Read Part 1. Standard caveats apply.
Much as we imagine ourselves teachers and teachable, so many of the most important things I’ve learned have come by chance. Comments overheard, asides, throwaway phrases that, for a peculiar moment, sank deep in my soul. I’m too busy (or too proud) to ask for advice, and these snippets disperse that self-assured fog.
Several years ago, I was representing my organization at a large international missions conference hosted here in Chattanooga. Hours of shaking hands and repeating talking points while standing on concrete in dress shoes left me jelly-kneed and looking for a seat. I ducked into a breakout session with a local pastor, Joe Novenson. If Brother Joe reads this, he may correct my recollection of this story, and he’d certainly point all the credit away from himself, but it sticks with me nevertheless.
I couldn’t tell you what he actually spoke on that hour, but in a brief Q&A, I was floored with a reflection on parenting (I don’t even remember what point he was illustrating). In the midst of sermon preparation, he had a flash of wonder as to the outcome of life for his kids. One at a time, he asked them into his study, looked them in the eye and inquired, “What is the most important thing you’ve learned from me as your father?” His oldest son answered, “Do the right thing.” His second child likewise. Seeking signs of the Gospel of grace working in their lives, he was despairing at hearing his own moralistic instruction coming back to him. When his youngest, a daughter, came in, though, she replied, “Oh daddy, to love Jesus, of course.”
A sweet story, out of context, trite. To me in that moment, wrestling with the challenges of how to “do the right thing” by my young family, it was a devastating blow. A call to die to selfish worry. That was two kids ago.
With young children, it’s easy to believe the doctrine of original sin. There are days I’d give my left leg to have them say that “doing the right thing” even registers as a good idea. In spite of that, I have never doubted for a moment that they love me. They can refuse to obey over a thousand petty grievances and go to bed in a huff; but at breakfast all they want is to smother me with hugs.
Discipline and order (how I love order!) are most needful, but they will come with training. Love is something that must be cultivated and allowed to flourish. It is ready to grow, but is so easily trampled. The long race of raising children is completed by the daily steps of acknowledging their love for you and making sure they know you love them back. Without that foundation, all the moral instruction in the world will, at best, produce well-mannered pharisees.
Neither does breadwinning alone constitute faithful fatherhood. Professing your love and devotion while working every waking hour to “prepare for the future” is not the strategic move it seems. A friend quipped, “I can’t be a provider for my family if I don’t provide them with myself.” Financially, settling for less may give you more than you ever dreamed.
Of all the roles and responsibilities of dads, loving presence is both the most important and hardest to maintain. Time spent with your children is its own reward. Truth can be taught, food and clothes can be bought, but all the truly worthwhile skills in life only come through apprenticeship.
The kids are watching.