn’t associate with his religion anymore. “Someday you and I need to have a conversation about this church thing,” he said to me. “I have to admit that I’ve distanced myself from that stuff in my middle age. I guess I’m too much of a scientist; I need things to be empirically validated to believe them. I’d love to talk to you about how you keep religion and the life of the mind together.”

Many of us have had similar conversations; some of us have had them with ourselves. We’re not always sure we buy all of the things read and mentioned and claimed here at church. What do we do with the disconnect between the assertions of the faith and the requirements of the critical mind?

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Podcast Interview: Pastors4Pastors

I recently had the opportunity once again to appear on my friend Ken Broman-Fulks’s podcast, Pastors4Pastors. We had a lot of fun talking about the themes running through the essays in my book:

Most pastors either embrace our American holidays without question or try to ignore them and hope our congregations won’t notice, which they always do. Our conversation with James Calvin Davis, author of American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture, is both edifying and entertaining!

— Ken Broman-Fulks

You can listen here, or wherever podcasts live (including Amazon Music!) If you’re a visual person, you can watch the interview (which also includes two of our other Presbyterian friends) on YouTube.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Ken’s podcast to get notified of future episodes.