“Teach the Children Well”
Today is Father’s Day, the day we set aside to honor and offer gratitude for our fathers, however they have come into our lives – biological fathers, stepfathers, adoptive or foster fathers, grandfathers, spiritual fathers and all the other men – relatives and friends who have helped to fill that role in our lives. Loraine Bottorff McNeill writes, “We are shaped by their presence and their absence, by how they choose to act and when they abstain, what they say and when they remain silent.”
In the United States Father’s Day was first celebrated on the third Sunday in June in 1910 after founder, Sonora Smart Dodd, who with her five brothers was raised by their father alone, thought it would be good to honor our fathers as well as our mothers after attending Mother’s Day celebrations in 1909. The occasion is actually celebrated worldwide and dates back to the early Eastern Orthodox Church. In many Catholic countries it has been recognized on St. Joseph’s Day since the 1500’s in honor of Joseph as the nurturer and putative father of Jesus.
Our opening words this morning hale the traditional role of fatherhood in our culture – the teacher and disciplinarian in the household, the one responsible for our wellbeing, a model for boys as they come of age and for girls as they seek a partner, available in the early hours of the morning and at bedtime, but less so in between. It employs the gender binary we hold fast to in our society, limiting even in its expansive list of tasks undertaken. A dear colleague and his transgender husband are both fathers to two amazing little girls. Such choices have not always been so prominently shared, and I recognize especially in this Pride month the hardship our culture still places on those whose gender expressions differ from those harmful and unrealistic norms.
Fatherhood is the epitome of masculinity, much like womanhood and motherhood become conflated, and so the pressure to conform is strong. It needn’t be so and perhaps we have come some ways in broadening our definitions. No longer is masculinity widely associated with a lack or suppressing of emotions, nor fatherhood associated with being the sole breadwinner. But it hasn’t been the case for so long yet that we don’t easily fall into the trap of placing folks in boxes that are ill fitted to their personalities or desires. And most of us are of an age where the expectations of fathers and fatherhood were powerfully slanted toward the pressures of being that one in charge who would always provide. For some it came naturally to fall in step, but not always and I wonder sometimes about the affect that must have had on those who struggled silently while attempting to make the grade.
All the more reason to honor them perhaps! When I invited you to share with me some remembrances of your fathers, you were slow to respond, but eventually came through! It was not my intention to share verbatim, but instead to get a sense of these persons in our lives. What would we recall and lift up? Your thoughts, though, were quite lovely and so I may quote a snippet or two as I summarize! Through them I know your fathers in some way, having never known any of them previously, and I know a bit more about you as well.
Our fathers, dads and daddy’s as we lovingly refer to them were of a time when military service was a common reality, serving in the Army and Navy in World War II and Korea. It was often the first recollection in the tales of their adult lives. They returned to family, some of them injured, and got on with life, taking up sometimes storied careers or melding into generations old family endeavors. They fit that mold of hardworking family men and for many of us the reality of that left little time for home and for us as they toiled long hours. Still though, they managed to make time for us it seems, sacrificing without complaint and supportive in rough times. We knew how much we were loved and even feared in one case! We knew how proud they were of us and received their encouragement and advice, some of which we knew upon asking that we may not take, but still we asked. We felt valued and heard even through differences though and more than one of us were blessed to experience our dad’s coming around to more expansive thinking, to expressions of remorse, of compassion and of pride. They were our teachers and from them we learned to sail with paper charts, the importance of hospitality and welcome, of service to community, of taking responsibility for our actions and that love transcends difference. For some of us the memories are of gentleness and kindness and for some it is more complicated than that as we hold in our mind’s eye times of abusive behavior and family violence in bittersweet tension with fonder memories of soothing and tenderness, the realities of this complex mixture a part of us forever. As our dad’s shifted from fatherhood to becoming grandfathers, we noticed a shift in their way of being with us and with our children, as the hard work of being the man of the house fell away and made space for simpler and more joyful times. For so many of us now our fathers are gone from our midst, some parting way too soon at a young age, leaving us to hold what we can of times spent with them and wondering what a longer life might have brought to our relationships. Some needlessly lost to the ravages of the present pandemic, are especially missed. We hold them in our hearts as we summon up the events we shared with them, the one’s we held most dear, the simplest of things making meaning for us now.
I had the privilege of officiating at four celebrations of life this spring for men ranging in age from seventy-nine to ninety-eight, men who for some of us were contemporaries and for some the age of our own fathers. In each instance, as is most often the case, there is a word that bubbles up which captures the individual and stands out for me in the collected memories of loved ones. This spring, as I reflected on the lives of these men, the words that arose revolved around a theme. I noticed presence – stable, unassuming, big, and constant. There was a sense of devotion to family, to work, to humanity. A way of teaching akin more to nurturance as one came alongside imparting knowledge and experience and values. And there was a feeling of joy in having had this life to live and making sure we appreciated and celebrated it as well.
It is true that our parents are always teaching us, whether it is a way to be in the world or a way we know decisively that we are not to be in the world. They leave their imprint on us, in us, and we can no more escape it than the impulse to breathe. When I thought about these men this spring, I was filled with a hopefulness that I hadn’t known more recently – a hope in a future that has presented itself as bleak in these times. Because I came to know these men, not through personal acquaintance, but through their children, most of whom were my age and their children’s children coming of age in the midst of a troubled world. The hope rests in seeing the qualities carried forward a generation or two – presence, nurturance, joy and devotion – as they play out in real time, as they live on in the hearts and minds of those who followed. I can’t help but believe that the goodness we have learned from our fathers, whether by direct observation or by its omission, is a seed that is planted, has taken root and has, indeed will continue to, spring up in our midst, creating the kind of world our fathers would be proud of and delighted with. May we honor them by teaching the children well.
“Let us remember today and always the impact that these people have on us as individuals and as a community. And let us also remember that this relationship we share is not one-sided and that we, as a community, are called to support and empower the fathers of this world – no matter how they came into their roles and regardless of the relative successes or failures. Let us raise up their triumphs and let us have the grace to forgive them their all too human failures.”[i] Let us love our fathers and father figures on this special day and every day.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, June 19, 2022
[i] Empowering the fathers of this world by Loraine Bottorff McNeill, www.uua.org/worship