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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

The Place for Which Our Fathers Sighed | June 16, 2024 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton

Updated: Jul 11



 

The opening song, known as the Black National Anthem, reminds us of our celebration this coming Wednesday of Juneteenth…the day when the last enslaved people celebrated their emancipation. This is truly a song of hope and celebration and I am encouraged that we now celebrate that day as a holiday, at least in our corner of the world. Still, like so many other commemorations, the whole story is not only hope, but injustice, suffering, even terror…the road was stony…the rod was bitter…hope died even before it was born. The question becomes Have we come to the place for which our fathers sighed? Is that the white gleam of our bright star that we see?


Considering everything going on in our world, I think many of us would say ‘no’. But let’s pause for a moment to consider what that place looks like…the place that our fathers were sighing over…and where is that bright star? Were our fathers sighing because they didn’t know what to do? Clearly many of our fathers did know what to do and along with the mothers, they did it. Although the way had been watered by their tears…although the path was covered with the blood of the slaughtered…there is a sense that they, and indeed we must march on! This is the reality that we often do not want to face…the reality of this place watered in tears and covered in blood. This song clearly and beautifully addresses this reality…this place of contradictions. There is the sense of terror and sadness, as well as the hope and commitment of that bright star. Howard Thurman addressed this contradiction on so many occasions. He wrote:

 

…there rides always on the horizon a timeless, transcendent monitor by which not only is the direction of life somehow guided but also by which a person is stabilized in the midst of the contradictions of experience.

 

This transcendent monitor is clearly part of the quality that has made our fathers sigh…perhaps even a sigh of relief from the horrors and the despair…relief that there is something riding on the horizon that can lead us…can guide us…

 


 

We are stabilized by this transcendent monitor…it injects hope…it leads and guides us in that place of contradictions, yes, but there is more…Thurman continues…

 

But this does not release a person from the necessity of seeking always to locate the profoundest religious insights in the very structure of life as a living human being, spawned from the womb of the earth, and as a participant in that which sustains and supports all life on the planet. Ultimately, all the dualisms of a person’s experience as a creature must exhaust themselves in a corroborating unity fundamental to life and not merely dependent upon that which transcends life by whatever name a person seeks to patronize it.

 

Always one to point out our connectedness and our responsibility, Thurman, as usual, gets to the heart of the matter…to the place for which our fathers sighed. He says that we need to seek for insight in the very structure of life. We are, he says, spawned from the womb of the earth and have a responsibility to all life. And this is, I think, the responsibility that may have also made our fathers sigh. It can be a heavy burden. Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote about this burden in a poem entitled, Father Earth

 

There’s a two-million year old man

No one knows.

They cut into his rivers

Peeled wide pieces of hide

From his legs

Left scorch marks

On his buttocks.

He did not cry out.

No matter what they did, he held firm.

Now he raises his stabbed hands

and whispers that we can heal him yet.

We begin the bandages,

The rolls of gauze,

The unguents, the gut,

The needle, the grafts.

 

This is a powerful image…the image of one abused and literally stepped on. The image resonates with the experience of our ancestors…our fathers alluded to in our opening hymn. Matthew Fox wrote about this father in his book about the Sacred Masculine. He says that we have clung to the metaphor of Father Sky so long, we have forgotten to bring him back to Earth. He points out that so often in our society, fathers have not been able to be the strong fathers that are needed…perhaps they have fled to the sky, abdicating their responsibility as fathers…fleeing this burden. The vision of the cold, distant father in the sky supports this view. This vision of Earth Father or Fatherly Heart could help redeem him, says Fox. It could redeem the horrible burden of the history of humanity…the burden of patriarchy. Despite that burden, we know the qualities of the Fatherly Heart. This is the father that is caring and loving, generous and encouraging. He gives courage to his children to face an often harsh and uncaring world. He listens to his children and guides them to see life in context.


This is part of my own story. I had the father of all fathers. Not only was he a terrifically engaged father to his own children, but also to his brother’s children who had lost their father. And then when his children married, each married a person who had lost their father, so he became their father as well. He was a man that took his call to fatherhood seriously, not only as a father, but as a leader and a teacher in his work in the community. My father helped them find their own inner compass…their inner teacher. He did this by mirroring their soul…their identity at a time when many of those young people were lost. Author and educator Parker Palmer speaks about this mirroring when he says, “The human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard”. This is part of our understanding of child development. The interaction between the parent and the child has been described as a mirroring. Because of the attachment with the caring adult, a child is able to see themselves…to learn about themselves, thereby developing into a caring, competent adult.


When you were in my father’s presence you felt both seen and heard.  My son Fred alluded to this quality of his grandfather when he said that when you were with him you felt like everything was all right and that he was truly interested in you. There was none of that phony interest that we so often give people, especially young people. And it was this authentic interest that seemed to tease something out of you…to help you access the genuine in your own being. Thurman wrote about this process. He said:

 

There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have.


This is clearly the process that my father helped people access. Thurman went further, alluding to our common source…the corroborating unity fundamental to life:

 

Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.

 

There is another person I know who embodies these qualities…Dr. Dorsey Blake. Like my father, he has spent his life mentoring young people…mirroring their souls…believing in them when they couldn’t believe in themselves. I know many who are reading this today have been recipients of this guidance. I am one of them. I have truly been able to hear the sound of the genuine in me through his mentoring and mirroring. I have been able to realize that Thurman was right…the genuine makes the same music. We are fortunate to have him so close.

 

This is what we are hearing in the words of our opening hymn. We are hearing the advice of the Fatherly Heart that tells us to step into life fully…knowing that we are not alone…knowing that we can step with confidence into life…following the path of our ancestors and all our relations…the stars, the planets, the plants, the water, the rocks, the creatures of which we are all a part. Ultimately, we must come to that place where we can say with confidence that we are growing taller…that we are coming into fruition…we are growing tall enough to fit the crown that God has placed over our heads…we are indeed royal persons tied into the idiom of everything that lives. Through the strength and tenderness of the Fatherly Heart, may we embrace the corroborating unity that is not merely transcendent, but is rooted in the earth…in our common existence. God of our weary years…God of our silent tears, as we are shadowed beneath thy hand, may we lay down the burden of our past and look toward the gleam of the bright star of hope and transformation.



 

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