Loving, Caring, and Fatherhood (6-16-2019)

Good Morning! And, thank you Isaac for the Cat Stevens song, “Father and Son.” I like the song for having both the words of affection and the son, in the end, being his own person. There is the caring and the appreciation and the response of the son importantly saying that it was time for him leave. And, thank you Jeremy for singing about fathers and daughters. You are there! And, yes, clearly, I am a son, a father, and also a grandfather of seven with help from our two sons and our daughter, Rachel whom many of you know, and their partners!

So, having shared my obvious credentials for today’s, “Father’s Day” sermon, I need to say up front, unequivocally, “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” and even “Grandparents Day” should be replaced with “Parenting Day.” There is not a single day that goes by that doesn’t offer the challenge to every single one of us to be a caring person to children and young people directly and indirectly. There are the children in our church, neighborhood, schools and, yes, children in immigrant detention centers whose parents, to borrow from a Woody Guthrie song, don’t have names, they are just called “deportees.” Children need our parenting embrace regardless of the racism and classism that separates.

I also need to say, up front, each of us is our own person, and, when it comes to the little ones, they too are their own persons. We don’t own them; they are entrusted to us. They are their own persons, and the time comes for us to let them go. Interestingly, usually, there are no guarantees, as we let them go, they will find their own ways back to us as their own persons. Sometimes life gets complicated and, for any number of dependency needs, some need to be pushed to get out on their own. But basically, if we don’t let them go, we make it very hard for them to come back.

Mother’s Day became a US Holiday in 1918 in very patriarchal time; women did not have the vote. Father’s Day, did not become official in the United States until 1966 when Lyndon Johnson was president. I wondered at that time, I was 26, if the announcement was politically motivated as a distraction to the pain of the Vietnam War. I was already a father with a baby son and wondering if my baby son would be facing the draft to fight in the seemingly endless morass that was the Vietnam War.

But fatherhood itself? Like my father before me, I was excited to be a father and totally in awe of this new life. The 60’s was a transition time as to the proper place for women and men relative to babies. It is illustrated by the fact that when son David was born in 1963, I was consigned to the waiting room. When son Daniel was born in 1966, I was allowed to be with Laurie, my wife—his Mom—in the Labor Room. But, in 1969, when Rachel was born, I got to be with Laurie the whole way, which was Laurie’s favorite!

As a kid, my family had celebrated Mother’ Day which was just fine. Mom’s are important and my Mom was a skilled hands on Mom and a very good cook. Fortunately, for me, my Dad was a hands on parent as well. Maybe he followed the example his Dad had set as a caring person. My grandmother died of breast cancer when my Dad was nine years old—and so maybe my Grand Daddy became the hands on parent by default.

The standard model was that babies and children were women’s work and that women, once through mothering, could be teachers or nurses, if they wanted. Laurie and I followed the same model with Laurie going to work when Rachel, our youngest was PreK age.

Our children were fascinating to me and I was inclined to follow my father’s pattern and Laurie was completely supportive of my being involved from the get go. I would take a turn changing a diaper and then rocking and crooning to the baby, off tune. Laurie would take a turn and sing to the baby on tune! Our babies were diplomatic enough to enjoy both on tune and off tune!

I became very aware of the importance of hands on parenting from the beginning in the first years of my full time ministry in the Episcopal Church. It was largely youth ministry. Parents appreciated the church’s work with their youth and my time with them. And, adolescents being adolescents, parents would ask me for advice. What I discovered was that often the Dad was ineffective because he had not been a hands on Dad with his kid as a baby and child. That experience cemented in me that I was going down the road of being hands on the whole way. Interestingly, as time went on, our kids expected it of me, and, when there was those times I was putting in too much time into work, they would let me know it in their own unique ways. I understood.

The times have changed and far more often now, fathers are hands on. There is talk of expanding a thing called “Paternity Leave,” and, I heard recently, a few outfits are going the route of “Parental Leave.” There was no such thing as “Paternity Leave” and certainly not “Parental Leave” when I was a young Dad.

