Scripture: Psalm 8
One day, when our son Alex was a toddler, he developed a virus that featured significant intestinal issues, if you know what I mean. Mary and I had to change his diaper something like seventeen times that day. It was totally wearing us out. And I remember, near day’s end, I was holding him in my arms when, yet again, I sensed activity on that front. In my weariness, I sighed and said, “Oh, no.” And Alex looked at me with such kind eyes, and he said, “It’s OK, Daddy. I just pumped gas.”
I’m not proud of my impatience that day. Two-year-old Alex was being more relaxed and peaceful about this inconvenience that I was. Nor, of course, is that the only time I was less than my best self as a father. I have a lingering memory as a young parent of attending a Vermont town meeting—when the whole town gathers to do its business—and Alex was being fussy. I wanted not to create a ruckus during the meeting, but I couldn’t get him to stop making noise, so I squeezed him more and more tightly, thinking that that mature way of handling it would take care of the problem!
Sometimes too strict, sometimes too distracted, sometimes too absent, sometimes too insensitive, I am acutely aware of my shortcomings as a father. So on this Father’s Day, I look at that remarkable eighth psalm, and I am both appalled and incredulous at the contrast between that psalm and my own obvious inadequacies. “What are human beings,” the psalmist asks God rhetorically, “that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” And then this bold and amazing proclamation: “Yet you have made them a little lower than God”—or “a little lower than the angels,” as the King James Version has it—“and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4-5). A little lower than God? Really? Crowned with glory and honor? I don’t think so.
Like all of us, we fathers struggle with our faults and frailties. Popular culture catalogs them unflinchingly. TV ads so often depict fathers as clueless. Sitcoms show them as insensitive and coarse. Dramas portray them as silent loners, out-of-touch with their feelings and their families. And endless headlines let us know about fathers who have abandoned their children, or betrayed them, or even taken their lives. “Hi, Mom,” athletes mouth to the camera, never “Hi, Dad.” Fathers a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor? It hardly seems so.
A recent study done at Emory University adds nuanced layers to this. It observed ways in which fathers treat sons and daughters differently. One of the behavioral differences researchers noticed was “the level of attention given a child. ‘When a child cried out or asked for Dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,’ [said the lead researcher]. ‘We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children.’ . . . In addition to being more attentive, fathers of daughters sang more to their child and were more likely to use words associated with sad emotions, such as ‘cry,’ tears,’ and ‘lonely.’ [In a less salutary vein,] fathers of daughters also used more words associated with the body, such as ‘belly,’ ‘cheek,’ ‘face,’ ‘fat,’ and ‘feet.’”
As the lead researcher, Jennifer Mascaro, notes, the use of more “emotion” language with girls by fathers, for example, may help girls develop more empathy than boys. ‘The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize,’ [she] says. ‘Validating emotions is good for everyone—not just daughters.’” She goes on to point out that “Restricted emotions in adult men is linked to depression, decreased social intimacy, marital dissatisfaction and a lower likelihood of seeking mental health treatment. Research also shows that many adolescent girls have negative body images. ‘We found that fathers are using more language about the body with girls than with boys, and the differences appear with children who are just one-to-three years old,’ [she] says”
The larger point of the research is not that fathers are doing this intentionally. Nor, of course, are fathers the only ones doing it. Much of this sort of behavior is subconscious, and much, of course, is shaped by cultural expectations and habits. As Mascaro, the lead researcher points out, though, it is nevertheless a distinct bias. And for many of us, it’s sobering to have our unintentional shortcomings pointed out, these qualities that make us seem, frankly, quite a bit lower than God.
Today is what the church calls Trinity Sunday. It’s when we revel in the remarkable notion that God is three-in-one. Traditionally referred to as Father, Son and Holy Ghost, over the years, that same Trinity has been referred to in other ways, too, maybe most commonly as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Because it’s so difficult to grasp something as amorphous and frankly odd as one-God-in-three-persons, various images have arisen over the centuries to help us make sense of it.
It can be helpful, for example, to conceive of the Trinity in the same way that we think of water, ice, and steam: same substance, different forms, different shapes. Another way the Trinity is sometimes conveyed is in the notion of a speaker, a word and a breath: a speaker needs breath to make a word; they’re all different, but each is related to the other.
