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June 19, 2011: “Father’s Day: Beyond Neckties and Golf Balls”

“The place of the father in the modern suburban family,” wrote Bertrand Russell, “is a very small one, particularly if he plays golf.” And a small boy once defined Fathers’ Day; “It’s just like Mother’s Day only you don’t spend so much.”

Actually, of course, Father’s Day is very different from Mother’s Day because of course, fathers are very different than mothers. I know that’s stating the obvious, but it helps us understand why there are usually such intensely different feelings about the two holidays. After all, remember in nature, mother lions protect their young while King of the Jungle fathers try to eat theirs!

We often have conflicted feelings about our fathers and today more and more facilities are lacking the father figure in the home. Sometimes we struggle to forgive our fathers for so many reasons, like in this poem titled “forgiving our fathers” by Dick Lourie:

maybe in a dream: he’s in your power/ you twist his arm but you’re not sure it was
he that stole your money you feel calmer/ and you decide to let him go free

or he’s the one (as in a dream of mine)/ I must pull from the water but I never
knew it or wouldn’t have done it until/ I saw the street-theater play so close up
I was moved to actions I’d never before taken

maybe for leaving us too often or/ forever when we were little maybe
for scaring us with unexpected rage/ or making us nervous because there seemed
never to be any rage there at all

for marrying or not marrying our mothers/ for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers/ and shall we forgive them for their excesses
of warmth or coldness shall we forgive them

for pushing or leaning for shutting doors/ for speaking only through layers of cloth
or never speaking or never being silent

in our age or in theirs or in their deaths/ saying it to them or not saying it –
if we forgive our fathers what is left

My mother died in 1999, my father in 2001; I inherited the countless family pictures, most in old black and white, some going back more than 100 years. I’ve just begun finally to scan them, so I can send my siblings as well as my children, copies of our family history, our genealogy, our ancestors, after all. Unfortunately some of the photos aren’t identified, and none of my parent’s generation are left to help us figure out who they were. My grandfather Severance married again after his first wife died, and their two children were raised by my great aunt. My grandfather remarried- to my Grandmother, and they had my father as their only child. By the time my father was born, the other two children by the first marriage were almost grown and had not lived with them at all, so my father was an only child. I recently came across a great picture of my father as a young child, with one of those “bowl” haircuts standing beside his farther who was 37 at the time. Grandpa Severance was not known to be a particularly warm man, I was told, and he sure looks sour faced in the photo. Both he and my mother’s father died right around when I was born, so I didn’t know either of my grandfathers, and have always regretted that, especially since I was fortunate in having such wonderful grandmothers who both lived in to their late 90s.

Our fathers were, of course, influenced by their fathers who were influenced by their fathers and so on, just as we who are fathers were influenced by our fathers. And by that other person often referred to as “Our Father,” with all capitol letters. How can we not be religiously influenced when our very God is also our Father. Just putting these words together is confusing. Are we now talking about our biological father or our theological father, and doesn’t our relationship with our biological father deeply influence the one with our theological father? I will argue that we cannot properly even think of God until we can separate the two fathers and be aware of the difference as well as the similarities.

And fatherhood has changed with the generations; we rarely walk around in the waiting room any more, waiting for the nurse to come in and tell us whether it is a boy or a girl; no, since my baby-boomer generation, many of us have been right beside our significant others when they gave birth to the children who made us fathers! Watching my first daughter, Cristina being born was the most amazing spiritual experience I have ever had! In two weeks, we go to see her and celebrate her daughter’s first year birthday! I have in my office, a silhouette of a man pulling two children on a sled; it says, “Anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a Daddy!”

I keep it there to remind me of the awesome responsibility of being a father, hopefully a good father, one who is indeed worthy to be called “daddy.” The two pictures I chose to put on the front of this Father’s Day Order of service represent that circle of life, from the one that shows my father, holding me as an infant, to which my mother had written about him holding his “pride and joy,” that’s me! To one of my favorite pictures as a father, holding all three of my precious daughters on my lap in a rocking chair that belonged to my wife’s grandparents and in our kitchen of the first house we owned in Doylestown, PA.

