The Commandment That Should Be Marked PG-13
Katie Funk Wiebe
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. —Exodus 20:12
I am haunted by memories of my father. I can’t let him go although he died more than two decades ago. Sue Miller wrote The Story of My Father to explain her parent’s last difficult years to herself as he descended into Alzheimer’s Disease and became lost to her.
have started a book about my father, Jacob Funk, several times over the
last decades and always hit a dead end. Why record the life of a simple
man who left no legacy of money and lands, built no institutions,
voiced no exceptional social vision or grasped unusual theological
concepts? He only carried within himself a persistent hope for freedom
of spirit, which hope eluded him as he became more and more depressed
in his later years.
Like Miller, I struggle
with voice in writing about my father. I am used to using the first
person point of view and placing myself front and center: "This is my
life, my gift to you. Take what you want." How much of myself should or
could I reveal in a story about another person intimately involved in
mine? But this is his story, not mine.
In fiction writing, the main
character always faces a hill to climb, a foe to vanquish. However, my
writing about him would not be fiction but an attempt at truth. Few
people escape struggles in life. Life is not always kind. What was my
father’s main conflict? What dragons did he try to slay with his
limited education and limited English language skills?
happened at the end when the frail old man, smiling weakly when
visitors saw him, and the person Mother lived with were two different
persons? In old age he had become bitter and irritable. His clothes
hung loosely on his once erect stalwart frame as he slumped in an easy
chair in silence for hours at a time.
had been sense and meaning in his life for decades, even direction,
until he drowned in the meaningless of undiagnosed depression. Or was
it post-traumatic stress disorder? Without meaning, joy fades. In his
lifetime, loss of joy was defined as "spiritual weakness." Yet I am to
honor him, states the fifth commandment.
lay dying in the hospital, a nurse had combed his naturally wavy hair
straight back to keep it out of his eyes. When I entered his room, my
eyes always immediately looked at his face in the bed. I wanted to
shout, "No. That’s wrong! You’ve made my father into a different
person." I wanted to find a comb and change it to his usual style, over
his brow. But I resisted the impulse. The nurse had remade my father
with a few sweeps of a comb, yet now I am revising my father also as I
think about his life through selected memory.
Mother carried the
weight of responsibility for Dad in his later years. She became his
faithful companion and ready servant. All their married life, more than
66 years, he had carried the weight of economic responsibility; now
that he was declining, physically and emotionally, it was her turn to
carry a different burden.
Looking after him
gave her purpose. She knew she could not die before him, for the only
place he felt safe toward the end was in their tiny apartment—with her.
Did they have a happy marriage? Open affection was not the norm in that
transposed culture from Russia. I know they clung to one another in
their old age.
Many images of my father come
from photographs. I see him and Mother frozen in this pose or that
expression. In one picture he, a young man of about twenty, is standing
assured in front of several dozen medical workers also in white garb at
a meal break during World War I near a Russian field hospital That’s
the way I recall him best. Front and center, a few inches taller than
his coworkers, looking steadfastly forward.
have no candid shots of either Mother or Dad. To have a photo taken in
those days, you stood still, very still, sometimes for a few minutes,
face solemn, not moving a muscle.
Yet when I
think of my storekeeper father in real life I see him in deliberate
actions, quickly flourishing a feather duster over a display, checking
the door, pulling the clock chain in the evening before bedtime,
blowing out lamps. Always quickly, quickly. Nothing hesitantly. Now
everything was hesitantly.
As my sister Anne
and I sat beside him one morning during his final illness, a stroke, he
roused from a coma briefly to attempt to tell us something about money
in his pants pocket—to be sure to check them. His mumbled words came
out distorted and weak. We understood only "pants" and "money." We
plied him gently with questions, but he became agitated when his
drug-defogged mind sensed he wasn’t getting through. We comforted him
that we would find the money.
