I Samuel 15:34-16:13 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, June 14. 2015
“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I have rejected him as King of Israel.” (I Samuel 16:1)
I wonder, in what became her last days, how much Mom worried about my relationship with Dad.
Sometimes, I detected hints of hurt in her bright eyes.
Every once in a while, her voice seemed tinged with sadness.
On occasions, quietly, she’d add, “You know your father loved you.”
My father, during most of his life, seemed an effusive, outgoing man. Dad could just as easily start a conversation with a stranger in a parking lot as he could talk with friends during the after-church coffee hour. He sold life insurance. He was successful, winning awards and—by all accounts—his professional peers admired him. You don’t accomplish what he did in sales without being friendly, a good listener, and able to say the right thing at the right time. Really, who wants life insurance? Anyone with a growing family or thriving business “should” buy insurance, but who readily volunteers to part with hard-earned pennies for something he or she hopes is never needed!
But why did Dad so rarely say he loved me?
Well, he was a card-carrying member of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” Men don’t cry. Men are strong and silent. It’s not what you say, but what you do that makes the difference.
Oh. Right. Sure. Generational rules.
Before his hearing faded into a cruel silence, and before his grim descent into dementia, Dad and I would converse on the phone. We’d chat about sports, or a book he was reading, or (surprise) life insurance. Then, like a rote benediction, he’d usually hand the phone over to Mom or conclude the call by saying . . .
God loves you.
I can’t remember him saying I love you on the phone or in person. Dad stuck with the silent generation’s playbook.
After his death, Mom lived another year-and-a-half. In that unfairly brief time, she listened to me (often enough to stir maternal anguish) describe Dad’s “silence.” And so I witnessed the hurt in her look and voice, and received her whispered you-know-he-loved-you reassurances.
But why didn’t he say it?
* * *
In the first book of Samuel, the aging, cranky, crafty prophet Samuel (thus the name of the book!) trudged to Jesse’s big spread south of Bethlehem. God, so said the Bible, ordered Samuel to make the visit. Sigh. Fine. Okay. Foot sore and brimming with pessimism, Samuel arrived at Jesse’s home with a holy and crummy goal: find a replacement king for Israel. Oy vey! Oy gevalt! God could be such a schmuck. All things considered, Samuel would’ve preferred to enjoy a leisurely lunch at his favorite bagel joint for well-deserved R&R. But his prophecy gig was 24/7, so there Samuel was, south of Bethlehem on a hot, dreary day, mumbling half-truths to Jesse about wanting a look-see at all the sheep rancher’s above average sons.
Jesse’s first kid seemed made of royal stuff. Let’s crown him and get it over with! God, so said the Bible, divinely demurred. How ‘bout the second or third son? Hey, even the worst of Jesse’s sons seemed a reasonable choice. Life is a series of compromises, right? Make lemonade out of lemons, right?
Early on, in the shuffling of siblings, the Holy nudged the weary Samuel by explaining (so said the Bible) the Lord . . . “doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.”
Heart-schmart, Samuel might’ve silently seethed. God could act so know-it-all some of the time!
Finally, for we’re familiar with the story, Jesse’s youngest son David—the slayer of Goliath, the future king, the adulterer, the murderer, the Holy hope of Israel’s future—was chosen.
Why couldn’t God do things in obvious and easy ways?
* * *
On a number of occasions, Dad took me on business visits. We’d drive into downtown Sacramento for lunch and then drop by to see current or prospective clients. Or we’d travel into the fertile land north of California’s capital to check one of his farmer clients. Of all the clients seen on those father-son adventures, I vividly recall the Sanborn brothers. Together, they owned thousands of acres. Later in life, I knew Dad spent years persuading them that life insurance represented a solid business investment. If one brother died, did the others want to risk their immense investment in the land, and in each other? I suspect there were many hard, honest encounters between the Sanborns and Dad.
We arrived at one of the brother’s sprawling homes. I can’t recall his name, though I think he was the youngest sibling. Vast green fields surrounded his house. Large barns loomed in the distance.
Dad made me stay in the car. He met with the Sanborn brother in the driveway, far enough away so I couldn’t hear what was said.
Was Dad saving me from boring business chitchat?
My father, with minimal explanation, said this brother used language unfit for young ears.
Lips moved, Dad nodded, and the brother gestured. Leaning forward, I stared through the windshield. If only I could hear. If only . . .
Why did I not know then how much my father loved me? Why did I not know then—or in a thousand other times—how much Dad protected me? Why were his ways so secret, and his unspoken love so deep?
Not so long ago I again read Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s classic “The Little Prince.” In the story for children, which is also a story for adults, the wise fox shared words with the little prince. Perhaps in homage to an ancient verse in I Samuel, the fox said . . .
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The Lord sees into the heart. So said the Bible.
What is essential is invisible to the eye. So said a simple children’s tale.
* * *
Here is my truth.
My father, a man of action and not words, loved me. In my youth, I cleaved to his side. He protected me in a thousand different ways. He ordered me to remain in the car where I squirmed in a seat and so desperately wanted to overhear the bad language.
It is a child’s story. It is an adult’s story.
We are all fools, filled with selfish expectations. We want to choose the first son and get on with our day. We see what we think is good enough and settle for it. The essential is forever invisible, in front of our eyes and our eyes always lie. My father, a man with faults and fears, with glaring weaknesses and too many unspoken words, revealed love for his children in frustrating, blessed, invisible ways. Through a windshield, I saw his lips move. What was he saying? Through the memory of a lifetime, I longed for his lips to form certain words. Why was it so hard for me to read his heart?
I wish I could delete every muttered regret Mom overheard from me in her last months. But, even as an adult, I’m a kid squirming in the front seat wanting what I want and not knowing how well loved and protected I was.
Samuel—so said the Bible—trusted God with his very life and yet questioned the Holy at every step. It was probably a sweltering day for Samuel, south of Bethlehem. It seemed unfair he had to watch Jesse’s boys flex their muscles and maybe even hear each one pronounce—in predictable beauty contest fashion—that their greatest hope was for there to be peace on earth. Oy vey!
If only it were easier.
Maybe too late in life, or maybe just in time, I acknowledge my foolishness and wish Mom could hear me admit how wrong I was about Dad’s never-voiced, never-heard love.
And maybe, even after seven strong sons have paraded by, it’s worth waiting for the eighth one.
(I was revising this essay when I realized Dad’s birthday coincided with the Sunday for this lectionary “lesson” – June 14. Happy Birthday, Dad! He would’ve been 99 this year. Though I didn’t re-read any past essays, I’m confident I’ve already written several variations of these father-son adventures. I’m equally confident I’ll continue to ponder Dad’s “silence” and my child/adult feelings. My father may have died in 2012, but he’s forever my beloved parent and our relationship–with my memories and longings–will continue to my own last breath . . .)