The Nobel Institute in Oslo is about a 15 minute walk from the city’s central train station. I know that because I’ve been there twice in the past seven days – once to report on the 2012 peace prize, then a week later to give a speech. When I posted my status – at the Nobel – on my Facebook page, I got a lot of thumbs up from really smart people “Stoll, you son of a gun, you’ve arrived.”
In reality, anybody can walk into the institute. Nobody checked my credentials. It’s scary and refreshing at the same time. It’s what you do in that building that validates your status as a big shot, or as a mere spectator.
Yesterday, my second trip into these hallowed walls, I proved to be more of the mere spectator than big shot. I was asked to speak on Norway and Switzerland and their relationship with the EU. I won’t bore you with the content, other than to say I ripped off every single word that I said. I know little about the Norwegians and nothing about the Swiss – I’d have been better off talking about the second law of thermodynamics.
Between you and I, I didn’t sleep the night before and twice (yes two times) I tried to call in sick. I was given ten minutes to speak and I used up maybe four of them. When I was finished, dozens of well-dressed people kind of just sat there and had that “is-he-already-done?” look on their face. Anyone worth their intellectual salt knew I was up there for one reason: my business card says John D. Stoll, Bureau Chief – The Wall Street Journal.
Yep, walked in the room with a swanky set of fancy pants, and walked out wearing nothing more than tighty whities. I fooled them enough to not entirely embarrass myself, but in the process was dealt a hefty dose of humility. And going forward, when anyone in attendance that day picks up a copy of the paper or bumps into a story online with my name on it, they’ll know the little secret I wished I could have flushed down Alfred Nobel’s toilet: I’m a bit of a fraud.
I’m not alone. We’re all frauds in our own right. Fraudulent to the core. I respect and support our president, but Mitt Romney brought out a little of the fraud in Obama during the first debate they had. The Detroit Tigers exposed the New York Yankees as a fraudulent collection of ball players in the American League Championship this year. I was reading an article on the train yesterday about a church I know well on the east coast where allegations of child sexual assaults are swirling. For a long time I really respected the founder of this church, but now I get the feeling he’s a bit of a fraud too.
When I stumble back into this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, I am prompted to confront my fraudulence with four words: hallowed be thy name.
I’d venture to say those four words – hallowed be thy name – are often seen as the throwaway line in the Lord’s prayer. They’re sort of the warm up for the point where we request a bunch of stuff. We want his kingdom to come, his will to be done, our daily bread, our sins forgiven, to steer away from temptation, to be delivered from evil. If uttering the obvious is a way to get God’s attention, then fine: hallowed by thy name. But really, those words sound a lot more like the originated from the pen of Shakespeare than from the lips of Christ.
But as I come to grips with the fraud within me, those words come to have a lot more meaning than they ever did before. I’m not just a fraud on stage at the Nobel Institute, I’m a fraud when no one is looking, or when only a couple little ones are looking. When I say hallowed be thy name in the context of this prayer, I am acknowledging that there is someone who is not a fraud – Our Father. And not only am I acknowledging that, I’m investing all my hope in that.
Back up a few words to “Our Father.” For many, these words alone inspire memories of a fraud…recollections of a man who didn’t live up to the promise of that nametag. Not exactly an inspiring pair of words to begin a prayer with, in that case. Much easier to say “Dear Jesus,” or “Hey God” and leave the whole Father bit in the memory bank.
The truth? Even the best dads are inadequate reflections of the type of Father this prayer is addressed to. When we return to dust, all of us dads are going back to square one. Even my dad, a man for whom I would give my life, has a fraud in his closet just waiting to eat him alive.
The best memory I have of him dates back to when I was probably my son’s age – 5. That would have been the summer of 1983 and he would have been driving a Ford Escort at the time. My father – a car salesman – brought new cars home all the time. LTDs, Pintos, Rangers, Mustangs, Tempos, Crown Vics…if it had a Ford Blue Oval on the grille, it was parked in our driveway. And I grew up intoxicated by the new car smell. I love new cars.
And I love my dad. Fiercely.
This best memory begins with the recollection of having a bad day, the first one I can ever recall having. Don’t remember the substance of that day, but I remember walking on the sidewalk at the corner of Sibley and George and looking down to study the cracks and contours of freshly poured concrete, enveloped in an unfamiliar brand of sadness. Then he pulled up and read my mind.
“Let’s get a sundae at Big Boy,” he said. I hadn’t even eaten dinner yet, but it didn’t matter to him. He had some fathering to do and had no time to waste. So off we went.
In the three decades since that day, he’s never been knocked even an inch from the centrepiece of my mantle of heroes. He spent the early hours of many Christmas mornings populating the tree with cigarette shaped tokens wrapped in thin red ribbon. They were crisp dollar bills, five dollar bills, ten dollar bills and, sometimes, twenty dollar bills. He took as much pleasure in that exercise as he took in anything. It wasn’t a lot of money, but he could transform a dead Fraser fir into a conical treasure chest.
One year, a particularly brutal one for the U.S. auto industry, money was tight and that treasure chest promised to be a bit lighter than normal. His children knew that going into Christmas and didn’t expect fireworks. To be entirely honest, I think he was doing what he could to keep the bills paid – that’s the nature of tying to the wagon of a cyclical industry. I cherish the hockey stick, the sweatshirt, the video games that came that Christmas more than almost any other gifts I have been given – because they were given from a man that wanted to do nothing more than bless his children.
In 1985, my father was offered a pretty hefty promotion. He’d be running the show. An even nicer Ford would have been coming our way. Nicer everything, in fact. I was rooting for him to accept it knowing it probably would escalate our status. It wasn’t that any of my needs weren’t meant growing up, but in the mind of a 7 year old, it sure is nice when your wants are entirely met as well.
