Not Your Father's Father

Sermon by Leo Jones
Paint Branch UU Church - June 19, 2005

As I was preparing for today's service, I realized that I began writing this sermon-at least in my mind's eye--one Saturday in early June, 1990, while shopping in Landover Mall, I decided to visit a card shop. I was looking for a greeting card for a friend, colleague, or family member; I forget the occasion. I hate to shop, so I was intent upon my mission, when I saw something that stopped me cold: a display of Father's Day cards. My father had died the previous March, so, for the first time in my memory, I had no plans to buy a Father's Day card.

This was one of those many moments in the months and years following my father's passing that I was hit with the utter reality and finality of his death, moments when I grasped that his physical absence was permanent, that my life had changed dramatically.

I left the card shop quickly, stunned, saddened, and surprised by my reaction to the sight of Father's Day cards. Father's Day had changed forever.

I decided to honor my father's memory that first Father's Day by going alone to an Orioles game. I had attended baseball games alone many times, but never on Father's Day.

My father was a passionate life-long baseball fan. When he was a boy, one of his duties was to listen to radio broadcasts of Philadelphia A's baseball games. Between innings, my father ran to wherever my grandfather happened to be to deliver summaries of the games. In the year I was born, the St. Louis Browns moved to my hometown and became the Baltimore Orioles. My parents told me that I attended my first Orioles game when I was three-years-old. It was the first of many games I would attend with my father until the year before his death.

Attending the Orioles game simply felt like the right thing to do. I don't remember who played, and I don't remember the score. All I remember is the sense of peace I experienced at Memorial Stadium that day. I felt as if I had kept an unspoken promise to complete a pilgrimage to a place that represented so many wonderful memories for both of us.

At Memorial Stadium, my father taught me the basic skills he considered necessary to the appreciation of his favorite sport: how to keep a scorecard, understanding the organized chaos of batting practice, the pivotal role of the catcher, and the beauty of a homerun hit by any Baltimore Oriole. At the same time, my father was teaching me lessons that extended far beyond the boundaries of Memorial Stadium. He taught me to stand and remove my cap during the playing of the National Anthem. He wanted me to love and honor America despite the Apartheid that was almost uniformly imposed on African-Americans. He considered this his country, his home. He had served it honorably in North Africa and Italy during WWII, and he would not tolerate anyone he considered unpatriotic, especially his son. During our many trips to the ballpark, my father taught me the importance of fair play, and that earnest effort was rewarded by achievement.

That first Father's Day without my father began to change the way I saw him. He was a product of a culture that portrayed fathers as stern patriarchs, difficult to approach, whose chief concerns were meeting the material needs of his family, and molding the character of his children. Yet the memories of my father that I choose to re-visit most often are those times when he was a benevolent presence in my life, when I felt his warmth, his protection, and his support.

I hope to leave you with a few thoughts concerning the evolution of the father's role from stern patriarch to a positive, caring, male presence concerned not only about the conduct his children exhibit, but with the wellbeing of their spirits. The patriarch is still with us, after all, this different view of the father's role is still fairly new, but the transition toward a more balanced view of fatherhood is apparent.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am not a father, nor have I played one on TV. But I have had the pleasure of serving as something of a surrogate father to the three children of an ex-girlfriend, and, as drex has said, I had a father. These experiences, curiosity, and a fascination with Internet researching are all I have to support the contents of this sermon. You will judge the result.

One thing more, for some, the discussion of a father's role in family, and more specifically, talk about the importance of fathers, sets off alarm bells. Those on the religious right sometimes take such opportunities to argue for a return to "family values," clearly this is code for bigotry and homophobia. I believe that there is room in such discussions for those of us who practice a liberal religious faith; in fact, I believe that we must engage in such discussions actively and passionately.

