Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, June 18, 2023
Today is Ellen and my 26th wedding anniversary. It’s a pretty important day in my life. Most of you know Ellen; perhaps you can understand how very fortunate I feel to have her as my life partner. Our very best project together has been being the parents of two wonderful boys – men now – who bring us great pride and joy.
So another thing about today is that it’s Father’s Day. Today I want to say a few things about fatherhood, which is pretty important to me — being a father myself twice over.
The Bible might seem to be a place to start; it’s often a place we start when we think about important things. But the Bible – at least in my reading – turns out to be an odd place to look for understanding fathers. Think about the New Testament. Joseph is a most unusual father because he had to adjust to the fact that his wife-to-be was pregnant even before he married her, and not by his doing. He seems to have been a good father, but he pretty much disappears in the gospels after the nativity story. Jesus isn’t a father in any human sense. Nothing is said about the disciples being fathers. The same with Paul. And so forth: there’s just not much there about fathers.
There are more fathers mentioned in the Hebrew Testament, but not many positive exemplars. Moses had a father named Amram. But his wife, after hiding the baby for a few months, put him in a basket to float him downstream. Amram didn’t play much of a role in Moses’s life growing up. Abraham had a son – Isaac – quite late in life. Then God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the boy, and Abraham was ready to do it until God stopped him at the last minute.
Samuel was the son of Elknah, born after Elknah’s wife, Hannah, had prayed for a child. When that prayer was answered, she sent the young boy off to serve the priest at Shiloh. So Elknah didn’t play much of a role as father. David was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons. He became a shepherd until Samuel came for him and sent him on the road to serving in King Saul’s court. Eventually David became Saul’s successor as king. I guess Jesse was a good father, but we don’t know much about that.
Get the picture? There’s not much about what fathers do in raising their children in the Bible. It isn’t a story about fathers who help mold their children and set them on the right path. I don’t know quite what to make of that. But I will say it’s one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with people saying the Bible has a lot to teach us about marriage or the family. Its focus is elsewhere.
And there’s this: the Bible, or at least most translations, keep referring to God as “our Father,” confusing “fathers” with “God.” The nature of “God” is a beyond-me topic for me, but I’m pretty clear that being a father isn’t being God-like. I don’t think that’s a good way to think about it. There are too many mistakes and too much impatience and worry in being a Dad to have it resemble God.
So let me speak more personally – about my experience. About being a father.
I’m a father of two wonderful sons, Tommy and Robbie. I also had a wonderful father, and he had a father. (The fathers going further back I only know about from family stories and obituaries and census records.)
My father’s name was Frank, and his father’s name was Frank. Frank (Senior) always called my dad, “Son.” Invariably. I don’t think I ever heard him call him anything else. Neither Frank was ever given to expressing much emotion (they were men from New England, after all), so it took some years to realize that part of my grandfather calling my dad “Son” was an expression of how important it was that he had a son. Being a father meant a lot to him, even if he didn’t seem to show that much in an outward way. I now think it may have been the most important thing in his life.
Well, “Son” (Frank Jr.) had a son – that’s me – and now I have two sons. And the older one has two daughters. So it goes on, and on, and on. Today, on Father’s Day, I miss my own Dad more than I could ever tell you, and I miss my grandfather, too. And today, especially, I get why it was a big deal for my grandfather to have a son — two sons, actually — how proud he was, and how many big expectations he had for his sons. (I also miss Ellen’s dad, a very special man, and I know she does, too.)
Big expectations: I’ll come back to those.
Time has passed; I’ve grown up and, well, grown old. I called my mother’s father, at his request, simply Bob or Bobby. That was just who he was. He was delightful. I called my father’s father (Frank, Sr.) “Dad’s Dad.” It seemed perfectly straightforward, until I began to realize that my friends had various other names for their grandfathers, but none of them had a “Dad’s Dad.” When I became a grandfather, my son Tommy asked me what I wanted to be called, and it was immediately clear as day: I wanted to be “Dad’s Dad.” And so I am. Once I had a Dad’s Dad; now I am Dad’s Dad. If my granddaughters were here today, they might tell you I do a lot of “goofin’ around.”
It’s more than just the name or the title. I’ve begun to look like my Dad’s Dad. My walk looks like his, and so on. I’ve stepped into the role, and there’s nothing more important to me than being a Dad and a Dad’s Dad.
So what do Dads do?
I once heard a child psychologist talk about being a father. I love this pithy sentence from him: “My job is to love my children unconditionally and to design consequences.” The loving your children unconditionally is big and mysterious in some ways, but I think you get that part of his instruction. “Designing consequences?” I think he meant children need to learn that what we do has consequences, some good, some terrible, and in growing up we need to be aware of those consequences. We don’t want our children to experience what happens if they get hit by a car so we tell them they shouldn’t play in the street and that there will be a consequence if they disregard that guidance. They might have to go to their room, or sit on the front steps for a while. We design consequences, mild, instructive consequences that show them the way.
Being a father is about providing, about supporting, about teaching. Sometimes it is about comforting your children when they are sick or sad, and sometimes it is about setting limits when you think children may cause harm to themselves or others.
Being a father is also about tickling and about singing silly songs. It’s about “goofin’ around.” It’s about walking your child back to sleep in the middle of the night. It’s about building Lego castles and cars, about special birthdays and birthday cakes, about helping your child ride a tricycle and then a bicycle and then (if you’re lucky) a unicycle and then watching him ride a very tall unicycle (that’s a giraffe) in big parades. Or so it was for me. It’s about helping with math homework and showing how to drive a stick shift car. And then it’s about having him show me things.
A very hard part of being a father is having expectations for your children. Expectations. In a word or two: it’s important to have expectations and it’s just as important to let them go. How do you know when it’s right to do each, having expectations and letting them go? That’s a toughie. I realize how important it was to me that my dad had expectations for me: high expectations. He wanted me to do well in school, and perhaps become a chemist like him. I know that it was hard for my dad when I veered off in directions different from his expectations.
We had some tough conflicts over his expectations and my choices. I’ll spare you the drama; we got through them, eventually. And again, I want to say that I’m glad he had those expectations, and even gladder that he could let them go. He let me make my own choices. I still live within the framework of some of his expectations – those expectations I chose to accept. I try to be someone he’d be proud of.
Fatherhood: having expectations, presenting those expectations day-by-day, and then letting them go, or at least some of them. That’s the deal, along with unconditional love.
Maybe that’s what I find so strange about the dads in the Bible. There’s nothing said about their expectations for their children. Not Joseph for Jesus. Not Amram for Moses. Not Abraham for Isaac. Not Elknah for Samuel. Not Jesse for David. For Jesus, for Moses, for Isaac, for Samuel, for David what’s in the Bible is all about God’s expectations for them, and the importance of embracing those expectations.
I listen for God’s expectations, too. That’s supremely important. Most weeks that’s what we’re here talking about, God’s expectations for each of us and for all of us. Still, I would have wanted Jesus and Moses and Isaac and Samuel and David to have earthly dads, too, who had expectations for their sons, high expectations —and then let them find their own way.
Happy Father’s Day one and all.