I came across a wonderful story about what I think it means for we fathers to be worthy of: (Rev. Richard Fairchild tells about a story that appeared years ago in the Christian Reader). It was called “Priceless Scribbles.” It concerns a father who touched his child’s life in an unexpected way. A young boy watched as his father walked into the living room. The boy noticed that his younger brother, John, began to cower slightly as his father entered. The older boy sensed that John had done something wrong. Then he saw from a distance what his brother had done. The younger boy had opened his father’s brand new hymnal and scribbled all over the first page with a pen.

Staring at their father fearfully, both brothers waited for John’s punishment. Their father picked up his prized hymnal, looked at it carefully and then sat down, without saying a word. Books were precious to him; he was a minister with several academic degrees. For him, books were knowledge. What he did next was remarkable, says the author of this story. Instead of punishing his brother, instead of scolding, or yelling, his father took the pen from the little boy’s hand, and then wrote in the book himself, alongside the scribbles that John had made. Here is what that father wrote: “John’s work, 1959, age 2. How many times have I looked into your beautiful face and into your warm, alert eyes looking up at me and thanked God for the one who has now scribbled in my new hymnal. You have made the book sacred, as have your brother and sister to so much of my life.”

“Wow,” thought the older brother, “this is punishment?” The author of the story, now an adult, goes on to say how that hymnal became a treasured family possession, how it was tangible proof that their parents loved them, how it taught the lesson that what really matters is people, not objects; patience, not judgment; love, not anger. (Richard Fairchild, adapted by King Duncan)

Oh, most of us were probably not so fortunate to have a perfect loving father, but most of our fathers did the best they could under the circumstances they had to work with, and sometimes our real fathers turn out not to be our biological fathers but influential men in our lives, whether they be stepfathers, teachers, coaches, mentors, we have all been fathered in many different ways. “It no longer bothers me that I may be constantly searching for father figures, writes Alice Walker; “by this time, I have found several and dearly enjoyed knowing them all.”

I wrote this poem after my father died and recently added a new ending; it’s called “Father Death”
God, the Father and Father, the God
Abbas, Daddy, Dad, finally Pop
The father figure, cut down like a mighty oak to the grim reaper’s scythe.
It is the stuff of ancient myths and Bible stories that we live right now.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,
forgive me.
Like the myths and Bible stories,
we all seek our all too human father’s blessing.

We are all prodigal sons and daughters,
always coming home after screwing up somehow.

We live in relation to family and to religion,
by whatever name we grow under,
as we live through
our Shakespearean time upon the stage,
so do fathers.
Once they were babies
and had their own fathers and grandfathers, then suddenly one day, they found themselves the father,
the grandfather

And so the circle of life goes on,
full of love, and please, forgiveness,
for our shortcomings. A. Severance

Here’s one of my favorite pieces from the film “Smoke Signals,” written by the Native American writer, Sherman Alexie:

“How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever when we were little?

Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all. Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?

For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth? or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning? Or shutting doors? Or speaking through walls? Or never speaking? Or never being silent? Will we forgive our fathers in our age? Or in theirs? Or in their death? If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”

So I wrote this last poem for this service with the picture of him holding me on the cover today in mind.

Thank you for my life
and your love;
Thank you for the lessons
though sometimes painfully learned.

Thank you for your faults
for we were never meant to be perfect
And now I have plenty of my own.

Thank you for all your hard work
as well as your vacations
Thank you for doing your part
of creating the family life
of a wonderful childhood and beyond.

Thank you for encouraging me
to be all that I could imagine and dream Even when you emphasized the practical.

Thank you, Harry Vernal Severance,
for who you were
which somehow
influenced who I am
As a father and a person.

Thanks for the picture of you asleep,
holding me in your arms
I just new born and lovingly protected. A. Severance

Happy Fathers Day!