Historically, the father's role has been viewed with ambivalence, even by researchers. The mother's connection to her child is quite clear. It is almost too obvious to say that a woman who has carried a baby in her body for nine months retains a strong and lasting emotional bond with the child. A father, on the other hand, must develop a relationship with his child without such an intimate nine-month head start. The fact that after conception the father's role is not biologically relevant has led some to conclude that fathers fulfill a "merely" social place in the lives of children, one that could be filled by anyone. My admittedly superficial review of the lay literature leads me to believe that such commentators are dead wrong. Indeed, data collected over the last ten years supports the view that a strong, engaged, and supportive male presences important to the healthy development of children, and may be essential to the effective socialization of boys.

The importance of fathers has been substantiated by an examination of what happens when fathers are absent. Ironically, the evidence of the importance of fathers comes at a time when fatherlessness has become an epidemic. In fact, the current incidence of fatherlessness, particularly in our country, is historically unprecedented. In Mensight, an online magazine, David Popenoe writes that there was a time that fatherlessness was far more prevalent than it is today; death was the culprit. Men died earlier than their spouses, leaving behind wives and children who had to cope with their absence as best they could. Today's fatherlessness is more often due to divorce, desertion, and out-of-wedlock births. Most modern "fathers are alive, well, and perfectly capable of shouldering the responsibilities of fatherhood," Popenoe writes. Until the 1960's, the falling death rate and the rising divorce rate neutralized each other, but the death rate slowed and the divorce rate soared. I would speculate, but I don't have the data to prove, that the incidents of desertion and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed as well, leaving more families without fathers.

The result of this epidemic of fatherlessness has been catastrophic for men, women, and children, and for our society. Some commentators estimate that at least 70% of all convicted felons come from homes in which no functional father figure was present. Among African-Americans and Latinos, more than two-thirds of all babies are born into single-family homes. Children raised in homes where no father is present are far more likely than not to live in poverty. Of course, the resulting dropout rates, unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, and teen pregnancy ensures that the cycle will continue uninterrupted unless ways are found to facilitate and support the father's role.

In the gangster culture we see what happens when large numbers of young men are left to father themselves. Gangs are populated by boys who have not been initiated into the fraternity of men by a reliable, functional, nurturing, and positive male. Left to their own devices, thousands of mostly young African-American and Latino men have designed a distorted and destructive caricature of manhood, with disastrous consequences for their communities and for themselves. The violent criminal alliances that these young men form are misguided attempts to create for themselves the masculine presence that is sadly lacking.

So, what is the father's role in the family? What have been the characteristics of the father's role, how is it evolving, and what should it be?

For men of my father's generation, and prior, the father's role was well defined. The father was the patriarch, the head of the household, or at least he was allowed to think so, sometimes stern and unapproachable. One of the things I remember most about my paternal grandfather was that we were not allowed to be seated at dinner until my grandfather was seated-at the head of the table, of course. My father presided at dinner, which was almost always prepared by my mother, despite the fact that she had worked all day, as well.

The most powerful example of the stern patriarch is found in the Old Testament. The God of Abraham was capricious, sometimes petty, and vented his terrible rage upon those who were foolish enough to provoke his wrath. Listen to this passage from the first book of Samuel in which God, speaking through the prophet, announces the punishment of Eli and his family:

Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father's house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, in your family line there will never be an old man. Every one of you that I do not cut off from my altar will be spared only to blind your eyes with tears and to grieve your heart, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.

The Old Testament God was so concerned that his people observe a strict moral code, that its violation meant ostracism, and even death, not only for the transgressor, but for his family, as well. The Bible contains many such depictions of "God the Father" as a harsh judge and a merciless prosecutor.

As I read these passages, the term "projection" came to mind repeatedly. For this God, whom I believe was the creation of man, reflected the world-view of a patriarchal society in which women and children were not much more than property. This is the father to whom deference must be paid, and who could prescribe severe punishment, always "for your own good," should one miss the mark. Perhaps the biblical patriarch was the role model inspired fathers to worry about indulging their children, creating weak characters, who wouldn't take care of themselves, contribute to society, and be decent and responsible citizens.

