A Father’s Day Dialogue: Generation to Generation

Seth Patterson & Rev. Donald Patterson
June 16, 2019

Scripture Proverbs 2:1–11

Seth

I learned a new phrase recently that I have begun to employ with my 5-year-old daughter. I pull this out when she is doing one thing while simultaneously saying she is doing another: for example, lying on the floor reading a book while saying that she is putting her socks on. In these very moments of saying and doing opposite things (which, to be fair, is in no way relegated to the habits of children), I have begun to say: I can’t hear what you’re saying because your actions are talking so loud! The wonderful thing about this phrase is that it is a piece of received wisdom—I did not invent it. I heard this phrase from a man whom I met in Chicago named Dr. Timuel Black. Dr. Black is 100 years old and moved from Alabama to Chicago as a baby in the first Great Migration in 1919. So I heard this phrase from him, and he recounts being told it by his own grandmother when he was a child. And his grandmother was a woman who had been born into chattel slavery and later freed. So, I am using a piece of received wisdom from an emancipated slave through a 100-year-old man to my 5-year-old daughter. There is something absolutely beautiful about this. It has gotten me thinking about the ways in which we pass our wisdom and life experiences on to others. So, in the spirit of Father’s Day and our exploration of Wisdom, Wit and Wonder this summer, I have invited my own father, the Rev. Donald Patterson, to dialogue with me in this sermon. Dad, come on up and take the pulpit, and I will sit over here and we can talk. To begin, can you say a bit about wisdom that you have received from your ancestors?

Donald

This is not every person’s story. It is mine and yours and Tova’s [Seth’s sister]. It is the only first-hand experience from which I can draw. A few years ago, Seth’s and Tova’s mother and I traveled to Ireland, the home of “my people.” The father of my father, my grandfather Hugh, and his three brothers, young men—boys really—left with their parents’ blessing in the 1880s to board a ship that would carry them away from the despair they would face if they stayed In Ireland. For whatever reason, none of the Patterson boys ever returned to Ireland, but, according to the family narrative, it was not because they did not want to see their family again, but because their parents, my great grandparents—Samuel and Jane—had died within a few years after they had given their blessing to all of their sons to leave home. So, my father never knew his grandfather, Samuel, but he did know something about sketches of Samuel’s character from the recollections of his father, my grandfather, Hugh, who often said to my father, “I wish that you could have known your grandfather Samuel . . . he was a wonderful man.”

Seth

Did you know your own grandfather? Your father’s father, the one who immigrated to the United States?

Donald

I never knew my grandfather Hugh, as he had died 6 months to the day after his youngest child had been killed during WWII. I did, however, know something about the sketches of his character from my father, who used to tell me “I wish you could have known your grandfather Hugh . . . he was a wonderful man.”

Seth

I remember your father, also named Hugh, quite a bit. He died when I was 13. Besides being a wonderful man, apparently like his father, do you hold anything specific that he passed down? In the flood of memories about him, does anything stick out in a conversation like this?

Donald

One of my favorite poems is from Walt Whitman, which was read a few minutes ago [an excerpt from Leaves of Grass]. I did not discover it on my own; I was introduced to it by my father who was deeply devoted to the power of words as they circumscribed one’s moral compass.

For my father, that poem was a distillation of what it meant to be a decent person, to do justly, to live kindly and to walk humbly with thy God. These were things he claimed to have learned from his father . . . things that he attempted to teach me . . . things that I have hopefully attempted to teach my children . . . things that perhaps they will pass along to their children: ideas that appear to be simple but not always easy.

When planning our trip to Ireland a few years ago, one of my hopes was that I could find the grave of Samuel and Jane, my great-grandparents. After two days of searching the graveyards of old Presbyterian churches, there it was in a small cemetery with sheep grazing next to it.

Kneeling before another grave nearby was a woman older than I, polishing the granite of a newer gravestone, that of her husband. After a while, she came to us and asked if we were connected to Samuel and Jane. After some conversation, we came to the conclusion that she and I were third or fourth cousins. She, of course, had not known my great-grandparents, but she told me that when she was a child and went to the cemetery with her grandparents, they would sometimes say that Samuel and Jane were wonderful people.

Has some of the wisdom of life and living that I have attempted to pass to my children, having been passed to me from my father, who received them from my grandfather, was that a legacy that he had received from his father? We stand on the shoulders of those before us, from generation to generation.

Seth

It’s a beautiful idea that you are in possession of wisdom that has been gleaned over the generations and then you can pass it along as well. Like codified Patterson family expertise that is packaged and handed down. But it doesn’t quite work that simply. When your grandfather immigrated here, he necessarily shed pieces that were handed to him by his parents. Your father likely tried to teach you things that you did not hear or refused to accept. I am certain I have not received and accepted all of the wisdom that you have tried to give to me, and I can already see my daughter picking and choosing which parts she is accepting from me. How do we pass on our learned wisdom when it is as important that the receiver receives as it is for the giver to give it? Put another way, the passage from Proverbs begins by saying “My child, if you accept my words . . .,” and then uses the word “if” over and over again. There is a lot of contingency here.