Things can and do change. The first church I served in was St. Peter’s Church in Morristown New Jersey from 1966 to 1970. To its credit, it was strongly invested in its religious education programs and its youth ministry. However, there were not any men involved until we got to the high school aged youth. Contrast that to us here at UUCSS: Dad’s are involved! Laurie and two other women plus a Dad named Dan make up the preK teaching team. There are other Dad’s involved and there is room for more guys! I celebrate that this church, you, work so very hard for our children and youth. Some might call it ministry; I call it parenting!

A problem underlying our whole Mother’s Day and Father’s Day thing is that it assumes the nuclear family of Mom and Dad and kids is how things are meant to be. The assumption is wrong because mothers and fathers need a larger base for their children than just themselves. The nuclear family was what was sold when I was growing up.

A favorite long running TV show was the Ozzie and Harriet Show. There was Ozzie Nelson who happened to have gone to Rutgers University with my father, there was Harriet who was just as nice as could be, never strict like my Mom was sometimes, and then the oldest boy David, who was my brother’s age, and the second boy, Ricky, was my age and, occasionally, a little mischievous, like me. I mean, the model was enshrined in front of me on a black and white TV! If it is on TV it must be the deal!

But historically, “traditional” family was much more likely to be an extended family. I have pictures of my mother’s farming family from out on the North Fork of Long Island early 1900’s which showed the majority of the family would gather at my Great Grandfather and Grandmother Beebe’s home for the weekly Sunday family gathering. There would be some 30 of them including aunts and uncles some single, widows, widowers parents and kids. All of them were involved in differing ways, but involved, in the caring and support of everyone in the family. There was my grandmother with mental health issues, an alcoholic uncle and imperfect relationships and, at the same time, a network of caring people and, at the end of the day, parenting from a variety of directions for every child there. My mother’s family model is probably, from a historic perspective, more “traditional” than the emphasis on the nuclear family. It allowed for many to be involved in “parenting” children along the way, including some single aunts and uncles who were part of the children’s support system. In today’s world, some of them might refer to themselves as “gay.”

And that leads me to now and why I believe the celebration should be called, “Parenting Day.” How many of us are parents, or grandparents by adoption? Many of us. Two of our grandchildren’s birth mother is our daughter’s partner, Sandra. And the first time I held the gift of these two new lives, I was as totally in awe of them and delight and love them as with our first child the day I first held him. And, I know we have adopted children here and their parents experience is repeated, in this place many times over; I can see it in your eyes and the eyes of your “adoptees,” your children.

There are those among us for medical reasons or by reasons of choice are not biological parents but adoptive parents. There is both widening legal and social embrace of same sex parents and people in untraditional families are seen to be a good and caring parents. And what is true of “traditional” and “untraditional” families is the need for extended family/community to be involved in the care and support of children and young people. An extra pair of hands with our infants can be so valuable and any insights and wisdom by the time they are adolescents is most welcome. And there are times when things come apart in our lives emotionally, physically or circumstantially. And we need help and the more community and functional, extended family available, the better it is for us and our children. And, when things are going along pretty well, as extended family, as a church, as a community, we can do more to reach out and be parenting people to the newcomer, to the kids in our schools, to people who are from afar and would be excluded by some. The model family of father and mother plus children can be lonesome and isolating.!

Two personal experiences: On December 2, 1974, I had started work as a welfare supervisor with the State of New Hampshire. We had three young children and were renting a small home in Salem, NH. At 5:00 AM son David was awakened by the noise of a fire burning in the basement and the smell of smoke starting to fill the rooms. He awoke us and we fled to the nearest neighbor and called the fire department which came and put out the fire before everything in the house was destroyed. We were lucky to be alive but our world was turned upside down with belongings destroyed and absolutely everything else smoke damaged, even food in the freezer that was still frozen. It was incredible and we were overwhelmed.