This attitude was understandable from men who had suffered the deprivation and indignity of the Great Depression and the ordeal of combat in WWII or Korea. These fathers were determined that their children would have all of the advantages they didn't have.

My father never understood how anyone who enjoyed a relatively affluent lifestyle could be unhappy. In his view, if you were able to meet all of your basic needs, were healthy and honest, you were living a good life, and had no right to complain. He believed that hard work built character, and he believed that a parent's greatest error was to indulge his or her children. As a result, my father held his children to a very high, and sometimes unrealistic, standard of conduct, and when one of us failed to live up to his expectation, he made plain his disappointment. As a preventive measure, he remained vigilant for signs of moral slippage. For example, I was not allowed to walk around the house with my shirttails out. My father considered hanging shirttails a sign of hooliganism. Of course, there was no chance that I would become a hoodlum, I was a confirmed nerd, but as the father of an African-American son, his fears were valid. I can't help thinking, however, that had my father known me a bit better, he could have saved himself a lot of worry, and further inoculated me against a life of crime, aimlessness, and ill-repute.

So, if the role of the father is changing, what is it to become? Researchers are discovering more and more evidence that the presence of an engaged, positive, and nurturing male parent is central to a child's life from as early as three months. Father's help children to experience themselves as separate beings; at 14 to 17 months boys need to identify with their fathers in order develop a healthy gender identity, and it is thought that girls need to relate to their fathers to begin their there socialization with men; through challenging and goal-directed play, which differs significantly from the kind of play children experience with their mothers, father's teach children to compete, to persist, and to behave as part of a team; and, while mothers stress emotional security and personal safety in their interactions with children, fathers' interactions tend to stress competition challenge, risk-taking and independence. Together, these complementary traits form a human being who is well adjusted and whole.

The view that father's play an important role through play made perfect sense to me. My father's sense of play is responsible for my sense of humor. He competed fairly but aggressively. I can honestly say that my father never lost any game to me intentionally, a fact that goaded me to improve quickly if I wanted to taste the fruits of victory. In addition to countless games of catch, ping-pong, and really lousy tennis, my father enjoyed board games, and rarely missed an opportunity to play a spirited game of pinochle. On these occasions, my father was in rare form, exhibiting his quick wit and a willingness to stretch the truth if it made for a good story. As a result, at various times in my life, I believed that we were descended from Navajos, that my father was once part of the US Olympic swim team, that he played the piano, and that he spoke at least seven foreign languages. None of these claims were anywhere near the truth, nor was my father the least bit contrite when his "exaggerations" were exposed. There was a quality to my father's sense of humor that I can't imagine would have come from my mother.

While the change in the father's role is welcome, it is a transition that brings its own challenges, particularly for those of us who profess a liberal religious faith. None of us would willingly return to the Father Knows Best days of the fifties and early sixties, nor would we roll back the significant gains made by women since the early days of feminism. There is still much work to be done in the drive for complete equality for women. In addition, we as a faith are dedicated to the full realization of marriage and family rights for single people, and for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. These are the family values for which Unitarian Universalists stand. But if we do not continue to engage in the national dialogue concerning the emerging role of fathers in the lives of children, we will leave it to religious conservatives to redefine the American family. Those who do not share our views will use the emerging literature on fathers to support their homophobic and anti-feminist social and political agenda.

Supporting the newer understanding of the father's role, while insisting on the recognition of the equality of all citizens in the arena of family relations need not be a difficult balancing act. We can and should continue to push for the expansion of the definition of the American family. At the same time, we must recognize that the lives of millions of American children could be improved dramatically if we work to support the more humane and effective role of the father. Clearly, the man who nurtures, guides, coaches, and advises his children toward the realization of their best selves is not your father's father. And so we sing, "for all that is our life" in praise of fathers of all kinds, and those who embody this ever-evolving role in families of all kinds.

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