Promises to Keep
June 16, 2019
Words for the chalice lighting were written from the perspective of Jessica Star Rockers. Perhaps her specific memories will elicit your own. She writes,
“Every Sunday morning growing up my father would take us to mass at St. Peter’s Catholic church. I loved the hymns, and the smells and bells as they say, but the sermons were kind of a bore. So I would occupy myself by counting the cuts and scrapes and bruises on my father’s hands. My dad was an electrician and a farmer, working with his hands from before the sun came up until long after it went down. So every week I would take his large hands in my little ones, turning them over, examining, discovering new bruises, and keeping track of the healing of the old ones. I would count the wounds and whisper the tally in his ear. I loved that he let me hold and investigate his hands in this way, snuggled up next to him in the pew, in the quiet of the church with just the priest’s voice in the background. Having two jobs that demanded his attention, my dad didn’t always have time for such intimacies. Except on Sunday morning.
And I took pride in those wounds. It was evidence of how hard my dad worked to take care of his family. He was a man who was often uncomfortable with expressing affection, but I could see in those hands how much he loved me. Was my dad a good dad? Was he there for me when I needed him? Did he protect me and provide for me? Did he care about me? When I ask myself those questions, I think of his hands.”
We dedicate the lighting of our chalice today in honor of the hands of our fathers. For all the ways, and all the hard work that they do, to show us we are loved.
Father’s Day Meditation
On this Father’s Day, we recognize the vast spectrum of experience and the often-complicated feelings that surround such a celebration. We honor those fathers and father figures in our lives who have loved, supported, encouraged and instructed us, and we seek to share these gifts with others.
We mourn with those who mourn the loss of a father and fathers who mourn the loss of a child, whether separated by death or estrangement. We support those for whom this day brings pain and sorrow, who suffered abandonment, neglect or abuse.
We support and celebrate the fathers in our midst who give of themselves to their children, recognizing all the strength and wisdom and stamina and love and time and honest introspection that fatherhood requires. We support those men who choose not to have children, yet who are present in loving and supportive ways to children, youth and adults alike. And we seek to honor wherever we find ourselves today across this vast spectrum of experience and to feel the compassion that embraces us within this silence.
By Janet H. Bowering
The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of profound faith and obedience to God. When Abraham was 99 years old, God promised him and his wife Rebekah, then 89, a son. A year later God’s promise came true when 99 year old Rebekah bore their son Isaac!
When Isaac grew to be a young boy, God tested Abraham.
This is the story as told in Genesis, first book of the Hebrew scriptures.
1 … He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.
4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.
5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,
7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.
10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.
12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided
Another of today’s readings contains one of the most beloved passages in the New Testament. The parable traditionally known as the story of the prodigal son appears only in Luke’s Gospel. Although Luke may have been working with traditional material, this narrative reveals his brilliance as a writer. In this parable, Luke presents a complex study of the interplay of freedom, duty and love – subject, of course, as are all parables or poems to multiple interpretations.
Luke 15:11-32 New International Version (NIV)
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus [said]: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
From ‘The People, Yes‘
A father sees a son nearing manhood.
What shall he tell that son?
‘Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.’
And this might stand him for the storms
and serve him for humdrum and monotony
and guide him amid sudden betrayals
and tighten him for slack moments.
‘Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.’
And this too might serve him.
Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed.
Tell him time as a stuff can be wasted.
Tell him to be a fool every so often
and to have no shame over having been a fool
yet learning something out of every folly
hoping to repeat none of the cheap follies
thus arriving at intimate understanding
of a world numbering many fools.
Tell him to be alone often and get at himself
and above all tell himself no lies about himself
whatever the white lies and protective fronts
he may use amongst other people.
Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong
and the final decisions are made in silent rooms.
Tell him to be different from other people
if it comes natural and easy being different.
Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives.
Let him seek deep for where he is a born natural.
Then he may understand Shakespeare
and the Wright brothers, Pasteur, Pavlov,
Michael Faraday and free imaginations
Bringing changes into a world resenting change.
