My Path to the Spiritual Practice of Fatherhood

Maybe the most pivotal moment in my life, the point in time that had the clearest before and after reality to it for me, came when I was in Seoul, South Korea. It was this time of year in 2005, in fact. I was a couple months into a 6 month long language fellowship studying Korean at Yonsei University. A professor of mine at Columbia University helped me obtain the paid fellowship. The plan was for me to bulk up on my Korean language skills in preparation for my upcoming applications to PhD study programs in Asian Religions with a focus on Korea. Doing research in primary languages is rather important for PhD work.
But things were not going well. Despite a semester of Korean at Columbia and informal studies for more than a year, I simply wasn’t getting a feel for the language. And reading Korean, what I needed to be best at, proved most difficult. I could never get the hang of the subject object verb sentence structure. Instead of I am studying Korean language and it is hard. It is in Korean, I Korean language am studying and it hard is. Complex sentences killed me.
More than this, it was a very isolating and lonely experience. I lived in a small room in a small apartment and did not really interact much with my Korean roommates. My fellow language students were younger and single and mostly from other countries. And being an American, often international folks, like it or not, understandably or not, have one strike against you from the get go. I am sure it is absolutely worse now.
Intense solitude marked many days. I spent many of my days coffee-shop hopping, notebook in hand to alone write as I sipped coffee. I still could not understand much of the Korean spoken, a reminder that I was not good at learning the language and that I was far from home.
Yes, it gave me a lot of time to meditate. And I got to visit Buddhist temples on the weekends. Yet, it did not assuage the loneliness and isolation. Even introverts need a social life.
Holly was back home in New York. She was gracious in supporting me and my studies. However, at the same time, at 35 years-old, her biological clock was ringing its bell pretty hard. Starting a family was the subject of most of our conversations during this time. In fact, we were registered in NY to adopt and discussing buying a home.
After one Saturday morning phone conversation ended, one where my desire to be a father was poignantly questioned and tested, reality began to dawn on me. In tears, frustrated and alone, I began asking myself the question, “what the heck am I doing here?” Why am I being so selfish? All of these ambitious goals and plans, who are they for? Are they worth it? What about Holly? What about family? What about my so-called call to religious ministry? Is this loneliness and isolation worth the emotional pain and distance or my ambition?
I sat with myself in the emptiness of my room. I stared at the cell phone once alive with words: Don, do you really want to be a father or are you just telling me what I want to hear? I asked that question to myself again and again. After a time of deeply pondering that question, I began to envision fatherhood, what it would mean, what parenting a child, my child, would mean. Then the fog dissipated.
Broken yet clear, I said to myself – it is time. It is time to begin to fully accept the calling to parenthood and ministry and to sincerely let go of self and of ambition, and commit fully to my family and to building a family.
I ended my language fellowship midway. I went home. I threw myself into preparing for religious ministry. Holly and I worked on making a family. And by the end of the next year, December 2006, Holly would be pregnant with Corey.

Hospice chaplaincy would change my feelings of ministry… religious ministry turned from Plan B to my life’s calling.  
As for fatherhood, it has changed my life in absolutely every way. To me, parenthood, along with marriage, is the greatest of spiritual teachers. It really isn’t a match. No Zen master or Christian teacher or spiritual guide can match the truths parenthood teaches me. This was true from the very first movement of our child inside the womb to his very first breath outside it.

One of the central questions that religion and spiritual faith have asked since the very beginning is this one: what is the point of the spiritual life. Is the point individual growth – individual nourishment, self-care, enlightenment, spiritual ambition – or is it collective betterment – making our communities better, more compassionate, more neighborly? Is the ultimate purpose of religious faith the individual self or the collective group – family, community, society?
The responsibility of nurturing our children provides me an answer to the age-old question. We are each, all of us, called to care for and protect humanity’s children. That is ultimately why we are here.
Evolutionary science teaches us this. Each species, including the human species, has an instinctive drive to perpetuate the species, to see that the species as a whole, as a society, continues on. This doesn’t mean we will all be parents or that we all want to be parents. But parent or not, we do have an instinct that desired that our species survive and thrive. For example, that instinct kicks in when a child is in danger. We instinctively put children’s safety in front of our own. That is why we are so heartbroken when a young child dies.
This instinct to protect children is partly an example of our biological instinct to desires for our species continue and thrive.
In other words, we are not merely wired to be social creatures. We are also wired to want human society to continue and to survive and even thrive.
Faith and spirituality plays a crucial role here. In the earliest stages of human evolution, religion and spirituality came along and never left. Scientists have come to see that religion gives what is called “evolutionarily advantageous.” Faith and spirituality enhanced our ability to survive and thrive as a whole compared to other species. The future is better because of spirituality and faith.
I think of the words of that somewhat sappy Whitney Houston song, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well…” We instinctively know this and seek to make that future better for them and our species. Religious faith and spirituality is a tool to help in this job.