Later we went
through pants and sweater pockets, but found nothing. What ancient
memory of the Russian revolution prompted this concern?
lacked an understanding of the self in the post-Freudian sense or what
one could do to maintain good mental health. In the last, wearisome
years with few stimulating experiences, memories of failures were
crowding out memories of decisive forward action. In letters to me (I
lived about 1500 miles away) he admitted to being lonely and wishing he
had made better decisions in life. Now it was too late.
he had made many good decisions once but had now lost sight of them. I
easily recall times when he moved decisively, but was he afraid at the
time, like I am sometimes afraid when I face something new?
a young man of 18, a Mennonite conscientious objector to war, he
enlisted in the Russian Red Cross as a medical orderly to be in the
same unit with his older brother John instead of waiting for the
government to conscript him. He told me how alone he felt in Moscow
away from his home community for the first time. It took years of
difficult duty before he was released from active duty.
the war he separated himself from the church of his childhood, the
Mennonite (Kirchliche) church, and found salvation and peace of mind in
the Mennonite Brethren, a more evangelical body. This move meant a
widening gulf between himself and the rest of his family, who remained
with the traditional church. They couldn’t understand his desperate
hunger for inner peace.
He knew that the
"Brethren" were looked down upon by members of the traditional church.
He was baptized by immersion in the Dnieper River. His mother recorded
it in her genealogy. How had his siblings and parents actually received
this bold move? How difficult had that passage to spiritual freedom
He made a major life change when he and
Mother and my two older sisters migrated to Canada from the Ukraine in
1923 with only 25 cents in his pocket to begin anew. Women never
Place determines your understanding of yourself,
but what if that place changes radically? What changes take place in
your being alongside change in domicile? He had "Russian blood" flowing
in his Mennonite veins. He resonated with Russian music, language,
folkways. Russia was his home.
Moving from one
place to another in the same country brings upheavals, but to pick up a
few possessions, like a samovar, a tin cradle, and some small photos,
to migrate to a new land where everything is new—language, customs,
weather, people—is a violent change. My parents were leaving behind the
country that had nurtured them from birth but deserted them with the
entrance of a new Bolshevist political regime.
during the gut-wrenching upheaval of the Russian revolution, which
threw social, political, and religious life into indescribable turmoil,
his father, grandparents, and an uncle died within two weeks due to
widespread famine and typhus. As the oldest son at home, he buried them
single-handedly during a time of extreme dearth of lumber, tools to dig
a grave, even a religious leader to pray over the dead.
during this time he forgave a younger brother for having nearly caused
his death by joining the White Army, incurring the wrath of the Red
Bolshevist army. Dad’s account of near-death by firing squad was
difficult to share with us children. This and other gruesome war
stories were pushed deep down into his consciousness, only a few
escaping occasionally in an unexpected moment.
he finally told my brother Jack the story of being crowded with other
prisoners in a small cellar room, he alluded only briefly to the reason
for his imprisonment. How much more difficult was that process of
In Canada, at some point, though he
had been an itinerant ordained deacon-evangelist in Russia, he
sidestepped that calling to become a lay minister alongside his work as
a storekeeper to keep his family warm and fed. How much did he agonize
over that decision? Now I wish I had asked him more questions when he
Somehow my father conveyed to me the
importance of raging against injustice, even if silently, but without
rancor. I recognize he divided the world into black and white with few
shades of gray and couldn’t see that though he rebelled against
tradition, he also fought for it, but his heart was always forgiving
At what point did he turn from a
man living in hope to a man living in the bitter memories of the past?
But why did he see his long eventful life as failure and not as growth?
Was it physical illness? Spiritual weakness?
can neither destroy nor escape the past, cultural or personal. Today I
look back on a Funk family history because he and Mother made
decisions, stumbled, and moved on, sometimes forward. The fifth
commandment admonishes us to "Honor your father and your mother, so
that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you."
generation gap of the 1960s spawned college students who denied they
had parents, so deans couldn’t check back with them. They marked their
parents as deceased on application forms. They said, "We want nothing
to do with our parents. We don’t want their lifestyle or goals—because
they are phony, hypocritical. We don’t like their love of affluence and
security." They declared boldly that parents weren’t worth honoring or
Some parents are admittedly no
models of love, courage, zest for living and a spirit of forgiveness.
