What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-8-20

Mom, me, her father (Grandpa Hoekstra) and her grandmother (Grandma Fannie)

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 5-8-20

Dad used to say to me, “You’re just like your mother.” It was not meant as a compliment. Mom and Dad didn’t get along very well. He saw her as weak and indecisive while at the same time claiming she was scheming and manipulative. In reality, my mother is none of these things. After his death, I gained access to Dad’s medical records which included a diagnosis of “narcissistic personality with a histrionic flair.” This meant that he had a tendency to view himself as persecuted. Dad was gay, and he did have deeply wounding experiences of homophobia. But it was as if he had persecution goggles welded to his face. No matter how much Mom or any of us tried to love him, he had a very difficult time accepting it. The point is, Dad’s accusations weren’t personal. It was the mental illness talking.

It’s also possible that Dad heard the words “you’re just like your mother” said to him when he was a boy. He shared with me that in his mind he was “special” and his mother’s “favorite.” In Dad’s time as in ours, the accusation of being a “momma’s boy” often meant bullying was on the way. Clearly, Dad enjoyed the attention he got from his mother. And he was very close to her. But the relationship between mothers and sons can be complicated. This is due in no small part to sexism and discomfort in the wider culture with males who display “female” qualities (the premise of which I reject all together, by the way. There are no essentially “male” or “female” qualities, only human ones.)

Dad’s accusations often had no basis in reality, but I hope he was right that I am just like my mother. She is strong. She is good. She is an adventurer. And she has never stopped growing and changing in all of the time I’ve known her. She is a happily retired minister and chaplain who has traveled the world and blessed countless lives–not least, mine.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-10-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 6-10-19

         The origins of Father’s Day are complicated. As our fathers tend to be. If you thought Father’s Day was a response to Mother’s Day, you’d be right. Though it doesn’t seem like a simple reassertion of patriarchy. In fact, a significant number of men resisted it for years. They had seen how Mother’s Day, originally conceived as an opportunity for women’s empowerment in response to the horrors of the Civil War, became commercialized and sentimentalized, and they didn’t want any part of it. Because of this resistance, Father’s Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1972. 

62 years earlier, in 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd organized one of the first Father’s Days in honor of her father, a Civil War veteran and widower who had raised his children as a single dad. William Jackson Smart took on parenting roles that were not conventional for men at the time. One of the origins of Father’s Day was a celebration of men who were willing to step out of conventional gender roles to care for their families.

         At about the same time, a Father’s Day celebration was organized in West Virginia to honor the 362 men who had died in a coal mining explosion the previous year. This origin of Father’s Day reminds us of others experiences of fatherhood: grief over the fathers who are absent for whatever reason, and the expendability of men’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor and workingclass men.

         My dad was a gay man. He grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Michigan. Though the family wasn’t poor, they didn’t have much. He was the first in his family to receive a college education. He married a woman because that’s what his conservative Christian upbringing told him to do. He raised four children and was grandfather to 11 grandchildren by the time he died of AIDS in 2012. He was a successful businessman with a genius level IQ. He was also an adulterous alcoholic bully with a criminal record who repeatedly put his family in danger. He did provide for us children. He did choose recovery eventually. He did come out and live the most honest version of his life that he could. He did love us with his version of love. Perhaps every human love leave wounds. As I said at the outset, fathers can be complicated.

         I am father to two amazing young women. It is the greatest blessing of my life. And if I’m honest, day to day I have no idea what I’m doing. I realize that might make me sound incompetent or irresponsible to some. I do indeed make it my business to learn what I can about best parenting practices. My wife and I spend significant time, energy, and financial resources making the best decisions we can for our children. But I am acutely aware that the models of fatherhood that I have inherited, for better or for worse, too often seem inadequate for the times. Especially as they grow older, my children simply know a lot of things about the world that I don’t. Their experiences are different from mine. Their contexts are different. And in significant ways their futures will be different, once again, for better or for worse, than mine. 

         What do I fall back on? The things I do know: that deepest love is bare attention, unconditional availability, unwavering presence. Wherever life takes my children, my heart is with them, and I am ready to leap to their aid, if aid is what’s called for. My deepest practice is the practice of letting go. When first Fiona–21 years ago–and then Olivia–17 years ago– were born it was as if my soul or some piece of it separated from me and became enfleshed in another, fragile being over whom I knew my protection would always in some sense be limited and who one day likely would leave my protective care entirely. How can I entrust my precious one’s to this dangerous and difficult world where they will continue to meet both unimagined joy and devastating disappointment? 

These days fatherhood for me is calmly sitting in the passenger seat while Olivia learns to drive. Dropping Fiona off at the airport for her summer job in Chicago. Preparing for Olivia’s move to Los Angeles where she will begin her college education. And savoring every moment they are home.


Gender Trouble/No Separation

Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister

First Congregational Church of Stamford

Sermon Series: Starting Again

7 October 2018

Text: Mark 10:2-16

Gender Trouble/No Separation

Our theme for this fall is “Starting Again.” Our text for today is Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Divorce is certainly a time of starting again for many people. Half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. It’s become a common experience. Something that a number of folks here have been through. It’s also common that as people go through divorce they seek out a community of support. Church can be that supportive community. So as we think about our theme of starting again in terms of reimagining who we are as a church, we can think about how we connect to people going through divorce. How do we offer healing and hope in a time that can be very painful and disorienting for so many?

