“To Be a Dad” a sermon for Father’s Day
Rev. Brian J. Kiely June 19, 2016
Unitarian Church of Edmonton.
If you were anxious that this would be a Hallmark Card service telling you all to have warm mushy feelings of appreciation for your fathers, or fathers of your children, let me offer you relief right now. I want to spend my time talking about what it means to be a Dad, rather than singing their praises. Although there are a wide variety of ways of being a good Dad, we all know that there are men who just aren’t. There are Moms who aren’t good at their job either, so this isn’t a sexist rant, but today we talk Dad. And if some men are just not good dads, there are a lot more who go at it with good intentions and just manage to trip over their own feet now and then.
And I don’t want to leave out those among us who simply never knew a father, who for all kinds of reasons, never had that male presence. Perhaps this day represents for them an ache for something they never experienced. Like all holidays that call on us to remember the past fondly, Father’s Day is fraught with expectations of how we ought to feel. It can be stressful when we simply don’t have those expected feelings. I’m not going to tell you what to feel.
Thinking of our fathers, or perhaps the fathers of your children can be a complex thing. I suspect that most of us have positive and loving feelings for the old man, even if they are tempered with tough and painful memories. After all, even in the most harmonious of families there is a time of adolescence when not liking your folks is a necessary part of growing independence. We have to break away, if only for awhile, to grow fully into adulthood. Certainly I recall knowing way, way more than my Dad when I was 19! Though it’s interesting how much smarter he was when I hit 25.
So we have this broad spectrum of fathers, good ones and ones that don’t have a clue. We have fathers that care and fathers that see offspring as a kind of nuisance and sort of infringement on their pleasures. We have fathers who are kind and those who are abusive. And I suspect the largest category would be dads who are doing their best.
Having had one, and having been one for nearly 13 years now, I have some strong feelings about fatherhood. In fact, I have one concern that floats above all the others: in all those various ways of being father- there is one common thread that is critical to success: responsibility. One of the reasons I waited until my mid-forties to become a father was because I wasn’t ready – or in the right relationship – to do it well. I was blessed to have a terrific father who stood as a powerful example of what that role meant. I didn’t try until I got to a place where I thought I could come close to matching his example.
You can quit jobs, leave marriages, move to a different country, but you can never stop being a Dad. It is an irrevocable decision in life, the most serious choice a man can ever make.
So what do I mean by ‘responsible’? I have boiled it down to five points:
- Providing the necessities of life.
This is the most basic form of parental responsibility. If you are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s the lowermost platform of the pyramid. An infant, and later a child, needs food, shelter, heat, safety simply to survive. Without that care, they die. It is the primary responsibility of fathers – of parents however couples work out sharing the load.
There has been an interesting case lately where parents were found guilty of “not providing the necessities of life” to their son because they insisted only on holistic care in the face of a clear medically treatable problem.
I feel some sympathy for these people who tried their best, but who were perhaps too convinced that their philosophical view trumped all other information and advice. It seemed a little like religious groups that deny certain types of medical care to their children, insisting God will take care of them. I see it as an act of egotism and irresponsibility. That an adult chooses to reject medical science is a matter of personal choice. That they deny it to a child is, in my view, irresponsible.
By contrast, we have the Adam family with us today, our Syrian refugee family. In this case, Mohammad and Ramza came to believe that their children were at risk for their lives. They left everything and escaped to Turkey carrying what they could. The lived for nearly a year in a tiny apartment afraid to go out in an only slightly less hostile climate. Few of us can imagine what they had to bear as they acted responsibly never knowing whether it would work out and whether or not they could continue to provide those very basic necessities to their children. We cn only b grateful that it worked out for them.
The first responsibility of a father is to do his share of providing the basic necessities of life. It doesn’t have to be a rich life or a luxurious life. Face it, kids don’t care. They accept the home they grow up in as the way things should be. The basic responsibility is to give them what they need and to keep them reasonably safe. The rest is gravy.
- Being there
This one can be tricky. Sometimes providing the necessities of life require long hours of work away from home for one or both parents. The absences shape the family and affect the child, though how it affects the child can be unpredictable. Some thrive, some struggle.
But being there isn’t about the number of hours spent together or amount of activities shared. It’s about attitude and presence. It’s about finding ways to let your children know they matter to you, that you are thinking of them. It’s about finding little ways to treat them with respect and love. It’s about creating memories that they can draw on as adults and perhaps as parents themselves. It’s those memories the Hallmark Corporation tries to trigger. The interesting thin is that you don’t get to decide on their memories – they do. We can only provide the things they might remember. The better the attitude we bring, the more likely we are to be successful.
You have to be thinking about them wherever you are. Being there is more than simply a call or a pat on the head. It’s about living with your children always somewhere in your mind, in your consciousness. It’s about wondering how your daughter’s French test went while you’re at work.
It’s about wondering what they would like when you are picking up the groceries. It’s about planning a simple little outing or shared activity when you can…and about not being disappointed when they don’t want to do it. It’s about paying attention.
When my dad went on occasional long business trips when I was small, he would call home every few days. Remember, this was back when we actually paid for long distance calls, paid a lot. Yet I was always given one minute of the call so Dad could tell me he missed me and ask about my day, and when he returned there was always a small, inexpensive present. The purpose was just to show he was thinking of me. That matters to a kid…even if we don’t always show it.