But where does the self-growth come in? Where does bettering our selves come in?
As you know, I was in Florida the past couple weeks. We took flew there and back. And at the beginning of each flight, the flight attendant goes over what to do in the case of an emergency. Part of the spiel is that if oxygen is needed in the cabin and the masks come down, parents or caregivers should put their masks on first and then attend to their child or dependent.
Yes, the larger goal is that all of us survive and thrive, that all of us get the air we need and have the life we want. The larger goal is collective betterment, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. But taking care of ourselves, making sure our selves are nurtured, is a vital, necessary step to get to that goal of collective betterment.
Fatherhood has made this so clear to me.
Fatherhood is for me a spiritual practice. It is the most sacred of spiritual practices. I care for myself to care for my son, yes. This is necessary. But I also give myself away to care for my son. I sacrifice my needs and wants to make sure his needs and wants are met. That’s what good fathers everywhere do.
Here we see the spiritual life in a nutshell. The spiritual life is a dance where we at one turn care for ourselves, at another turn we give ourselves away to care for the other, and at another turn we let go of pride to allow the other to care for us, when we are sick for example. Remember the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  The Trinity is a perfect picture of the divine dance, one between the first family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, balancing caring for self, caring for another self, and accepting the care of another.
This divine dance is meant to benefit the whole of which we are a part, beginning with family and moving out into society and the world.
This is how Jesus saw God – as Father who in a similar way dances with us his children and calls for us to follow suit.
How Jesus saw God, as nurturing father, as tender caregiver of the universe, that is who we are all called to be.
I close with some of Mr. Rogers most poignant words, where he offers up his basic theology of life, one I share:
“At the center of the Universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.

…at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”  

The Moral Response to the Refugee Crisis

Leviticus 19:33-34
If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not do wrong to him. You should act toward the stranger who lives among you as you would toward one born among you. Love him as you love yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

You’ve all seen the deeply, deeply tragic photo of the 4 year-old Syrian boy who drowned trying to flee that war-torn country with his family. His tiny, vulnerable frame on the sandy shore lifeless, waves ebbing and flowing – it is heartbreaking, soul-breaking. A child refugee in a family of refugees fleeing a madman and a mad war, a victim of humankind’s destructiveness. This image is an iconic reminder that, like some of our Universalist brothers and sisters teach, hell is here on earth. Especially in places like Syria.

When I saw that photo, my breath was taken away for a few moments and then tears joined breaths' return. As I thought about all of it, and as I think about it now just a few weeks from the celebration of Epiphany, I thought of the often forgotten fact that Jesus when he was a toddler was like this boy, a refugee with his family of refugees fleeing a madman and mad violence into Egypt. The moment the photo captures could have easily been Jesus at another time in the same general area of the world as Syria.

Jesus’ famous words as an adult strongly resonate when considering Jesus’ own past reality as a child refugee. Those words come from Matthew 25: 

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the commonwealth prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a refugee and you welcomed me.”

When Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was giving a portrait of the Commonwealth of God, a clearer translation of the Kingdom of God. Jesus in Matthew 24 and 25 lays out what the Commonwealth of God looks like, who is included from the get-go and who is not and must do some work. Jesus finishes his long teaching with an allegory about being hungry and being fed, being thirsty and being given drink and being a refugee and being welcomed. Those listening are confused. They say, Lord, but these things didn’t happen. You weren’t ever hungry and we fed you. You weren’t thirsty and we gave you drink. You weren’t a refugee and we took you in.”

Jesus famously responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the most vulnerable among you, you did it to me.’” 

And Jesus also goes on to say the opposite, when you do not do these things for the most vulnerable among us, you fail to do them for me.

How you respond to the most vulnerable among us defines how you respond to Jesus. Actions toward the most vulnerable are actions toward the Christ residing most potently in the most vulnerable.

We often hear that we are a Christian nation, especially from our Evangelical brothers and sisters. Sometimes it is said explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Please note, I disagree with this perspective. We are not a Christian nation. We are a nation of religious freedom. But how can anyone claiming Jesus as their own treat him so badly in the form of the Other? Jesus is there in the face of each refugee escaping war and devastation. Jesus is there in the lives of children fearful and in danger fleeing a madman? Jesus is there in the immigrant fleeing poverty and hunger for a better life across a border. If we don’t welcome them, we are in no way a Christian nation, we are in no way a nation that applies, as Waitstill Sharp put it, Christian intentions.

Thankfully, people like Rev. Waitstill Sharp and Martha Sharp Cogan give us a model for seeing past the clamor and seeing the least of these and their struggles.

Maybe you saw the documentary a few months ago about the Sharps produced by Ken Burns. But if you didn’t, Waitstill Sharp was a Unitarian minister who began his ministry in 1933, the very year Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and began his reign or terror. His wife Martha joined him in ministry. 

The Sharp’s most important calling was that of refugee advocates and justice workers. Together, applying the tenderness of pastors and the tenacity of spies, they saved a number of Jews fleeing Nazi occupation and genocide. For their heroic actions, which they humbly called simple, human behavior, Israel named them in 2005, Righteous among the nations, two of only five Americans to receive this honor.

