Re-post: Renewing Fatherhood on Father’s Day

As both a calling and a developed skill, has fatherhood lost its nobility in society generally? Or is fatherhood doing reasonably well and complaints to the contrary are contradicted by the facts? The answer is somewhere between, but leaning toward the gloomier side.

Consider this prophetic statement by David Blankenhorn, in his book Fatherless America (1995): “The good news, largely ignored in today’s script, is that married fatherhood is a man’s most important pathway to happiness.” Blankenhorn makes this claim even though in his book he portrays an American culture in which fatherhood is not seen as a widespread blessing.

He writes that over the past two hundred years, fatherhood has lost, in full or in part, each of its four traditional roles:

1. Irreplaceable caregiver. 2. Moral educator. 3. Head of family, and, 4. Family breadwinner (with the understanding that sometimes this role has to be shared or reversed).

Blankenhorn writes, “In 1990 more than 30 percent of all children [in the United States] were living apart from their fathers – more than double the rate of 1960.” He goes on to say, “Scholars estimate that before they reach age eighteen, more than half of all children in the nation will live apart from their fathers for at least a significant portion of their childhood.”

But that is only one side of the picture. The late esteemed newsman, Tim Russert, wrote a warm, affirming book about his father. It so moved his readership that it brought Russert nearly 60,000 letters and e-mails. Day after day he read them to the very last one and out of them came his second book, Wisdom Of Our Fathers, Lessons and Letters From Daughters and Sons.

The missives he received were overwhelmingly, though not entirely, positive. They described fathers who had been there for their children, had taken time for a bedside story, turned up at a spelling bee, played catch with them in the yard, and at times of need had given them good counsel.

They were not super-dads. The letters from grown children, according to Russert, admit there were flaws. But the commitment of which the children wrote was such that it has left an enduring imprint on their children’s memories.

Now a new e-book, The Demise of Guys, available on Amazon.com, addresses the picture more darkly. It speaks with insight of the malaise among the general population of young men today. The book notes quite broadly a lack of energy among young men to make full preparation for a full life, the lack of interest in developing long-term relationships with women, certainly lack of motivation to get out on their own and make their own way in life. This phenomenon is obvious enough that it keeps coming up in other social opinions spoken or printed.

The author of The Demise of Guys traces the causes that he believes have contributed to this state of affairs – such as excessive time spent during developing days on the internet, video games and especially the hurtful, pervasive influence of pornography. He explains the effect these addictions have on the brain to deaden the pleasure zones and motivations for a fulfilling life.

The celebration of Father’s Day this June 17 brings this conflicted issue of fatherhood back into focus. It would be a good Sunday on which to look at the two contrasted above pictures of fatherhood.

It would be a good Sunday for Christians everywhere to gather and pray unitedly for the fathers in their connections. And it could be made a time for fathers themselves to ask their HEAVENLY FATHER to father them afresh, giving grace to embrace their four assignments — Irreplaceable caregiver, moral educator, head of family, and family breadwinner (noting that this role must sometimes be shared or reversed) — with divinely endowed courage.

Photo credit: JeffS (via flickr.com)

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In Your Opinion, Was Buckie Treated Properly?

Angry childWhen Kathleen taught preschool she started each new group of children with a little exercise. Addressing one of them, she would say, “Betty, please pick up this piece of paper.” When Betty complied, Kathleen would lead the children in a round of applause saying in a musical voice, “Oh, Betty obeyed me!”

Soon afterwards she might say, “George, would you mind closing the door?” George would respond and the class would be led in another round of applause. This is how she taught the meaning of the word obedience.

One day she said with mild excitement, “Okay, everybody please stand up.” Four-year-old Buckie refused. She asked him three times to be sure he understood his own response. Each time, his response was, “No, I won’t.”

Recognizing this as a challenge, Kathleen picked him and his chair up together and moved them gently to the nearby wall. She explained, “Everyone in my class must obey me. If you can’t obey me then you can’t share in what the rest of the class is doing.”

Buckie’s face clouded. Even for a four-year-old isolation from the group can be unpleasant.

Needless to say Buckie soon relented and joined the class. He never balked at Kathleen’s instructions after that day. Children are pliable and learn quickly what does and doesn’t work.