Children are deserted, abused, and neglected—considered a pollutant in
carefree, child-free adult living. So, for some offspring, this
commandment is a cruel joke, hardly something to uphold. That’s one
side of the picture.
I maintain this
commandment was not directed primarily to children, especially young
children. When we push it onto children, we miss its real meaning.
remember intoning the Ten Commandments to earn a wall motto or New
Testament in vacation Bible school. Parents hoped children would recall
these words at the appropriate time and change behavior.
the commandment should have PG-13 boldly written before it. Although
Jewish children memorized it before the other nine, it was intended for
adults. The other nine commandments are clearly directed to adults:
Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife—hardly child activity. Don’t work on
the Sabbath. Don’t murder, steal, or give false testimony. When the
rich young ruler, an adult, came to Jesus for advice on gaining eternal
life, he was told to honor his father and mother.
does not mean that children should not obey and honor their parents,
but there is more here, much more. The commandment selects parents out
of different relational groups to be honored. A parent-child
relationship is one that can never be altered. A father or mother is
always a parent, even if the child is given away at birth, abused,
abducted, lost during a divorce, murdered or dies a natural death. Once
you have given birth to children, you can’t undo this. Modern DNA
evidence proves heredity.
Parents are not to be
honored for biological reasons. Decades ago on Mother’s Day, a bouquet
was given to the producer of the most offspring. I shuddered when the
recipient went to the front to claim her bouquet to the sound of
applause, thinking we honor cows for regular production, surely not
Yet childbearing, frequent or
infrequent, should not be dismissed lightly. It is not always a choice.
Mothers who accept the task of motherhood gladly, whether natural or
adoptive, are to be praised.
As I study family histories, I find
that some women had 12 to 15 or more pregnancies in times of
revolution, famine, migration, and drought. Childbirth often brought a
mother to brink of death. Even in good times bearing and raising few or
many children is not a trivial pursuit. Let’s recognize parents for
their courage and love, not ability to reproduce.
do not honor parents for their reputation for righteousness, wealth,
success, beauty, or the sacrifices they made in parenting. We don’t
honor parents by adopting their value system or because they left us a
huge legacy of houses and lands. Some parents have big reputations and
estates, some none.
Some children blame parents
for their own hardships and failures in life at marriage,
child-rearing, career-building, but take credit for their own
successes. I believe we are each responsible for our own decisions and
how we have taken advantage of opportunities.
Abram Heschel states that the real bond between two generations is not
a blood relationship but the "insights they share, the appreciation
they have in common, the moment of inner experience in which they
meet." We honor parents, biological or adoptive, by recognizing this
special bond lost when families break up for whatever reason.
Madeleine L’Engle in The Year of the Great Grandmother
writes about her mother, suffering from dementia. She is able to care
lovingly for her mother—irritable, cross, demanding—because she
remembers the high moments they shared together when her parent was
well. Illness broke the bond but she continued to honor her ailing
Here’s the gist of the issue: We honor
parents because the family, regardless of the way it is structured, is
a special bond in God’s economy. It is not just an economic unit for
income tax purposes or to make life easier: One parent does the laundry
and cooking, the other makes the money or vice versa. God is telling us
in this commandment that there is something special in the family,
something we have lost sight of in our furor for self-realization.
Hebrew, "honor" means more than simple respect. It means more than
offering a little sentiment with a birthday card, "I love you, Mother
and Dad" and a phone call at Christmas. The commandment asks children
to acknowledge the burden of their parents seriously.