Simply put, the Sharps offer us a picture of what it truly means to treat all, especially the most vulnerable with compassion, with dignity and an open heart and an open door, even in dangerous times. 

We should note that the Sharp’s actions happened at the very time that America was strictly limiting the number of Jewish refugees allowed into the country. Instead of the immigration policy becoming looser during the Holocaust it became more stringent. 

Today, as we face another refugee crisis, this country’s newly elected president has mirrored our stance during the Holocaust where we said to those seeking refuge from genocide, “sorry, there is no room in the inn.”

The moral response, the compassionate response, the American response, is the Sharps' response: “make room.” Sacrifice the need for perfect security and comfort, as if that ever existed, and make room. Make room firstly in your heart, clear the floor of compassion, dust the dressers of care, remove the cobwebs from the high ceiling of empathy.

It is clear what the moral response is: be human, be humane.

Yet, maybe a larger question than what is the moral response is this question? What differentiates people like the Sharps or even the less courageous among us who cannot fathom turning a refugee away and those who can fathom it and make it a reality?

What marks the difference between those who say, “make room” and those who say “there is no room?” I believe it comes down two things, ignorance regarding the other and fear of insecurity.

Ignorance of the other: Most people who want to severely restrict refugees fleeing war have most likely never met a Muslim, have never sat down with them and had a conversation, have never heard their stories, their experiences, their hopes, their dreams. There is so much ignorance about Muslims and refugees. 

This kind of ignorance about and lack of familiarity with the other easily turns into a demonizing of the other. 

This demonizing effect means that the other is seen more as material object labeled "Muslim" than human soul practicing an Abrahamic faith. Only knowledge of and relationship with the other can remove this. But there must be a willingness to obtain such knowledge and have such a relationship. Openness to relationship with the Other, that's the foundation to peace.

The fear of insecurity only propounds things. This fear sadly coincides with this ignorance about the other, an ignorance that leads to a demonizing of in this case Muslims.

The worry is that the refugees coming here will turn out to be terrorists in disguise. Most “no-roomers” will point to the Paris massacre where ISIS terrorists were disguised as refugees.

We must be honest, not all refugees are Saint Theresas. Like us, refugees are full human beings. Like us, a small percentage come with anger and violence in their hearts. Indeed, there is always some risk allowing someone to reside in the inn.

But, to borrow Jesus’ question, “what good is it to gain a false sense of security, yet lose your soul?”

Or his words in Matthew 5, “If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even the Rome-bought tax embezzlers love their friends. If you welcome only your brothers and sisters, what’s so great about that? Don’t even those who believe in nothing do that?”

The soul of our nation says the same thing our churches should say, there is room for you here. “Bring me your tired, your poor muddled masses.” The open arms and open heart of Lady Liberty is fundamental to who we are. This foundation of our nation indeed is Jesus-like - making room for the refugee and the immigrant.

What is missing in our defiance of who we are? What are we missing now that makes hospitality to the stranger controversial?

Simply put, we are missing Love in its ultimate sense. In an example where the cliche is absolutely true, what the world needs now is love, sweet love.

But what is required for real, godly love is something we often don’t think about. What is required for godly love is something Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhism sage, calls “interbeing.” Interbeing means seeing that we exist together and a little of me exists in you. 

Dr. King describes it this way: “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

I am because you are. This is because that is. We inter-are. We exist entwined together even if we are an ocean or two away. 
Borders cannot stop this. Walls cannot stop this. Illegal executive orders cannot stop this.

Without an insight into our interbeing, real love, godly love, lasting love that can change the world is unobtainable.

The Sharps certainly understood this truth. In the desperate, worn faces of those seeking refuge somewhere safe, Rev. Waitstill Sharp saw congregants in need of pastoral care, in need of a shepherding to a place of safety. In the scared, vulnerable faces of French children, Martha Sharp saw her own children and her own students needing a protective, sheltering love. The Sharps lived-out the meaning of interpathy, a deeper empathy that knows we innately share each other’s pain. 

It is telling that the Sharps life-saving work involved helping children. Children so often lead us to see the truth and necessity of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interpathy. The children shall lead us, to quote the words of the Hebrew prophet. They shall lead us in this way of interbeing and interpathy. We must follow.

Maybe remember Alex. He is the 6 year-old from Scarsdale, New York who wrote a compassion-soaked letter to President Obama after seeing that haunting, heartbreaking photo of another Syrian boy, Omar. Maybe you remember that image of Omar being torn from the rubble of war and stunned in the loss of loved-ones. I am going to close my words with Alex’s words in his heaven-reaching letter. Though written to former-president Obama, I offer them as a prayer. I hope those in the halls of power, especially our new president will hear.

Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.

Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won't bring toys and doesn't have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine's lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn't let anyone touch it.

Thank you very much! I can't wait for you to come!