Resistance to authority is an inborn trait and must be addressed, brought to consciousness, and appropriately restrained in the early years of life. Teaching a child to obey is actually the child’s first step toward freedom.

A significant number today might see Buckie’s treatment as controversial. “A little child should be allowed to assert himself,” some may say. Or “leave him alone and he will figure it out for himself.” Or even, “Humor him a bit.”

Christian parents, however, should see their children with Christian realism. Early in life every human being is prone to resist authority and we all must learn, as Buckie was learning, to obey the requests of parents and teachers and eventually managers, bosses and civic officers.

We take our tips on these things from the Scriptures. Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). Parents are to be the teachers, insisting on obedience.

Recall that, to raise the child, Jesus, God chose devout parents, who as pious Jews followed the requirements of the law toward him (Luke 2:39). “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). From such parenting, we are told that, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).

A recent rash of teenagers physical attacks on teachers in the classroom and vulgar hate songs against law officers in the streets should alert us that children left to grow up however they please makes for incivility and even violence as a way of life.

Picking a child up, chair and all, and isolating him for a brief moment is not a bad way to tell him in the earliest years that legitimate authority must be obeyed. The four-year-old learns early what is true throughout life: that we all face boundaries and comply with rules and we must be taught the art early.


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Photo credit: Mith Huang (via flickr.com)

How to Deepen the Spiritual Life of A Congregation

6197577060_b11c9d1ddc_mAt 26 years of age, Richard Baxter was pastor of a church in Kidderminster, England. It was the 17th century. Upon arrival he found himself in a community of well-to-do, respectable townsmen where the church was not well attended and worship services lacked spiritual warmth.

In response to this state of affairs, he wrote: “The way to save this church and the community is to establish religion in the homes of the people and to build the family altar.” Accordingly he spent three years visiting the people in their homes with the determination to establish a family altar in every home in the community.

Family altar is the simple practice of gathering the members of the family together at a set time each day to read the Bible and pray together. Baxter believed this would be the primary way to renew the spiritual life of the congregation.

Family altar is a historic practice for families deeply committed to the worship of the living God. Three centuries after Baxter, I recall, as a young lad in Saskatchewan, experiencing the energy and worth of family altar. My Mother carried the burden faithfully for this exercise. Family altar was held at the close of the evening meal for one older sister, a younger sister and me. Occasionally our father sat in.

We formed our chairs to face each other in an open part of the kitchen. Mother took down her well used Bible and usually read a whole chapter. Then we sang a portion of a hymn. Mother knew about a half dozen “favorite” hymns by heart so we cycled those six again and again. After the hymn, we knelt at our chairs and Mother prayed. At the close of her earnest prayer we recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

As we children developed proficiency in reading we began to take turns at reading a paragraph or so and offering our own prayers. Sometimes what was read in the Scriptures prompted childhood questions about God or about such basic moral issues as telling the truth or getting along with playmates. Occasionally, if things had gone poorly in family relationships they were corrected. In a nutshell this daily exercise helped to develop a God-consciousness which attends us for life.

Family altar has much more competition today than in my childhood. For us there was no television, iPads, smart phones, or electronic games to commandeer our time and isolate us from one another. Today the very pace of modern life might require a simplified version for family altar, but need not choke the exercise out of existence, and will always require parental diligence.

Like Mother, we see its value and my wife and I continue the practice. At 90 years of age, we sit down in our family room after breakfast each morning and read the Bible, one chapter a day. We discuss what we’ve read and then take time for prayers. As a wholesome breakfast nourishes our mortal bodies family altar gives deep sustenance to the spiritual dimension of life.

God says to us, ”Draw near to me and I will draw near to you” and human wisdom tells us “where there’s a will there’s a way.” For newcomers to the practice, to get family altar started a parent or parents may need to gather the family together and seek agreement that at a certain time each day family life would be enriched by giving a few minutes to this spiritual exercise.

If there are young children and the NIV is the family’s favorite translation it should be used. If not, the New Living Translation is a good useable version, both reliable and readable. For small children the Picture Bible is recommended as a good choice. Whatever version is chosen it is good to make the Bible itself the text for family devotions. It’s the book we hope our children will live with for a lifetime.