That one—speaker, word and breath—is particularly appealing, because it conveys how crucial relationship is to the Trinity. For all the gender limitations of the traditional Trinity—it’s crucial to remember and affirm that the living, immortal, invisible God is not a man, is not more male than female—for all those limitations, the traditional formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit nevertheless has some real strengths, because it conveys that relationship is at the core. Three free-standing gods, unattached, wouldn’t grab us. Give them an intrinsic connection to each other, though, and this Godhead springs to life. Sixteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine conveyed this with the notion of God as Lover, Beloved and Love, the three intertwined.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, uses a unique image for the Trinity, one I had never heard before. He likens the Trinity to a fidget spinner. A fidget spinner, as you may well know if you have children of the right age, is a device you can spin. When you see it still, it has three sections to it. When you see it spinning, though, the separate sections meld into a single entity spinning with energy. And Rohr says when a fidget spinner spins, “we see unbroken movement or flow. Even more significant than the qualities of the individual members of the Trinity is the flow between them. At the Trinitarian level, God is a verb more than a noun, God is a flow more than a substance, God is an experience more than a deity sitting on a throne. And we live naturally inside that flow of love—if we do not resist it” (Meditations@cac.org, May 10, 2019).
It may seem oddly unrelated to go from a psalm talking about human beings as slightly lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, to a somewhat academic discussion of the Trinity, and then to a noticeably less academic encounter with a fidget spinner. ‘Connections, please!’ you might well be thinking. So here’s the thing: what distinguishes us as human beings is our capacity to relate to each other. Just as God is not a static entity, but is inherently a relationship, so human life, at its best, is carried out in relationship. We’re not isolated pods intended to go through life in splendid solitude. We are, instead, beings whose very glory is our ability to connect and make peace and support each other. For all the ways we can hurt each other and dismiss each other and hold each other in contempt, we still have a remarkable capacity for making a difference in each other’s lives.
Just as the Godhead is a flow of shared energy, so human life culminates in mutual care and companionship. That’s what makes us a little lower than God. That’s what crowns us with glory and honor.
On this Father’s Day, I want to lift up the wonder of that sort of care and companionship with two poems and a story, all of them about fathers. The first poem is by Jericho Brown. Brown is a young poet who happens to be gay and, because he grew up in a strict conservative religious atmosphere, he has suffered by being misunderstood and excluded. His own father has not been supportive of Brown’s orientation, and Jericho has felt that dismissal, that judgment. But Brown has also seen his father change over the years, and he’s written a poem called “Like Father,” a poem that frankly leaves the ambivalence still showing:
My father’s embrace is tighter
Now that he knows
He is not the only man in my life.
He whispers, Remember when, and, I love you,
As he holds my hand hungry
For a discussion of Bible scriptures
Over breakfast. He pours cups of coffee
I can’t stop
My father’s embrace is firm and warm
Now that he knows. He begs forgiveness
For anything he may have done to make me
Turn to abomination
As he watches my eggs, scrambled
Soft. Yolk runs all over the plate.
A rubber band binds the morning paper.
My father’s embrace tightens. Grits
Stiffen. I hug back
Like a little boy, gripping
To prove his handshake.
Daddy squeezes me close,
But I cannot feel his heartbeat
And he cannot hear mine —
There is too much flesh between us,
Two men in love. (https://onbeing.org/programs/jericho-brown-small-truths-and-other-surprises/)
As God comes to life in relationship, so we come to life in the bonds that claim us and hold us close. The poem doesn’t lead to an unambiguous resolution. What it does convey, though, is that even when there has been hurt and disapproval, there is still always room for love to bring us close. “But I cannot feel his heartbeat/ And he cannot hear mine—/ There is too much flesh between us,/ Two men in love.” Like the Trinity, and despite all past hurt, father and son in love. A little lower than God. Crowned with glory and honor.
And a second poem, this one also about a father and his child. It’s by Greg Delanty and it’s called “Leavetaking”:
After you board the train, you sit and wait,
to begin your first real journey alone.
You read to avoid the window’s awkwardness,
knowing he’s anxious to catch your eye,
loitering out in never ending rain,
to wave, a bit shy, another final good-bye;
you are afraid of having to wave too soon.
And for a moment you think it’s the train
next to you has begun, but it is yours,
and your face, pressed to the window pane,
is distorted and numbed by the icy glass,
pinning your eyes upon your father,
as he cranes to defy your disappearing train.
Both of you waving eternally to each other.
‘Both of you waving eternally to each other.’ Like the Trinity, father and son in love. A little lower than God. Crowned with glory and honor.
And finally this story from my life. During the first few years after I graduated from college, I dated a woman named Karen. She was the first real love of my life, and several years of dating had built real bonds. After a time, though, we grew apart, and finally we decided that it was best if we ended our relationship. Right as it unquestionably was to split up, it nevertheless was a huge gash in my life. I felt utterly bereft.
Soon after she and I had ended that relationship, my father came to Boston, where I was living, and he drove me to my parents’ home in Maine. As we were leaving that city and headed north, the magnitude of what had happened hit me, and I started to cry. My father, sitting next to me, didn’t really know what to say. So he simply reached his hand over and took mine, and we drove off together in a deep and still silence. It was awful. And it was beautiful. Like the Trinity, father and child in love. A little lower than God. Crowned with glory and honor. So be it.