The Dependables: Reflections by Scott Gilbert & Rev. Richards

Sarah Richards
June 18, 2017

The Dependables: Reflections by Scott Gilbert & Rev. Richards

Part I: Scott Gilbert

With the Fellowship’s theme this month being “What Does it Mean to be a Community of Joy?” and today’s task of “reflecting on the joys of depending on our fathers and father figures, and in being dependable ourselves,” as a father of 11 year-old Sydney Gilbert I love the idea of being a “dependable,” part of the dependable fathers league – sort of like the Justice League from the comic books. With a proud and confident look at other fathers in the audience, I love the idea that the dependable fathers league is a knowing and organized bunch of people who really know what they’re doing. And maybe it is, and does, but only in the comic books.

Real-world fathers, at least those that I’ve met, are not super-heros, not all-knowing, and never wholly sure about what they’re doing. They are sometimes indecisive, forgetful, inattentive, self-absorbed, wrong, and not altogether truthful. How do these guys end up “father figures,” upon which kids often depend? As an economist, maybe I should say that most fathers bring home money from work on a regular basis, and that makes those fathers dependable in financial terms. It does, but kids don’t take joy only in the family bank account, most aren’t accountants.

There’s something about dependable fathers that inspires joy. They are dependably… something. In my own case, my late father Dennis Vern Gilbert was dependably joyous and hopeful. Joy, and hope, were a part of his persona, his body language, his smile, both when he was a high-income earner and those times when he fell sick. If there were a dependable fathers league, I think that it would require badges with the father’s name written on one side, and a fun logo on the other – the words joy and hope written into it. Maybe, later today, kids can draw what the logo might look like.

A dependable father’s joy and hope are reliable, even when he stumbles. Many fathers joyously do work that many would consider dull, repetitive, stressful, scary, or sad. Their capacity for joy and hope, even while they are bored, scared, or sad, is inspiring.

A dependable mother’s joy and hope are as reliable as the dependable father’s, if not more so. Their joy and hope are inspiring because, like fathers, mothers are also often bored, scared, or sad. These days it’s hard to separate out the moms and dads in terms of their inspiring qualities, since moms and dads share more of the work of home and business than before. And why bother? Many moms and dads are a team, each inspiring the other.

Where do dependable fathers and mothers get their joy and hope, even on bad days? What is the source of this special super-power? It’s not in a hero’s cape. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the smallest people in the room. The little ones. Kids, I think, are the dependable parent’s super-power, their inspiration. Kids don’t have to press a button or turn on a switch for this power to work, it just works.

Kids often figure out that some things they do make their parents more joyful and hopeful. Kids have the power to make their dads and moms more dependable. On Father’s Day, some extra attention to the dads — maybe including a specially drawn badge – doesn’t hurt either. But they day-to-day noticing of joy and hope, and dad’s role in kids’ lives, makes it possible for kids to see where they come from. Kids will never fulfill all the hopes of their parents, and probably shouldn’t. Everyone should choose for themselves, eventually.

As we reflect on the joys of depending on fathers, and on father figures, it would be easy if that dependence were enough. But kids must also depend on themselves, as the inspiration for dads’ joy and hope. That’s OK, kids know that already. Dads know it too, and for them Father’s Day is always a celebration of kids. For them, every day is Father’s Day, with joy and hope. Thanks kids, for making that happen!

Part II: Rev. Sarah Richards

My dad, Robert Oliver Richards, Jr.’s birthday was June 14, a date so close to Father’s Day we often celebrated the two together. In 1983, when he turned 48, Father’s Day was just four days later, so although I don’t remember, my guess is that one call and one card from me might have served for both occasions. Four days after that, unexpectedly, he died. So since then, this ten-day period in June has been a sort of dad-intensive emotion time for me. It is the weirdest feeling – and I know some of you are in this same boat—to realize that my “old” dad—was younger than I am now when he died. My memories of my father, preserved mostly in repeated stories and some photographs, have faded over the decades without his living presence to contradict or offer complexity. I’m absolutely certain that he loved me (and my mom and sisters) deeply and unconditionally, and that he was proud of all of us. Given how young and unformed I was, just turned 20 when he died, hadn’t done anything with my life yet,—his love and pride, unwavering beyond his death was and is a comfort to me. That’s what is dependable about my dad. But my memories aren’t so dependable, and over the years I know that I’ve filled in, and made assumptions about what he was like, and spent a lot of time wondering what he’d be like – and what he’d think of me if he were alive now.

