I have spent most of my life feeling like Father’s Day talks didn’t apply to me. I have my own father, of course. He is a great man, and a great example to me, and I love him. But as a kid, I don’t think I understood the importance of fathers, and took it for granted that I had a good one. And as an adult, it was a long time before I felt like I got to qualify for the title of father myself.
This is the ward where I grew up, so probably most of you know that I didn’t get married until I was 36.
Not just that: I was an unmarried man who had no interest in sports or cars, who did enjoy things like crafting and cooking, and who had a strong interest in musical theater.
You can imagine there were theories about why I was still unmarried.
And also that I was not unaware of those theories.
I didn’t even have a girlfriend until after I was over thirty, and it was such a miserable experience that I started therapy. I told my therapist that I must be broken. Something had to be wrong with me, because I dated plenty of amazing women, but something in my heart never seemed to unlock for them. The therapist asked me a few questions, and then said there was nothing wrong with me. I just hadn’t found the right girl yet.
And he was right, of course. As soon as I was introduced to Emily, I knew she was the one.
And when we got married, we had only spent a total of two weeks in the same time zone.
But the title of father remained slippery.
Fathers, for example, are usually expected to provide for their families. You may be surprised to learn that my master’s degree in writing musical theater has yet to bring in a five-figure income. Most years, a three-figure income is a stretch. So Emily has been our primary breadwinner, and I have helped care for the kids, and have done my best on laundry and dishes and everything else, being a provider in whatever ways have been available.
And then there’s the issue of having children. I mean, there’s no denying that we have children at this point. It feels a little bit like that Old Testament story where the Israelites in the wilderness are complaining about having manna every day, and the Lord says, “You want quail? I’ll give ya quail till it comes out your ears!”
And yet I didn’t father any of our children.
Paternity wasn’t in the cards for me, biologically speaking, so Emily and I have gone in for a fleet of pre-owned children. Who I love very much.
But if fatherhood is independent of our societal definitions of masculinity, or income, or biology, and if even the Family Proclamation makes room for circumstances that “necessitate individual adaptation”… what then is the true doctrine of fatherhood?
I think that doctrine, in its essence, can be found in John 5:19, but I’m going to get there in two different ways.
First: At General Conference in April of last year, Larry M. Gibson, first counselor in the Young Men General Presidency shared a story from his childhood:
He said his father had been worried that young Brother Gibson was becoming too materialistic. During a visit to a department store, his father took him to look out of a second story window. He asked the son what he saw, and the reply was, “Buildings, sky, people.”
Next, his father pulled out a silver dollar, and said, “If we mixed this silver with the right ingredients, we could make silver nitrate. If we put a coating of silver nitrate on the back of that window and you looked into it, what would you see?” The son of course had no idea, so his father took him to a mirror, which is a piece of glass coated with, you guessed it, silver nitrate. His father again asked what he could see, and Brother Gibson said that he saw himself. His father said, “No, you see the silver reflecting you. If you focus on the silver, all you will see is yourself, and like a veil, it will keep you from seeing clearly the eternal destiny Heavenly Father has prepared for you.”
I think the first principle of fatherhood is to stop focusing on yourself. I am particularly aware of this after spending over a decade as an independent adult, now in a situation where my every waking moment has to be catered to accommodate the needs of so many children.
I like to say that becoming a parent has actually made me a terrible person. My temper is shorter, my patience more limited, my compassion seems to be carefully rationed as if I’m worried I might run out. Except that I’m still the exact same person, the same spirit and body on a journey, that I was before. I have not become a terrible person. I have merely entered a set of more challenging circumstances, which has shined a light into all the darker corners of my soul that had remained comfortably out of sight during easier days.
I have long believed, however, that “love” can be defined as “a willingness to serve”. Therefore, if there are limits to my willingness to serve, there are limits to the extent of my love. If I am focused on myself, looking at my own reflection, then it’s easy to say, “I’m already doing so much. I’ve sacrificed so much, and it’s been so hard, and I’m so tired.” But when I stop focusing on myself and look at those for whom I have stewardship, and at the work that needs to be done, I always seem to have the ability to do it.
So, Brother Gibson’s silver story teaches a principle of fatherhood, that the more we focus on ourselves, the less we are aware of others, and the less capacity we have to serve them.
But his story immediately made me think of a very different, scriptural silver reference. In Malachi 3, the prophet compares the Savior to “a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi [meaning the holders of the priesthood] and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.”
The Lord intends to purify his priesthood holders in the way he would purify silver. A lot of you may know this already, but silver is purified over heat—it melts in the crucible, and the imperfections are burned away, so a metaphor for sanctification, right?—and the silversmith knows that the purification has been completed when he can see his own face reflected in the silver.
