Definitely Human - Like It or Not!
Rev. Grace H. Simons
Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
It's Father's Day again! We offer celebratory wishes to all the fathers here this morning! Today the newspapers carry father-and-son stories, personal wishes and sometimes look-alike contests. Greeting card aisles are clogged with shoppers hoping for just the right message. Many fathers - as you've heard this morning - have loved and nurtured us, set fine examples and shared their interest and wisdom. But others have behaved quite differently. A few of our members even avoid the Father's Day service because of painful memories.
Whatever the reasons, fathers seem to have a checkered history with their families. Some, as I've mentioned, shine in our memories. Some have trouble relating to their kids, especially smaller ones. Some are distant or even abandon or abuse their offspring. It's a complex reality - one that's hard to encompass.
Fathers are important to us - rooted in our earliest years and memories. Young humans are so dependent on their parents - for physical care, but also for emotional, cognitive and psychological development. Kids naturally look to their parents in the process of understanding the world, learning ways of relating to people both within the family and outside it, and whether to be cautious or confident in approach. Fathers and mothers set the standards and act as anchors in a child's world. They loom large in a child's life. Stories of childhood arguments about parental qualities are common enough to be trite: "My mom is prettier than yours," "My dad is stronger [or smarter or faster or a better batter]!"
As small children, we imitate, even idolize our parents. As we grow and have more experience of other families, that begins to change. Maybe Johnny's dad really is a better batter. Maybe Susan's dad can help her with her math. Maybe Jose's father is funnier. Friends give children a glimpse of other possibilities. This may grow into teenage scorn of parents - and how embarrassingly "old school" they can be - it's legendary. Then, as years pass, we begin to form a more nuanced and complex picture. Maybe dad knew more than we thought.
Fathers, like all humans, have their limits and failings as well as their strengths. Each of our stories is different, but we are all challenged to see our parents as complex people. They have both strengths and failings. That reality seems hard to hold in our awareness. We tend to image heroes or villains more than actual human complexities. This seemed to be a pretty good week for working on more realistic father-pictures.
I keep my car radio tuned to NPR. This week I was surprised at the number of reviews and interviews related to fathers and relationships to fathers. [Or maybe there weren't all that many but I noticed them because I had to write a sermon.] One episode featured a father and daughter who had made a special promise to each other during what the dad described as a "really rough patch." They didn't dwell on the issues, but I gathered that a divorce and financial problems were involved. The two promised that they would read aloud to each other every day for 100 days. And they did. Starting with the Wizard of Oz, I think, they read one book after another. When the hundred days were over, the habit was formed and rewarding enough that they kept right on reading.
The books became more adult - mysteries and novels - and they read all the way through the daughter's high school years. Even on prom night. They talked about how hard it was when they had to stop reading to each other because she started college. It had been nearly nine years. Pretty amazing.
They had found a way to anchor their lives and relationship through hard times and enrich it when things got better. No one claimed perfection in this remarkable story, but the daughter recognized how unusual this was, especially as they read books that featured different single parents. The dad simply said he was trying to assure his daughter that things were ok, and would be ok - whether he was sure of that or not.
A different piece involved quick accounts of "Most Embarrassing Moments." Most were unrelated to fathers - but there were a few. One recounted living in a multiethnic neighborhood - one with friendly relations all around. A man remembered his father often talking across the fence to his Asian neighbor - and never using compound tenses or prepositions. "How you today? Things good?" he'd ask loudly. "Dad", the son would think, "the man speaks perfect English! Don't do that!" But in retrospect the now-grown son added: "he was a fine man, he didn't realize what he was doing."
A woman described how her father volunteered to chaperone the 8th grade dance, even though he complained that they were always too loud. When the music started he brought out a pair of large ear protectors. She remembers them as like the ones you see on airport runway workers. "Whose dad is that?" her friends whispered. "Yeah," she added, "who's dad is that?" Maybe you have your own story of something your dad did that seemed mortifying at the time. Or maybe you're a dad who's seen that "I don't believe this!" look in your own child's eyes.