But a miracle happened, people we knew from church showed up, neighbors came, and all our smoked damaged clothing, linens and towels went out the door and in a few days it all came back—fresh and folded. Extended family sent money for a first month’s rent and deposit on a new place to live and helped us move. It would have been better if they had been physically present. We were scared, traumatized and we were loved and cared for by friends, church and neighbors—and moved into a new
home and back to full speed within two weeks. The love we received in the face of that adversity was essential to Laurie and I and our now three quite grown children. The experience deepened our values and commitments.

Nine years later, as part of my Master’s Study in Public Administration, I used my access to the data and welfare files in the District Welfare Office I supervised to study variables in what enabled families on the AFDC Program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now called TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to get off the program. The finding: 75% of the households were on the program less than two years. The question: what was the biggest single factor enabling those households to move past being on the program? Answer: those who had functional, extended family and/or the support of a community support group, frequently church.

So, this work of parenting needs to happen in so many ways and forms. Parenting takes time and resources; it poses challenges and risks; it requires that we give of ourselves without a guarantee of return; it rewards us with joy and sometimes pain; and, at the end of the day, we all need to help each other be the best parents we can. All of us have known times when we needed help with our children and offered help to others when needed. But, sub-conciously, the Ozzie and Harriet model is alive and well in us. What I fear is that it reinforces the racist and class limiting dynamics of our society. We do struggle with these things to our credit in a social justice context, but I hesitate, for a moment, when I say, “Happy Father’s Day.”

Earlier in the service, we had a brief reading from the Gospel of Matthew with the familiar account of “Let the little ones come to me. Of such is the Kingdom of God.” The account stands out in the context of those times because people could be a commodity and varyingly classified and children sold. The lesson means all of the children. Not just those from the right geography, families with correct religious beliefs, or economically and political correct groups. And so, despite exclusionary language and often hateful language from too many political leaders and too many religious
leaders, there are those words of invitation. I read them as calling all of us to be parents to all children.

Inclusive Church folk, including all good Unitarian Universalists, and the many inclusive Episcopalians I happen to know, we need to work on parenting to make sure we adults don’t get stuck in our own needs and comforts. So I say this to myself and to you: We will not say children are not important but they can become secondary and then incidental in our own scheme of things.

Two examples:
One, St. James Episcopal Church of Bowie: I conducted services there once a month for three years. An older corp of members who also happened to be the largest contributors didn’t want changes to what they knew including going back to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Changes were needed to meet the needs of young families. The church died and is now closed.

Two, Davies Memorial UU Church, Camp Springs: we attended there for 12 years. It got hit with a number of problems including ones having to do with its ministers. Things got tight and the majority of the older members, the more major contributors, chose to not risk over-extending the church financially, and not at the risk of meeting their needs. So, they cut way back on its Religious Education Program and the program went from 50 children to 5 children. Davies is slowly pulling itself together.

Rachel and Sandra with three young children could not wait eight years for Davies to find its way to rebuilding its RE Program. Parenting, caring for children is one of those, right now things. So, with them, we found our way here. Then, lo and behold, this church finds itself dealing with some hurt and pain. Our Religious Education and Youth programs, however, were a continuing top priority. Our “Dreamers” were not, are not on the table as a bargaining chip. To everyone here, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring is a parenting church—children near and away. And so it should be. Every day should be a “Parenting Day.”

A brief closing note: I chose a water color picture of a Clammer for the cover of the bulletin. It happens to be me painted by a neighbor, unbeknownst to me, digging clams in Peconic Bay on the North shore of Long Island. It is a metaphor of being a parent! It takes time, patience, persistence, endurance, strength and a skilled, gentle touch. The fruit of the effort is wonderful but with some rough spots along the way—like tangling with a stinging jelly fish or pulling up a sand crab or stepping on a sharp razor clam. But the results…. And so I wish you happy parenting and good clamming!