Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sermon: "Fatherhood & Spirituality" (Delivered 6-16-13)

Happy Father’s Day!

Was there ever any doubt about what I would preach about today?

As most of you know, I became a dad last fall.  Our daughter Lydia, our first child, is now eight months old.  And what a whirlwind these last eight months have been.  A few weeks after Lydia was born last October I was back in the pulpit helping us to say goodbye during our final service in our old church building.  And, at the end of October we held our first services here in our new church home.  Not one to believe in embracing change incrementally, my wife Anne changed jobs less than a month after returning from her maternity leave.  It has been a whirlwind, a mix of blessings, frustrations, joys, humbling moments, exciting and wearying times.

A month ago, for our Mother’s Day service, I admitted to you that I was far from the resident expert on the meaning of motherhood.  During that service we heard instead the perspectives from new and relatively new mothers in our congregation who shared their feelings, reflections, and understandings of motherhood and the spiritual dimensions of stepping into that new identity.  That’s the approach I’m going to mirror today.  Over the past several weeks I’ve written to a number of newer dads in our congregation, asking them to share with me their reflections about fatherhood.  I will mingle their reflections with my own.  And, as you listen to these reflections, I would invite you to listen for something, not for the researched conclusions of the experts, not for the long-toothed wisdom of experienced elders, but rather for that hope and wonder and sweet admiration that we might feel when we encounter someone becoming something new, growing into something new.

I’m reminded of a couple of lines from Denise Levertov’s poem “Beginners” in which she writes, “But we have only begun to love the earth.  We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life.  How could we tire of hope?...  So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”

These thoughts I share are the thoughts of beginners.  These are the words and thoughts of new fathers, new dads.  If these reflections remind you of an earlier time in your life, let them carry you back there.  If these reflections describe a future that is not yet yours, let them tickle your imagination.  If these words describe a reality that is not yours, whether by choice or circumstance, let them help you feel a holy connection with your fellow congregants.

In all honesty, I have to tell you that for about the first three or four months of being a father, I wasn’t sure that I was going to really connect with fatherhood.  I did feel an enormous sense of responsibility, an overwhelming sense of duty, but my heart was not exactly leaping either.  One of the new dads in our church wrote the following about his early days with his children,

My experience of the birth of my children was not one of instant unconditional love.  It was more of a “Hi... Sooooooo... you are moving in. Which is great!  We have been expecting you for a while now.  Really excited to get to know you.  Hope you like it here.  Well… ahh… ummm… Yeah, your Mother is terrific.  I can’t get enough of her either. What's that? Oh. Yes, I'll give you back to her.”  Who was this little guy that would be waking me, spitting on me, making diapers dirty for me, etc.  I needed time to get to know him before I was truly in love with him.  [My wife] had a completely different experience.  The kids came out and she was already in love.

After her maternity leave was over, Anne went back to work full-time.  Tuesdays are my day off and Tuesday became my father-daughter day with Lydia.  To be completely honest with you, for the first several months I completely dreaded Tuesdays.  I started each Tuesday morning by saying, “OK, mom is leaving.  For the next nine and half hours I have to keep you fed, dry, amused, and occupied.”  We’d read the same book three times in a row and I’d look up at the clock and see that only ten minutes had passed.  If we’re being honest about parenthood here, I’ll confess that I once even had to beg for Anne to come home from work early.  “Anne, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon, but I’m at wits end.  Please come home.”  At the beginning, I dreaded these days.  I put out an open invitation pleading for someone, for anyone, to drop by, visit, and help the time pass.

Then there was a switch, gradually, and Tuesdays with baby became tolerable and then even enjoyable.  Part of this was realizing that I could take her places – the museum, the zoo, the store.  But, more than that, it was a change in perspective from doing things for her to doing things with her, if that makes any sense at all.  It was a change from, “As your father I am bound by duty to do these things for you” to “As your father I get to do this with you – how wonderful.”  It was like a repositioning of my heart.  One new dad puts it this way:  “I just wonder what [my son] will discover and share with me.  I am excited to find out!  Every day I learn a little more about him.  That time together is what changes when you are a Father.  It is your air some days.” 

Just like I did for Mother’s Day, I sent an email to all the new dads in our church to ask them to share their reflections on fatherhood.  I was interested in the responses that I received.  Several men commented on how their identity as a protector or as a defender rose up within them instinctively.  Here’s how one new dad put it,

You know those forms you occasionally have to sign where it asks for the signature of a parent or guardian when the child is under the age of 18?  I think I now identify with both of those terms.  Not only am I a parent to my child, but I am also her guardian.  I am her protector from anything that could bring her harm.  And I would go to the ends of the earth to do so.  I've never felt so strongly about being this protective.  Don't get me wrong (and my wife might be a little offended if she heard me say this) - I certainly feel protective of her, but this is different.  A little baby is pretty helpless and needs you to be there - whether that's to protect them from touching something hot or from a booming thunderstorm outside.  As my daughter grows, I'll be there to protect her from dangers, whether they're real or imagined.  Trust me, I'll be pretty awesome at battling monsters under the bed and boogie men in the closet.  They won't stand a chance.

