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Living and growing: Fatherhood complexities

Posted: June 16, 2013 - 12:00am

By PHIL CAMPBELL

for the juneau empire

I find preaching on Father’s Day a challenge. My liturgical purist colleagues tell me I bring this on myself. Father’s Day is not a religious holiday and I therefore should steer clear of it during the sermon. On one level, they are right, of course. Father’s Day is not a religious day, per se, but it is on the minds of many who gather for worship on the third Sunday in June. It is a daunting day whether or not you preach or listen to a sermon. It is challenging because our relationships with our fathers are so varied. Some have wonderfully close and loving connections with fathers who have been available and from whom much is learned. Others have suffered abuse at the hands of their fathers, or have grown up not even knowing who their father is. For those who are fathers, fathering is a similarly mixed bag. Some fathers are really good at it and others not so much. Fathers can be kind, cruel, caring, distant, absent, involved, terrifying, loving, beleaguered, irrelevant, careless or wise. Some are many of the above.

Amid all this, I am grateful for a variety of efforts aimed at strengthening fatherhood. A Bartlett Hospital sponsored dads group meets at our church and offers fellowship and support. This past January in Anchorage I attended the Alaska Summit on Native Fatherhood and learned of many valuable initiatives throughout our state that help empower and encourage fathers in their parenting roles. Religious communities can play an important part in supporting both fathers and mothers. In Christian communities that practice infant baptism or dedication, parents make promises that with God’s help, they will raise their children in love. Church members also pledge to help and care for parents and children. Parenting is not intended to be an individualistic undertaking. It takes an extended family, a congregation, and a village to raise a child.

One year, I got the bright idea to preach a Father’s Day sermon on Matthew 23: 9, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven.” It ended up better than I had feared. The point of this verse reminds the faithful that God is our authority, not any human father figure. It further reveals that fathers are not closer nor more like God than anyone else. Still, if we are created in God’s image as many faith traditions claim, what does it mean to call God, “Father?” It has a connection with the origins of Father’s Day. To call God, “Father,” is to know God as loving and compassionate. A prominent depiction of God as a loving and compassionate father is found in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The child rejected his father, but the father did not reject him. Instead, when the prodigal son returned home “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15: 20) This is no towering, fearful, authority-figure father. Aristotle said, “Great men never run in public,” but this God-like father did just that. A further surprise in the story is that the Hebrew word translated in English as “compassion” is the plural of the word for womb. To call God father, therefore, is to declare that God loves us like a mother. This is the connection with Father’s Day. Father’s Day founder Sonora Dodds was raised by her single dad. She attended church one Mother’s Day and while listening to the sermon, she realized that her father was her mother! Thus, Father’s Day was born.

On this Father’s Day, whether you hear a Father’s Day sermon or not, whether you attend church or you don’t, I pray that you discover ways to live with compassion and love. Each of us, of all ages, tongues and races is created in the image of this Mother/Father God. May all of us – fathers, mothers, children, caregivers, friends, relatives and community members – help each other live into the fullness of the loving people we are created to be.

• Phil Campbell is the father of two daughters and the pastor of Northern Light United Church.

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