Were Richard Baxter’s efforts successful? History reports that his project was so successful that in every home of his congregation there was a family altar, church attendance increased to fill the sanctuary, and public worship went from bland to spiritually warm and deeply nurturing.

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Photo credit: Skara kommun (via flickr.com)

One Thing Fathers Must Not Do

3551019373_135ae07155_mIn Ephesus, a pagan seaport city on the western edge off what today is Turkey, attitudes toward children could be harsh and even brutal. That’s why it is noteworthy that Paul gives the following simple instructions to Christian fathers new to the faith living there: “Don’t anger your children.”

The New International Version translates it, “Don’t exasperate your children;” and The Message paraphrases it, “… don’t exasperate your children by coming down hard on them.”

In all three treatments of the text it is evident that the Apostle is not so much counselling fathers to control their own anger as to be mindful of how their way of relating is affecting their children emotionally. They are to relate to them in such a way as to avoid creating unrelieved exasperation.

We can amplify this advice as follows: don’t ignore them when they need you or brush them off when they ask for attention; don’t reply at full volume when they need controversial questions addressed gently. Even when they are in trouble with the family over failed expectations, wait to talk to them about it until you can do it without rage because rage often begets rage and alienation.

Above all, even when disciplining them, treat them with the dignity God has endowed them with.

I recall spending time with a young man who suffered from an acute sense of alienation from his father. There was no active rebellion involved as yet, but he presented his situation with deep feeling. He sometimes sat rubbing his knuckles when he talked to me. He came for several visits, and each time uttered one sentence several times, his chin quivering with emotion: “I want my father; I need my father; I can’t have my father.”

The issue was not abuse or physical abandonment on the father’s part; it seemed emotional distance from his son was causing the son deep distress. I never met the father but got the impression that some important ingredient was missing from his emotional connection with his son.

On another occasion, a respectful young man in his senior teens said in exasperation and with tears in his eyes, “I wish my Dad would talk to me.” The family would pass general public inspection with good grades, but the father lacked the skill of interacting emotionally with the son on his level and this was proving costly. It was causing a breach of the Apostles instruction, “Don’t exasperate your children.”

Consider three reasons why the Apostle’s terse advice to Christian fathers is so important. First, the Christian family works best when reciprocity between father and children is practiced. “We are all members of one body.” This instruction to the church can be appropriated by the family, too (Ephesians 4:25). In fact, the Christian family should be marked by mutuality of respect because of the reconciling power of the Gospel.

Second, Paul’s advice speaks to the father’s need to manage male aggressions well. These are a gift from God. They can have an appropriate place in the everyday world and may be particularly important when father is called upon to protect the family from external threats, whether physical or emotional. And particularly when children are teenagers, the same male forcefulness is occasionally needed to maintain the order of the family.

Third, a father’s attention to how he is affecting his children contributes a gentle strength and a sense of order to the family that give evidence that the Gospel makes life radically better.

(Adapted from my book, God’s House Rules)

Photo credit: Yvette T. (via flickr.com)

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Grammatical Slips and Rebekah’s Language Breakthrough

7956999330_b790e43033_mA piece in the Wall Street Journal (October 1, 2015) raises the question again: is human language a richly endowed gift, one of humanity’s most elevated, and to be used with care and respect? Or is it only a rough tool to be used well enough merely to “get the job done”?

According to WSJ, the dating site, Match, asked more than 5000 singles in the US what criteria they trusted most when deciding whether to go forward and date persons first contacted by means of the internet.

Eighty-eight per cent of women and 75% of men in the responses received said they cared most about the careful use of words. What the singles saw written on the computer screen shaped their opinions to a degree before any meeting took place.

What bothered both men and women had to do with such details as carelessness in the misspelling of common words, the misuse of semicolons, lack of proper capitalization, etc. They were just grammatical errors but errors that colored expectations unfavorably.

In the minds of the singles these careless slips by the unseen respondents lowered their grades although, for reasons of courtesy, the receivers would never disclose this mark-down.

