Father’s Day: Beyond Sentimentality

Single women who turn to a sperm bank to start the process of creating human life, in doing so make the ultimate statement about fatherhood: It’s unnecessary; you can have a child and raise it on your own. Some have gone so far as to say fatherhood is a complication that a potential mother is better off without.

It’s an extreme point of view. And it flies in the face of what is known about the contribution a father makes in the life of a developing child. It especially flies in the face of a Judaeo-Christian understanding of fatherhood as revealed to us in Scripture.

There is growing evidence that the wide-spread loss of fatherhood in our culture has created a societal crisis that has been mounting since the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century. Michiake and Hildegard Horie (among others) make this point in their book, Whatever Became of Fathering?

And David Blankenhorn in his thoroughly-researched book, Fatherless America shows fatherlessness to be a foremost social crisis of our times. He writes that even back in the 90s when his book was published, “… about 40 percent of American children (went) to sleep in homes in which their fathers do not live.”

It’s not that there is no interest or passion left for what fatherhood represents. When the late Tim Russert, top-flight newsman, published his book in 2006 about his father, Big Russ & Me, and then made it known that he would write a sequel made up of testimonials from the public, he didn’t expect the in-pouring of letters – nearly 60,000 including e-mails. These were from people who were eager to pay tribute to their fathers.

So, in the midst of this seeming ambivalence – a society that at the same time denigrates and celebrates fatherhood, there are still thousands eager to speak a good word for their fathers. That’s why we celebrate “Father’s Day,” June 20.

Again the church has rich resources to add to this celebration. In the Bible, fatherhood is used both to acknowledge a biological reality and to stand as a metaphor for authority and strength, and oversight.

For example, Abraham for his example of faith is called “the father of the faithful.” The Scriptures of both Testaments refer to the patriarchs, which means “father-rulers.” On the negative side, using the term as a metaphor, Jesus says of the religious leaders, “You are of your father, the devil.” It was not biology that he put at issue here – it was likeness or temperament. And Jesus taught, “When you pray, say Father.” In fact, in the Gospel of John he applies the title, Father, to God about 107 times, the ultimate tribute to the honor wrapped up in the word.

Eph. 3:14 gives us a particularly telling insight into how we are to regard fatherhood in church and family. William Barclay translates the verse, “God is the father of whose fatherhood all fatherhood in heaven and upon earth is a copy.”

What could prompt us more urgently than that word to cultivate fatherhood in the life of the church as a testimony to our conflicted age?

Consider three emphases that could be made in churches everywhere for the health of families and church life?

First, because for many the word has lost its importance, fathers need help in clarifying their understanding of what fatherhood is all about. The role has been seriously blurred. Fathers who themselves did not experience good fathering are likely to suffer from a lack of clarity about what the role entails because the role is learned mainly by example and imitation.

But, if the fatherhood of God is our “copy,” what could be more helpful to us fathers in understanding and enacting our role than to study how our Father God relates to his children? His love is steadfast. His ear is open to us. He comforts when comfort is needed but he also disciplines “for our good.” He is the master disciplinarian, intending his discipline to be a means of instruction. Both Testaments are full of such insights.

Second, a mother is the most important person to lead in cultivating respect for a father. If she honors him, she will prompt children to do so. I will forever be grateful to my wife for the way she cultivated respect for me in our home. For example, when the children were small I would phone home late in the afternoon to say that I was finished my round of calling and would soon be there. She would end the call and then turn to the children with excitement in her voice and say, “Daddy’s coming home!” That kind of honor and enthusiasm is contagious with small children and it made my task easier.

Third, both parents can contribute to a father’s good standing by showing respect for one another in the flow of their time together. That’s not always simple when stressful moments come along but it is a surefire way of blessing the whole family and putting father in a position of good influence.

This coming Sunday, June 20, good things will happen for fathers in churches across the land. Cards will be given, perhaps gifts too, tributes will be spoken, and special sermons will be delivered. There will be sadness also over the absence of some fathers through death or desertion. But the best thing that could happen would be for us all to go on a search for what God, our Father by redemption, wants to teach us further about fathering.

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