Donald

You are very right. I have a few thoughts on that (as I’m sure you knew that I would). I liked the words that you used earlier from Timuel Black: “I can’t hear what you’re saying because your actions are speaking so loud.” Actions do speak louder than words for children of all ages. If, for example, my father would have recited Whitman’s poem to me and then conducted himself in ways that contradicted its values and wisdom, I would have dismissed the words in favor of his actions. Our children sometimes listen to our words, but they almost always watch what we do.

Seth

That is so true! A phrase I have started using a lot lately is: “Our children are watching us.” I say it mostly to remind myself! It seems to me that being watched and being models of behavior is a piece of this that we can easily forget about.

Donald

Right. They watch what we do, who we are and how we witness to what is important to us, and they will, in some sort of internal calculus, choose whether to believe what they hear or what they see. Our words are only as good as our willingness to carry their truth.

Seth

Whoa. That is a powerful sentence. Say it again, please.

Donald

Our words are only as good as our willingness to carry their truth. And then it gets even more complicated when children—and adults, too, by the way—are faced with having to choose what is truth when confronted with increasingly competing messages of peers, media and God-only-knows what other powerful influences.

There is a saying that we are responsible for our effort but not the outcome. I think that is true in most of life and certainly when offering our children whatever wisdom we can . . . and then pray that it might grow roots. I am put in mind of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song:

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The ones they pick, the ones you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And tell them you love them.

Seth

So, is that what the contingency is based on? That “if” in the passage from Proverbs? “My child, if you accept my words” and I back them up with my actions, then my wisdom can be passed on to you. My gathered and inherited wisdom is only as good as my willingness to live them through actions? There seems to be some truth in that. And difficulty! I would much rather say that I love everyone more than I would like to actually show that I love everyone.

It seems to me, though, that another challenge of this passing down of received wisdom rests on the shoulders of the receiver. What then is the responsibility of the receiver?

Donald

I think that the word if in the Proverbs passage is a deliberate piece of wisdom from the writer. He (and almost certainly it was a he) used that word intentionally to recognize the giving and receiving of any gift. The giver holds out the gift as something from the heart. The receiver has some choices: to take the offering or not; to take it and perhaps later to put it away or put it down, maybe to be picked up again or not. Once the gift has left the giver’s hand, it is no longer within their control. The if recognizes the agency of both.

Seth

Right. There is agency on both sides. It is a two-way street. The writer of Proverbs lays this out by saying:

if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures . . .

The receiver must have a desire to receive, to learn, to inherit. Otherwise, it is an unwrapped gift never opened. I have to be wanting to hear you, interested in watching you; I have to feel respected by you and have respect for you. In other words, there needs to be a foundation of a relationship, a reciprocity of trust and an understanding that the passing of wisdom back and forth is important.

Donald

I think that is insightful.

Seth

Thank you.

Donald

I like the notion of reciprocity. The economy of passing along wisdom between parent and child is a two-way street. Goodness knows that I have gained pieces of wisdom from you and your sister by watching, listening and paying attention to you, as you have held the gift that was given to me.

Seth

You are passing along an inherited set of wisdoms that I had not yet encountered before. You were the holder of the stories. What you learned from me was some sort of new understanding that came from my seeking. You learned something from me when I cried out for insight or raised my voice for understanding. That probably allowed you to encounter the stories you were holding in new and unexpected ways.

Donald

I wish I had said that. Right there you have given me some new insight, some new wisdom. I will take it and ponder it in my heart.

Seth

I would love to sit here and have this conversation for hours, but we should probably let these nice people move on to the other parts of their lives. How do we conclude a conversation like this? In a dialogue about the reciprocity of passing wisdom, the relational and continual aspects of these conversations, how do we wrap this up?

Donald

Well, I think that for you and me, father and son, we continue to listen to and honor the wisdom that we can give to one another. No one has a corner on wisdom . . . no matter their age. We each have had experiences that the other has not and have learned lessons that the other has not. I guess that we offer to each other those values that are the stuff of character by what we say and how we live.

Seth

We also need to acknowledge that just because something can be passed down, it doesn’t need to be. Viewpoints on the treatment of others can be passed down like perverted forms of received wisdom. This is one of the ways that the structures of white supremacy, patriarchy, cisgender- and hetero-supremacy get passed down from generation to generation. The downside of this is that it can uphold toxic beliefs. Just because something is passed down doesn’t mean that it is healthy.

So, we need to stay in relationship, continue talking and really listening to one another. This allows us to not only pass on what we have learned but also discern if these lessons are life-giving or toxic. It also allows us to be challenged by the way the other person is seeking wisdom. We need to stand in this with each other, really be present with one another and continue to deepen trust. It is only then that we can begin to learn and pass on what we have received. May it be so for us and those whom we are connected with. And may it be so for all of us in the many individual and collective relationships that we hold.