Fear of Fathering

Fear of Fathering

Rev. Christian Iosso – June 20, 2021

Texts: Deuteronomy 6:1-9. I Corinthians 4: 14-21.

I take my advice on fathering from two men who did not have children: Jesus and Paul. We are talking about the kind of fathering that doesn’t involve biology. But their kind of fathering certainly can and should overlap with the concerns of fathers of children, whether biological or adoptive. This sermon is partly a word about the promises parents and congregation make in baptism. Fathering is also related to the role of teacher, professionally held by many men and women in this congregation, but held by all in this congregation.

I start with the fear of fathering because it keeps so many men afraid of church and cut off from their spiritual power. It may be a source of pride for many of the men of this church that they do not share this fear. I see this fear at three levels.

The fear of fathering does influence whether or not we want children—are they a burden and a commitment to a future or a partner that for many is uncertain? Some amount of fear is appropriate for all parenting. And there are many other reasons for not having children. But fear is part of it.

For some, the fear of fathering comes out in the neglect of children they have helped create. The New York Times recently ran a touching story by its Latin America bureau chief about how much of his life was shaped by the absence of his father, who only occasionally visited his mother during his early life. On one of those visits, his father tells the boy’s mother that he himself is Cuban. This influences the son to learn Spanish culture in general. Later the son learns that what his father said was a lie that misled him and his mother for years. But it gave him a heritage he desperately needed. (Nicholas Casey: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/15/magazine/my-father-vanished-when-i-was-7-the-mystery-made-me-who-i-am.html ) Again, there are other reasons why men abandon contact with their children, but fear is part of it.

They fear the kind of care and responsibility Paul describes. Jesus and Paul are part of a tradition going back before Moses in which fathering involved being a model for imitation by one’s children. It wasn’t first about worrying about your kids’ behavior, but your own. The ultimate father you were following was not your earthly father, but your heavenly One.

The Deuteronomy text contains the Schema, the core statement of belief of ancient Israel, which Jesus also knows by heart. Part of that passage, however, is a reference to the 4th Commandment, “Honor thy Father and thy Mother.” Some have suggested that there should be another commandment, “care for your children.” That is partly what baptism is about. But that fourth commandment comes with the promise, “that your days may be long and that it may go well with you”—plural—in the land of the future.

We all know (as theologian Brian Gerrish says), that a child’s sense of values and picture of God come largely from their parents. Deuteronomy talks about creating an affective state—an emotional and cognitive world—focused on loyalty, obedience, and humility. Every generation is to be part of a chain that carries a promise forward. As modern Christians we speak more about responsibility than obedience, at the of risk losing humility and respect for Biblical tradition.

Why should we respect this tradition rather than fear it? We should critique
the patriarchy running through the Bible and most human cultures on the planet. In the common telling, if children survived infancy, they were possessions of the father. Girls and women were also possessions of men, and often considered legally a kind of perpetual children, never able to exercise the same rights and responsibilities as males. [Wives were considered extensions of their husbands, and when rules were developed to protect women from violence (as in chivalry), lower class and foreign women were often left out.] Abusive men often try to treat their wives as children.

That needed critique does not make all fatherhood sexist today, nor does it explain why women and children have steadily gained rights and standing, especially in Protestant Christian culture. Historians look at the role of monogamy and the influence of Christianity in giving women roles not tied to marriage or child-bearing, starting with martyrdom and sainthood. Those historical arguments would take this sermon too far afield. I believe Christianity has not yet lived up to the vision Paul had in Galatians, where he writes that “In Christ there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female.” In principle, the equality affirmed in that statement extends to the full spectrum of sexual orientation and identity.

Paul’s view in our Corinthians text is what I mean most about fear of fathering. It is the spiritual fathering that he claims—that spirituality stands at the core of Christian fatherhood. In the letters to the Corinthians, Paul is writing guidance and correction and encouragement to a new community of followers of Jesus—they were not yet called Christians. He refers to people as brothers and sisters in a movement, and it is a movement based in God’s Spirit. The Spirit does not eliminate the need for rules, laws, and structures, but they are to be transformed. A key phrase is, “be not conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewal of your heart.”

Some of the structures are taken as given, like family, but they are being adapted. Overall, the church is becoming a new kind of family, and that family is becoming less absolutized. The same holds for nations, tribes, kings… Everything is being reformed in terms of the new life in Christ. Paul was re-socializing people in an ancient slave society into becoming equal members in a new mystical body. Yet amid all of Paul’s metaphors about growing to maturity in Christ, and building the inner temple on the true foundation, about new believers needing basic teachings like mother’s milk and baby food—amid all of this he gets to the core of his love for them by comparing it to fatherhood. They have a new identity, they are God’s children in a new way, but fatherhood is still his metaphor for care based in the power of the Spirit. (This is a reason that the RC Church still uses the term, “father,” for its priests…)

Now let us assume that Lee and all the fathers here—literal or metaphorical—are not afraid of their spiritual role. What would that mean? What promises are we all taking on with this baptism?

We start with Jesus letting the children come to him. Children in the ancient world were a risky crop, even into the 19th Century you had a 50% mortality rate pretty much everywhere in the world. Even today, children have no income, no influence, no status… they can be clingy, needy, dependent, sometimes demanding… and yet Jesus said they were model citizens of God’s kingdom. We have to say that this Christian reversal of all hierarchies is bigger than all the modern critiques we can assemble. Jesus is saying, love is appropriate dependence. We are God’s children, and we grow best by following God’s commandments.

For many, women as well as men, there is a fear of religion, of feeling, of vulnerability—a fear of children. Think of the Ayn Rand world of worldly power and domination that has no children in it. What these men (and women) miss is what fatherhood (parenthood) teaches about God’ love for us. Christianity is about learning the right mixture of judgment and grace, nurture and admonition, forgiveness and partnership.

There is an absolute claim of loyalty that, I believe, holds between children and parents, fathers and mothers, from the Old Testament through the New. Honor your father and mother… whether or not they fully deserve it. They were not perfect, and neither will you be perfect. Only God is seen as the perfect parent. And yet we have to stand for a world where all parents can fully parent, that is, have enough time with their children, not just quality time, raw time, time enough to pay attention to each other and to perceive each other subliminally. That is where God is as well.

I end with a commandment and a story. The commandment is to say grace before every meal, but especially dinner, and perhaps especially when not everyone can be at the table. To say grace is to remember our dependence and to express our gratitude. I have a book for Lee and Kara to help with that. It is a way of recognizing God as part of life (and it makes the food taste better).

The story comes from a pastor in a poor area. He visited a health clinic and noticed lice being removed from kids scalps. Once one kid got lice, they all would get lice because they played so close together and touched each other. Then he noticed that a bunch of mothers were also getting de-liced, but no fathers. He asked what was up with that. The nurse answered: the men do not get that close to their children, so they don’t get the lice.

Well, that’s the call for all of us. We’ve got to get close enough to pass on God and maybe lice, too. How do we get close enough to our neighbors to share what we have, and receive what they have? I return to the Mother’s Day sermon, and encourage us to face our fears and yet try to parent this neighborhood and this city, that it may also grow into God’s intention for all of its children.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, Amen.