If You’ll Let My Dad Hold the Rope

June 16, 1996


“If You’ll Let My Dad Hold the Rope”

When I finally got one of the new $l00 bills recently, the ones with Ben Franklin’s macrocephalic head and some other details supposedly impossible to reproduce by the wrong people, the teller and I at my friendly little bank got into a brief discussion about counterfeiting. She spoke of how high-tech copiers had made it too easy to print money illegally, and then she told me about a counterfeiter in Louisiana who got so excited one day about his easy money that he printed, by mistake, a number of $11 bills. He wondered how he could possibly pass them, but he hit on a plan. He drove to a tiny town far out in the country, and when the person with him asked, “What are you going to do?” he said, “I’m going into a little store in this out-of-the-way place and see what kind of change I can get for this $11 bill.” So he walked in, put the bill down on the counter, and said: “I’d like some change, please.” The clerk gave him two bills, which he grabbed quickly and hurried back to his car. The friend asked, “Well, what did you get?” “I don’t know,” the counterfeiter said, “but anything is better than what I had.” When he looked at the two bills, he realized he had met his match. He had a seven and a four.”
The only reason to tell that is to remind you that you don’t always get what you expect….and that is happening to you this morning. You didn’t expect “Dad” to be in the sermon title today, because the combined forces of love and business have reminded us for three weeks now that today is Father’s Day, and you have learned that except for Christmas and Easter I often ignore the calendar. But as long as we have that time-honored Congregational tradition of freedom from the calendar, I don’t mind bowing to it once in a while….. so welcome to a sermon about fathers.
I suppose the first thing we should do is be honest and admit what Father’s Day advertising would never even remotely hint at, that not everybody has good feelings about fathers. If you read newspapers or watch documentaries, no one has to tell you why. Far too many of them run away and refuse to pay child support, or else stay home and neglect their children except for now and then abusing them.
I wonder sometimes how the children of those fathers feel about Father’s Day. I have met a few who told me that instead of calling a Dad with a happy greeting they’d like to call him and tell him off. Some of them are as bitter as the author of a 19th century novel I used to teach. If ever a man disliked his father, and got revenge by exposing him to the whole world in a book, it was Samuel Butler, whose bitter memories of home life were immortalized in The Way of All Flesh, a book I know some of you have read. Here is a sampleof Butler’s satire about the relationship between fathers and sons: “A man first quarrels with his father about [nine 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.”
Butler said that partly to shock proper Victorians who liked to think English home life was impeccable, but if his father acted the way Butler depicts him in that novel, it’s no wonder the son disliked him. Fortunately, that experience is not typical. The usual pattern is to idolize one’s father for a few years, come to have some doubts as a teenager, and then strike a balance which leaves room for seeing the weaknesses while loving the strengths. You may have seen a piece called My Father When I Was….4. 5, and on to age 50. At 4: “My daddy can do anything. At 5: “My daddy knows a whole lot.” At 6: “My dad is smarter than your dad.” At 8, a tiny hole in the dike: “My dad doesn’t know everything.” At 10, dawning recognition: “Boy, in the old days when my dad grew up, things sure were different.” At 12: “Oh, well, my dad doesn’t have any idea how we feel. He’s too old to remember when he was a kid.”
And at 14, chafing at the bit: “Don’t pay any attention to my father. He is so old-fashioned!” So at 21: “Is your dad as hopelessly out-of-date as mine?” And then by 25, the faintest little shift in perception: “Dad knows a little about it….but after all, he should, he’s been around so long.” At 30, with maturity coming on: “Maybe we should ask Dad what he thinks. After all, he has had a lot of experience.” And by 35: “I’m not doing a single thing until I talk to Dad.” Nine years later there is a funeral, so that at 45 comments are in the past tense: “I wonder how Dad would have handled this.” And finally, at 50: “I’d give anything if Dad were here now so I could talk this over with him. I’m sorry I didn’t ask more questions when I had the chance.”
Mark Twain, as you might expect, condenses all that with a classic description of the process of growing up: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astnished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Not all sons discover that by 21; as someone has pointed out, by the time a man realizes his father was usually right, he already has a son who thinks he’s usually wrong. I doubt if any son ever fully understands his father until he has become a father himself.
There is, by the way, an occasional moment when we find ourselves reliving our father’s life. I have a son who has teased me over the years because when he was in grade school I used to give him burr haircuts. But things forever come round again in the whirligig of time: he called last week to tell me how he was sitting int he kitchen, giving his own little boy a burr for the first time, when — he says — “I stopped all of a sudden and stared at my wife and said, “I have the most eerie feleing right now. I AM MY DAD! I’m doing this to my son the way he did this to me, and all of a sudden it’s as if I had become my father and was reliving the past.” (I could hear my daughter-in-law in the background saying, “Oh, God, I hope not!”) I’ve had that kind of odd flashback myself, when I said things my father once said, or went at my work the way he used to go at his. I’m sure there are fathers here who know exactly wht I mean.
