The kids and I had dinner with my 94-year-old stepdad last night. He’s doing well, still full of stories, kind, and hopeful. As we all shared pizza, I was reminded yet again that no matter how old we all get, he will always do those dad things he’s always done: recommending things he thinks we might like, offering solutions to problems, reminding us when to fertilize our gardens, and sharing tips on how to live a good, long, healthy life.
Most dads do dad things, in their own particular ways. Many of them carry forward the examples of fatherhood they saw in their own dads and mix in the things they’ve learned are important in their own lives. But you don’t have to look far to see something of the father in the child. The facial expressions, the laugh, the work ethic, the kindness. And this is true whether we had good relationships with our dads—or someone who loved us like a dad—or we struggled to feel close, to understand one another, to stay in touch. Their presence or their absence planted something in us and recognized or not, we carry it forward.
In our Old Testament reading from the book of Isaiah, God is trying to tell the children of Israel—yet again–that he cares for them and watches out for them like no one else ever could or ever will. He doesn’t want to be just some far-off deity that is prayed to and feared. He wants to be Father, their protector, caring for them “even to your old age,” God says, “even to your graying years I will bear you.” God reminds them, “I have done it, and I will carry you; and I will bear you and I will deliver you. To whom would you liken Me and make Me equal and compare Me, that we would be alike?”
God goes on to point out that some people make the mistake of looking to gold and silver in place of relationship and they turn their wealth into idols they carry around on their shoulders. “But set it in its place and it just stands there,” God says. “It doesn’t move and even though you might turn to it when you need help, it doesn’t answer. It cannot help you with your distress.”
What God is offering here is not simply rescue but ongoing, caring relationship. He’s not interested in being reduced to a golden idol or a lucky rabbit’s foot. God wants true relationship, a real connection of the heart. The whole Bible is a story of God’s attempts to help his children know and love and trust Him. To help us find our way home.
Scholars estimate that both the books of Exodus and Isaiah were written in roughly the same period, so we can’t be sure that everyone in Isaiah’s day knew about the stone tablets God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but God had already tried to draw his children close through obedience—and it hadn’t worked. He gave them a clear list of 10 commandments to follow, a simple path that showed them what to do and what not to do. It could have been an easy, logical way to correct their bad behaviors and get back into sync with God’s plan for their lives. But the problem was that no matter how hard they tried—or we try and are still trying–discipline is no replacement for devotion.
The great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, had a loving, devoted relationship with his father, and what his father loved appears in the shape and meaning of Pavarotti’s own life. Fernando Pavarotti was a humble baker and an amateur tenor in their small town in Italy. Even though he had a beautiful singing voice, he never wanted to pursue music because he was too nervous to perform. He and his son sang together in their small church choir. And Pavarotti first fell in love with music through his father’s collection of recordings, which included all the great tenors of the day. Although Luciano’s talent was evident to his parents from the start, his family was poor and so he needed to focus on an occupation that would help earn a living. So he trained as a teacher, but after two years in the classroom, the stirring of his soul convinced him that music was his life’s real path. He continued teaching part-time as he poured himself into musical studies—and bit by bit, with lots of hard work and faith, the way opened for him to share his gifts with the world.
During Pavarotti’s four decades on the stage, he became one of the world’s most beloved and well-known tenors. He sang for heads of state all over the world—including Princess Diana, who said his singing moved her to tears. He has the record for the greatest number of curtain calls ever on a stage anywhere (166); he worked with many international humanitarian and relief efforts, and he won numerous Grammys and received the Kennedy Center Honors here in this country. Whether you enjoy Pavarotti’s voice or not, I’m telling this story to share two things. First that Pavarotti’s talent and love of music emerged not simply because God gave him a great gift, but as part of the blossoming of seeds his father had planted and tended in his childhood. The love of the father flowed through to the son. And that bloomed as something magnificent that blessed the whole world.
Long ago I ran across a quote from Pavarotti that I love. I wrote it on the first page of my journal and each time I start a new journal, I rewrite that same quote on the first page. It says something important to me about the way I want to live my life, the way I love God, the way I hope to be present in the lives of others. Pavarotti said,
“People think I’m disciplined. It’s not discipline. It’s devotion. There is a great difference.”