My experience of divorce is as a child of divorce. No fault divorce became legal in California in the early 1970s and spread to the rest of the country so that by the time I was coming of age in the 1980s, there was a whole generation of kids growing up in blended families, splitting holiday time between mom and dad, and all of those other complicated things that families that have experienced divorce do.

My parents’ case was a little different. First of all, my parents didn’t get divorced until 1993. They had been married 25 years. I was 23-years-old and out of the house. So my parents divorce didn’t have the same effect on me as it did on my younger siblings. But it did affect me. The second thing was that my dad was gay. Dad knew that he was gay when he married mom, but he kept that important piece of information hidden from her. It was a different time and a different place. West Michigan in the late 60s/early 70s was–and still is, in fact–a very conservative place. It wasn’t OK to be gay. And it wasn’t OK to get a divorce.

So mom and dad stayed together. Even after he came out to her 10 years into their marriage, they stayed together. Even after he cheated on her again and again, they stayed together. Even after he became an alcoholic, they stayed together. Even after he exposed her to HIV, they stayed together. (Fortunately mom never contracted AIDS.) It wasn’t until she found out that he had put her name on a shell company that he was using to launder money for some of his corrupt business dealings did she decide that she had had enough. She was willing to put up with a lot. But go to jail for him? No. The risk of staying with dad finally outweighed the risk of leaving him. Which tells you that 25-years-ago in conservative West Michigan, the risks that divorce posed for a woman were very high. Or at least my mom thought so. Women at that time risked impoverishment, social stigma, and loneliness. Even decades after the counterculture, divorce was a risk, especially for women.

But it wasn’t just the financial and social risks of divorce that caused mom to stay with her marriage so long. It was to protect dad from having to come out. It was to protect us kids from the stigma of having a gay dad. And it was because her church and the wider culture taught her from the time she was a child that women should submit to men. She was taught that a man is the rightful head of the household. He is to be respected and obeyed. Her church taught used the teaching of the Apostle Paul that a woman should not teach or hold authority over a man to keep women out of leadership and in the home where it was thought they belonged. In other words, the church she grew up in supported patriarchy, the idea that men should have power over women. So they missed how Jesus is critiquing patriarchy in his teaching on divorce. And if you think we don’t teach patriarchy here, just look at the wall of senior ministers by the church offices. There you’ll find the names of 26 senior ministers. 25 men. 1 woman.

Jesus’ basic teaching on divorce is that marriage is a solemn spiritual union that cannot be dissolved without spiritual consequences. And I think that pretty much anyone who has experienced divorce would agree with that. People who study life stressors put divorce at the top of the list along with the death of a spouse. Divorce is a very difficult and painful thing. My guess is that most people don’t enter into it lightly. We don’t get married intending to divorce even if it’s out there as a possibility. Even though some people may say that marriage is just a piece of paper, my guess is most people don’t experience it that way. So when Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate,” he is articulating an ideal that we can aspire to.

But what we’re missing is the radical nature of what Jesus is expressing here. In order to see that, we have to understand the patriarchal context in which Jesus is speaking. In Jesus’ time women were considered the property of men. There was nothing spiritual about it. It was a legal and financial contract between families to create heirs for the families wealth. Wives were the property of their husbands. Fidelity was expected on the part of women, but not of men. Men could have as many affairs as they wanted as long as it wasn’t with another man’s wife because that would be violating his property. Husbands could divorce their wives for almost any reason. Wives, however, could not divorce their husbands. So to suggest that marriage is a spiritual matter with moral obligations on the parts of both men and women is to call the entire patriarchal system into question.

Also notice this seemingly puzzling verse. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Huh? What does remarriage have to do with adultery? What Jesus is saying to both men and women is that you can’t just set aside your spouse and marry someone else because you’ve found someone whom you like better. That’s not a reason for divorce. But notice also that it applies to both men and women. In other words, for Jesus, women are not the property of men. If fidelity is expected of women, it must be expected of men, too. If a man can get a divorce, a woman can, too, and the same rules apply to each. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but in the context of Biblical culture, the fact that Jesus is granting women any rights at all in relation to their husbands is a critique of patriarchy that we as Christians need to take seriously. In the words of one of my wife’s parishioners, “Before there was a #metoo movement, Jesus cared for women.” How did Jesus reach where he could offer a vision of healing and hope for men and women? By listening to the women. By believing the women. By recognizing how the default setting of patriarchy is to discredit and disregard women’s voices and perspectives.

On this World Communion Sunday when we celebrate unity in Christ, we need to remember how Jesus sought to bring men and women together on equal ground. In order move closer toward Jesus’ vision, we need to hire women. We need to elect women. We need to support women. As men, we need to notice our own patriarchy-shaped biases. This will help us be a true place of healing for all people: married, single, widowed, divorced. This will be a step toward true communion. This will be starting again.