REFLECTION: Promises to Keep
I believe in fathering
I believe in the radical idea that men have the full human capacity to nurture.
Hair bows and baseballs
Cooking and carpentry
Tools and tiaras
Camping and dancing
Wrestling and shrieks of delight
I believe in fathering
When a woman gestates and gives birth her brain changes permanently, neurologists say.
A father’s brain changes permanently too—changes as he rocks his baby to sleep, delights in baby games, and soothes bumps and bruises. A father earns his new neurobiology.
In a world where too many mothers hand their co-parent directions more specific than those given to the babysitter; where a father out with his kids is asked, “Are you babysitting?” and “Where’s mom?”; Where fathers are too often the punch line of lame-brained jokes.
Whether children come through birth, adoption, or fostering; through scouts, sports, church school, or youth group, I believe we all—especially our children—deserve to know that the human capacity to nurture belongs to every one of us, fathers included.
I’ve known too many gay dads, too many single fathers, too many men raising children others couldn’t to believe otherwise.
I believe in fathering. I do.
I believe in fathering.
I believe in the radical idea that men have the full human capacity to nurture.
First, a brief history of Father’s Day: It was founded on June 19, 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd in Spokane, Washington. Her father, William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran, was a single parent who raised his six children.
It had a rocky start – Congress turned down several attempts to formalize it, fearing that it would become commercialized. (Imagine!) In the 1920’s it faded, Sonora Dodd had other things on her mind, but in the 1930’s she found help from the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers, who were interested in selling ties, tobacco pipes and clothes for dad. It wasn’t until 1966 that Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June; and finally in 1972 Richard Nixon signed it into law. By the 1980’s the retailers referred to Father’s Day as a ‘second Christmas.’ Not quite that much today, of course.
For years Unitarian ministers in Boston honored Father’s Day by designating it as the final sermon-Sunday of the church year, leaving for Maine on the afternoon of Father’s Day! (or shortly thereafter.) Today, we have other destinations
But fatherhood itself has a hard-go of it for the most part. Oh, we speak of the “faith of our fathers” but almost scoff at the words.
It’s interesting that the word “father” is used for God. We’re told that when Jesus prayed he said, “Our Father.” Indeed the prayer is often referred to as ‘the Our Father.’
In some Christian traditions a clergyperson is referred to as father.
But fatherhood has a hard-go of it for the most part.
But these days fathers have been cast as villains in their own homes or drones worth only the paychecks they produce.
But I believe in Fatherhood… in fathering
A storyteller friend once said that the power of storytelling is to bridge the gaps in this divided world. And I believe that is our charge, too, in places like this: to transcend boundaries, to touch hearts and touch minds, to restore some order in apparent chaos with imagination and to instill some hope. Tobias Wolff, who wrote This Boy’s Life, itself a chronicle of fatherhood as much as boyhood, once told the Paris Review: “We live by stories. It’s the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are as men.”
Stories of fathering abound. I’ve read dozens of accounts. I’ve know the haunted river that runs through Norman Maclean’s novel, and watched the jaded dad of one girl presumed alive but truly dead in Peter May’s “The Man With No Face” transformed by the love of an autistic child not his own. I know Kinsella and Hoag and Frazier and Knausgaard. You’ve read V.S. Naipaul, too, and “Lincoln in the Bardo” and “The Land Remembers” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Letters to My Son” – all the stories of men and boys awakening to the truth about their place in the world. All challenging…rewarding…frightening…a blessing, and… you fill in the blanks with other words. Most will fit.
In the Genesis story Isaac’s father, Abraham, followed God’s order to kill his son as a sacrifice, to show his unswerving obedience to God. The story says that God had to send angel to stay his hand. Isaac never spoke to his father again afterward incident. A story of abuse, perhaps. Not as brutal as some stories we know of, of course.
