The Father’s Day Conundrum

It’s not much of a secret in church circles that Mother’s Day is one of […]

David Zahl / 6.18.18

It’s not much of a secret in church circles that Mother’s Day is one of the best attended Sundays of the year, Father’s Day one of the least. The third Sunday in June is what’s known as a “low Sunday,” when the regular preacher often gives up the pulpit to a subordinate. If you happened to be in the pews yesterday, you may have even heard it referenced or joked about. What gives?

The dime store explanation goes something like this: moms want the family to be together on Mother’s Day and tend to value spiritual life more to begin with, and so they leverage their pride-of-place that day to cajole the troops into the car. Dads, on the other hand, would rather cash in the goodwill to go play golf or bike or simply sit around reading the paper. Often they have to be dragged to church anyway, so a guilt-free pass seldom goes unused. Or so the story goes.

As a father to young children (who spends quite a bit of time with other fathers of young children), I sat there in church yesterday wondering how much of that bears scrutiny. I won’t speak for the mothers out there, but while there may be something to the conventional wisdom, it is also–surprise surprise–a little simplistic.

First and most obviously, church attendance goes down in June no matter what. Plenty of families take the summer off. Or they travel. That could almost explain the down-tick on its own.

Secondly, Father’s Day itself doesn’t have the roots of Mother’s Day. We’re talking 1972 as opposed to 1914, Richard Nixon as opposed to Woodrow Wilson as the president who ratified them. And even if they had been established at the same time, Father’s Day is simply nowhere near as popular. In hisĀ  “Father’s Day Sucks” the comedian Ali Saddiq mentions that Mother’s Day is the 2nd most celebrated in the world (Christmas being number one). Arbor Day is thirteenth on the list. Father’s Day is number 20. Ooof.

Does this mean that people care about their fathers less than their mothers? Perhaps. Or perhaps children of both sexes commonly feel that our mothers don’t get enough recognition, that their love and care is taken for granted, and so they jump at the opportunity to celebrate them more readily. Mom-induced guilt could be a factor there (!), but dad-related ambivalence surely plays a role as well. After all, masculinity isn’t exactly enjoying a heyday at the moment, and this trepidation understandably translates into our feelings about Fathers’ Day. Each year I can’t help but notice the media growing more bashful about reporting on pro-father stories, perhaps out of fear of sounding retrograde or insensitive to single moms, I don’t know.

What I do know is that when we give “the children’s sermon” at church on Father’s Day we’re always careful to be sensitive to the kids whose dads aren’t around, or who have a conflicted relationship there, whereas on Mother’s Day it’s a pretty safe assumption that mom is in the picture–and in the pews. Meaning, it could be that less people have less to celebrate. A sad reality, I know, but also pretty undeniable. (One glance at the “Grace for Those With Father Issues” session at our recent NYC Conference, and the rapturous reception to it, tells you all you need to know).

But what about the church component? Sitting there, struck by how many of my peers had taken a “bye,” I once again had Brene Brown’s research on shame ringing in my ears, the well-avowed finding men are socialized–or predisposed (or both)–to avoid vulnerability however they can. “Thou shalt be needed, but never needy” is the law at work, and it doesn’t just come from other men.

In this paradigm, accompanying your family to church may be fine and admirable, but left to your own devices, as something that you yourself prioritize, willing attendance could be interpreted as an admission of weakness, an acknowledgement that you need Help, that you can’t do it on your own–all of which is anathema to conventional notions of masculinity, some of which are buried beneath the level of conscious engagement.

And then there’s the increasingly widespread (and outrageous) narrative out there that equates maturity or courage with unbelief and skepticism, namely, “Now that I’m an adult I see through all that religious baloney and am ready to face reality head-on.” Personally, I can’t think of anything less courageous than embracing such a spoon-fed outlook (i.e. it involves both zero cost to oneself whilst yielding tons of back-patting), but speaking with other young fathers, I’d be lying if I didn’t detect it in the background. Lord knows we like to think of ourselves as courageous, as shepherds not sheep, etc. I’ll be interested to check back in after the first heart attack.

This is probably way too much sound and fury over a what’s basically a Hallmark holiday. And even if it wasn’t, most of the dads I know spend all week chasing their enoughness with every fiber of their being. Do fathers really need another place to feel like they’re not measuring up? No way, Jose.

Would that Sunday morning was that one time of the week when all of us, fathers or not, could be assured of hearing a word of comfort and absolution. An appointed hour for the evergreen narrative about the Good Father whose courage is made evident in forgoing his pride-of-place–not in order to escape reality, but to face it head-on in the person of his Son, for the sake of those who would rather play hooky than pay lip service.

Until then, there’s always youtube:

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3 responses to “The Father’s Day Conundrum”

  1. Dakota says:

    So good DZ. I’ve wondered at much of the same, the connection between felt (projected?) need and church attendance is an important one. Especially as the looming law of avoiding neediness hangs over each of our masculine (and fatherly) heads. We need some large doses of gospel for all of our avoidance or failed admittance of need. Would indeed that some absolving or relief come to us, or at least that we’d believe how fully it has. Cheers.

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