I am your father. Sorry.

Becoming a True Son - Part 1

All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain.
— Richard Rohr

My only son Baer was about to turn 13 and on the threshold of young manhood. At the time if I had told you he was a source of pride and joy for me, I'd have been full of --it.

But that is no reflection on him.

God loves me deeply, and because of this I simply had a destiny with pain.

Titanic

The first miles in my journey as a father are reminiscent of the Titanic's maiden voyage. Just below the calm surface of my manhood was an iceberg my son's ship was destined to hit. When it finally happened we were both ripped open by the collision.

No man can foresee that fatherhood, which usually begins so promisingly, will inevitably require a violent pruning of our manhood.

Baer has always been a great kid, a first born trained from birth to obey the rules and make Papa proud. Like most new fathers I resolved to be present and intentional, a man my son could always look to for wisdom and encouragement.

There's a practice called "kangaroo care" or "skin-to-skin" nurturing that's proved to strengthen up weak preemies by holding the baby close to the heart. I did this with my son, shirtless in a rocking chair after he arrived early. It made me feel like his Man of Steel. After bringing him home I kept him strapped to my heart in a Baby Bjorn while I mowed the lawn.

Hope was high that I could distinguish myself above both the good and bad fathers I'd known. In pursuit of that distinction I frequently arranged father-son dates, just me and him: Aggie football games, movies, eating out, kids projects at Lowe's and the Home Depot on Saturday mornings. We were tight, my son and me.

And the blows of life brought us together as well. His severe allergies, his labored breathing every night and those tiny prescription glasses brought me tears I kept hidden behind a smile. Fathers know that seeing their child's opportunities limited or their strength compromised is gut wrenching.

So the thought of pain delivered from my own hand was inconceivable.

TWO YEARS LATER I fathered a beauty whose dimples held me captive. It was my job and joy to be her Man of Steel as well, and even more so. She's my girl.

As young boys do Baer got into the habit of demonstrating his strength on his little sister by pushing her around.  From time to time she would sustain injury and I would be called on to rescue her from his playful wrath.

This routine exchange of blows and cries exploded one day as my son's beautiful young ship hit a cold, massive structure that had been too long hidden beneath a facade. I was not, in fact, the man who had fathering figured out, and my inability to prevent my son from hurting my daughter exposed it. On an afternoon when I was preparing some food I heard the cry that only rises when my daughter has been hurt by her brother.

Again.

With panther-like speed and motion I hurdled every obstacle between us, grabbed my son's arms and shook him like I was holding the tails of two rattlesnakes. Paralyzed by my screaming he crumpled and hung limp, impaled by my stare which was delivered without mercy.

I have no doubt that I stole a glorious piece of my son's innocence in that moment. He was 4 years old.

Pinned and terrified, he was no longer staring into the eyes of love, but instead had gotten a peek into the source of murder. His safe place was gone. His protector had become his adversary. The rock in his life had fallen to crush him.

Vader

Tears flowed hard. First from him. Then from me. In his wet and devastated gaze I saw my reflection, a wounded boy with tattered heart afraid that I was, at core, a shameful and disappointing human being.

I had done an injustice and now a piece of his boyhood was lost.

A piece of my manhood was lost.

He was terrified. And so was I.

My son's father was Darth Vader.

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I asked forgiveness and tried for a few seconds to explain to a four year old why his father had turned to the dark side, but it was no use. I had just dropped and shattered a priceless Ming vase and there was no fixing it. 

As I inventory my life's memories I cannot recall a time without shame, but I thought somehow through fathering I could overcome the inner voices and prove them liars. But this was solid evidence in support of the accusations I had so desired to silence.

Confidence Lost

How long will you turn my glory into shame?
— King David

The shock wore off but the shame did not. My son's strength had been compromised. And for the same reason a boy doesn't twice jump on a fire ant pile, I never did anything like that again. However, I have too often been guilty of controlling my home with fear instead of love. I have demanded their submission through the power of my silence and cold stares. I have been 'good' only on occasion, and definitely not safe.

A decade has since passed.

'Easy' parenting days grew fewer and farther between. I began to miss my young boy and fear the exposure that would surely come when he would need a real man to lead him into manhood. How could it be me? His youthful weaknesses had once evoked my tender care, but this skinny boy with growing feet and opinions was no longer under my control, though to maintain it I tried.

He was about to turn 13. By every calculation my journey with him felt off course and headed for the edge of the world. I didn't know how to talk to him. Or love him. Or raise him into a good man. Profound shame and fear of failure drove me to push him well beyond his appropriate pre-maturity. The distance between us grew. I was at the end of myself.

Something life-changing for us both needed to happen. 

Rocky mountains

When a friend in Colorado invited Baer and me to join them on a 2-day father-son backpacking trip, I decided to turn it into a longer trip and requested over a week off work to make it happen.  I somehow knew God was up to something. When I pitched the idea to Baer he did not get excited but merely consented. 

My heart spent the next few weeks anticipating some redemption in our strained relationship and wrestling with how to make it more than a mere vacation. It needed to be a magnanimous act of love that might somehow cover my past sins and blaze a new trail into our shared journey as men.  My prayers were simple.

"God help me talk to my son. Help us laugh together again. Help him not fear me as I did my father growing up."

I desired above all things a close relationship with my son.

"Can you make this happen, God?"

Going Fetal

It was the eve of our trip. New clothes and gear were in a growing stockpile by the door. With only loose plans the next two weeks were left as a blank canvas for us to paint as we felt led. I was beginning to risk feeling excited and even heroic simply for getting this far. For planning. For sacrificing. Like I said, I felt God was going to do something.

That night as I went to tuck Baer in I passed Heather in the hallway. She whispered quite seriously "You need to listen to him".

Accusations and curses crushed my spirit like a submarine taking on water.

I knew what I was about to hear. Baer was in the fetal position when I walked in, crying and scared. Of me.

"I don't want to go" was his confession after I calmly and repeatedly asked him to tell me what was going on. He was afraid I would take him into the tough world of men, push him past his limits and find another reason to be disappointed in him. I knew this feeling well. 

So here we were again. Both scared.

As I lay my hands across my broken-hearted son, we cried together. Both in pain. Both needing rescue.

So I cried out,

"God I can't do this. The only way this can possibly end well is if you teach me how to father him. I don't know how. I need you to father me."

While much I had done up to this point had been wrong, I was right about one thing; God was up to something.

Something hard and good.

The hardest, gladdest thing in the world is, to cry Father! from a full heart.
— George MacDonald
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Prayer

Father I have come to the end of myself. There are no more tricks up my sleeve. This precious, impressionable child you have entrusted to my care is depending on me, but I have issues I can not hide or fix, and I keep wounding him. As much as I try to change, I don't. I dread failing. I feel the pull to hide and grow cold. I get angry with myself. I am powerless. 

Will you rescue me? Will you do the impossible in me and for my son/daughter? I invite you to Father me. Teach me the way of love and grace. Jesus, show me the Father - the Truth about Him - the Way I should go - the Life I realize I cannot have apart from you. 

I am desperate. I am ready. I am waiting. I will follow where you lead.

Thank you Father.

Amen

 

Read Part 2 --->