Another new dad put it even more succinctly, “I've been a bit surprised by the strong, innate feeling of protectiveness over my wife and my child. I can see now understand stories on TV about vigilante justice executed by dads against someone who harms their family.”

Similar responses came from just about every new dad who shared their experiences with me.  Let me tell you, these are guys I know and I would not describe any of them as extraordinarily macho, or aggressive, or combative.  They are actually some of the gentlest men I know.  I am led to believe that fatherhood probably includes a biological change in our body’s chemistry evoking a biological impulse towards vigilance and protectiveness.

Another reaction that several of the men in our church wrote about was a strong sense of feeling contented.  Their identity as a father gave them a sense of serenity and tranquility, at least when they weren’t zealously guarding their children from threats and dangers.  Here’s how one dad put it, “The overall experience of becoming a dad has brought me an overwhelming sense of calm. I used to toss and turn in my sleep, restless and feeling like I needed to be out and doing ‘something.’ I now sleep more soundly and I'm incredibly content with my life and my family.”  (I trust that this father was speaking metaphorically when he described sound sleeping.)

Another dad described fatherhood as more of a struggle.  “It has been a constant push and pull between work, marriage and fatherhood, that has at times, made me want to pull my hair out, drink a beer, and laugh and cry at the same time... but in the end I know that I will always look back at this as being one of the greatest periods of my life.”

My good colleague in Houston, Joanna Crawford, in the Father’s Day sermon that she is giving this morning, makes an interesting observation.  She notes how in our culture, how in our language, the words “father” and “mother” have quite similar meanings when we use these words as nouns. As nouns, the words “mother” and “father” are gendered versions of the word parent.  However, when the words “father” and “mother” are used as verbs in our culture, they have radically different meanings.  She explains that “to father” – the word used as a verb – means to sire, to contribute genetic material.  Think of that trashy day-time television show, I’m not even sure of the name of it, with the host who announces, “You are not the father.”  (I’m embarrassed that I even would mention this, except to say that this is an extremely limited view of fatherhood.  That’s all I’ll say on that subject.)

To mother, on the other hand, as we use this word as a verb in our language, means to nurture.  The verb “to mother” is not a statement about biology.  It is an affirmation of care, nurturing, concern, and attention.  I don’t want to belabor this point, but you could say, “She didn’t have any children herself but she mothered all the children in the neighborhood,” and everyone would understand what you meant.  Saying, “He fathered all the children in the neighborhood,” is to say something very different.  I’m grateful to Rev. Crawford for sharing this linguistic observation with me.

Her observation leads me to ask whether there is a dichotomy when it comes to the identities that women and men assume when they become parents.  The mothers who wrote to me last month about their experience of becoming new parents all wrote at length about what it meant for them in terms of changing identities, stepping into new roles, and often sacrificing or losing some part of themselves in the trade-off.  One mother wrote, “I’m occasionally concerned that I’m now a less interesting person to talk to.”  Another wrote, “Growing-up I just knew in my gut that there would never be time in my ‘conquer the world’ life for anything as time consuming as family.”

Compare those statements with these words from a new dad.  “Fatherhood. I have no idea where to start.  I remember life before my first child. And I understand how it was different, I think.  Honestly I am clueless.”

On the level of spirituality, on the level of identity, what I felt the most from the men who wrote about their experiences, and what I’m coming day by day to notice myself, is this sense that we are all stepping into this new identity and new role without a whole lot of direction or instruction and certainly not a model that we’re pressured to conform to.  I think that is true.  And there is something very Unitarian Universalist about this understanding of fatherhood.  I say this by no means to denigrate my own father, who is a great dad, or the heroic dads I know who are amazing with their children and display a grace of which I am envious.  And, when I speak of some degree of liberation in the role of fatherhood I am in no way denying the responsibility and duty inherent in fatherhood.

Emerson once told a graduating class of preachers, Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say ‘I am also a man.’”

Paraphrasing Emerson I might say, “Thank God for these good fathers, but say ‘I am also a dad.’  Dare to love your child without mediator or veil.”  This is overwhelmingly the sense I feel eight and half months into this adventure, eight and a half months along the path.  Like Denise Levertov I am filled with this sense that, “We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life.  How could we tire of hope?...  So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”

From a proud, joyful, tired, tentative, invested, and imperfect new dad to all the other new dads, to all the other dads, I sing out praises for the journey and bless your journey.

For all of us in this community – proud, joyful, tired, tentative, invested, and imperfect – may we bless the journeys of those in our midst, may we support one another on the paths we walk, may we praise the courage of the beginners in our midst, and may we savor the sweet June days.