It took me a few years, I think, before I realized that most people, especially men, do not cry at the end of every movie. As a child, I mostly watched movies at my father’s house on Saturday nights, when we would pour over the VHS collection and select Ghostbusters at least twice a year, interspersed with Ms. Doubtfire and countless other eighties films. At the end of Princess Diaries, Eddie Murphy comedies, Terms of Endearment and Stanley Cup commercials alike, my dad is the first to break down into tears.
My father is special for many reasons – one of which is his ability to express vulnerable emotions while partaking in storytelling. His imagination is such that he has a visceral empathy with characters, and it is easy to get him “fired up,” in his words. I have always admired him for his propensity to sing motivational show tunes with a childlike enthusiasm in one moment, while becoming “ferclempt” (urban dictionary definition: the feeling of being at the brink of tears, usually accompanied with a lump in the throat and a cracking voice) in the next.
In trying to define the role of fatherhood in my life, I reflect upon moments that I saw my father’s fleshly, beating heart. Whether it came through his care for high school football players or elderly massage clients, my father taught me that I was put into this world to learn from others and apply my gifts and talents wherever needed. He also taught me that there is a field of energy – an intangible reality that can only be witnessed through intuition. I inherited my father’s fascination with the realm of service to the spirit, and I am grateful for all that I continually learn from him.
My father worked hard to keep strong relationships with my sister and I as we grew older, even when our visits to his house became more disparate and few in measure. In recent years, after moving away from home, I also have learned that “father” to me is more than a person. It is also a verb that means, in my experience, to show care and vulnerability by loving those in need. I feel grateful that God has sent me many male role models that have raised me with their compassionate presence.
For instance, in the past two years, I have been blessed by the presence and wisdom of Davidson College’s chaplain, Rob Spach. Rob was the first to introduce me to a Biblical tradition in which the inherent worth of every person is affirmed by scripture. Rob sees the gift of each person’s spirit in a way that embodies Christ’s desire for us to look others in the eye and affirm to them that they are loved. He was also the first male figure in my life that would sit with me for hours in his office as I struggled to find the courage to seek new opportunities, relationships, and pathways of faith. His willingness to offer authentic questions and praise of God has raised me toward becoming a more faithful person, and I cannot express my gratitude for the way that he has been a steady presence and mentor in my life.
I have also been fathered in one-time instances, such as a routine doctor visit in Canada. At the time, my iron levels were dangerously low and I was terrified of facing the danger of my ongoing struggle with anorexia. I wanted to spend my summer away in nature at a camp in Vermont as a way to escape, to find some ethereal universe where I would not be in so much pain. I remember that I felt safe in this doctor’s office, as if I were cocooned for a moment in the midst of a blood-thinning storm. I poured out my anxieties over the future to him. After listening for several minutes, he looked me into the eyes and tole me in a gentle yet firm tone, that he recommended I go home to heal. His words came as a blessing at exactly the right moment which, thank God, gave me the courage that I needed to continue seeking help. My memory of this one encounter reminds me that we can each be fathers and mothers to those we may never meet again, perhaps even strangers, whenever we give others the gift of our compassionate guidance.
Lastly, right now, as I look onto the walls of family photos in my host family’s home in Charlotte, I am also reminded that fatherly relationships can come by the grace of adoption in faith. My two host fathers in Canada and Charlotte, Kem and Jerry, have shown me that fatherhood is a humbling vocation of following God, being obedient to the Spirit, and listening to children. I will always treasure memories of learning to bake bread with Kem and taking walks in nature as we witnessed the works of our Creator. Similarly, in just two weeks of being together, Jerry has taught me over our walks and after-dinner conversations to be grateful for the gifts of my life, to never stop searching for a deeper prayer, and to take each day with a faithful acceptance.
Holding these images of men that show strength through their gentleness, who offer unending wisdom to children, I believe fathers of all kinds are vital to the wellbeing of our world. We need fathers not only to show up to baseball games, but to encourage their children to seek valuable relationships, to hold children healing from mental illness, to help young women through pregnancies. I am grateful for all the male bus drivers, camp counselors, professors, nurses, gardeners (especially my friend Eddie), youth pastors, and more recently, members of Moore Place that have shown care for those younger or more vulnerable than them, “raising” others to God through ordinary moments.
I would like to acknowledge that it takes deep courage for a man to show compassion. We live in a culture of messages that tell men to be “handy” and fix problems of the world, to communicate only through rationality and somehow pretend to be invulnerable. These messages of “strong men” with often heterosexual undertones are perpetuated by our media, our language, and often our faith-based institutions. Each of us suffers from a distortion of gender-based identities. I therefore find it deeply important that Jesus’ ministry was especially focused toward women, children, orphans, widows. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was reflective of a Father whose heart is most tender, and who revealed the truth that compassion is the most powerful force in the universe.
“Be compassionate, just as your Heavenly Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36)
On this Father’s Day, I am re-imagining fatherhood in the self-emptying, ever-merciful way of the Divine. I God the Father as one who has taken on the world’s violence and foregone vengeance in favor of a self-emptying gentleness. When I pray to God as my Father, I see gentle hands waiting to embrace us as His children, healing us, and crying with us – especially during the most moving of stories.
For fathers of all forms and all kinds, tied by blood and by faith, I give thanks to God this day.