Monday, June 22, 2009

There's more than one way to become a Father....

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

—Gerard Manley Hopkins

As I heard one person after another rise to thank their departing pastor for his time with them, all with cherishing words and some quite misty-eyed, I could feel the waves of affection for The Leader move through the room. When C. S. Lewis outlined the “four loves” — affection, friendship, eros, and charity — I’m not sure he mentions love for good leaders. Probably it’s a combination of friendship and affection, but, most certainly, it is an abiding, often pivotal factor in the affairs of human groups.

This evangelical Methodist church family wouldn’t think of calling their pastor “Father,” and the man isn’t even pushing forty yet, but he was clearly seen not only as preacher, team captain, and shepherd, but as spiritual father as well, whatever the congregant’s age. And what does age have to do with something as archetypal as fathering anyway? This special way of caring and mentoring works through uncles and teachers, coaches and drill sergeants as well as those men who father a child biologically and hang around to help raise them.

Sitting at that farewell party, I felt that my Father’s Day afternoon was already full of meaning, even before arriving at my father-in-law’s celebration, because it made so clear that there’s more than one way to be a father.


The fathering-spirit requires only that a person be “older” in wisdom about a particular aspect of human life, and wish to share it with someone less fully formed in that wisdom with a particular kind of caring, a caring that combines encouragement and expectation with affection and acceptance. Children, boys and girls alike, who have a biological father with this care to mentor lovingly are doubly blessed: they live cheek-by-jowl with their genetic progenitor as well as living in the atmosphere of his desire that they grow strong and true into their fullest selves. Those who don’t have such a biological father with them will need to find an alternative father-love somewhere else, sooner or later, or be bereft of it.

Mothers bring their own kind of love, of course, to the enterprise, and much of it overlaps with father-love, so much so that more than one mother in human history has had to tackle both jobs with their children. But fathers themselves, biological and alternative, are still the most likely to embody this kind of love, for it consists not only of actions and attitudes, but the subtle energy of what the poet Robert Bly calls “body resonance” as well. Gender differences cannot be entirely captured by words, for we are, after all bodies too, male and female, so alike and yet so very different all at the same time.

This Father’s Day was further enriched by calls and emails from my “children," pictured above. I use quotes because my wife and I have no physical offspring (not by choice, but by circumstance. And yet I find myself, at an advancing age, richly blessed with the four kids I always wanted. Though from different genetic lines, they have come into my life for friendship and fathering. In fact, our family size may well not stop at four. Yes, the bass note of biological identity is not there, but the relationship is so affectionally real that we are in the process of adopting each other as godfather and godchildren.

I know from my own life-journey how important alternative fathering is. I wonder if any boy or girl reaches full maturing without more than one father (or, for that matter, one mother). And for men in their youth who had a father not-fully-present to the task, as mine wasn’t in spite of his best efforts, the need is greater still. Without uncle Karl, childless himself, who was always so delighted to hear what I was doing, or Peter, the Christian college worker who saw me as a spiritual son, or Howard who loved something special in me, or Guy who adopted me as a kind of godson, I don’t know what kind of man I would be. Now I get to return the favor.

"He fathers forth whose beauty is past praise..."

If the great Mystery that brought us all into being, that Reality we call “God,” actually cares that we humans grow up into our full stature as partners in the human venture, it’s little wonder so many traditions call it “Father.” Of course, humanity once knew (and needs to learn again) that this Source is also, appropriately, called “Mother” as well as many other names, Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Love among them. Whatever the ultimate nature of the Mystery, one Name cannot possibly capture all Its ways of working to shape us toward strength and real goodness.

But “Father” is surely one of them, and there is little wisdom in the tendency of some current religious types to purge the term from our prayers land theology, even if some folks have had such a bad experience of fathering that they are allergic to the term. The task is not to throw the Father out, as is the wont of some, but bring Mother and all those other Names into real prominence in our thought and worship.

In the Episcopal church at least, there is a God-neutering brigade that would deprive us of Father and Mother both with the lackluster “Parent” or the less-than-descriptive generic “God” repeated endlessly: “God has sworn by Godself that God will not...” They are, of course, then stubbornly opposed by others who literalize the patriarchal language to the point of idolatry. The Godself avalanche in some places sometimes seems me the Liberal way to avoid breaking through to a new/old mode and saying Her as well as Him outright, right there in the liturgy, often.

OK, I understand that, granted the unjust suppression of the feminine in history, some iconoclasm may be necessary, but does no one understand (on either side) anymore the power—and limits—of metaphor anymore? Ease up guys. Let the Hundred Names of God flourish! “The kingdom (sic) of God consists not in words, but in God’s power” as Paul reminds the quarreling Corinthians.

How could I even think of discarding "Father" when, made in the image of God as I am, along with all men and women, father-love arises so strongly in me. If it's not in God, why is it arising so naturally from the ground of my being? Being blessed with these recently arrived godchildren, (to say nothing of my beloved nephews and nieces who have their own place in the scheme), I find that chambers in my heart are opening which I never knew were there. This father-love arises in body and soul as I talk to them, look at their pictures, or even think of them. I get to be proud of their growth, concerned about their problems and worried about their safety. I get to be a father, and a love long missing has now found its home in me.

And, I dare to hope, I am privileged to know something more, in my limited human way, of what the Divine love feels like when it is fathering. It is a wonder.

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