Another broadcast reviewed books about father- son relationships. One told of a father who was a perennial optimist - he even earned the nickname "Opti!" He advised "the only thing life promises us is pain. It's up to us to create the joy," [Final Round, James Dodson] Even when fighting terminal cancer, his attitude stayed upbeat. Invited to play a last round of golf, he joked that he wanted to "pin your ears back one more time, so you'll at least remember me" Clearly, that wasn't an issue.
A second book was written by a man raised without his father's presence. His mother had left the marriage when the writer was 7 months old, seeing the father as "an unstable mix of charm and rage". Feeling the lack of a dad and searching for role models and mentors, the author stumbles into a local bar and comes upon a group of "flawed but merry men" who teach him about life and being a man. Far from perfect, they gave him some lessons he embraced. But others had to be rejected. In the end, he says he realized that alcohol wasn't an answer, and he found ways to move out of the pain and sadness of abandonment. [The Tender Bar, J. R. Moehringer]
The third book reviewed described "the father, with everything there is to hate in a father, and everything there is to love." [Patrimony, Philip Roth] The reviewer gave fewer glimpses into this book, but claimed it fell between the other two, more extreme examples. Maybe this one, he mused, is more like most of our fathers.
My own father, tall and rather polished, was interested in sports, but only from an armchair. One of my cousins described him as "not knowing which end of the football to hold." And that pretty much told the tale. No footballs at our house - or baseballs, basketballs or golf balls. No back yard games of catch. Don't bother asking me to join a pick-up game of touch football. I won't be an asset. Yet I can watch a football game and understand what's going on, and I'll always have a soft spot for the 'Niners. Gifts and limits. Not huge issues, but part of the formation, and fabric, of my life.
To further complicate these days that honor fathers or mothers, we not only have parents, many of us also are parents. That can really change your perspective. Parenting is such a challenge! I don't know of even one parent who thinks they've done everything perfectly. Not that we don't do our best! But the truth is that we, like all humans, get tired. We run out of ideas, lose our patience, and sometimes have no idea what to do with this kid! Even though we love them dearly. It's frustrating at times, despite the knowledge that overall, we're doing pretty well. And the culture's expectations of fathers have changed a lot over recent generations, so that men may not see fathering, or be fathers in ways that would be familiar to earlier generations. A father's role models may not be all that helpful.
The gift of these frustrations and irritations is that they help us to see our own parents and their imperfections differently. To understand that they were only human. That they pretty much did the best they could. Every parent grapples with their own angels and their own demons - born of their particular experiences and temperaments and surrounding influences. Sometimes those things help us to be really good parents. Sometimes they get in the way. It's true for us, and it was true for our parents and theirs. We try to make the best decisions about how to handle parenting situations, but sometimes, well. Let's just say that things don't always work out the way we'd like.
When we begin to recognize the challenges of parenting, the frailties of being human and the pressures of life circumstances, we can start to let go of resentments and anger toward our parents. We can forgive our fathers - and mothers - their failings. This forgiveness, this letting go, can free us to make different choices for our own lives. It can free us to recognize and celebrate the strengths and talents they brought and to also honor the other adults who stepped in to help and encourage us. It stretches and deepens our spirits, so we may tap into the deep wells of joy and gratitude toward Life.
So this Father's Day, let's celebrate the gifts our fathers - or others who have fathered us - have given and do our best to forgive their failings. Let's praise those dads among us who do their best for their kids day in and day out. Let's remember to tell them that they are loved and appreciated. I like the advice that "Opti" offered. Life often doesn't match our ideas about how things should be, so "It's up to us to create the joy." Let's do that now, as we sing! And Happy Father's Day!
June 19, 2011
Copyright by Rev. Grace Simons. If you enjoyed it or would like to use part of it, please contact our web wizard,
Rev. Grace Simons left us a
collection of her sermons
when she retired in October, 2011.
We have a brief biography
of Rev. Grace, and the last edition of
a column she wrote for our newsletter.
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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.