Personally, I see language as a gift from God so my vote is on the side of care and accuracy — though I sometimes slip in spite of my best efforts. Nevertheless, as I see it, the gift of good speech is to be honored.

Amazingly, the workings of this great gift manifest themselves very early in life. I confess it’s fun as a great grandparent to listen to the oncoming generation’s earliest efforts to communicate using this rapidly unfolding gift.

When our great granddaughter, Rebekah, was three, she was in the early stages of mastering by trial and error the basics of the English language. Whatever she mastered she applied to new and untried situations.

For example, already at three years of age she had apparently discovered the prefix, “un”. She grasped, for example, that when you get up in the morning you dress, but when you go to bed at night you un-dress. Doors that are locked may be un-locked, and shoes that are tied must be un-tied.

Once, while carrying her own food tray across the dining hall at a summer camp she suddenly signalled for her grandmother’s help. She said, “I want you to hold my tray so I can un-itch my nose”. A few moments later she needed help again to un-itch her arm.

Although such irregular use was novel, when uttered experimentally by a three-year-old it was fresh and wonderful to the ears of a grandmother, and later when I heard of it, wonderful to my ears too. It was language in progress. I thought it deserved three cheers.

Three short years earlier, as a helpless infant she had only been able to communicate by crying, burbling or smiling. Now she was handily on her way to the day when she will make the subtlest thoughts clear by delivering them in words with prefixes and suffixes of all kinds.

Rebekah’s growing mastery of language is obviously grounded in an innate gift. She doesn’t know yet that it is a gift implanted in her by God — one aspect of his beautiful gift of humanness. But she will know soon.

Even so, I shudder to think that some day, under the wrong influences, her language may become strewn with the clutter of meaningless verbiage. Like, will she, like, lace her sentences, like, with the muddle of verbal redundancy? If so, this may limit her in many ways, as the research done by “Match” showed.

But, on second thought I believe her parents will make sure she understands that such misuse will always be un-seemly and thus un-acceptable.

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Photo credit: Lyn Lomasi (via flickr.com)

Raising Wholesome Children

tumblr_mcgll0TL1N1rt0kevo1_1280(Not necessarily brilliant, handsome, or talented, and certainly not perfect, but wholesome.)

In 1950 the Gallup organization gave a questionnaire to a large sampling of high school seniors. To the question: “Are you a very important person?” 12 percent said yes.

In 2005 Gallup administered the same question to another large sampling of high school seniors: 80 percent said yes.

The large increase in percentage may seem remarkable to some. Others will quickly relate the upsurge to the great increase in narcissism in our culture.

Remember Narcissus? He was the handsome young man of Greek mythology who gazed at the reflection of his image in a pool and fell in love with himself.

Narcissists are self-absorbed. They betray a sense of grandiosity and self-importance. They have a need for praise, and often show an explosive anger when their fragile sense of self-importance is in any way met with reserve or disbelief.

(Anyone who wants to know more will find a great deal of information by googling not only “narcissism,” but also terms such as “narcissistic injury,” and “narcissistic supply.”)

My understanding is that a majority of teenagers show narcissistic traits (as our generations before them did). But for most, the wear and tear of fighting their way into adulthood rubs away these traits or reduces them greatly.

Also, people of any age may have narcissistic moments or blind spots, but only a small percentage reach adulthood with full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Some experts suggest one percent.

What resources can Christian parents draw upon to assure that their children grow up with a wholesome sense of self-respect and at the same time a proper interest in and respect for others?

Perhaps a key insight is given us by Jesus when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is apparently a proper sense of self-love — perhaps called self esteem. So parents should be concerned that children develop appropriate self-esteem but also neighbor-love. To encourage the development of a healthy sense of both, what practices should parents attempt to follow?

To begin with, we must recognize that children are a gift from God and that they bear God’s image. Therefore they are to be treated with respect even when we are correcting them. Sometimes we need to sit down and prayerfully review our child’s value to God so as to check and amend our own vexation over their slips.

At the same time, Christians believe their children (and they too) are members of a fallen race. So early in their lives they will show a “bent to evil” and this will manifest itself early and require parental alertness as well as readiness to instruct, restrain, and discipline.