It’s not discipline, it’s devotion. Such an important difference. And such a vast one that the two things create completely different experiences for us in our inner and outer worlds. Discipline and duty can get all mixed up together, it’s about following the rules, doing what we have to—we’ve all been there. And certainly there is a place for that; discipline can help us reach a goal, whether that goal is to exercise more, save for retirement, or become a world-renowned opera singer. Discipline is about getting clear about what we want to do and then holding ourselves to it—following those steps without fail—no ifs. ands or buts about it. And that part of it—the rigid, almost mechanical expectation that we must live up to what we’ve begun—has a lot of control, a lot of force in it. We can be pretty hard on ourselves when we fall short of that. So yes, discipline can help us get things done. But maybe there’s a better way to get where we want to go—a way that has a little more grace in it.
Devotion is a different approach, a different energy entirely, bringing a sense of freedom and valuing and hopeful action that moves us forward, drawn by the love of the thing, goal, person, or God at the heart of it all. The love we have for the person we’re serving or the vision we’re headed toward is what motivates us. Our eyes are on them, not on ourselves, which is the case when we’re motivated by discipline. When we’re devoted to someone, we take part in their lives, we want the best for them, we commit to being there. It’s not a set of rules we make ourselves follow but a flowing desire of the heart. When we’re devoted to anything—even to opera, as Pavarotti was—we love it to the point that we pour ourselves into it. We do our best to bring the best, and we do it out of love, for the joy, the smile, the life of it all.
In a similar way, dads who are devoted to their children live out a love that is much bigger than they are. They pour themselves into their roles as dads, doing their best in each new situation, growing and exploring and enjoying life alongside their kids. This is not about meting out discipline like a walking and talking rule book. Devoted dads know what it means to live with and extend grace. Their relationships with their kids flourish and forgive because love opens the way, even when hurts and misunderstandings and difficulties come.
In our New Testament reading today, Jesus is telling the disciples that what they have seen in him is really what God has given him to do and say and be. “I do nothing on My own initiative,” Jesus said, “but I speak these things as the Father taught me. And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” What is present in the Father is present in the child, Jesus is saying. And his entire life—from the first visit of the angel Gabriel until today—shows us what it means to be devoted to God, in intimate, personal relationship, seamlessly, every moment of every day.
Jesus’ perfect devotion to God is what brought peace to all who witnessed the miracle of his birth; it astounded the rabbis in the synagogue when he stayed behind from the journey when he was 12. It was his devotion to God—not the rulebook of the Ten Commandments—that inspired his healing, his teaching, his compassion, his presence. The seed of his being, the core of every action he took, was his seamless devotion to the One who sent him and led him daily. He could not do otherwise—although he struggled with that in the Garden of Gethsemane. Ultimately his humanity stepped back to let his spiritual devotion lead when he said, “Not my will, but thine.”
Devotion is doing what we do, motivated and inspired by the leading of Love. Not because we should. Not because we’ll earn or gain something, getting what we want. But because it adds to love and light in the world, it honors life somehow, it spreads goodness and joy; releasing, forgiving, freeing, and upholding in accord with the greater good we all recognize in the quiet of our hearts.
I’d like to close with one of my favorite passages from Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God. I’ve talked about Lawrence before—he was a clumsy, awkward young footman in the 17th century when he had a singular moment of revelation and understood without a shadow of a doubt the all-encompassing love of God. He knew then and there he would devote the rest of his life to God. The passage says,
“…he had always been governed by love, without selfish views; and that having resolved to make the love of God the end of all his actions, he had found reasons to be well satisfied with his method. That he was pleased when he could take up a straw from the ground for the love of God, seeking Him only, and nothing else, not even His gifts.”
Whatever happened for Brother Lawrence, he took it back to God in prayer. When he had some kind of failure in his life, he would pray,
“I shall never do otherwise if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my falling and mend what is amiss.”
After this, the book says, “he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.”
We see here the presence of the Father in the child, attuned to each other through an unbreakable, daily bond of trust and love. God knows him and he knows God. God moved and acted and had his life in Jesus, and Jesus knew it. All a seamless whole. We too are heirs, children of the living God who wants above all else not obedience and perfect adherence to the Ten commandments, but living, loving, trusting relationship with us. What we see in the Father we can find in ourselves—qualities of nurturance and peace, protection, goodness, and joy—and so much more. Perhaps this Father’s Day the greatest gift we can give each other is to watch with open hearts for “that of God” in us made real. God sees it. Jesus knew and lived the potential. It is up to us, in our generation now, to blossom in the fullness of that gift.
- OT Isaiah 46: 4-9
- NT John 8: 26-32
- Lawrence, Brother. The Practice of the Presence of God. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Practice_of_the_Presence_of_God/s1I4AQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover