Fathering

Glynn Cardy
Sun 03 Sep

Introduction:

Today is Father’s Day, when we remember our dads and those who fathered us.  Some of us have brought photos of our dads along; and some of us have brought our real-time dads along.  It’s a day to celebrate fathering.

Most of us who are fathers receive some unfiltered messages when we see our first child for the first time.  They are messages about protecting and providing.  Of course these messages are initially in the background when our children are born – in the foreground is joy, and gratitude, and often relief [births can be traumatic].

In time the background comes to the fore… and we try to be the best dads we can [though often we need some help].   But protecting and providing are just the first glimpse at the parental contract.  They might be the bold print, but most of the fine print is about guidance and relationships.  And besides, mums do a lot, maybe the majority, of the protecting and providing these days.

What some of us dads slowly learn is that our children are watching us all the time.  They are watching how we treat people we love, and people we find difficult.  They are watching how we deal with success, and how we deal with failure.  They are watching what we do about expectations, expectations of ourselves and of them, and what happens when we don’t meet them.  They are mindful of how we express our love for them – whether by touch, look, word, or actions – and whether we love ourselves.

In our service today we will listen to Cat Steven’s [Yusuf Islam’s] song Father and Son where a dad with an adult son shares some pearls of wisdom he has painfully learned – like: ‘don’t be too hard on yourself’; ‘try to be calm’; ‘take your time’; ‘think a lot’; ‘know that you don’t know’; and ‘dream’.  These pearls all try to be a corrective to the male messages about working hard and efficiently and profitably [what we are told is success]; often to the detriment of our family relationships, and our soul.

Also in our service we will listen to the ancient parable of the Prodigal Son – a story about fathering - where a dad [who, by the way, isn’t God!] is prepared to lose status and dignity in order to fix the relationship between firstly himself and his younger son [who in wanting his inheritance has insulted his dad, wishing him dead[1]], then secondly fix the relationship with his elder son [who has insulted his dad by refusing to dine with him], and in these fixings laying the groundwork for reconciliation between the boys. 

It is a story that reminds us that being a loving and caring father can be costly – fathering may require us to step away from convention, it may mean that others will misunderstand us, and sometimes those ‘others’ may include our children.  The Prodigal Son is one of the greatest love stories in the Bible.

The Tooth Fairy

Robert Fulghum tells how a friend, after the death of his father, was clearing out the family home.  His father had been a solemn, humourless man, without much imagination or affection.  Although the friend respected his father, the relationship was somewhat formal and distant.

It was therefore something of a surprise to find amongst the miscellaneous stationery, keys, and coins, an old shoe box in which, wrapped in tissue paper there were tiny teeth neatly glued to a card, with a date under each one in the father’s handwriting.  Human teeth.

This find was a bit of a shock.  His father was the tooth fairy!  All these years he’d thought it was his mum.[2]

As a child I remember finding a 50c coin under my pillow.  I can’t remember whether I thought the pain was worth it or not, but I can remember the 50c.  I used to wish that more of my teeth would fall out.

Fathers often have the privilege of representing their children’s interests in negotiations with the Tooth Fairy. The price can fluctuate depending on demand - demand on [the parents’] wallet.  I don’t know what the going price is today, but rumour has it that a $2 coin is the minimum.  Teeth are a valuable commodity, as any dentist bill will tell you.

My friend Jim has a theory that it’s not about the money but the magic.  There is something mysteriously glamorous about the Tooth Fairy.  Instead of cold hard currency his kids get brightly coloured polished stones from “Fairyland”.  Jim surreptitiously whispers to me that Geoff’s Emporium has a selection.

Mind you Jim’s brother isn’t so convinced.  He tried it once on his daughter.  “What’s this?” she said.  “It’s a magic stone from Fairyland,” Jim’s brother replied.  “Yeah, right,” she retorted.  Her elder sister took her dad aside and kindly but firmly informed him that all her siblings knew that there was no such thing as the Tooth Fairy, that they tolerated dad sneaking into their bedrooms at night as long as there was money in it, and coloured stones were worthless.  Jim’s brother was left wondering how he’d managed to breed such unimaginative bank managers.