These days we can at least keep in touch with text messages and the like. Everyone likes knowing that someone is thinking of them, is sharing their interests. Keeping in touch isn’t hard. It’s a choice. A Dad with an attitude of, “I want to be there for my kids” is acting with responsibility.
- Being loving and kind
A European inheritance from Victorian times is that children were seen and not heard, that Dads worked hard (whether it was true or not) and needed to be given a chance to relax without the ‘annoyance’ of children.
I could probably do an entire sermon on all the various things wrong with that picture fraught as it is with sexism, elitism and classism, but I won’t.
Alongside that, the father was often assigned the role of ultimate judge and disciplinarian. “Just wait ‘till you father gets home!” It went hand in hand with the adage of “spare the rod and spoil the child” cribbed from the Bible, when children had to have good behaviour beaten into them. Thank goodness we have largely left that behind. We are creatures whose highest calling is to love and be loved. You can’t beat love into children, but you sure can beat it out of them.
My fondest memory is my father’s laughter, big and hearty, a full bodied experience but never at the expense of others. There was an air of kindness to him that I have always tried to emulate. My father’s love was a safe harbour. I never doubted his affection. Perhaps more importantly, I always had confidence that it would never be take away because I had broken a rule, failed a test or, yes, wrecked the car. I might disappoint him, and that would cut to the quick to see that look in his eyes, but I always knew his love was still a constant. Sure, Dad did have to set rules and draw the line at times, but never at the expense of love. Loving your children always is a responsibility of fatherhood. It shouldn’t be a hard one.
- Being a teacher and guide
I suspect that nearly every one of us who knew or can remember our fathers have a memory of them teaching us something: Fishing, throwing a ball, changing a tire, painting the porch, grilling a steak, riding a bike. Moms do this too, lots of it…but it IS Father’s Day.
It is our job to teach our children the basics of living in this world. We do cede a lot to the school system, but the very basics, the things that are important, the moral values, how we treat people, that’s not a job we can hand off, even if we we want to do so.
We also are called upon to watch them, to correct behaviours sometimes with reason and kindness if at all possible and with rules and consequences later on if that doesn’t work. As long as this is done fairly and evenly, there is a pretty good chance it will work out.
But here’s a critical bit. We have to parent with integrity. Kids watch and they listen. They know when we don’t follow our own rules. They can sniff out a lack of integrity in their fathers better than a dog can find a bone. We teach well only by living well.
The other problem with that responsibility is that Dads can also hand on their bad choices and decisions. We saw that in the terrible killings in Orlando. Since the shootings, the killer’s father has been often on the internet spewing his own hatred for homosexuality, values he obviously passed on to his son. If it is true that the son frequented the club and was struggling with his own sexual orientation, it may be that the father’s hateful teachings created a grotesque self-loathing in his son that led directly to this atrocity. We will never know beyond this: Fathers who teach their children to hate create hateful children.
We saw another example a few weeks before in the case of the Stanford swimming student who was found guilty of sexual assault of an unconscious woman.
In a letter to the judge, his father spoke of the son’s remorse and how that remorse had changed him forever. In all, it as not a bad letter for a father hoping to help his son. But then he added the fateful sentence: “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
It suddenly seemed clear where the son learned the attitudes of power, privilege and disrespect for women that led to the assault. Kids learn by watching.
Fathers have a duty to teach their children what they know about living, but to pass on narrow-minded views built on hate or selfishness is in my view the anti-thesis of responsibility.
In his famous poem, Kahlil Gibran wrote
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself…
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts,
for they have their own thoughts…
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For Life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”
We can teach only by example, and must understand that our children will filter our lessons through their own view of the world.
And that leads me to my final point. Fathers have a responsibility to:
- Encourage the child to become themselves.
Perhaps the greatest responsibility we fathers share is also a gift. We get to watch our children grow up and become whoever they will be.
There was a time, and it still exists in some cultures, where children were expected to follow a pre-determined path in career and marriage. it was the father’s job was to enforce that. I am so very happy I do not live in such a time or place.
From the days they were born, my daughters have been full of surprises. Who knew my quiet Lily would become a focused and fascinating (and left-handed) artist, drawing nearly incessantly? In class she does not pass notes to her friends, they exchange cartoons. I never could have imagined that. I certainly never could have taught that skill. And who knew that Elora would, by contrast, so outgoing, a natural empath who is filled with love of others and concern for the world?
I didn’t do that…that’s just who they are. If I lived up to paternal responsibility in any way it’s only that I stood back and marvelled as these two fine young women emerged from the womb and from their respective first days, started to become who they would become. I cheer a lot.
The responsibility of a father is to love our children for who they are, not for who we would have them be. Our job is to be reflected in their success, not have them reflect ours.
So that’s it. That’s my Father’s Day sermon. Fatherhood equals responsibility.
We are responsible to provide our share;
We are responsible to be there;
We are responsible to be loving and kind;
We are responsible to be teachers and guides;
We are responsible to encourage our children to become their best selves…their best selves, not our predetermined view of what best looks like.
It may not be the easiest of jobs, and there will always be tough challenges, but it is the job we take on when we become fathers.