A talk to a men's breakfast
There is the story of a man who gave a talk on being a father. He titled his talk, 10 rules for being a father. Then he had a child. He changed the title of his talk to, 5 Guidelines for being a father. He had a second child. The title changed to, 2 hints for being a father. He had a third child and gave up speaking.
1. I am a father and I work from the basis that I've got, and am getting, a great deal wrong. I'm also aware that most of you have far more experience than me of this – whether as biological fathers or as fathers in the church. My children are still only teenagers. You've been there, done that and got the T shirt.
2. The subject can be painful: some were never able to be fathers; others have lost a child. It is hard to go there.
It can also make us feel guilty or inadequate.
David Murrow writes, “Almost every religious book for men is focused on a single target: making better husbands and fathers. Men’s ministry meetings pound the same drum. Be a better husband and father. Keep your promises. If your wife isn't happy, you’re to blame.” And so he says, “No wonder men skulk away like dogs that have been kicked one time too many.” (Why men hate going to church)
3. We enter the minefield of what it means to be a father or even a man. For instance, the advertisers would say that the real man is the foster drinking, BBQ loving Aussie: the bloke with the 6 pack, who hunts crocodiles before breakfast and has the emotional sensitivity of a 2 year old.
But even in the past 60 years, expectations have changed dramatically. Our grandfathers would very rarely show emotion and would certainly never have done any housework. And the problem is that we tend to assume that what is normal for us should be normal for others.
One of the immense reassurances for me is that
Most of the biological fathers in the bible were complete disasters!
Abraham – because he had trouble with his two women – ended up being a disastrous dad to Ishmael. And then he was going to offer Isaac, his other son, as a sacrifice.
Isaac, his son, created a completely unnecessary family feud by favouring Esau
Jacob created a family feud by favouring Joseph.
Jephthah sacrificed his daughter
Eli had no control over his sons
Absolom led a revolt against his father David
Rehoboam rejected the method of government of his father Solomon.
When we get to the book of Kings in the bible, it is not the faith of the father which has more significance on the faith of the child, but rather the choice of the woman who is going to be the child’s mother. The formula goes: ‘So and so reigned for 20 years. His mother’s name was ... And he did good or he did evil in the sight of the LORD’. In other words, it appears to be the faith of the mother that has more immediate impact on the child. We see echoed in Timothy whose sincere faith ‘dwelt first in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice’. (1 Timothy 1:5).
One pastor I know said that he and his wife used to pray that his sons would marry women who were more mature in the faith than they were – and that God, in his mercy, answered that prayer.
And in the NT, although Jesus teaches that we should honour our fathers and mothers, biological fathers are invisible.
Joseph is invisible, even before he dies (When Jesus was in the temple, Mary rebukes him and says: ‘Your father and I were searching for you’. Jesus replies to her, 'Did you not realise that I would be in my father's house')
Zebedee – James and John.
Jesus tells us that our relationship with him is far more important than our relationship with our human father.
There is the man who wanted to bury his father – and Jesus told him to let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9:59). Following him may even pit us against our father (Mark 10:29).
He even warns us against calling any man ‘father’ (although that is in a specific context: Matthew 23:9)
And as for those who looked to their physical father or grandfathers for their identity (the Jews said they were children of Abraham or David; the Samaritans looked to their father Jacob), Jesus challenges them: your identity comes from a completely different place: your Father in heaven. Think of John 1:12, ‘To those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, born not of flesh, nor of the will of a husband, but born of God’.
We live in a culture which underplays the role of the father, and we do need to stress the role and importance of the father. But we should not go to the opposite extreme of making an idol of the father. God seems to work very well in the lives of children whose fathers were absent or completely messed it up.
So what does the bible teach about the role of the father: not just the father in the family, but the person who is a father in the Church?
Focus on six words:
Fathers are called to take the initiative.
There are several reasons for that:
1. It is how it is in the Trinity. The Father is the source of the Son and the Spirit.
2. In the Genesis story (however you understand it) man is the origin of woman. He is the source of woman. The word the Greeks used is 'kefale', which is also translated as head. The man is the head, the source, of woman. That is what that passage about hats in 1 Corinthians 11 is about.
3. In the story man loses his rib, and God makes woman out of the rib. She’s got something that is ours. If we are going to be physically complete we need women. I like that: how does God get over the man-fear of losing control or independence? By taking something from us and putting it in the woman and saying - If you want it, go and get it! Man has to take the initiative.
‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united with his wife and they shall become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). He takes the initiative.
People do look to their fathers as their source and their head.
For millennia people have defined themselves by their fathers. Even in Judaism, which is a matriarchal society, people still look to their fathers Abraham or David as the source of their identity.
And as fathers – whether in the home or the church – we are made to take the initiative. Not just in having babies, but in growing them and maturing them so that they become full men and women in God. Not just in coming to church, but in taking initiative for what goes on at church.
