Spoken Fatherhood: Communion and Community

A sermon delivered in my congregation in 2008.

Many of you know that I often worry about how careful we are to nurture women of all physical, emotional, social, and familial descriptions. As I began to think through a talk for Father’s Day, I was filled with ideas about how best to explain ways we could improve many of our older traditions about fatherhood. As I thought and prayed over my message for today, though, I felt to reserve such proposals for another setting. Instead, I hope to share today that fatherhood is both a communion and a community. By communion I mean the sacred merger of two individuals. By community I mean the cooperation of many brought together by shared ideals. Both come from words that mean a shared being or identity or union, and in an important sense they are both aspects of the same phenomenon. I believe that by separating them gently we can explore fruitfully the spectrum of belonging. The first tends to the holy, the second to the every-day. The first tends to a special interaction, the second to a network of interactions. In these distinct senses I want to discuss fatherhood as communion and community.

Because I believe that life is lived in details, I would like to place these ideas within the concrete terms of my own experience. In my experience, the road to Communion can be long and hard. My own father was a complex and sad man. Driven by insanity and the chasm that yawned between who he hoped to be and who he remained, he was not available to his family. In a conversation I have never been proud of, I told him once, surveying the damage he had done to our family, that he was my biological father but had no claim on me beyond his genes. Diagnosed with profoundly bipolar depression and a narcissistic personality disorder, he limped from pathological melancholy so severe he disappeared into dark motel rooms for days at a time to sheer mania, when he spent towards bankruptcy and filled his young children with dreams of staggering wealth and comfort.

He was ultimately so far behind on his child support that we used to fantasize in our unfinished basement about the number of televisions we thought we would buy once he began to pay. I believe I may also have intended to buy a motorcycle to carry my televisions, though the specific purchases have become hazy. Such were the dreams of Charlie’s kids, the possibility that we would one day receive unpaid child support.

Our experiences were not all so sad. Before my mother finally made him leave, I remember watching him play the viola, the throaty resonance of the instrument sometimes bringing tears to his eyes. With that same passion for music he taught me to love the Romantics, leading me on tours of Respighi’s Pines of Rome or Dvorak’s hymn to the New World. This love for powerful music has never left me, and I still think of him sometimes when I listen to Wagner’s Ring or his Flying Dutchman.

Still, I remember turning away from him on our driveway, the mountains witnessing the obscene interaction, as I told him his only claim on me was biological. He was in my chromosomes but would not be in my life. During the divorce, I remember being shuttled to a psychologist at the age of twelve to hear that I could not forgive him as long as I expected him to be my father, that I would need some day to see him instead as God sees him, as a suffering soul. I remember then borrowing the hymn the Stranger—we call it “The Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”—as a model for a vision of my father I could never achieve. Safely packaged in that hymn, he faded from my life, a fire starved for fuel and oxygen.

I remember, though, as a freshman in college, receiving a letter from him, a simple, even silly letter, written by a man in great pain. I remember still, these almost twenty years later, a revelation at that moment that he had truly become my poor, wayfaring man of grief. I remember then a silent prayer of gratitude, and a simple, verbal revelation direct to me from God—“you are welcome.” During my Christmas break I visited him in the hospital, told him I had forgiven him, had found it in me to love him. I leaned over his swollen abdomen and put my cheek against his spongy skin, the tiny hairs of his horrible little moustache scratching my neck. We wept together, the smell of hot tears merging into the stench of disease.

I remember, back in Boston two days later, hearing my mother’s voice informing me that he had died. I felt that I knew what she would say when the phone rang so early that morning, waking me from sleep. My best friend then, a Jewish atheist, held me but cried more than I did, overwhelmed at the thought of losing her own father to the extinguishing blackness of non-existence. I was too stunned to say much but was glad to be held. My family was too poor for me to fly to the funeral, so I waited for the cassette tape recording to arrive a few weeks later.

When the tape arrived, I heard the voice of Charlie’s best friend explaining that he had blessed my father several times for recovery from his terminal hepatitis C, a complication of his kidney transplant, the gift of life turned deadly. Finally, this friend confessed, he felt to stop praying for the postponement of death. Instead he promised Charlie that he would be reconciled to his family. As I heard those words, I felt present at that blessing, at the funeral, at my father’s deathbed. I saw with supernatural clarity the links in a chain connecting my father’s slow and disappointed sickbed to the steps of my dormitory the fall of my freshman year, my own letter of reconciliation, the tears we spilled together in the hospital, to my friend’s tender tears and finally my own body on a college bed alive with the emotions we associate with a visitation of the Spirit, listening to the funeral recording. In that moment I communed with God and through God to my father. In times of confusion or difficulty, I have found myself returning to the unfolding of these events as witness of the power of the prayers of faith and the possibilities for God’s place in our lives. I still remember these events vividly.

This story of my father is a story of communion realized and communion confounded. God, the Father of all our communions, brought me to my earthly father just in time, allowed me to understand him and to be understood. God possesses and bestows these gifts, though in different ways to different people. This I believe is the meaning of the sacred declaration of the eighth chapter of Romans.

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

In this staggering promise of a child calling out Papa to the Creator of the Universe, we receive the communion of fatherhood. In God is the promise of our Communion to God, to Christ, and to each other. In this promise of the spirit of adoption is the possibility of our communions as humans, and a way to spread fatherhood to those who may not be able to participate in traditional experiences of fatherhood.

Fatherhood is also community, a point I think bears emphasizing. I have other memories of my father beyond his failings and our ultimate, spectacular reconciliation. These memories are not named Charlie. He was the kindly private practice lawyer named Jack who broke his leg skiing with us and whom we once coaxed down a long hill, leaving him unable to walk for over a week. He was the middle manager at a bank named Mark who allowed us to drive his old Volkswagen from the roof, steering through the open sunroof as he managed the gas and break pedals. There was the devoted accountant named Tom who loaned me cars to get to work and brought us food from his garden when he knew we could little afford anything else. There were the bishop and his wife—Jeff and Doris—who refused attempts to have me blacklisted for unhygienically long hair, who let me drive a muscle car with a suicide knob on an undersized steering wheel. My buddy’s father Ray who bribed me $20 to earn a Tenderfoot badge, thus starting and stopping my illustrious career in the scouting program. Perhaps more than anything, though, my father was my mother Diann, who kept with her, even in the darkest times, our anticipated memories of Charlie’s potential. With her I communed often. None of these individuals was my biological father, Charlie. But they were the community of fatherhood that our church encourages and enables.

Our history is filled with these networks of belonging, these ways to share the vision and the glory of fatherhood. These are the stories of our United Orders, our laws of consecration, the heritage of the Mormon village and the ward family. These are the stories of polygamy, the Law of Adoption, and the Patriarch to the church. In the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, I believe that Paul provided a metaphor for understanding how such networks of community can function. Though he was trying to deal with a controversy in the Corinthian church over the practice of miraculous gifts, I believe his image of a united body of Christ is richly relevant.

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.

Our uncertain and often inept strivings to be fathers, whether to our biological children or to those we care for outside the bonds of blood and genes, are indispensable to the creation of a society of heaven.

Banner image is of Mount Mkinwartsveri (Kazbek), with the Church of St. Mary foreground left, image © Samuel Brown 2000