Fatherhood

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Chalice lighting

We come together to know and to be known
We come together to support and to be supported
We come together to love and to be loved
Our togetherness makes us stronger
It helps each of us to grow toward our best selves
It helps us to build a better world
May this light guide us in this all-important work
For ourselves, for the world, and especially for the children and the future they will create and inhabit


Reading: song lyrics to “Dance with My Father”, by Luther Vandross

Back when I was a child, before life removed all the innocence

My father would lift me high and dance with my mother and me and then

Spin me around ‘til I fell asleep

Then up the stairs he would carry me

And I knew for sure I was loved

If I could get another chance, another walk, another dance with him

I’d play a song that would never, ever end

How I’d love, love, love

To dance with my father again

When I and my mother would disagree

To get my way, I would run from her to him

He’d make me laugh just to comfort me

Then finally make me do just what my mama said

Later that night when I was asleep

He left a dollar under my sheet

Never dreamed that he would be gone from me

If I could steal one final glance, one final step, one final dance with him

I’d play a song that would never, ever end

‘Cause I’d love, love, love

To dance with my father again

Reading: A Visitor, by Mary Oliver

My father, for example,

who was young once and blue-eyed,

Returns on the darkest of nights

to the porch and knocks wildly at the door,

and if I answer

I must be prepared for his waxy face,

for his lower lip swollen with bitterness.

And so, for a long time,

I did not answer,

but slept fitfully between his hours of rapping.

But finally there came the night

when I rose out of my sheets

and stumbled down the hall.

The door fell open

and I knew I was saved and could bear him,

pathetic and hollow,

with even the least of his dreams frozen inside him,

and the meanness gone.

And I greeted him and asked him into the house,

and lit the lamp,

and looked into his blank eyes in which at last

I saw what a child must love,

I saw what love might have done

had we loved in time.


Message

A holiday like Father’s Day can seem very simple – a time to honour fathers. I suppose that for the retailers who pushed for it to become a big holiday, it was a simple idea. Mother’s Day was already a major commercial success – boosting sales of flowers, chocolates, jewellery, perfume, spa treatments, restaurant meals and of course, leading to the creation of any number of misshapen clay pots, unrecognisable drawings, and other homemade wonders that only a parent could love and treasure.

What else could a mother want, really? Uh – no – not really. Hey! - the 1950s called and they want their female stereotypes back. Some mothers want a motorbike, a chainsaw, electronics, or some authentic kit from their favourite football team.

Father’s Day was created and it became popular as a day to give dad a set of tools, a tobacco pipe, slippers, and maybe a bottle of booze. A simple holiday to honour dear old, nearly perfect dad with typical dad gifts.

Father’s Day is not simple at all. It’s a holiday that confronts us with the stereotypes and storybook images of fatherhood and we compare those to the reality. We match the ideal image against the reality of the fathers in our lives – and, for those of us who are fathers, ask how we ourselves fit the ideal.

How many of you have living fathers?

How many of you are fathers?

How many count someone who was not their biological father as a father figure with a major influence in your life?

Some of you may have had no identified fathers or father figures at all.

I will guess that at least a few of you have or had relationships with your fathers that were deeply satisfying – that gave you the kind of strong, nurturing, influence in your life that you wanted and needed. And a few of you will feel that this paternal influence helped prepare you to be great parents yourselves. For those who had such relationships with their fathers, I congratulate you. And I also envy you.

My relationship with my father never came anywhere near that vision of fatherhood. I wish it had. I wish that I had had an influence in my life like I’ve seen others have.

Although my parents were together until I was a teenager, my father was never much of a presence in my life. I never got the sense that he cared particularly for my sister or me. We didn’t get his attention and we certainly didn’t get his affection.

After my parents divorced, the bad relationship with my father became worse and more distant. After a while, I gave up even thinking that I had a father in any sense besides biologically.

I wish I could tell you that it all worked out eventually, but there is no happy ending here. Mary Oliver writes of a father that she never could love and then – when it was too late – saw what might have been lovable in that difficult human being who was her father.

I came to understand my own father better as I became an adult - understanding him as a deeply flawed human being: not ill-intentioned, but unprepared to love or nurture. I understood that his own parents’ flawed parenting helped to make him the way he was – that there was not much he could do about it.