So, same narrative element from Brother Gibson’s story, but used in the opposite direction. Here, instead of us gazing at ourselves in the silver, the Savior needs to be able to see his own reflection in the silver, which is us. He should be able to see a perfect reflection of himself in the way that we treat our spouses, our family, and our fellow children of God.
Here is where we get to that verse I mentioned earlier. John 5:19 – “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do; for what things soever he doeth… these also doeth the Son likewise.”
As always, Jesus is our perfect teacher in both word and deed, and here he is teaching us the doctrine of fatherhood. Fatherhood is the process by which, primarily through our actions, we imprint an image and an understanding of God upon the following generation. It is a piece of the true patriarchal order, where Seth was in the perfect image of Adam, who was in the image of Jesus, who was in the image of the Father. Who we are as fathers teaches our children about, and how to become like, the Father of us all.
Now, this is a terrifying proposition. Our own process of purification has not been completed. I’d like to hope that the Savior can catch occasional glimpses of his reflection in me, but I know there is still so much crud that needs to be burned away.
That’s why we need the atonement. As the foster parent of more than 70 children, who came damaged in ways you don’t even want to imagine, I have a firm testimony that the promise of Lehi is true: that the children will not be punished for the sins of the fathers, and that, because of the power of the atonement, we are all only accountable as far as the reach of our understanding, taking into account upbringing, biology, circumstance, etc.
That is the Savior’s role, to give us that freedom to fail, and try again, and keep trying. Our part is to follow the advice of Brother Gibson’s father. We need to stop looking at our reflection. We need to, instead, look outward, serving our wives, our children, our brothers and sisters, until we see the Savior reflected in them as well: “For inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these…, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt 25:40)
That’s what I didn’t understand during all of those years of singlehood. I was contentedly turned inward, serving when I could, but really keeping myself pretty comfortable. But to the extent that I was able to do so on my own, I really did try my best to become like the Savior. It never occurred to me that that effort, in itself, is part of the process of Fatherhood.
I feel like I need to point out here that these things that I’m saying about fathers also apply to women. Mothers also sacrifice their own self-image to serve, and imprint their children with an image of the divine. How, then, is this a doctrine of fatherhood?
The crossover is understandable. Like mortality and the spirit world, like the body and the spirit, a husband and wife work together toward a unified goal while being divided by an ineffable veil.
It’s easy to chalk that difference up to the priesthood, but that’s not really the case. Several times in General Conference over the past few years, the brethren of the priesthood have been chastised for not knowing how to use the power to which they have been ordained. On the other hand, President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that women can do the work of God with as much power and authority as an ordained priesthood holder.
I personally think there is wisdom in the old joke about how the reason women haven’t been given the priesthood is because then men would have no reason to come to church. While women inherently carry the power to administer priesthood ordinances within the temple while under proper authority, men must first prove themselves worthy to be ordained, and then find themselves in a brotherhood dedicated solely to service, holders of a power that can exclusively be used for the benefit of others. I like to think of it as God’s training wheels.
I was taught another distinction between men and women in the New York City temple. As a temple worker, I was sitting alone at the recommend desk one day when, unexpectedly, the temple matron approached, opened the scriptures, and began to expound to me account of Adam and Eve in the Pearl of Great Price. Here is part of what she had gleaned from the story.
She said, the man says, “Let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord,” and the woman says, “Yes, let us go. But over here are some beautiful flowers, and over there are some herbs to gather, and here is a child to care for, and there is someone who needs ministering to…”
Elsewhere I have heard this difference referred to as single-point focus and diffuse focus, or mono-tasking versus multi-tasking. In my observation, the variety of individuals and relationships is too infinitely diverse to make any blanket statements, but I can say that my own marriage seems to follow this pattern. It often feels like my job is to ensure that we remain on the path to exaltation, and my wife’s job is to ensure that we don’t get there alone. Ultimately that is a far more important than whether I can change our spark plugs, or whether she keeps our knick-knacks polished and dusted.
I have faith that, when the time comes to pass back through the veil into eternity, we will see and understand the sacred roles of mother and father with clarity, and we will wonder at the perfect plan of our Heavenly Father.
I believe that my success as a husband and father—or, for those who are not blessed with marriage in this life, a preparation to become such—will hold greater weight than any other earthly accomplishment.
And I know that, in that day, when mortality is done and we are gathered together into an unbroken family chain, when the process of mortal heat and divine guidance has led us to become fully purified, so that the Savior can see himself reflected perfectly in all of us there, we will see a perfect line of exalted fatherhood extending back through the generations to our first Father, the Father of us all.
And I bear that testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.