A good father flies kites with you at the park.
A good father takes you fishing.
A good father takes good care of you.
A good father keeps you out of trouble.
A good father loves you (and gives you just a sip of his beer).
Bart was 13 years old when he prepared a Father's Day card that included the short list with which I began today's sermon. He drew a red, yellow, and blue kite on the cover of his homemade card, scratched out his list of the five qualities of good fathering on the other side, and then across the page in big, bold letters (half the size of the page) he scrawled: LOVE, BART.
On another Sunday in June set aside by the secular world like this one to honor fathers, at some time between breakfast and church, Bart crept into the dining room and put the card beside his father's plate for his dad to find just before lunch. The card celebrated more than Father's Day; it celebrated a memory and a hope. It celebrated that special relationship between a child and his dad.
"A good father takes you to the park . . . a good father takes you fishing." A good father knows what his child likes to do and takes the very few minutes required to enjoy the activity with his children. It is commonly known and said that it is not so much the amount of time that parents spend with their children that is important, but the quality of the time that counts. For busy parents, and especially for those who work, this is both good news and a challenge. The activity does not have to take up lots of time - for a busy parent, that's the good news. But the activity it must be one that the child loves, and it must be one that the child wants to share - and that's the challenge. A good father knows his child and knows what the child loves and loves to share. A father must know his child.
The relationship between a father and his children is based in great part on shared experiences and shared interests. It is a relationship built on specific moments -- moments that build a memory. Kite-flying and fishing. If you ask adult men or women to speak about their fathers, they are likely to talk first about experiences rather than feelings, about memories rather than attitudes or emotions.
"A good father takes good care of you." We live in a society where the efforts to achieve male/female equality have met some success in the marketplace and professional life, but in the home child-rearing is still an occupation that is largely the work and responsibility of women. Despite efforts to give men equal rights with their children before the courts in the case of divorce and family separation, women are most often favored when the custody and care of minor children is contested. The most recent census figures show that single parent families are growing at surprisingly fast rates in the United States. These reports also show that in these single parent homes, the single parent is most often a women. But we also see that the number of single fathers is also increasing . The "house-father" can be as nurturing as a mother.
On this Father's Day it might be well to remember that in this culture it historically has been the father who has provided the security of place and the security of limits within which the growing child is able to experiment and to expand, to learn and to grow. Who knows what Bart meant when he said, "A good father takes good care of you." Could he have meant a good father provides a sanctuary and shelter, a good father provides a home?
"A good father keeps you out of trouble." One of the scariest moments for some parents is the moment when it is clear that the child has taken the parent "inside." The child has taken the words of warning and prohibition and constructed in the child's developing mind a "parent" with a "voice" whose primary function is control -- or at least, it often appears to be control. What may have been the father's efforts to encourage responsibility, is heard by the child as punitive and restricting. "How many times must I tell you to take out the garbage?" "How many times must I tell you to do your home work?" "How many times must I remind you that it is your job to clear the table?" And what was meant to teach responsibility becomes a parent whose dominating voice no one would want to love.
"A good father loves you (and gives you just a sip of his beer)." The task of fathering is that of guardian and guide. A father's love cannot protect a child from the dangers of what the church traditionally refers to as "the world, the flesh and the devil." From the child's first day in the First Grade, the parent commits the child to a world where the dangers of "the flesh and the devil" are all about. Not only does the father commit the child, but the father must introduce the child to this world as his guardian and as his guide, knowing the day will come when he can no longer be either guardian or guide.
"Was he a good father or was he a bad father?" This is a very difficult question that has been around for a long time. On one occasion when Jesus wanted to describe his understanding of the love of God for us all, he used the love of a father for his son. "Is there a father among you who will offer his son a snake when he asks for fish, or a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you, then, bad as you are, know how to give your children what is good for them, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:11)
The final test for parenting - the final test for fathering -- whether "good" or "bad"-- does not come with the cherished affirmation of a Father's Day card, but when two adult human beings who were once parent and child -- one young and one now old -- are friends. Good friends for life.