Last fall a jury found an Iowa father guilty of murder after his four-month-old son, Sterling, was found dead in a motorized swing. The baby, who weighed less than 5 pounds at death, was left in the swing for over a week. He was not bathed or changed that entire time. The county sheriff said he found maggots and larva in the layers of urine-soaked blankets and clothing on Sterling’s body. The father was “aware of what was going on and he chose to do nothing.” That I can fetch the story from memory so easily and tell it on a blissful Sunday morning is troubling enough but, more than that, I have t wonder if the faith I hold in my bones is adequate to account for a world with such a story in it and if I am equipped to speak honestly about the wrongness of the world.
Still, I believe in fathering….but
Too many fathers don’t believe in their own fathering.
Too many are scarred by their own fathers to hear their heart say otherwise
Too many have known fathers who, faced with a quivering lip and tears, could only say “man up.”
Too many have known fathers who knew only yelling and hitting
Too many have known fathers who lost sight of their sacred role of protector and became tormentor
One of the most powerful stories of our tradition is the story of prodigal son. You probably know the story whether or not you ever went to Vacation Bible School
It can be read, of course, as story about forgiveness. You might even say it’s a sermon on ‘unconditional love,’ where the father feels forgiven as much as the son!
The story is more complicated than it seems at first blush. Why on earth would a father give the younger son his inheritance? Presumably he knew something about the likelihood that his son would not be a good steward – that he, in fact, would squander the money. It’s almost as though he’s setting this son up – the younger of his two sons. Does he want to ‘teach the older son a lesson?’ If so, what is it?
Was the father in this story irresponsible? Was it wrong to give the boy the money?
We must assume the father in the story was intending to teach his son a lesson. It was a big risk. The story is a parable, however. A parable is like a poem –– not to be taken literally: ‘this is compared to that.’ Indeed, that’s where the word parable comes from: The Greek parabole, a saying or a story in which something is expressed in terms of something else, something thrown alongside something else A parable is a poem…the meaning of which is not fixed, not without dispute, always and ever lodged in the mind of the reader.
Maybe the Parable of the Prodigal Son is about fathering, what it means to be a father. Sometimes I think so; sometimes not so much.
I believe in fathering.
And, I know now—as a deeply flawed father–that fatherhood is a head-on collision with one’s self. Head-on collisions hurt, they can even be fatal.
Fatherhood is a constant, never-ending challenge, filled with surprises, filled with rewards, touching the deepest places in the human soul.
Fatherhood is the process of growing a new soul, of molting, shedding the hard outer layer; the shell of certainty is replaced by the soft layers of vulnerability – the need to accept a new, deeper kind of insecurity.
You have to feel lost in order to be changed by the experience of fathering. It’s a confrontation of the deepest kind; it’s sometimes lonely.
To say that ‘it is not easy’ is the greatest understatement in the process of becoming a parent—father or mother–and the process of becoming a parent lasts from the birth of your child all the way to the last moment of your life.
The Mayfield men know something about fathering…fathering of a sort, that is. My grandfather, Milton Mayfield, could never have been accused of being overly empathetic, of creating dependency among his four sons. Nor was he, as Stanley Hauerwas could have put it, “a quivering mass of availability.” More likely he would have agreed with the noted Jewish family therapist that “when people say you are stern, autocratic, and uncaring ‘there is good chance you are going in the right direction.’”
As I heard it from my father, Grandfather Mayfield told his boys: “I’ll know you are grown when you leave home and don’t come back.” And each boy, excepting one, grew up, left home one after another for a job, for college, for lives in other places, and did not return. My father never slept a night in his childhood farm after leaving to go just a few miles away for college. He and my mother and my brother and I ate but one meal in that home, perhaps 15 years later on a summer trip back home to Indiana, as the song goes. Never again.
For my part, my father, Maurice Mayfield, was of the same stock. Never abusive, never other than a relentless critic of social injustice, flaccid piety, and my inept attempts at intellectual and artistic excellence. He knew when I was grown. I left home at 17 and spent only one weekend as his and mother’s guest with my wife and children a dozen years later. Never again.
To be clear: Daddy loved me, as only he could. He was my staunchest advocate and dearest confidant over my years of conflicted desires and self-deceit and nearly devastating losses, restoring some order with his imagination and instilling hope…but at a distance.