Whatever else this day may mean, it is certainly a day for reminiscing, so while I pose some personal questions, and answer them, I hope you will be doing the same. The most important one, I suppose, is What did I learn from my father? In my case the answer is easy. No one I have ever known worked harder or with more intense energy than my father. In the Depression years I saw him come home at night from a long day in his furniture store, eat dinner with us, and then go back out to lay linoleum half the night. I grew up thinking it was divinely ordained that everybody should work as hard as my Dad.
To the question, When you think of your father, what do you wish there had been more of? the answer for me is easy again: more chances to be alone with him, especially when I was older, and to have him open up about his deeper, inner life. We talked easily about all the usual things: his job, my job, how I was doing in school, his new pasture crop, the whiteface cattle, his church life and mine — but there were more intimate things I would have liked knowing. I didn’t quite know how to ask, and I think he might not have been able to respond if I had, so in some ways we both stayed partly hidden. I suppose one of the inevitable surprises, after someone is gone, is how much we did not know about each other, how ultimately private and alone we are, even in good relationships between fathers and sons.
What about discipline? Was it too harsh? Do you feel lingering resentment? By modern standards, the rules in my home were very strict, and so was the discipline when I broke them. Dad knew nothing of modern psychology and the tender psyches of children, so the punishments sometimes involved a belt or a switch, but even when he was vigorous it never once entered my mind that he was cruel or that he might not love me. I thought he was mistaken once or twice when he punished, and I had a healthy anger about that, but I have no memory of ever having wondered if he might dislike me or consider me hopeless. I understood one day how important that is when I met a little boy without much of a vocabulary yet, whose curly hair and pretty face prompted someone to ask, “What are you, a boy or a girl?” He said, “I’m an Awful.” He had a good chance, I thought, of growing up like a dear friend of mine in another church whose father constantly called him Dumbbell. He is in his 50’s now, intelligent and immensely skilled in a number of ways, but he has suffered all his life from a deep inferiority complex. Too many thoughtless putdowns. And then there was little Paula, daughter of a good friend in Dallas, who was with her grandfather in a gas station one day when a stranger stopped. He said “Hello!.” She said, “Hi, I’m five. I’m smart and I’m pretty.” Somebody had made her feel good about herself. I’m not surprised that now that she is grown, she lives a useful and happy life. I thought, until I was grown and gone from home, that all fathers hugged and said “I love you,” so that you never doubted where you stood — but I know now it isn’ true. I did a wedding ceremony years ago for a boy who told me, as we talked, that in all his 25 years of life his father had never once told him that he loved him. There are proofs other than verbal, of course, but for a child there is something especially wonderful about hearing an all-wise, all-powerful father actually say it. We can only love other people, by and by, if we love ourselves….and when somebody as important as a father says “I love you,” he convinces us that we are lovable. If we’ve been lucky in that way, we never forget. Although my father has been gone a long time, I find that to this very day, if there is a moment of unusual success one of my first thoughts is: I wish Dad could have seen this. And one of the greatest pleasures of my own life as a father is that my children can hardly wait to call when they have a success story to share.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be perfect fathers to earn that eagerness for approval. I remember being startled one day when I was combining doctoral work at Washington University with halftime teaching and fulltime service to a church, and being a father when those three jobs would let me. I was working away at my deskone night when I overheard enough words from the children to let me know they were each pretending to be a father. I was a little nervous about being so busy, so I stopped to ask what that game involved….what do fathers do? Karen, the oldest, said, “Daddies go to school” — which was logical enough since her father had beend oing that from the day she was born. As for her brother, who was three year’s younger, and had a fat book cradled in his lap, he looked up very seriously and pronounced his judgment: “Daddies read books.” Even in the temporary madness of a doctoral program, I decided I needed to be around more often and put up the books occasionally to play. We did it.
Perhaps the nicest thing about our children is how much they forgive us after they’ve grown up and found out that “my daddy” can’t do everything after all. If there is still love and respect, it’s quite a relief not to have to be Superman anymore. But for a while, fathers always are. I remember the two scientists who were on a field trip in the mountains of Idaho when they found a baby eagle in a nest just below the top of a steep cliff. The eaglet had been deserted, and they wanted to rescue it, so they asked the young son of their mountain guide if they could lower him down to get the little orphan.
He was not at all enthusiastic about their plan, so he turned them down. They offered him money, and then they doubled it, but he still refused. Finally, knowing how much the boy loved wild things, one of the scientists asked in despair: “Well, then, how do you propose we save the baby eagle?” The mountain boy thought about it for a moment, and then he said, “I’d be glad to go down and get that little bird for free…..if you’ll let my Dad hold the rope.”
Good fathers win that kind of trust. Happy Father’s Day, gentlemen.

Thank you, Eternal God, for those who have made their lives
synonymous in our memory with love’s strength and its
persistence. Amen.