My colleague, Rev. Nate Walker discovered his dad at the same age I lost mine. In his book, Cultivating Empathy: The Worth and Dignity of Every Person—without Exception, Nate tells the story of how he came into existence after his young mother had gone off to Europe, partially inspired by The Sound of Music. He writes, “She left her home in Carson City, Nevada, with a suitcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other, determined to dance in the Alps. Her high school sweetheart, Mike Collier, later met her in Europe. I was conceived; they separated; I was born. I think Julie Andrews made me gay.[i]

Fast forward a few years and Nate and his mom were back in Nevada, she married Steve Walker who adopted Nate, and became his dad. Nate grew up knowing about his biological father, who had stayed in Germany, but had no interaction or communication with him. So he formed a fantasy of him, kind of like the cartoon superheroes Scott talked about. Nate says,

I thought that because my biological father was an athlete, maybe he would be proud of me for playing baseball. I played left field and would often daydream, saying to him in my mind, “Thanks for making me a natural. Watch me. I can do a front flip, and I can even stand on my hands for a whole minute.” My coach would yell, “Pay attention, Nathan!” That seemed to be his mantra, especially when on another day I walked by the dugout during a practice session and a wild pitch went straight toward my face and broke my jaw.

I was in sixth grade at the time. I remember screaming not only because of the pain of my shattered bone but also because I had let him down—not my coach, my biological father. How could I be a natural with a broken jaw? I could never be his “Wonderboy” now. What if he were in the stands that day, watching, in some Field of Dreams kind of way? What if he showed up a few weeks later and I could not talk with him because I had wires locking my jaw shut? After that I never played baseball again.[ii]

Later, Nate convinced his parents to enroll him in Taekwondo because his biological father had a black belt in karate. But after several sparring sessions, he grew afraid of being hurt and didn’t want to hurt anyone else. “And so I just stopped going. I felt ashamed and internally pleaded to my imagined father for forgiveness: “Please don’t be disappointed.[iii]

Years later, while in college, Nate makes his own trip to Europe, and decides he’s finally ready to meet Mike Collier. He waited anxiously at the train station when he heard his name. He recalls,

The whole experience is blurry to me now. I remember seeing a man wave. I remember hearing him laugh nervously. I laughed, too. He opened his long arms and said, “Wow, dude, this is totally cool.” I awkwardly replied, “Uh, yeah. Totally cool.” Did he smell like incense? Was he wearing tie-dye, or did he only seem to be trapped in the sixties? He was being kind, while I was being an ass. Why was I judging him? Then he said, “This is, like crazy. I’ve been waiting for this for, like, forever, man.” “Thanks, Mike.” I said, to which he replied, “Call me Spike.” Spike? [Huh]? That confirmed it. I had officially time warped into the great psychedelic cosmos where a hippie in Woodstock, New York, had conceived a child with a surfer from Santa Cruz, California, given birth to my biological father, and allowed him to roam Europe. Let’s just say he was not at all what I had expected. Nor, I assumed was I what he had expected. “I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to meet a fag,” I remember saying to myself. I see now that my unfair judgments of us both were windows into my insecurity and immaturity.[iv]

Nate continues the story of his visit, meeting Mike’s long-time girlfriend, Joy, spending the weekend talking and getting to know them. He writes, “Mike…had built a lovely life with Joy and was passionate about world affairs and animals. For some reason, these things surprised me. I was most perplexed to see him do dishes. How pedestrian. Then it hit me—“He’s just a guy.” He had insecurities and unmet aspirations. He was just a man. How could that be? That wasn’t the being I had been praying to my entire life. “Oh my God,” I realized. “He is not my God.” That was the first moment I breached into reality—as if surfacing from a deep ocean, gasping for air for the first time….My initial breaths helped me realize that the movie star in the sky that I had been talking to my entire life was a figment of my imagination. In much of that God-talk, I had been subconsciously trying to make proud the father figure I imagined. This is odd, considering that both my mom and dad were unconditionally supportive of…me. I never felt like I was lacking anything, and yet my imagination lured me with a mirage of my own making.[v]

In reflecting on his experience, Nate writes, “I romanticized Mike Collier out of his humanity and, in doing so, made him out to be “the other.” Romanticizing him was a profound failure in my pursuit of the moral imagination.[vi]” And Nate doesn’t say this, but I’m pretty sure that the opposite is true, too. We can also demonize people out of their humanity, which is a profound failure in our pursuit of the moral imagination. Recently, we’ve read and seen plenty of examples of people, many of them father figures of one type or another, being deified or vilified, to the detriment of our civil society. Do you think that that kind of fantasizing also might happen in our closer, family relationships?

Whether they are present in our lives or not, is so very easy to see our fathers, and father figures— our dads and step-dads, our coaches and community leaders, even our elected leaders—according to our desires and insecurities, as superheroes or super-villains. It does them and us a great disservice, and we miss so many opportunities for our own spiritual and emotional growth, as well as opportunities for developing in relationships with them. Friends, may we take the time, and make the effort, to understand—and remember—all our fathers as fully human, as people, like us, who make mistakes for which they are accountable; people, like us, who bring joy to others. And may our children so understand us.

Amen.

[i] Walker, Nathan C., 2016. Cultivating Empathy: The Worth and Dignity of Every Person—without Exception. Boston: Skinner House Books, p. 13.

[ii] Ibid, pp. 17-18.

[iii] Ibid., p. 18.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[v] Ibid., p. 17.

[vi] Ibid, p. 22.