Father's Day is not as big a day as Mother's Day--perhaps because the flower, candy, and greeting card industries haven't cracked the stereotypes about what men enjoy--and yet a day that merits reflection.

I'm not drawn to claiming equal time for dads, even though the holiday itself originated in 1909 during a Mother's Day sermon, when a woman in a Spokane, Wash., pew decided her father deserved recognition, too.

Nor am I drawn to reinforcing stereotypes about fatherhood. We need to escape stereotypes, not breathe new life into them. What I am drawn to is the ambiguity.

For many people, fatherhood is a dark room. Many women spend their lives trying to escape the horizon-limiting consequences of male-centric society and male-centric religion. Men need to broaden their horizons, too.

Many people remember their fathers as frightening figures whose rod, harsh tongue, and outbursts of rage terrorized the household. Many children remember their fathers as absent--gone permanently through death or abandonment, gone most of the time through divorce or career, or virtually absent through the bumbling depicted in early television comedies.

Whatever caused the absence, the lack of connection, the missing male presence, the burdens that Dad's absence placed on Mom became a central, painful fact of childhood.

Many women remember adult men, usually Dad, as an unwelcome presence in their teenage bedrooms.

There are rooms of light and bliss too. Fathers were the courageous warriors who saved the world in the 1940s, or who got scarred in Korea and Vietnam and weren't given due honor. Fathers sacrificed for their families. Fathers were trapped in dead-end jobs and whipsawed in corporate wars, but still raised their children to believe in the future.

Fathers accepted the ambiguous challenge of raising other men's offspring. Dad taught a child to throw a baseball, use a saw, build a fire. Dad coached teams. Dad made a child feel safe. Dad stood by Mom. Some dads raised children alone. Dad loved.

If you ask 10 people to talk about their fathers, you will get at least 10 different stories. Those stories will seem to have little in common except maleness and biological fact. You will see smiles and happy memories, and you will see lips drawn tight, anger on the brow, and bitter tears salting the eyes.

You will hear of dads who are strong and dads who are weak. Dads who nurture and dads who ignore. Dads who are kind and dads who are cruel. Dads who give everything to their families and dads who give nothing. Confident dads who encourage their children and insecure dads who compete with their children. Dads who set a healthy role model and dads whose model a child will spend a sorry lifetime replicating. Dads who are steadfast and dads who impregnate and flee. Dads who show how partners can form a lasting union and dads who are a perfect argument for divorce.

We need to hear and honor all these stories, for each one has a piece of the truth.

Ten people will tell 10 different stories about God too, not because they are theologically illiterate and need the church's instruction, but because God wears many faces, speaks in many tongues, cannot be contained by any institution's claims, and is far larger than human language can ever express and yet so wonderfully intimate that we dare use words like "Father" or "Mother."

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