Today would have been Dad’s 95th birthday.
Exactly one month ago was the first anniversary of his death, which gave me cause to post a reflection on how we handle our own aging and mortality. Even yesterday, I was having a conversation with a colleague in which we were both lamenting about What Our Brains are No Longer Capable of Doing. That’s no small thing for people who make their living as academics. It’s a daily discipline to peacefully and gratefully accept that our place in God’s kingdom is not dependent on how long we can stay at the so-called height of our powers.
But birthdays are different: a celebration of life, of gratitude that someone was born. Birthday celebrations should be more than just rote rituals, in which the cake and presents are ends in themselves, and we hand over store-bought Hallmark cards that either drip with sentiment that we don’t mean, or, if you read between the lines, are funny but say nothing of personal significance.
Maybe our field of vision is too narrow, our imaginations too limited.
God commanded that we honor our parents (Ex 20:12), and Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for being outwardly pious in ways that underhandely violated that commandment (Matt 15:3-6). Citing Isaiah, Jesus declared them to be hypocrites:
These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. (Matt 15:8-9, NIV; cf. Isa 29:13)
They failed to honor their parents in the way they attempted to show honor to God. In turn, they failed to honor God because their observances were only for show; their worship was empty, because they did not honor God in their hearts.
What is it about honoring our parents that honors God? I know, that’s not exactly what Jesus was teaching. But today I’m thinking about Dad and how we celebrated his birthday. He loved to go out to eat. The family would gather at a Chinese restaurant; we’d say “Happy birthday!” and give him cards; he would be happy. Simple as that.
Today, the family is gathering at our house, and I will cook what used to be one of his favorite dishes. Why? I’m not sure, really; it simply seemed like the right thing to do. We’ll sit down to dinner, and I will pray…what will I pray?
I don’t know. But as I write these words, it occurs to me that whatever birthday rituals we enact, the point should be this: we celebrate one person’s life to celebrate life itself, and in turn, we celebrate life to give thanks to the One who gives life.
Without that, we can get stuck: how can I honor my parents unless my parents are honorable? No–we honor our parents because God is honorable, and for whatever it’s worth, these are the parents he has given us.
Once we accept that, we are free.
Happy birthday, Dad. I love you.