Blessed Complications of Fatherhood

A Father’s Day Sermon

High Street UU, Macon, GA – June 21, 2015

Opening Words

A Vignette with assistance from Mary Lou Ezell, Worship Leader

Mary Lou:  Our opening words come from an encounter at a book signing. The author is Brené Brown, who was signing her book that addressed the shame and vulnerability of women. A man insisted on talking to Brené against the wishes of his wife.

Earl: “I really liked everything you said. I really like this idea of reaching out and telling our stories and showing up, but you didn’t mention men.”

Mary Lou: “I don’t study men.”

Earl:  “Well, that’s convenient. We have shame, we have deep shame, but when we reach out and tell our stories, we get the emotional [bleep] beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those brothers and those bully friends, my wife and three daughters, the ones who you just signed the books for, they had rather see me die on top of my white horse than have to watch me fall off.”

Mary Lou: Brené Brown knew her future research would be profoundly different.

Sermon*

Thich Nhat Hanh caligraphy: you are, therefore I amBuddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says “You are, therefore I am” – This is true on several levels. For example, I am a father, because of a young woman and a young boy having manifested into this world as tiny, perfect Buddha beings.

“You are, therefore I am” – this is not a differentiation, where we draw a line between you and me and declare two separate parts. It is instead a declaration of interbeing, of connectedness. My mother and father are sitting over there, but when I look at my hand, I see my mother’s hand and my father’s hand, they are both within me, both biologically and spiritually – we inter-are. So my hand, my existence, is not really “me” but a continuation of my mother and father, just as they are continuations of their parents, and our son is a continuation of his mother and me and all our ancestors. All our ancestors are with us, and whether or not we have biological children, we continue on into the future with every life that we touch. The same is true of everyone here – we inter-are as a church community, as humans, as spirits moving through this world. This interbeing shows that our seventh principle of the respect for the interdependent web of life is not just biological, but extends to emotional/spiritual realm of our relationships.

The deeper we look, the more we can see how we inter-are – “husband” cannot exist without “wife” or whatever we name each partner. “Father”, “Mother”, “Child” – however the family is constituted – all exist in interbeing with each other. We influence each other on so many levels.  Our roles are defined because of the roles others play. Our own definition of our role is dramatically shaped by the definition of roles brought in by others. This is not to say that we are at the mercy of others – quite the opposite – we are empowered by healthy interbeing.

Some levels of this being defined by others or by tradition, however, is not always healthy.

In the chaplaincy work I have recently started, I have seen the emotions of fathers, men who are veterans who have seen atrocious violence in war, and yet they find it a much harder experience to watch their child die, even an adult child, die. Tough guys who have survived so much will cry and sob and grieve the death of their child. This is as it should be. Mothers grieve as well, but there seems to be some sort of greater self-acceptance of their grief, they seem to have more permission to cry. I want my son to have permission to cry. I will never tell him that “boys don’t cry” or that he needs to “man up.” What does it mean to “be a man”?? The popular concept of the role “be a man” is not how I want to be or how I want my son to be. Men are almost always the perpetrators of the most violent acts that we see in the news, including the tragic shooting in Charleston last Wednesday. We need a more gentle concept of man, and we need to be more aware about how we impose roles on each other.

Men have been defining women for so many centuries, men have been in charge, deciding how things should be. Men haven’t been trying to stay in control just out of spiteful meanness, but rather because it isn’t comfortable to be defined by the other, especially when our interbeing is not honored.

So how do we reframe “manhood” to be more compassionate? Men have the overwhelming responsibility for reshaping this role transition, but we cannot do it alone. As interbeings, we need women to help us. And women are already in their own role transitions.

I have no real idea what it is like to be a woman in today’s changing landscape. These changes  have been way too long in coming, and there is still much to be done. Great uncertainty still persists. It may be better to be a woman today than a hundred years ago, but in some ways, much harder.

Unfortunately, women still often see themselves through the eyes of men, to see themselves as men see them. Here again, we inter-are and too often men contribute to the unhealthy self-images that women hold. Men all too often control the media messages that try to define women. There is a group called “the representation project” that is addressing this problem through public awareness and great educational materials. They say that:

There is a direct correlation between media consumption and self-perception: the more hours of TV a girl watches, the less secure she is and the fewer options she thinks she has in life. The more hours a boy watches, the more sexist and violent his views and behavior become.[1]

Just shutting off television will not stop the onslaught of unhealthy representations of gender roles. We would also need to address the Internet, magazines, billboards, mall store windows, video games, and more… you get the picture…

The unhealthy perceptions run deep and start early in life. For example, a recent study found that 70% of 10 year old girls are afraid of becoming fat. We are also not serving our boys well, as they are disproportionately victims of violence, including suicide.

What happens when we tell our little girls how pretty they are, while little boys are praised for being strong or fast or smart? Don’t stop praising, but consider the gendered bias in our praise.

So, what do we do? We can’t simply step out of our gender identity or perspective, any more than a fish can simply step out of its world of water.  But we can become aware of the water in which we swim.

Even the fish, mostly unaware of the water environment, found the way to crawl up out of the water and evolve to survive on land. So we have a good chance to help change our social environment, given that we can become aware of what is going on. And social constructs are changing for the better for women, albeit slowly. This changing world for women brings a corresponding change for men, and I am not so certain men are achieving our changes quite as gracefully as women are. And we may not be doing all we can to help each other grow into our new roles. Parenting is the frontline for this change.

