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
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
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
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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