Who am I?
In the last post, I began addressing the issue of fathers often being unknown, really, to their children, with the aftermath of the suicide of author Joan Wickersham’s father as a dramatic illustration of this. The ideas I proposed were that (a) being a father is enough; it is a noble and rewarding calling, and (b) fathers, as their kids grow, should strive to be more and more “real” with their kids, to avoid being a stranger of sorts to them.
The problem is that, all too often, maybe dads don’t even really understand themselves. Not to get all psychological.. … but it does seem that from an early age, men are taught to hide who they really are, particularly their emotional lives (an interesting book on that subject is Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys). And somewhere along the way, we find we’ve done such a good job of hiding ourselves to others that we can’t exactly find ourselves. I think that is part of why we as men tend to stay at the surface with each other, and often with our loved ones, as well. The point is that it is pretty hard to let oneself be known when one does not know oneself.
The good news is that it doesn’t necessarily take years of therapy to begin being more real with oneself and being known by one’s children. In fact, I believe two simple things are quite helpful for fathers to no longer be strangers to their children:
- A healthy view of the ultimate father, God
- Deep, meaningful, and open friendship with other fathers
I tend to think that problems in these two areas account for a lot of the problem and the solution. I could add a 3rd that applies to some, but not really all men: healing the wound of their relationship with their own father. A lot has been written about that already. So, I’ll start with a few thoughts on our view of God.
One of the other books I read last week was Rob Bell’s controversial “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” For me, the central question of the book is not so much about the afterlife. The central point of the controversy is not about the orthodox versus heterodox views about hell. For me, the fundamental question is about who God is. What kind of father is he? For the sake of this post, I’m less concerned about the debate regarding hell and the position each person adopts at the end of the day. What I’m interested in is how we, as Christians, understand God as father.
It seems to me that the Bible gives us a number of possible prisms through which we might look at God. On the one hand, there is the angry God who sends bears to kill mocking little children, the judging God who commands a genocide of the Canaanites, or the uber-holy God who strikes a man dead for daring to touch the ark of covenant (even if only to keep it from falling to the ground). On the other hand, there is the God who was patient and forgiving towards David, who came in a manger and died on a cross, who touched lepers, who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.
And, without a doubt, the view one takes of God affects the kind of father one is. A father who always feels guilty before God can hardly give his own kids unconditional love. A father who see God as wrathful and judging can scarcely show mercy. A father who sees God as absent or uninvolved will have no moral compass to give his own offspring. And so on.
To have a cogent approach to interpreting Scripture, we might admit that not all prisms (should) carry equal weight, though they be in the Bible. Some are more central and defining. A good starting point is Jesus, who he was and how he was with people. Then we might find clues about the proper way to understand God in the parables he told to describe his father. We might listen to what he summed up as the crucial elements of understanding God (“mercy, not sacrifice”). Only then can a healthy view of God emerge. Jesus was right when he said “no one comes to the Father except through me”. I don’t think that’s an exclusionary statement; it’s a statement of fact. You simply cannot come to God as father, nor for that matter even grasp God as father, except by understanding Christ as son and listening to how the son describes the father. You don’t really and fully come to the father through the prophets or the apostles, except to the extent they point to the Son.
Band of brothers: the fraternity of fathers
Finally, let’s be real and admit that being a father is hard work. It takes your very best and exposes your very worst. It is character forming and exposing. It takes ongoing growth and maturing. As a dad, you have 3 choices: (1) remain a stranger to your kids, hiding your flaws, through distance, religiosity, conceit, etc…, (2) be honest, but failing to grow, so that you dump all your failures and sins in plain sight for your kids to see (and be scarred by), or (3) be honest, and strive to grow, so that you are able to be real, no longer a stranger, to your kids, but you are also dealing with “your own stuff”.
Thus, if a dad is going to be more and more real and transparent with his kids as they, themselves, grow and mature, then he has to be changing, growing out of some of his character flaws as well as repenting of his sins (think of grievous things to children like rage, arrogance, lust, infidelity, addiction, religious pride, lack of forgiveness, etc…). Other human weaknesses and sins, he must be honest and humble about. And to do that, it helps a lot to be part of a band of brothers.
I think as men, we need to see fatherhood as an amazing club, a privileged tribe, a sacred charge. And as such we should:
- Realize we’re not born great fathers! Fathers are formed: by life’s experiences, by our own fathers, by personal growth, by a whole host of other things… and, not least, by other fathers. We can’t do it alone.
- Stop judging and start empathizing with each other. That’s what I meant earlier when I said I wept that “one of us” called it quits and took his own life. Joan’s father didn’t and doesn’t need our pity or our judgment, but our empathy and our friendship.
- Devote ourselves to helping each other, brother-to-brother (rather than expert-to-inept), with no trace of competitiveness, no desire to please, no collusion to avoid needed talks, no one-upmanship, no superficiality.
- Welcome the new fathers and future fathers into the club with joyful eagerness and with the humility necessary to share both our own failings and successes, that they might learn from them.
I have my own band of brothers. They not only love me, but also my kids. They know them and care about them. And they are always there to help me become a better man, a better father, whether through encouragement, advice, prayer, empathy, questions or listening. And they love me and believe in me… even though I’m not yet the better man I want to be.
I sincerely believe every father needs a band of brothers. But choose wisely. I once had a church elder ask me why I didn’t ever come to him for advice about my family, since he saw that as part of his role in the congregation. The answer was obvious to me; he didn’t know my kids or really love them; he was quite a gossip, disclosing to others what was shared with him; he was pretty self-satisfied as a parent; and he was prone to canned answers. That did not seem a helfpul or “safe” relationship to me. So, I answered truthfully… which he didn’t like! However, I am grateful to have men who are really a band of brothers, a group who also think fatherhood is as great an honor and thrill as it is a responsibility and sacred duty.
Find such a band of brothers. A fraternity of fathers who step up is what our kids need, what society needs, what single moms could use (yes, we need to “adopt” their kids into the fraternity!). Treasure in jars of clay… I love it!