Not long ago, an old friend asked me how he might better enjoy his role as dad. It's a subject close to my heart, so I thought I'd post my response here for everyone to see. Enjoy.
[Friend] - Thank you so much for the note. I’ve read and re-read your message, trying to figure out how to address an issue that one could literally write a book about. Many things to say, and not sure where to start. So I’ll start with my dad.
My dad had a message from God when I was very young - 3ish I think - that he should spend time with me as I grew up (I only heard about this years later - I don’t know what form the message took - a dream, a voice, a “coincidental comment” from a stranger - who knows). My dad was a pretty passive guy, no grand ambitions beyond tending to his family, but he was ALWAYS available. Always. To the point that when I was having trouble with homework, I would ask him to come help. Often, the homework was above both our heads, but he would simply come and sit in the room with me, reading or whatever - and that seemed to make the difference. He and I were always going out for coffee in the evenings, especially as I got older, just spending time together. He came to wrestling practices, took me on ski trips, telegraphed in any number of ways how important I was to him.
When Julian [my own son] was born, Stacy [my wife] and my experience was anything but “normal.” Julian was so sick, we weren’t sure he would survive his birthday. It was literally hour to hour. But hours stretched into days, days into weeks, weeks into months and years. Obviously, he’s doing much better today, but the periodic doctor’s appointments, blood-work, and biopsies serve as reminders of those early moments of his life. [Visit julianxane.com]
I think for the most part, people assume that we’re born, we grow up, we have kids of our own, and we die before they do. But there are no guarantees. My perspective is that we should never take for granted that our children will outlive us.
One of the most poignant displays of this kind of emotion in popular media was in the movie The Two Towers, when king Theoden stood with Gandalf at his own son’s graveside. “No parent should have to bury their child.” It’s a powerful moment in the film.
If the possibility that we may outlive our kids exists, how do we live as the curators and custodians of the next generation?
One of the things my dad shared with me (way back when I was too young to really grasp what the heck he was talking about) had to do with how we prioritize the things in our lives as followers of Christ. I’ll do my best to paraphrase - here goes:
Our number one priority is our personal relationship with Christ; second comes spouse; third comes our own children; fourth comes vocation; after that comes extended family and friends; then hobbies & pursuits, volunteering & recreation, etc.
Two important notes about the list as it pertains to vocational ministry [this is important because both I and the person who wrote to me have worked or are working in vocational Christian ministry]:
Note 1: “Vocation” includes vocational ministry. This is important for a few reasons, not the least of which is that vocational ministry can tend to feel more like a lifestyle than a job, so if left unchecked, it can creep up the list and assume inappropriate positions of importance in one’s life. Vocation is 4th - not 3rd or 2nd. And certainly not 1st.
Which brings me to-
Note 2: The trap a lot of people in ministry fall into is to assume that “Ministry” (4th priority) and “Christ” (1st priority) are interchangeable. Somehow we become convinced that if we’re “serving Christ” in ministry, that this activity services the relationship between us and Christ. In truth, the two are separate, and ministry has to stay in its place in our life in order for rest of the picture (Christ, family, etc.) to stay in balance. Many a minister can tell of having a thriving ministry while experiencing a poverty of spirit due to neglect of that most precious relationship between Christ and the Christian. “Maybe if I work harder...” thinks the Christian... You can see how the cycle can spiral, often to disaster. In the mean time, while the Christian is trying to attend to his relationship with Christ by engaging in Ministry, everything else in the priority spectrum is left out of the loop. I’ve seen “ministry families” literally disintegrate because of misappropriation.
I realize this is more than you were probably hoping for, but to me it’s all a matter of perspective. Our lives are about Christ and Others, but among the Others, there is an order that needs to be maintained if our loved ones are to be valued appropriately.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison was asked once how it was she became such a great writer. I love her response:
"I am a great writer because when I was little girl and walked into a room where my father was sitting, his eyes would light up. That is why I am a great writer. That is why. There isn't any other reason."
When Julian walks into the room, my eyes light up. Often it happens involuntarily, but sometimes I have to think about it. The conduct of a Father in the life of a Child can have a profound effect. No man knows how much time he has on earth with the ones he loves. But in the days I have left with my son, I will make it my life’s work to make sure he knows how much I love him.
That’s it for now. I’d love to continue the dialog, as things come up. In the mean time, a couple of books that have had an impact on my view of “family” and “fatherhood.”
“Wild at Heart” by John Eldredge
“As For Me and My House” by Walter Wangerin Jr.