Climb the Stairs and Say Hello
I was surprised one day to read a comment from the personal life of a famous American General whose public eloquence and flair for the dramatic during World War II made him seem larger than life. It was not a surprise to have him say how proud he was to be a professional soldier. Anyone would have known that. What surprised me was to hear the rest of General Douglas MacArthur’s sentence: “I am proud to be a soldier, but I am prouder, infinitely prouder, to be a father.”
Most of us have probably thought a little more than usual about family life after the recent tragedy in Colorado, so it seems to me this may be a good time to do a trio of sermons about dads, moms and kids. I’ll start with fathers since I’m one of those, and admit right away what any observer already knows — that while some fathers are superb and most are adequate, we still have far too many failures. The Bible, unfortunately, does not provide much help. Jewish scripture, which we call the Old Testament, has a few general comments on the role of fathers, but some are so dated and culturally-conditioned that they are not very useful, and Christian scripture has almost nothing at all to say about being a father.
One sentence does appear twice in letters attributed to Paul (Eph/Col). It says fathers should not provoke their children to agner, but it’s left up to us to figure out exactly what that means. I doubt ehre is a responsible father alive who hasn’t provoked his child by saying, “No, you can’t do that, I’m sorry,” or “Sit on the stairs, please, until you can stop whining.” So the simple truth is that without more specific comment we really aen’t sure what this N. T. author meant by provocation.
The sentence goes on to say that fathers should bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” — a piece of advice that sounds wonderful but on closer examination leaves us with quite a job of interpretation. There are, for instance, about 400 churches in this country and all of them have slightly different notions about what the Bible or the Lord requires of children. One church is sure it involves a dress code, no movies, and no dances at the prom. Another church is sure the Lord’s instructions are not quite that rigid, but has its own set of rules it has extrapolated from scripture. So I tend to tell puzzled fathers to learn from watching men who are clearly successful at that job, and to read a few good books on the subject. My remarks from this point on come from those sources.
I thought it was inevitable to love one’s father until I began to read autobiographies and listen to confidences from friends. In a famous example I shared with you some years ago, a 19th century English author named Samuel Butler immortalized his own bitter memories of home life in a book called The Way of All Flesh . Here is one of the wickedly clever barbs he aims at his father: “A man first quarrels w/ his father about [9 months] before he is born. It is then [that] he insists on setting up a separate establishment; when this has been once agreed to, the more complete the separation forever after, the better for both.”
That’s cutting enough, but he has more: “Why should the generations overlap one another at all? Why cannot we be buried as eggs in neat little cells with ten or twenty thousand pounds each, wrapped round us in Bank of England notes, and wake up — as the sphex wasp does — to find that its papa and mama have not only left ample provision at its elbow, but have been eaten by sparrows some weeks before it began to live consciously on its own account?”
Butler is deliberately trying to shock his proper Victorian neighbors who liked to put a perfect face on English home life, but if his father acted the way Butler depicts him in that novel it’s no wonder the son disliked him. It’s common knowledge now that fathers are not perfect and that children have sometimes had good reason to complain, but you would never guess that from reading what is called the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. It reflects a totally patriarchal society, so when the teacher say in Proverbs that wisdom begins at home, he is not thinking much about the role of mothers. “Be attentive,” he insists, “to a father’s instruction.” Unfortunately, there are many fathers who either haven’t much instruction to give, or else are too busy to spend the time — in which case one can only hope for a wise mother.
Luckily for fathers, they don’t have to be brilliant or do extravagant things to make deep and lasting happy impressions on their children. I probably never described for my dad my earliest fond memory of him — one I cherish to this day because it seemed proof to me as a little boy that I was important in his life. If he were alive to hear it this morning he would be surprised and a little embarrassed at what would seem to him to have been something very trivial. Memory has a way of fusing repeated events, so I describe a single evening. It’s a winter night after dinner and there’s a fire in the living room. I lay out a smooth-surfaced throwrug on the floor, surround it on all sides with pillows to make a barrier, and ask my Dad if he will play marbles with me.
He seems always to have said Yes, although I can’t believe now that he really wanted to stretch out on his side on the floor and shoot one marble at other marbles with a little boy. Or maybe he did! He was one of the most competitive men I ever knew, and perhaps I had gotten skilful enough on the school playground so that he and I could have a real battle. For whatever reasons, he played….and though he has been dead for more than 30 years, and had forgotten all about those games long before he died, when I summon up his face I still see the image of our being together in the living room with my little game important to him.
I realize how trivial that sounds, and illogical as well, since we did so many things later that were more exciting, but that’s how memories work — with a stubborn life of their own which you can’t always explain. If you want a moral, since this is a worship hour, perhaps the moral is this: that your grand pronouncements and dramatic moments may not be at all what your child will cherish in memory. It could be that on those evenings, playing that simple game, I realized for the first time that my father not only loved me but could treat me, at least during those magic moments, as someone worth his time. It must have been a delicious feeling to have made itself immortal.