My father is still alive, but he would no longer recognise me or remember who I am. One day, I will get a call or an email or maybe even a note in the post telling me that he has died and that will be that. There will be no deeply moving tearful reconciliation or a even a truthful heart-to-heart conversation. I will have to decide whether to attend the funeral of the stranger who was my father.

And that’s honestly OK in many ways. I wish that I had had a father in my life, but I didn’t and I have come to accept that. I have also come to accept that I might well be a better, more confident, more open, more content person if I’d had a great father in my life.

And I have been a father myself now for just over twenty-eight years. I had to learn to be a father without having a close example of what a good father is. I got my driver’s license a year ago. If only they had as rigorous training and tests for fatherhood!

And this is where it is tough for everyone – for fathers and sons and daughters and partners, everyone who has anything to do with a father. Even if we’ve known what we think is a good role model, the notion of what it is to be a good father has changed dramatically over time.

What is a father meant to be? What should a father be? What is a “good father”?

I recall wanting to have a father who could protect me. I think I wanted a dad who could beat up the dads of the bullies. I know that’s not a great plan, but I did wish for a strong dad – physically strong, and strong in being able to cause things to change.

I hope that this one is not essential for being a good dad. If so, I’ve totally failed since I’m not really well-suited for beating up the other dads.

When we think about the images of fathers from film and literature and religion, we often get an image of strictness. Just wait until your father gets home. Is it fair to mention Darth Vader? Fathers in these stories are providers where mothers are nurturers. Fathers keep their kids in line with threat and discipline whereas mothers nurture children toward becoming their best selves.

There was a time when we might have uniformly believed that such strictness was necessary – that children and young people are best shaped and formed through both carrot and stick. Mum provides the carrot. Dad provides the stick.

We here probably reject that characterisation. In the circles we travel in, we understand today’s ideal father as someone very different from the disciplinarian.

Our understanding of what a good father is has changed and influential writers have helped to shape that change in our understanding.

Aside from extremes, we can’t really know what kind of parenting is best – or, indeed, if there is such a thing as best.

I would not be who I am if it had not been for the way my parents were. The coldness of my father may have made me more driven, helped me to accomplish more. It certainly made me strive to achieve in the hope of earning the approval that I never saw from dad.

Whatever a different kind of dad might have made me, I know in retrospect what I wanted from my dad, and what would have made me a happier person – more satisfied with my own life, and more self-accepting.

I wanted a dad who had time for me.

I wanted a dad who was proud of me.

I wanted a dad who loved me unconditionally.

These would have been nearly impossible for my father given who he is and was and the parenting he received. It would have taken much introspection and probably years of therapy for him to understand himself and to untangle the influences that made him who he became.

I have not been a perfect father. I don’t think there is such a thing. But I believe that I have been a better father than my own father was to me. I have continued to struggle with my own internalised idea of what a father is and should be.

But I have also come to know that human beings of all ages – and especially children and young people – need acceptance. They need to know they are loved. They need us to show this with our time, by showing up and being present.

If I could go back and guide myself (a new father), I would tell myself to remember all the stereotypes I learned from television and film and all the stories around us. I would say to take note of all that because it is hard to reject what we are not conscious of. I would say to ignore all that because most of it is nonsense. I would tell my younger self, sleep deprived and frightened, to give my child healthy doses of what all people need: time, presence, and unconditional love.

I would give myself the song we sang earlier, the song that had not yet been written, to remind him that what every child needs is the strength that comes from knowing they whoever they are, we will love them still.

Notes to our fathers

On this day set aside for celebrating fathers, I hope that we can point to and be glad of everything that is or was good and helpful about our own fathers. I hope that we can also know that their failings as fathers were not a reflection on who we are, but on who they became through the influences that surround their own young lives.

And, whoever we are, with the influence we have upon one another and especially on young people, I hope that Father's Day can help us remember that human beings thrive on love and acceptance. I hope that we can grow to give these in ever-greater amounts to one another, to our parents, and to the young people who will create a more loving future.

Closing words

Every person you meet was once a child
An infant hungry for the love and acceptance of its parents
In need of the nurture than can gently shape it toward its best self
We all carry the needs of this vulnerable child within
For our children
For ourselves
For our world
Let us practice acceptance
Let us practice love