Do not confuse
them with God. Do not obey them as one would a god. Give God his
rightful place as Lord over all. Honor parents as human beings, but not
as little gods. We do not call God "father" because he resembles an
earthly father. The Greeks fashioned gods in their image, turning them
into capricious beings. To honor means to recognize that parents are
one way that the glory and mystery of God is conveyed to the next
That is the burden of parents.
key to understanding this commandment is in the phrase often omitted:
"so shall you live long in the land the Lord your God has given you." I
have seldom heard preachers explain it. This commandment was the first
one with a promise. In early biblical times God promised Abraham a land
which his descendents would own and live in for centuries. If they
honored their parents, this land would always be theirs.
had lived in that promised land and raised a son there, Jacob, who had
twelve sons of his own. Then one day ten brothers in this family sold
the eleventh brother, Joseph, to the Egyptians. They put a selfish
concern ahead of their love for their brother—and the result was they
eventually lost the land. They broke the family bond.
As slaves in Egypt they lost their sense of identity and self-worth.
Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai on the way back to
the Promised land, God was warning the Israelites: Honor your father
and mother or you will lose the land again. Respect for family members
and love for land is closely related. If you love the land too much,
people lose their value, and you lose both land and people. If you love
and respect your family, you will retain land and life.
Hebrew father at the Passover feast, established at this time, pointed
his children not to himself but to the fathers—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
and beyond that to the Father of all fathers, God of all. When this
happens all generations are pointed in the same direction—toward God.
We honor parents when we recognize that they have been intrusted with a
burden—to point the next generation toward God, the father-mother of us
all. They stand in God’s place before their children.
Does this commandment mean that children who honor parents will always own houses and fields? Hardly.
Walter Brueggeman has done a masterful study of the relationship of the Israelites and the land in The Land.
He points out that "land" in the Old Testament has both a literal and
symbolic meaning. It may mean actual turf that can be tilled, but it
also means having a place, of being rooted, of not being homeless
wanderers, exiles, sojourners.
defines land as space where important words are spoken that establish
identity, define vocation and envision destiny. In this space, vows are
exchanged, promises made, and demands issued. When the person with
power forgets brothers and sisters, not only do they suffer as does the
one who "lifted his heart over them" like the brothers of Joseph. In a
home where the members value the family bond, the child, young or old,
will have a sense of rootedness, of place, of firmness in life, of a
place to speak important words, to form an identity, and to learn to
care and share.
Family, however it is
configured, is God’s arrangement for human beings, God’s method of
continuing the relationship with our creator and with one another—a
place where we learn about interdependence, sharing, and caring.
Compassion and caring have their roots in the family and are learned
when family burdens get heavy.
does not begin with a marriage certificate, range, frig, a mattress on
the floor, or even just the decision to live together. Family begins
with the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Family is part
of a deeply flowing river.
A "placed," not
necessarily "landed" family, brings with it the strength of stability
of relationships and satisfies a human hunger for identity. Homeless
refugees, illegal aliens, wandering from place to place, do not make
My parents gave me a history I can
share with the next generation: the windmill on the hill in the Ukraine
and the events that took place there, how my father found my mother’s
family lost during the Russian revolution, and their longing to be
restored to a place in the family and community. That history has high
moments and low ones.
I keep writing my father’s story of his life with Mother to honor them.
They met, married, had children, experienced good and bad events,
struggled onward, stumbled backward.
recognize them in myself, their patterns of dealing with life,
gestures, and physical traits. I honor them when I release them of all
my grudges, hostilities, criticisms, about mistakes made in raising me.
"We honor our parents for what they are and forgive them for what they
are not," someone has said. Amen. I honor my parents for what they were
and forgive them for what they were not as I hope my children will do
the same for me.
So here I lay a wreath of
honor at the base of the tree where your ashes are buried, Dad and
Mother. Through your life you gave me a rootedness, a strength, a place
to stand. I will keep writing about your lives.
Funk Wiebe, Wichita, Kansas, author of many books and articles, continues to examine her
life. Among her most recent books is You Never Gave Me a Name (DreamSeeker Books, 2009).