Not all fathers are heroic but I'm unmovable in my conviction we are all meant to be. And that we can be.
I’ve witnessed it. I'm blessed to have a dad who, despite his imperfections, modeled what it really takes to get the job of fathering done. He is a good man in the old-fashioned way, with a handshake stronger than a signature. But I’m not sure his virtues alone would have gotten me any closer to the Kingdom of God.
It’s likely his greatest lesson for me was when he taught me how to jump.
(Yes, white men can jump.)
My dad certainly had his limitations. He was not an athlete, an artist, a gifted conversationalist or an outdoorsman. His father’s heavy drinking and early death did not allow for such trivialities. The only expression of manhood my father could entertain when he was a young teenager was hard work, an attribute he learned well and clung to for survival through all my years under his roof. From the few stories he told, it seems my father’s childhood was cut short, though not completely off.
One of the great rescues of my life is that I got to witness my father, as an adult, become a child again.
"Son, should I do it?"
Mom’s job on Sundays was to take me and my younger sisters to church. Dad’s job was to stay home and fix stuff. That’s how it was until my sophomore year when my dad found Jesus.
He’d suffered from ulcers and depression nearly all his life and finally got poor enough in spirit to fall on his knees when I was around 16. But while he was enthusiastic about his new relationship with Jesus, his conversion was wildly disruptive for the rest of us. Almost overnight he appeared to become a radical, trusting God in ways that made the rest of us church-going members of the family quite uncomfortable. Compared to the tepid affection I had witnessed for Jesus, it felt almost cult-like, and honestly kinda scary. Prior to his conversion it was his work that proved a wedge between us, but for a while after his conversion it was Jesus who became the wedge.
It was in this season I was riding shotgun beside him on the interstate. Out of a moment's silence he asked me if he should leave his job and build an entirely new career from scratch around a new technology he’d stumbled upon. His idea was a complete surprise to me, but he had obviously been wrestling with it a lot on his own and now he needed an opinion, even if it was from a boy. I was far too immature to discern that his life and heart were hanging in the balance.
For 17 years my father had been treated well by his employer and he had what appeared to be a level career path straight into retirement. That’s what he got in return for all the miles traveled and nights away from home. In fact he'd just been given a promotion with pay raise. But money does not equal wealth. And a stable job does not equal security. What he craved was a frontier to subdue…an adventure to live. What he feared was not being able to feed his family, and also having no significance. All men fear these. Right?
It's no surprise he was internally wrestling with what most men would consider "irresponsible" behavior.
And it’s no coincidence this was happening at the same time he was learning what it means to follow Jesus.
Now my dad’s idea was… crazy! At least in the sense it was untested. All we knew is that it would exhaust our family's resources and require sacrifices from us all. It was a huge risk, but my dad, after years of security in the same job, with a little retirement put away and a son about to enter college, was dreaming again.
After he downloaded the details of the idea to me, I responded bluntly "You're not gonna be a coward and not do this, are you?"
Looking back it's hard to believe my response. Truth be told, I had lived in fear of my dad’s disappointment. But there he was, as vulnerable as I had ever seen him, and I saw an opportunity to challenge him…and God.
As a young man of probably 17 I had suffered little, the world still felt safe and the actual risks to my father and family were unknown. Maybe that’s why I challenged him. Maybe it was a little teenage rebellion. But I think maybe what I really wanted was to see what he and his new buddy Jesus could pull off. I was intrigued, knowing he’d been praying about it and felt God was in it.
And I remember feeling honored he would share this dilemma with me. He was effectively initiating me, showing me how a man wrestles well with God to find his way.
To hear him talk about that conversation today is sacred. It turned out to be one of those "finest hours" for us both. It changed our lives, and today he delights that his son, young as I was, helped him to take a big risk and drink again from the fountain of youth. Strange as it sounds, fathers can need their sons even as sons can need their fathers.
Most men, as much as they need a life with more excitement, wouldn't consider a disruption of this magnitude. They risk little because in their hearts they believe God is unjust, or unkind, and are unwilling to test Him. At that time my dad was surrounded by men climbing the corporate ladder, making a name for themselves, making money and building their castles on sand.
But my Dad jumped. After prayer and reasonable confirmation he resigned from the job he’d had his entire adult life and set sail into uncharted waters with a piece of paper taped to his office wall that said, “Attempt a task so great, without God it must surely fail.”
Looking back now I can see my dad's adventure was just as much for me. God knew my skeptical heart needed more than my father’s words to believe that Jesus can change a man's life for good. I needed my dad to model it. So did my sisters.
In the sacred space of that car, words were spoken and decisions were made. And because of them both God and my dad became bigger. And relevant.
More than any virtue he possessed or words he ever spoke, it’s been his partnership with God, and His willingness to trust God even when things go totally sideways, that has given me the courage to do the same.
His decisions to risk all on God has proven his most effective lesson in helping God father my timid soul.
Fathers who allow God to take them on an adventure tend to have children who do the same. It’s true.
That’s why I’m trying to raise my kids the same way.