May 3, 2017: Fatherhood

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The Huffington Post ran an article by Dr. Gail Gross (a parenting expert) in which she pointed to scientific studies that have concluded that affectionate, supportive and involved fathering can contribute greatly to a child’s cognitive, language and social development as well as academic achievement, a strong inner core resource, sense of well-being, good self-esteem and authenticity. Gross concluded that a child’s primary relationship with his/her father can affect that child’s relationships from birth to death, including those with friends, siblings, spouse, his/her own children and grandchildren. In his writing on fatherhood, Neal Lozano highlights the task that is before us: “What do we expect from a father? Is it not to protect us? Is it not to see us as our true selves — our identities — and to call them forth? Is it not to teach us to think rightly about ourselves in relation to the world outside? It is the father who can answer the deepest questions: Am I good? Do I belong? Can I be courageous? Am I lovable? Will I fulfill the purpose for my life? Do I have what it takes?” How do we live up to this colossal task? 

Only 20 percent of American households consist of married couples with children. Filling the gap are family structures of all kinds, with dads, step-dads and “stand in the gap father figures” (including exceptional single moms) who are stepping up to the plate. The cause of fatherhood is not lost but from where or whom do we take our lead? Can we take any cues from our heavenly Father?

I wonder if we don’t all have a latent disposition to understand our heavenly Father as a task master, legalist or slave driver. Martin Luther was very honest about his own struggle to see beyond this caricature. He wrote, “I have difficulty praying the Lord’s Prayer because whenever I say, ‘Our Father,’ I think of my own father who was hard, unyielding and relentless. I cannot help but think of God in that way.” In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32), however, Jesus very deliberately painted for us a very different picture of a heavenly Father whose love is shocking in its gracious intensity and generosity. In stark contrast to Luther’s inclination to think “harsh, unyielding and unrelenting,” the Father’s love (as painted by Jesus) is wildly excessive, extravagant and, some would even say, prodigal. Indeed, the Father’s love is portrayed as being so selfless that it is even willing to risk rejection.

Consider the extravagant nature of the Father’s love that is displayed through the unrestrained celebration of the younger son’s return (some might say profligate) and the gift of the ring that the father places on his prodigal son’s finger. This was most likely the signet ring of the house and with it came authority to seal important contracts concerning property and finance. (Was this the best gift to give to a son who has just blown a third of the family estate?) And to the recalcitrant older brother, there is the father’s statement, “Everything I have is yours.” The father has the power and indeed the moral prerogative to punish both his sons. In all these circumstances, the words “I forgive you” would have been more than enough. Why such extravagance in demonstrating his love, and in such a material way? Jesus was showing us that our relationship with our heavenly Father is not only an objective truth but it is also substantive and experiential. The point is that we are invited not just to make some sort of mental assent to the notion that God loves us but to be able to touch it, to taste it, to see it.

There is also something positively ostentatious about the father’s love. The language the father uses is bold and unambiguous: “Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (verses 23-24). In addressing the older brother as “my son,” the father deliberately choses the rarer word “teknon” which is “my beloved, my very dear, my much-loved son.” And these pronouncements about both sons were made in public. These were not private conversations — every word that was said was overheard and reported word-for-word in every home that night. Plus, the younger son was not just dressed in an extravagant robe. The point is that he is dressed in the father’s robe. The guests at the party would have recognized the robe and been honor-bound to treat the younger son respectfully. This was a very public, visual declaration that this lost son was now restored to his father.

This father’s example could be overwhelming to all of us dads, step-dads, moms, and those who see the gap and are attempting to step up to the challenge of fathering. How can we possibly live up to this ideal? But Jesus was not describing a heavenly fatherhood to demoralize us with an impossible standard. He was showing us that in all our attempts and failures to do right by the children and young people He has called us to love into life, we have a heavenly Father who is our (and their) most passionate cheerleader. I wonder if the Father chooses to declare His love so loudly and so publicly because it is also so necessary to drown out all the internal and external voices that tell us that we are failing our children? We have a heavenly Father whose love and mercy will fill in the gaps.

Was this the heavenly Father you were expecting as an ally in your parenting? He is not “Master” but Father. Is this the relationship you were anticipating? You were never a servant. You are His beloved child. “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:18)

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