By Emily Enders Odom
The first time I served as an adult advisor at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium — that storied gathering of nearly 5,000 exuberant and excited high-school youth from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church — was in 1989.
That summer, as I continued to live into my evolving call to ministry, my experience at Triennium taught me many important life lessons, not the least of which were how to interpret the importance of inclusive language in the various ministries I would later pursue, and how Father’s Day was not necessarily a joyful, Hallmark-card kind of observance for everyone.
In 1989, the theme we explored was “From These Roots,” drawn from the Parable of the Sower. I clearly remember on the first day of our small discussion groups, called “root groups,” sitting in a circle with young people from both the U.S. and abroad, exploring together the ways in which God’s word had taken root in us.
Toward that end, our facilitator invited us to share in our circle the “wonderful ways” in which we had been nurtured and supported by our fathers. One young boy near me fell silent. Upon seeing the pained expression on his face, I offered him an opportunity to step into the hallway with me and our root group leader, where I said, “Perhaps not all of us have been supported by our fathers.” The teenager looked at me relieved.
“Do not think,” says Jesus in Matthew 10:34–36 (GNT), “that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; your worst enemies will be the members of your own family.”
Peace and reconciliation in our families is not always possible. All around us today and every day, we encounter people in deep pain — pain that is often inflicted upon them by members of their own families.
In the PC(USA)’s Child/Youth/Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy, we read, “Any type of abuse involving children, youth or vulnerable adults has lasting and devastating effects on the life of the victim/survivor. It is the call of the Church to be a life-giving entity of Christ’s healing and hope for community and individuals, not an entity that brings harm and hurt.”
Sometimes, what that means is being sensitive to offer language other than “Father” when speaking about our loving God — not to exclude the word, but simply to offer a more expansive understanding. At Triennium, I saw firsthand the inadvertent harm and hurt that was caused by using the word “Father.”
And so, on Father’s Day, let us honor our earthly fathers or their memory, if that be God’s will. But let us remember, too, that whenever the third Sunday in June rolls around, it is always timely and appropriate for us, as God’s beloved — regardless of how we understand or what we call God — to honor the One who gave and still gives us life and life eternal: our God in heaven, through Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Emily Enders Odom is the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s mission interpretation strategist.
New this year, the Presbyterian Giving Catalog is introducing an opportunity for Presbyterians and others to celebrate their fathers — or another special person in their lives — this year on Father’s Day. On Father’s Day, when a donor decides to gift a Fishery Kit, a Kitchen Kit, or a Community Garden through the Presbyterian Giving Catalog, they will be making a choice to honor God or a special person by helping to create lasting, positive change around the world.