I decided at this point in preparing these remarks to test my theory that a child may remember with pleasure what a father has totally forgotten, so I called the son I could reach at that very moment and asked for his favorite memories of our earliest years together. One had to do with our going fishing together, which surprised me because in later years I wished we had done it more often. But somehow the intensity of the experience far outweighed, for him, the matter of how often it happened. “Those early morning fishing trips,” he said, “are as vivid in my mind as if they happened yesterday. I remember being so excited at the thought of getting up before daybreak that it took only a whisper to wake me — the joy of being singled out for an activity that only the two of us would share — the perfect, unspoiled moments of daybreak — the strange quiet, except for drowsy bird calls, of a world still asleep. To this day I can smell the gas when you hooked up the tank, and see the iridescence of a few drops of oil on the glassy water, and feel the excitement of believing that on our very first topwater cast some hungry bass would shatter the calm.”
He also remembers what I had totally forgotten, that when he was about nine he got caught stealing a yo-yo at the corner drug store because he wanted it so desperately and it’s staggering $l price tag put it beyond his reach. “What I remember,” he says, “is that even though you told me quietly how disappointed you were, you did not make me feel worse than I already did by agreeing with the clerk about how awful my crime was. You just said to him, ‘We all make mistakes, don’t we?’ and that was it.” And then, reaching for his ministerial vocabulary, he added: “It was my first experience of grace.”
He asked if I could remember the time when I was asked to write and deliver a class prophecy at his 6th grade party. When I confessed that I had no memory of such a thing at all, he tried to help by reciting what I had said about some of his classmates, but it didn’t help….that hour had so totally vanished from my memory that I wondered why it was one of his favorite recollections from childhood. He explained: “I remember that you were funny, and that you were willing to be foolish for the sake of my friends. Not Herr Professor….but the clown.”
The unpredictable memories that stick in a child’s head remind me of reading a newsmagazine story once called Los Alamos, A City Upon a Hill. There was bitter irony intended by the title, which was borrowed from the Bible. The Biblical “city built upon a hill” was meant to be a shining example of the very best in human relationships, but Los Alamos was depicted in the article as a place where so many fathers worshipped ambition that family life had been critically damaged. The town consumed twice the amount of alcohol which would have been normal for its size, and sagged under growing divorce and suicide rates and a variety of mental illnesses. Its children were under constant pressure to achieve, from parents who were high achievers themselves and had no time for silly little games not geared to getting their kids into the best schools. The mothers raced from one to another of 250 clubs designed to keep them occupied, and the fathers sacrificed daily on altars of science in a temple called the lab — busy, busy, busy with their esoteric and very important research.
According to the article, one of those fathers got quite a shock when reporters printed a separate interview they had with his son. A supercharged college-bound kid who had heaped honors on the family by gaining entrance to a prestigious university, the young man commented that if he could live his life over again he would like to try it the second time as a Teddy bear, so — he explained — he could be hugged. Every-thing in the world going for him, it seemed, except affection, and the time it takes to give it.
Which reminds me that this is often more difficult for fathers than it is for most mothers. Men are taught early in life that they shouldn’t betray strong feelings, especially those that might find an outlet in tears. “Big boys don’t cry,” they are told early on, and there’s some good sense in that advice because nobody wants a whiner and a crybaby. But it has often caused grown men to be quite incapable of showing their deepest feelings, and made it impossible for others to know just how deep those feelings may run. And that’s a great pity because a child needs to know that there remains something of the child even in those strong, wise fathers who appear to inhabit a world totally different from their own.
I like a poem I found once by a woman who never says it outright but who is obviously thinking of some man in her life who means a great deal to her but who simply does not know how to deal with emotion because as a child he was always taught to suppress it. Listen:
little boys don’t cry.
When his mother died,
They said he yelled, Now, dry-eyed
“I don’t care,” after all
running away to hide. these layers of years,
He does not remember dare he
that, can’t believe it, reach out and touch
still denies it. my tears?
Obviously, she feels he can’t….and whoever he is, he probably wishes he could, and can’t quite understand why he feels so awkward when the moment comes to deal with emotion. It could have been a child of his who published some memories of his own recently in The New Yorker. He entitled his poem “The Mole,” because that was the nickname the family had given the father, who had a little place down in the cellar where he spent most of his time when he was at home. It goes like this:
“There goes The Mole!” Mother cried.
“You children look quick or you’ll miss
him!” It was Father, disappearing down
the cellar stairs. Every day he’d retreat
to his radio shack, stay past midnight.
He’d built a rig others envied, came
from miles around to see. Every day
he’d jam the airwaves, ruin the block’s TV.
Every day we’d hear hims it before the mike
calilng “CQ, CQ, calling CQ” to whoever
listened at the other end. He once
claimed to reach Moscow………………..
…………………. He was a handsome
cat; Mother once adored him , I know.
But what I’ll never know is this: Why he’d talk
to any stranger far away and not once
climb back up the stairs to the five of us
to say, “Hello….Hello….”
We are thankful, Our Father, for good fathers the world over,
and for the memories through which they bless and strengthen
the lives of their children. Amen.