Sunday, June 19, 2011

Faith of my father

Today is Father's Day. I did the obligatory thing. I bought my dad a gift card and his favorite pie from the bakery. I had my kids color some stuff and we took it all down to him. On the ride to his home, I thought about my ambivalence about today. My dad and I have never been close. In fact, we have been sort of the opposite of close and loving. We have spent months alienated entirely. We have argued. We have disagreed. I have never felt I was what my dad wanted. And of course I'm fairly certain that in my own ways I have made him feel he was not what I wanted.

As I thought about it some more, I realized that I've never really had a warm, fuzzy relationship with any man in my biological family. My brother and I have been distant since we were kids. Separated by nearly five years and what seemed like a million miles in the way we thought about life, love, faith, whatever. He has spent the past 4 years incarcerated. I write him occasionally. I've traveled to see him. But, we haven't really bridged the distance that has been there since we were small children.

My mother's father was a quiet man. I remember him vaguely. We spent time on the floor playing with toys when I was very small. He was neither affectionate, nor effusive. He was quiet, seemingly in his own world...a world that I didn't understand. My father's father (his biological father died when he was a small child, but he was adopted)was also a quiet, seemingly cold man. The only distinct memory I have of him as a child was being confronted by him when I had eaten some candy I wasn't supposed to eat. He reprimanded me. I apologized. He walked away. After that I was fearful of him. I felt some strange sense of shame around him.

None of these men were abusive to me in the most visible sense of the word. That is, no one was physically harmful. But, I also never felt really bonded to any of them. And perhaps that is the greater harm in many ways. I've never understood my father entirely (or either of my grandfathers). I've wanted to. But, still I must admit I don't. I've spent a good part of my adult life making excuses for his bad behavior. The lesson I've learned is that while I've never really stood up to my father when he has been hurtful to me, I have no tolerance for his behavior when it is directed at my children.

Today the kids and I were eating dinner with my father, my mother and my niece and nephew. I have watched my father berate my nephew occasionally about his weight. My nephew is not a fat kid by any stretch of the imagination. There are times of the year when he gains a bit of weight, still he is an active 14 year old boy. He plays sports and bikes everywhere. I have expressed frustration with my father on occasion over this. Tonight my father took aim at my 7 year old daughter and began chastising her. To put it simply, I lost it. I recognize some of my angry words have been stuck in my throat since I was my daughter's age. Suffice to say dinner was eaten in silence after my tirade. My father didn't react in the way I would have anticipated. He was fairly quiet. He said a few extra things that he knew would be hurtful, but then he was silent. As I was leaving his house, he said he wouldn't bring up the subject with my daughter again. Of course I don't believe him, I recall him saying the same thing about various subjects over and over when I was a child. Still, I was surprised at how quiet he was.

My child had begun to cry at the table, and I took her inside and washed her face and held her as she cried. I told her that her grandfather was wrong for saying what he had, and that I loved her very much. As I drove my nephew home, he finally said, "I remember you tried to stick up for me when I was younger. At least you stick up for your kids. Grandpa is just mean sometimes."

My own inner armchair theologian would say that my father's faith and my own are as different as they can be. My father was raised attending church on Sundays with his adopted parents. My grandparents were pillars of their church community. My grandfather was an elder in the church, my grandmother taught Sunday school and was part of every part of the life of the church women could be part of. My grandmother would be the first woman to acknowledge that my grandfather was the head of their household, and that this was God's will. She waited on my grandfather, cooking and cleaning for him. When they would pray at dinner, everyone would wait for my grandfather to lift his head after praying silently, and take the first food on his plate before beginning to serve themselves.

My father was a bit of the prodigal son. He left home at his first opportunity by joining the military. He was then sent to Korea to fight in a war. He was barely 18 years old. When he returned home, he continued to avoid living anywhere near his parents, staying in the big city, St. Louis, and working any number of odd jobs. He has told me he was mad at God in those years, completely avoiding church of any sort. Eventually, after 2 failed marriages and 5 children, he met my mother - 19 years his junior and married her after 3 months of dating. She compelled him to return to church because for her, it was the responsible thing to do. Because she had never had a church affiliation, they returned to my father's Lutheran roots in a town 20 miles away from my grandparents. Over the next several years, up until I was a teenager, my father rarely darkened the church's door. He did enjoy throwing around a random Bible verse here and there..."spare the rod, spoil the child" or "an eye for an eye." But, mostly religion, faith, God was seemingly absent from his thought process.

In the years since I was teen, 20 or so now, my father has returned to the Lutheran church, taking his place as an elder, usher and in various other capacities. And his daughter has wandered around, mostly aligning with the Episcopal church in a loose, non-conformist way. I've had phases of being mad at God...but the church is always where I end up, sometimes surprising myself.

Ultimately I suppose what we share is a gnawing sense that God is there and that we can't really figure it all out. My father seems to think God is waiting to strike someone (anyone perhaps) down for their misdoings. And I seem to wonder if God is hiding from me. I still cling to a mainline, traditional denomination that I largely don't identify with anymore and that lacks the authenticity I crave. My dad continues to show up each week despite the fact that he can't hear the service and doesn't much care to anymore. While I have always sought to distance myself from my father in many ways, in some ways we remain linked. As always, I wonder where my children will land. Will I judge them in the way that my father judges me? Will they judge me the way I have judged my father?

I hope my kids get the awe and they mystery that is God. I hope that they find a community that loves them and that they can love. I hope that whatever touches them is available to them, whether it's a ritual, music, art. I hope that they see the Spirit in everything.

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