And alongside initiative there is responsibility. We do have a responsibility for our family and our church. There is no excuse. My first responsibility under God is for my wife and children. I can’t leave all the domestic arrangements up to my wife. I too have to take the initiative in putting aside time for holidays, in saying to the boys, ‘let’s play squash’, or ‘shall we go to football’, in talking with them about sex (my marks for that are 1/100). We can't leave it all up to their mothers.
As Fathers we need to be prepared to exercise authority in our homes, even if it becomes a shared authority.
I am going to be politically incorrect.
Men, fathers, will generally be perceived to be the authority figure. I'm not saying that is how it should be. I'm saying that is how it is and will be.
We are told that because of the fall, God says to the woman, ‘Your desire shall be for your husband and he will rule over you’.
It will happen, because in our fallen society, whatever structures are put in place, whatever language we use, men will - as a rule - be perceived to be the authority figure. It is something that is built into the now faulty DNA of our creation.
It is not right. It is not the final destiny for creation. We should, in Christ, be working against it. But because of the fall, because of human sinfulness, it will happen.
And so as fathers, the authority bit does fall to us – because children will look to the figure that they think is boss. And authority requires that we exercise judgement and discipline.
I really struggle here. For whatever reason (good or bad) – most professional educated parents of my generation will run a mile rather than discipline our children. Discipline is costly, not just for the children but for us. We hate conflict. We want our children to like us all the time. We don’t want to be parents to our children – we want to be their friends.
The challenge of the bible is that if I really love my children then I need to exercise discipline - and it may mean that they will not like me. If there is no judgement and no discipline, then they take the law into their own hands. When we were on holiday, one of the boys (A) said something to one of the others (B). So B asked me to tell off A. I wanted a quiet life, and thought that if I left it, it would die. It didn't. Because I didn't do anything, B kicked A. And A responded with a nuclear strike on B.
Hebrews 12:7, ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate children at all’.
BUT and this is a big but, the passage continues: ‘Our fathers disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness’.
My discipline is usually because I want a quiet life, or I do not want to be shamed or embarrassed by my children. Or I lose it because they have managed to press my red button (basically that is if they annoy their mother, because then I get it in the neck!). It is self-centred discipline. It is not consistent. And the challenge is to use the authority that we have not to make our children obey us, but to grow our children to become mature and holy, sons or daughters of God who are of equal value to us.
In other words, we use our authority in order that they might have authority.
As fathers we instruct our children
Proverbs 1:8-9; 4:1-4: ‘Hear my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching’
The purpose of our instruction is not to get the children to obey you. I think that some see themselves as sergeant majors whose job is to break the new recruits.
There is a line in a carol that as a child I refused to sing, but I now sing very loudly: ‘Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he’.
In all seriousness, it is hard to think of a more anti-Christian line!
Will our children be good because we tell them they must be?
Will they be good if we punish them if they are not?
Maybe they will conform on the outside, but what is going on in the inside?
What do we believe about the power of sin, its grip on us and the need for forgiveness and grace?
The instruction of the father and mother in Proverbs is to exhort their child to seek wisdom. It is to warn them of the dangers and consequences of seeking folly.
If we simply tell our children to be good, they will succeed or fail. If they succeed, they will learn that by being ‘moral’ or ‘good’ they will gain approval and get on in the world (which leads to the self-righteous morality of society).
If they fail, if they can’t play that game, if they are told they are not good little children (or not as ‘good’ as their sister or brother), then they will become discouraged, look to other people for approval, and they will do things that are not good in order to get credit from those people.
It is classic younger – older son stuff.
And whatever we say about grace, they will identify Christianity with morality.
I don’t want my children to be good on the outside.
I want them to realise that they can’t be good.
I want them to know that when they mess up profoundly they are still deeply beloved, they can be forgiven and that with God there is astonishing grace.
For instance, as Christians, we would want our children to know that sleeping with their girlfriend or boyfriend before marriage is sinful because it takes sex out of the context of committed love. It is not right and has consequences that they do not really understand. And I hope it won’t happen. But we don’t want our children to conform simply because we say so (anyway that carries so little weight). We want them to do what is right because that is what they believe and think and know is right.
Or if they do choose a lifestyle that is opposed to the gospel, then we still want them to know that we are there, and even more so, that Jesus Christ will always be there, and they can turn to him.
Key word in bible:
Jesus as example to us (John 13:15)
Paul as an example to Philippian Christians (Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:9)
Thessalonian Christians to Macedonian believers (1 Thess 1:17)
Timothy an example to his flock (1 Tim 4:12)
As fathers we are examples to our children – especially when they are younger. That terrifies me.
Mark Twain said that as an adult he realized he was a boy pretending to be a father. And then he looked at his father, and realized that all along his dad was a boy who was pretending to be a father. I've had the Mark Twain moment.
And fortunately we do not need to be the perfect model of love or fatherhood to be an example to our children. Because we can’t be. We won’t begin to love our children as we should.