I do know that it was scary and hard for me to raise my now 27 year-old daughter, as a single father with custody. I knew I wanted her to be strong and independent, to not put up with any man who tried to suppress or abuse her. But even as uncertain as I was raising her, I often feel even more at a loss on how to raise a compassionate, sensitive, egalitarian son. I know I need to teach him mindfulness. I need to model awareness. I am blessed that I am not raising him alone – his magnificent mother, NyKi,* is carrying most of the load of raising him right now.

We are inter-parenting, if I can be allowed to use an emerging term. We are learning to be more aware of how we parent and how this affects the other. I need NyKi* to inter-parent with me.

We are always going to parent differently – “getting on the same page” or “showing a united front” is limited to areas such as common values or establishing rules and consequences. When it comes to how we relate to our children, we are going to be different individuals, as we should be. As a friend paraphrased a saying, “the first child is porcelain, the second child is rubber.”  Since he is her first child and my second, there will be differences!

What I need from her is a willingness to talk and work together to address those things that I might do that undermine her way of being with our son. For example, I have tried to address one problem caused by differences – Kim* and I rough-house in a fairly physical manner – upside-down, flips through the air, a lot of fun – after all, he is rubber! It is usually safe for him to fling himself backwards out of my arms, where I would catch him and swing him around. But when he does this unexpectedly with his mother, it gets scary dangerous. I have tried honor his mother’s porcelain view and to make it more clear to Kim* when playtime starts and ends so that he is less likely to initiate such play without warning.

This is an ongoing process – we are not ever done – but the point is that I cannot be a good father without NyKi’s* engagement with me – we both must engage to inter-parent.

But how is it that we inter-are together? The vignette in the opening reading gives insight into inter-parenting and all inter-relationships. One lesson from that story is that we are not as different as the social-role boxes that try define us. Men experience all the same emotions and women – including shame. We all struggle with letting go of our socially-conditioned expectations of the other’s roles in our interbeing. We all struggle to some degree with being vulnerable in a courageous way – especially when it comes to those intimate relationships that are an ever-so-rich ground for personal spiritual growth.

Being vulnerable is not easy, especially for men socialized in the old American rugged individualist way.  Charles Schultz, in his Peanuts comic strip, illustrated what could happen if a guy was vulnerable… do you remember Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick? At the last second, Lucy would pull the ball away and Charlie Brown would go flying. Fortunately, most women are not Lucy, but there can be a reaction to vulnerability. Do you encourage and support or do you push your partner to withdraw as a defense? Like the man in the opening, we need to reach out, tell our stories, and be vulnerable, and fortunately, more and more partners are accepting this need and not beating the emotional [bleep] out of the other… they no longer need to pull the football away at the last second as Lucy needed to. We men need to support women in being strong without needing to tear anyone down. This is a function of inter-being, to see that we do not need to weaken the other to strengthen ourselves – it is not an either-or, but a both-and – we are both strong and weak together. We want to teach our children, and learn ourselves, that we do not need Lucy’s type of strength and we need to make it safe to keep putting ourselves out there like Charlie Brown.

Another lesson from our man at the book signing is that men in shining armor riding to the rescue is not usually a healthy way to inter-be in a relationship. I was raised to be strong and independent and to be there for my family. These are not bad character traits. But I took it to an extreme in that I believed that it was my job as a man to fix things. Unfortunately, I took on the role of the fixer of my wife’s problems, and things went really bad, because I did not approach this as interbeing, but as a knight on a white horse. There are healthy ways to be there with each other and our children through tough times. Women often model this well, when we see how women fix things, such as skinned knees, broken hearts, bad haircuts, and relationships gone awry. As the traditional gender roles change, we see more women in jobs where they repair, manage or build things, and more men in jobs where they provide compassionate care. These evolving roles allow interbeing where the man the man can fall off of his white horse and he does not have to get back on. Instead, how about we walk together, hand in hand?

So now that I am off of my white horse, I can be there more fully for my son. Instead of me riding alone to the rescue, we can work together in partnership. It is part of evolving roles towards interbeing. This evolution also dispels old hetero-sexist roles. Instead of men teaching sons into a rigid patriarchal way of being, we now have parents nurturing children into caring adults. Boys need to learn early that they are not going to be in control, instead, parents need to teach their children to be truly loving compassionate, egalitarian partners and parents, if being a parent is what is right for them. Girls and boys need to learn relationships of interbeing, where they define each other in ways that allow each other to be their true selves.

So, not so many years ago, a father stayed in the delivery ward waiting room until the doctor came and told him that the baby arrived. Now, a father wears a hospital gown, learns how to coach Mother’s breathing, and makes sure the video camera has a charged battery. This is only the the beginning of how fatherhood might be considered more complicated. It is certainly a blessed complication.

Benediction

As we leave and go our separate ways, let us remember that we are still truly connected in so many ways. May we all recognize the many ways in which our Fathers and Mothers are with us everywhere we go. May we find ways to nurture ways of interbeing.


*This is the sermon as written – I am almost always moved to add some extemporaneous extras – I also used nicknames online for my family members…

[1] Statistic courtesy of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.