I’m a great believer in the Tooth Fairy – much to the amusement or consternation of others.  They think the T-Fairy is about as relevant as the E-Bunny [though they noticeably don’t ask me about the Easter Bunny!].

I like the Tooth Fairy because I like magic and myth.  They are vehicles for the imagination and often contain truths that the world of profit and loss, facts and logic, doesn’t recognise.  I like the notion of a magical world divided by gossamer from this one, where the impossible is possible, where children make a difference, and where the heart matters.  For me love is magic, and the best magic is love.  Albus Dumbledore said something similar.  The Tooth Fairy is one of the portals we have to enter the world of magic.

I also like the myth – the parabolic truth – that the Tooth Fairy reveals.  It has to do with pain and recompense.

There is an old saying about ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.  The principle here is that the one who has suffered has the right to inflict the same level of suffering upon the one who has caused their suffering.  It’s a form of retributive justice.  If you are being bullied, punch the bully.

Well, the evidence is in: retributive justice doesn’t work, and I doubt it ever has.  With each punch, each bullet or blast, each cruel word… the seeds of hate and hurt and ‘I’m-gonna-get-you-one-day’ are being sown.  In the world of ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ there are a lot of blind, toothless people around.

That’s the trouble with violent language or actions - even when you feel it’s unavoidable, you get infected by it.  Like a parasite it will begin to affect/infect your thinking and actions, encouraging you to believe increasingly that violence is the best option, or the only option.

The Tooth Fairy works differently.  She/He acknowledges the child’s hurt, but doesn’t relieve the hurt.  The child, hopefully with parental support, has to work the hurt out for herself/himself.  The recompense is not equal to, or tries to be equal to, the level of suffering.  The money simply acknowledges and compensates a little.  It’s a form of restorative justice.

Some purists would say we’re encouraging trade in body parts, and the mentality that everything, your body, your mind, even your teeth, has a price.  I agree that it’s possible to write the Tooth Fairy off as a servant of the ‘money-is-everything’ culture.  Like with most myths there is a downside. 

I hope though that the Tooth Fairy can be a vehicle for encouraging solidarity.  There is value in acknowledging the pain and injustice experienced by others.  Maybe if we exercise solidarity in the little things, we might be able to step beyond our presumptions and prejudices and exercise solidarity in the big things. 

Children, whether or not they have their suspicions about the Tooth Fairy, like to know that someone cares about them.  The money, or a brightly coloured stone, is a symbol of that care.  When someone cares pain becomes more bearable. 

So, on Father’s Day, I want to encourage us dads to

Foster our children’s imagination [the engine room for the future]
Give our children the hope to believe that the impossible might be possible
Declare that our children matter – all children matter – and all children’s pain matters
That our children’s hearts, and their fathers’ hearts, matter
And love is inexplicably magical; and the best magic, medicine, and justice is found through unearned love

Jim, my friend and fellow Tooth Fairy believer told me how one night he got a shock.  He had snuck into his daughter’s room with coin in hand to do the deed.  This child was of an age where her siblings’ scepticism had had a corrupting influence.  Yet she’d still pointedly told him that a tooth had come out and she was putting it under her pillow.  So now, hours later, he gingerly lifted the pillow in order to extract the canine.

But, lo and behold, the tooth was not there.  Instead there was a note.  “Dear Tooth Fairy, thank you for taking the trouble to visit me.  I thought you might like to play a game.  Follow the clues to the tooth.  The first clue is ‘dog’.”

Needless to say Jim spent the next half hour traipsing about the house following and finding clues, and eventually a tooth.  He wearily got into bed just before midnight.   He told me that his toes were cold but his heart was strangely warmed [yes, he was a recovering Methodist] for his daughter had entered into the spirit of the Tooth Fairy’s magic – caring enough about her father to create a game, and smiling as she thought of her father creeping about the house looking for clues.  She’d had fun and she cared.  Jim had a convert.

 

[1] When asking for his share of the inheritance [with inheritance only given on the death of the patriarch] he is effectively wishing his father to be dead.

[2] Robert Fulghum Maybe (Maybe Not), p.10.

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