The title for today’s reflection comes from Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Winter Evening.” (not quite a seasonal reference, I’m aware. It came to mind because it was perhaps my dad’s favorite poem.)
When Frost was asked if the line ‘miles to go before I sleep,’ was about one’s time left before dying, he said “No. It was about someone who had a long ride home,” then he added, “but I’ll take credit for any interpretation – a poet has a right to do that…after all, it’s my poem…you can tell me what meanings come to you.” (I paraphrase.)
[Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.]
The narrator stops to watch the woods fill up with snow; it’s what might be called a Sabbath moment, simply a time to stop trying to alter the universe…and, if you’re not trying to alter it, to change it, to fix it, to pay attention to what’s happening…like the woods filling up with snow.
The little horse gives his harness bells a shake:
It’s as if the bells were saying, “Pay attention! Stop, now and then, and pay attention: something special is happening here in the woods, here in Dubuque or Milwaukee, and in those moments of such stopping the point may become clear.
For my father, the heart of the poem’s meaning was: We have “promises to keep.” Dad wasn’t talking about fatherhood, not specifically, but it rang that a harness bell with me years and years ago. It does today.
We who are fathers and grandfathers have ‘promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.’ Some of those promises are explicit…they are fully and clearly expressed…they leave nothing to the imagination.
Fatherhood isn’t quite like that very often, however. Most of the promises are implicit…leaving almost everything to the imagination; the promises of fatherhood emerge; they change with the years and the unfolding of a child ‘as a unique person.’
Fathers live with a certain anxiety – along with feelings of insecurity, the lack of safety in an unsafe world, the fear of failing as a father, since the role is not clear, especially in a culture that is in the midst of such profound changes as our culture is.
The film “Field of Dreams” is based on a novel, Shoeless Joe, by the Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella. That’s a much less clichéd title than “Field of Dreams,” and I often think it’s easier for folk to be cynical about the movie because the title is so literal. In the dimension where it is about “Shoeless” Joe, it’s about a baseball player exiled from the major leagues after being accused of helping to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series Having said that, it’s far more than just the story about the redemption of a life stolen by authoritarian power, in this case the baseball commissioner who banned him from playing, even though he may have done nothing to warrant any kind of sanction. No, ‘Field of Dreams” is about fatherhood and masculinity and marriage and money and community and the road not taken, stopping by woods and the promise to keep to pursue what — in Howard Thurman’s words — “makes you come alive, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The most famous line in the movie is, of course, spoken by “The Voice” to Kevin Costner’s 36-year-old farmer Ray Kinsella on a summer evening walking out among giant corn stalks. He sees a vision of a baseball diamond where the next year’s crop should be, and knows — just knows — that he’s supposed to plow under his crop and make space for a miracle. “If you build it, he will come.” This reminds me of John O’Donohue’s gorgeous formulation: “When you enter into freedom, possibility comes to meet you.” As if, sometimes we’re invited to step out into the world we want to see before it even exists. Our footsteps will help create it.
Toward the end of the movie, Ray throws a bit of a tantrum, demanding to know, “What’s in it for me?’ That may be the generational question most easily avoided when “Field of Dreams” is read merely as a tidy magic-realist vision of Americana and father wounds. To be sure, it is for all men who haven’t reconciled with their fathers, and who want to find a way to love even across the chasm of difference that sometimes exists there. But it’s also and especially for the entire cohort of baby-boomer men who were in their mid-30s when it was released, and are in their mid-70’s now. Those men, and that generation, began in promise, have made some progress, have made some mistakes, and now must ask themselves not, “What’s in it for me?” but something more like, ‘What are we going to do with the mess we’ve made?”
The promise of “Field of Dreams”, the promise of life itself, is that when we give ourselves to serving the common good at the place where our “deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet,” as Frederick Buechner writes, we don’t just help advance the healing of the people we touch, we also begin to heal our pain. It is a mysterious transaction: In offering medicine to others, we are also healed. I like to imagine Ray and Annie’s field being the place where interdependent community — or what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing” — is woven.
When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.
