Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No Sacrifice: It’s Just What You Do

When my parents divorced, I was five.  Five years later, my sister and I moved in with my dad and step mother.  During those five years, Dad took us to stay with him every weekend without fail, from Friday after school till Monday morning.  He always had something planned, every weekend…zoo, harbor, picnics at Double Rock park, backyard barbecues.  Sometimes we would just walk through a neighborhood, down a city street, and we’d have an impromptu picnic of perhaps liverwurst sandwiches, cupcakes, and oranges, sitting right there on the curb, between the parked cars.  We loved it.  And in all that time, there was not a single weekend that my dad chose not to have us with him.  He sacrificed his entire social life.  I only mention it because too many fathers leave the picture once they are divorced.  But Dad decided that he never wanted us to feel abandoned, and he wanted to maintain his influence in our lives.  A few years ago, I talked about this with him and I mentioned how that must have been quite a sacrifice.  I asked him if he ever resented all he gave up.  I didn’t ask him in order to judge him; I was just curious.  He said, “There was no sacrifice.  I had two kids.  It’s just what you do.”  

It’s just what you do.

In 1 Timothy, Paul explains, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  This passage lends itself to many interpretations; but in simple terms, to not “provide” for our relatives, in other words to not care for them in the manner needed, is to deny God.  Moreover, we cannot begin to show our love for the world without beginning to show our love for those around us.  “Providing” begins at home.    

As my father spoke, there was no resentment in his voice; he was very matter-of-fact.  And I truly believe that he genuinely did not regret a single day.  In fact, he seemed to stare off a little while he spoke, as if remembering some of those times, maybe some of those curbside picnics.  Although my father didn’t see his life as being full of sacrifice, I saw it as one sacrifice after the other.  He was practiced at it.  But never, not once, was there any hint of regret in his recalling all that he gave up.  Because he never saw it as sacrificing—it’s just what you do.

Perhaps that’s distinction between us: what I see as sacrifice, he saw as providing.  And he was greatly practiced at providing.  Born three years before The Great Depression, my father spent his formative years struggling along with his family to make ends meet, his own father having abandoned his family years earlier.  By the time my dad was 15, he had quit school to work 60 hours a week.  For those 60 hours, Dad earned $14.  He would then give his entire pay to his mother, and she would then give him four dollars.  And every time he retold the story, he would say, “And, man, with that four bucks I was swingin!”  And always as he said “swingin’” he would swing his hand out back and forth, snapping his fingers. He would then launch into all that he could buy in 1941 for four dollars. 

It’s not just his many sacrifices that I shake my head at in some sort of spoiled disbelief; it’s his attitude toward them that strikes me so profoundly.  Whenever he spoke of all he went through in his life, he always told of his lot, not with a sense of woe-was-me, but with a sense of gratitude.  He was always grateful, perhaps stemming from a faith strengthened by any and every grace he received during the Depression, and modeled, perhaps, by his own mother.  Many times I marveled at such gratitude.

In one of three sermons Moses delivers in Deuteronomy, in chapter 28, Moses explains the consequences of serving God with bitterness: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything.”  The supposition here is that we can choose our attitudes.  Which we can.  Moses is teaching us to serve with joy.  Serve and be glad.  It seems simple, but Moses draws attention to, not just serving God, but serving God with a positive attitude, because it isn’t that easy.  And, there are harsh consequences for not serving joyfully, which is really not the point.  In short, the point is that if we don’t serve God happily, then we’re not serving God at all.  It’s like when I was a child and I broke a friend’s toy and my dad would make me say sorry to the boy.  When I uttered a barely audible ‘sorry’ to the ground, I hadn’t learned a thing; I was just going through the motions of sorryness.  There was no sincere remorse in my heart.  For anything we offer up to be genuine, it must come from the heart.

One could say that my dad had a few jobs in his lifetime.  And from time to time I would ask him for a rundown.  Usually, I would stop him and make him elaborate on three of those jobs, not because of the jobs themselves, but because he held them all at once.  And again, what was so striking was his attitude. 

When I was a baby and my sister was four, my father needed to make extra money to buy the necessities.  He worked full time by day in sales, played music at a local restaurant at night, and picked up the extra crash working part time on an assembly line on the eleven-to-seven shift at a bottling factory. He obviously didn’t want the work, but he felt he needed it until another sales job, for which he had applied, came through.  What I couldn’t believe was his schedule—his shift schedules worked out so that on Thursdays he went to work at 9:00 and then worked the next five shifts between the three jobs until he finished playing the organ on Friday nights,  36 hours of work, stopping only for travel and meals—no sleep.  This went on for a few months. 

“You gotta be kidding me!” I always said, shaking my head, as if to say, Not me, not in a thousand years.    
Again he added, “I had a family to feed—if that’s what it takes, then that’s what you do.”  And he held up his index finger showing one, one point, and then he would say, “You kids never missed a meal, and you never went a day without heat.”  No regret.  No resentment.  No poor me.  Just gratitude.  There was no sacrifice.  It’s just what you do.  And again I would marvel.        

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