Parents will be alert and respond in a correcting, teaching way, for example, to their child’s first intentional untruth, the first conscious disobedience, and the first unkindness to others or selfishness.

Parents will want to provide a home where there is lots of warmth, love, and laughter but never lose sight of the fact that moral instruction and Gospel claims are serious tasks.

The tendency to romanticize human nature, strong as it is in our culture, may cloud the minds of Christian parents, making them overlook or see as cute or charming the sinful conduct in the developing child. This laxity could easily plant early seeds for narcissism.

Countering the tendency for our children to be narcissistic calls for a 24/7 alertness so that we can show appropriate but not overblown approval when growing children do what’s right, and appropriate and pointed correction when selfishness creates trouble.

By these means parents help children to form a realistic sense of themselves — that they bear God’s image and have gracious gifts from Him, and at the same time along with all of humankind, they have a sin nature.

At the same time, the deepest remedy for curbing narcissistic tendencies is the embrace of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. That must mean true repentance — a turning away from sin; and faith — a deep turning to Jesus Christ, declaring him Lord and Savior.

Nothing short of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ can begin life’s transformation at the center.

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Image credit: John William Waterhouse

Resisting the Plague of Narcissism

640px-Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissism has been much in the news during this past week. I heard about it from the media in full detail three times.

Narcissus was a mythological figure known for his beauty who, it is said, looked into a pool, saw a reflection of himself, and fell in love with what he saw.

So Narcissism is the term used of people who are self-absorbed and pre-occupied with their own imagined superiority. They may come across as strong and self-assured but when that self assurance isn’t honored as they expect they are likely to react in a surge of punishing anger or even violence. The so-called big ego turns out to be amazingly fragile.

Narcissism has been on the rise in western youth in recent years. It often is manifested by a strong sense of entitlement. “I’m special and I deserve special treatment.” “I’ll not take just any job.” So why is this in the news especially this week?

A study on Narcissism has been released that gives a fresh understanding of the cause of this dominating state of mind. Co-authored by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, the study surveyed 565 children ages 7 through 11 and 415 mothers and 290 fathers.

Narcissism, the study shows, can be traced to parents who “overvalue” their children during the developmental stage of their lives. Children between 6 and 8 are especially sensitive to parental influence. This inflated self-image of the Narcissist can be buried deep in the psyche.

If during those years children are told in one way or another they are superior, they are more than special, they do things better than others, and they are thus put on a pedestal, they internalize an undeserved view of their superiority. And other people come not to matter.

It used to be believed that Narcissism shows itself in children who are shown little parental warmth. The new insight from this study pointing to “overvaluing” supplants that understanding.

One might assume from the findings of the study that the condition is planted by parents who have a need to reach some personal star achievement of their own in their children. “My child can do no wrong; my child is unusual in every respect; my child deserves special attention from kindergarten on.” These can be damaging assumptions.

The felt need to foster self-esteem in their child is an entirely different matter. Self-esteem develops when children are helped to internalize within themselves the sense that they are valuable individuals but not superior to the extent that they can do no wrong. In the raising of them they will get the appropriate amount of teaching, correcting, disciplining, and such otherwise character-shaping treatment as needed, all within the context of warm adult parental love. It is “overvaluing” that does the damage.

Christian parents may foster Narcissism in their children if they adopt certain cultural modes of parenting rather than taking their teaching from the Scriptures and Judeo-Christian understandings of humanity.

Christian parents believe that children are not a possession; they are a trust from God and must be raised with that in mind. Valuable as we are to God and one another we are all flawed and that fact should be kept in sight as we raise children.

We should not be surprised when we catch a child in the first lie, or see the first tantrum, or discover the first amazing deception. Dealing with these with love and firmness is important.

Christian parents will affirm their children’s achievements to a degree appropriate to their ages and commensurate with the actual achievement. When a four-year-old makes his bed or a seven-year-old sets the table they are thanked, but not raved over as if that was the most amazing thing anyone had ever done. And when they do wrong, the call to account should be real.

Christian parents pray daily with their children and in this setting where the Christian view of human nature is shared children can be helped to face their failures as well as their successes. The early teaching of a developing child to worship God who is majestic and holy and far above them, is a first line against the development of Narcissism.

 

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