Knowing that everything comes to an end is a gift of experience, a consolation gift for knowing that we ourselves are coming to an end. Before we get it we live in a continuous present, and imagine the future as more of that present. Happiness is endless happiness, innocent of its own sure passing. Pain is endless pain.
There are sparks in our remembered experience, perhaps mundane, that raise fathers and mothers above the wreckage of their worlds. I remember lines from Raymond Carver (from “Fever) about a father of two young children abandoned by his recreant wife as he waves to a nanny who can no longer stay to help him. He was disappointed…almost broken-hearted.
“He was sure that their [time]together had happened in the way it should have. He understood…and he could let her go. But…something had passed. And that passing—would become a part of him now. (Then, then, he brought his arm down and turned to his children – not to a bottle, not to a cigarette, not to a damaged lover with damage to give – but to his children.)”
When we understand that most of the events in any life are accidental not arbitrary, especially the crucial ones, and we can exercise little conscious control over our destinies, we can understand that the our fathers’ lessons and ours too were and are about how to behave no matter what life brings; about how to wade into the unpredictable stream and deal with whatever happens with grace, courage and honesty.
There’s a minimum of parental grace in that gesture, of self-forgiveness, perhaps, and yes, of hope, however fugitive…a communion, unplanned and temporary, but needed in the moment.
For many parents – fathers and mothers together – even when they can realize the vanquished meaning of their lives–they have limited comprehension of what they are to do with that realization. As a friend told me not long ago, speaking about the attritional years of raising children: “everything my wife and I held sacred…every spiritual value, just crumbled away. What we were thinking in those days? Who knows why we do what we do?
Good questions with no good answers because beholding ourselves not as predetermined casualties of a bogus American Dream, or as targets of a capricious God, but as independent enactors of our own fate, culpable in our own suffering, is a hard admission for most of us to make.
Even if life has so far unfolded as hoped, there are always those threatening unknowns waiting to unhinge it, those forces that could cripple or bring down a man if lunch went bad, if things suddenly turned. Ordinary objects turn sinister, become the omens of ruin: For my parents, a surprise birthday cake sagging in the middle, a used Kelvinator refrigerator that wouldn’t freeze a cube, a single cuff-link in my dad’s sock drawer, a Buick picked up from the maker in Kenosha with no spare tire. Irving Howe once said: Ordinary life is the enemy of ordinary people.”
Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, said recently: “What it means to be fully human is to open ourselves to fully loving one another in an unsentimental way … We suffer, we love, we struggle, we fail, and then we love again. And I think trying not to imagine that we’re anything more or less than that, as human beings struggling to love and find our way, making mistakes, but still yearning for a deeper connection and a sense of purpose in our lives is what being human is all about.”
That sits well with me: To be human is “to love and to suffer; to suffer with, through
compassion, not to suffer against. To have a space big enough to suffer with, and if we can hold that space big enough, we also will have joy and fun, even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us.”
To bring it back more directly to fathering, I’ll share one last phrase, from John O’Donohue, who says, “The beauty of being fathers is that we are incredibly, intimately near each other, we know about each other, but yet we do not know or never can know what it’s like inside another person.”
And this fundamental mystery we share is also what men draw from their fathering.
The beauty of such a notion is in the possibility for as many responses as there are lives to live and promises to keep.
I’ve come to believe, through both the pain and joy of life, that we are all called to a dream of interdependent community in which the things we may previously have thought impossible turn out to be what we were meant for all along.
Most of us probably won’t hear a Voice in a Field of Dreams or bells in snowy woods or shrieks of childish delight tonight, but we have to start somewhere. I begin, for today, with believing in fathering. I still believe. I believe in the radical idea that men have the full human capacity to nurture.
Perhaps you do, too. May it be so.
“A boy needs a father to show him how to be in the world. He needs to be taught how to read a map so that he can recognize the roads that lead to life and the paths that lead to death, how to know what love requires, and where to find steel in the heart when life makes demands on us that are greater than we think we can endure.” –Ian Morgan Cron
[AND] Every father should remember one day his son will follow his example, not his advice.” –Charles Kettering