He turned it down. My father busted his ass, so it wasn’t a matter of shying away from the work or responsibility. But he didn’t want to sacrifice what we had as a family – a life with a father who was present, available, flexible. Taking the corner office would have threatened the underlying stability he sought to provide. That message changed this boy’s life. I was loved more than a promotion; more important than a job or even an alleged career path.
Ten years later, when I was in China studying, I had gotten sick on some bad eggs. Not a stomach ache, but a violent illness that made me forget who I was and where I was at. I was sitting on a bus crowded with people in the center of Urumqi and stuck my head out the window and threw up the entire contents of my stomach as the bus hustled down the street. And I kept throwing up for hours.
I was 17. I missed my family at that moment with an agony deeper than I have ever known in my life. I called my dad, shamed by my inability to hack the loneliness. He signed off on my return without even thinking about it. “Come home.”
When I finally admitted I needed to quit drinking, my father cried. When I crashed my first car, my father put his arm around me. When I accidentally spilled cans of paint all over his driveway, my father helped me clean it up. When I decided to move my family to Sweden, my father told me he was proud of me. My father stood up in my wedding.
MOVIE STAR JESUS
The greatest gift, however, was his willingness to let me in on a truth that I will never let go of. He is not Our Father. This is a somewhat unsettling reality. He’s done a yeoman’s job of being a dad and demonstrating attributes of Our Father, but he is an inadequate stand-in for the first two words of this prayer I have come to cling to: Our Father. A fraudulent substitute and a counterfeit when it is all said and done.
My dad knows this.
Back to that sad little kid on the sidewalk. The conversation in the puffy red booth at the Howell Big Boy with my dad centered not on a dad trying to rescue me, but on a dad trying to show me the face of God through the soupy and sticky slop of an ice cream sundae. He had the guts to tell that 5 year old that he couldn’t really fix things. But he promised to pursue Our Father together.
Beyond all of the little vignettes I have shared, the most iprofound memory of my father are the times sitting in the pews of the First Church of the Nazerene. That’s the memory that brings tears to my eyes. He’d wear these zip up kinds of motorcycle boots and a jean jacket. The poster child of a converted bad boy. And he would listen to the words of grace that poured from the pulpit. Sunday morning and night. And we wouldn’t miss, even when the Super Bowl was on television.
The church had this picture in the back of the church of a movie star Jesus – beard, long shiny hair, olive skin. Could have been mistaken for Spartacus. The type of portrait you’d take into the barber and say “make me look like this guy.”
There was also this really distressed wooden cross in front that was intended to be the focal point.
My dad, by walking us in that building every week, taught us to live our lives within two profound margins: between the carpenter in the back and the sacrifice in front. That’s where our hope was to be placed. And we would sing this hymn that I have never forgotten.
When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood — support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.
I need to sing that song with my kids, my wife, with you. I need to tattoo them on my hand. It mentions nothing about my father, or mother, or friend, or vice. “His oath, his covenant, his blood…He then is all my hope and stay.” Not a hero necessarily, but my hope and stay.
These days, I spend more time thinking about my own role as a father than I do reflecting on those rolled up greenbacks and pats on the back. Daily, I am confronted with two little souls that — for some reason — have placed me as the centrepiece of the hero mantle they are constructing.
I’m on these long trips to Europe these days and I’m told my two-year-old daughter, back in the States, constantly asks “where’s daddy?” She’ll hear a car pull up in the driveway or our dog making racket in the laundry room and her face will light up. Jack, meanwhile, is missing his biggest fan – the guy who roots for his son’s success at piano recitals, play rehearsals, soccer games, and board games. I miss them, terribly, but they’re adoration feels good and keeps me company as I am alone.
But their adoration can become quickly misplaced if they come to place their hope and stay in me. We all want to be the subject of that famous Jerry MaGuire-ism “you complete me.” That is a futile pursuit. I complete the story of Adam and that is a pretty shabby story. It’s the story of failure against the demand for perfection. The story of infidelity against the demand for faithfulness. I am, more than anything, a broken brother with these children. Yes, I work to adequately represent the character of Our Father, but I can’t really do it. I’m just a broken brother.
It’s a humbling announcement, no? “Broken Brother.” Put that on my Facebook page and see how many likes I get.
I can meet their desires, show them the world, impress them with my accomplishments, furnish killer childhoods. But, like my own father, I am a cloudy facsimile of Our Father who art in heaven. I look in my heart and find a disorganized collection of self interest, pride and anxiety. I can provide swanky duds, a roof, slick wheels and tasty grub. But I fail when it comes to being any kind of cornerstone on which to build their hope.
Someone recently tweaked that hymn above by adding a chorus that says:
“Christ alone, cornerstone, weak made strong in the Savior’s love. Through the storm, he is Lord, Lord of all.”
So, when we say the words “hallowed by thy name,” we are saying something far more important than quoting Shakespeare We are acknowledging that he is a different kind of father. A father who goes by a different name. One that is hallowed in the way only that perfection can be hallowed. A hallowed cornerstone that doesn’t crumble under the weight of our world, crack in the cold, or shift with the years.
Funny, though, that in the light of this reality, Jesus – the author of this prayer – decides to build his church on a fraud like his buddy Peter. The conspiracy of this religion is this: he uses us, he heals us, he feeds us, he forgives us despite my fraudulence. He sheds grace in the face of my incompetence. Grace. And it is grace that pushes me to bust my ass in gratitude and service.
But at the end of the day, here’s what I want my kids to think about. Even though God redeems a piece of garbage – He. Is. Lord. So hallowed be his name.