The greatest example we can be is to be an example of faith, of trusting in Jesus Christ.
Think of Abraham: he is commended not as an exemplar biological father, but as a model of a man of faith.
We are to be examples of people who seek to put God first (and who fail), who want to show sacrificial love (but fail), who live for his kingdom (but fail), who try not to judge others (but fail), who seek to show kindness and compassion and mercy (but fail), who try to treat women with deep respect and not just simply as objects who will satisfy our desire - or as inconveniences (but fail)
We are to be examples of people who, in spite of all our failure, know that we are beloved of God, who are open to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness and grace.
And as our children grow older (maybe much older), perhaps we need to learn to be honest with them – about our struggles and weaknesses, and about the mercy of Jesus.
One of the greatest examples to us is when our own fathers admit to us their own pain at their failures. It is what enables relationships to be rebuilt. And that is the sort of father example that I would like to be with my children. Honest about my failures, and honest about the Saviour who loves me and who can and will change me.
As fathers we need to encourage our children
In 1 Thessalonians 2:11, Paul writes how he was ‘like a father’ to the Thessalonian church. He says we ‘exhorted, encouraged and charged you’.
We need the exhortation – because by nature we are lazy; we need the charging – because if I am charged to do something, then it means that the other person believes in Me. We also need the encouragement.
As children we need to know that we are beloved, acceptable, OK. And we need to hear that from whichever figure we believe has authority. And that means that as small children – maybe as big children - we need to hear our fathers say that. Film producers know that – it is one of the big themes that keeps on coming back: the child who is desperate to prove themselves to their father.
Jesus didn't need to do that. Before he began his ministry, as he is baptised, the heavens open and a voice is heard: ‘This is my beloved son. With him I am well pleased’.
We need encouragement: when we do something badly, or fail, we need to be encouraged that the world has not ended and we can try again. When we do something well, we need praise. Different cultures do this in different ways. Some gush; some are very restrained. I suspect most teenagers would not want us to gush, but even they - when they have done something well - would want to know that we have noticed and that we are impressed!
I found it very moving when Prince Charles, speaking after the funeral of Princess Diana, spoke of his sons and publicly said, ‘I was so proud of them’.
As fathers we need to support our children
We support them by loving our wives.
Someone said, the greatest thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.
Of course fathers can continue to support their children if that relationship breaks down. But those of you who have been there, know that it is much harder.
We support them by providing financially for them.
Jesus knows that parents are evil, but they still delight to give good gifts to their children (Luke 11)
In 2 Cor 12:14ff Paul writes, ‘For children are not bound to save up for their parents, but parents for their children’. And then Paul goes on as if the Corinthian Christians were his children: ‘I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls’.
But we are expected in the bible to support our children: Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:8, (writing mainly of care of the elderly and widows, but it could be applied to children): ‘Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’.
Again it is a general principal. How fathers and mothers between them provide financially for their children is dependent on cultural principals. Nowhere does the bible say that it has to be the father who is the breadwinner. In fact in Proverbs 31:10ff it is the mother who seems to financially provide for the family, while the father sits and pontificates at the city gate!
We support our children by bringing them to Jesus
So many fathers leave this to the mothers. She is the one who takes the initiative and encourages them to go to Christian camp, or to youth group, or gives them the books to read. She prays for them more than we do.
But I note that in Mark 9:24 it is the father who brings his demon possessed son to Jesus.
It is Jairus comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter (Mark 5:22)
It is the centurion who comes on behalf of his servant (Matthew 8:5)
We may mess up badly as fathers. Our children may not be speaking to us. But it is not hopeless. We can still support our children. We can pray for them.
It is our prayers for our children that really show what we most value.
Perhaps we pray the self-centred prayers:
God, don’t let them embarrass or shame me.
God, make them like me.
God, make them support me when I am old.
Or perhaps we pray the world-centred prayers:
God, make them rich; make them powerful
God, give them a good family
God, make them happy and fulfilled
Perhaps it is OK to pray both those sets of prayers, provided we pray a bigger prayer for them:
Father God, let them know you, love you and give glory to you. Let them know your forgiveness and grace. Let them grow to become mature adults in Christ. Let them grow in love, joy and peace. And however long or short their life is on this earth, let them know the life that lasts for eternity.
How would you want God to bless your children? Your grand children? For what do you pray?
I finish with the story of the prodigal son:
It is a story of a Father’s love for his child.
The Father loved the younger son sufficiently to allow him to go (He knows the pain of letting go)
The Father longed for him to come back
When he comes back, the Father treats him not as a servant, not even as a son, but as an equal. (He had always tried to treat the older brother as an equal. He says to him, 'You are always with me and all that I have is yours', but the older son has never been able to receive that grace). So now that his son has returned, as an equal, he parties.
It is the picture of heaven when we pray that we shall, in Christ, meet again our children: not as our children, but as glorious men and women who, together with us, are children of God.