My third anniversary as a father is fast approaching and I find myself asking, like David Byrne, ‘How did I get here?’ I’m 40 now. I’ve got a toddler. I’ve got a proper job. I’ve got a little gray hair. I eat vegetables and watch my fiber intake. I quit going to clubs years ago; pubs, perhaps, but only if it isn’t too crowded, or noisy. My parents have already had one minor surgery each…well, just ‘a procedure‘ really. I saw the new Bourne movie last week with my wife, and I’m not that guy…I imagine that I am, but really, I’m just the guy who falls asleep on the couch at 9:30pm after playing an hour of noncompetitive tennis with friends. You see where this is going. I’ll probably buy a used convertible on eBay in the next ten years so that the scriptures might be fulfilled. I wasn’t always like this, but here I am. I’m not a kid anymore. I’m daddy.
Coming to terms with my identity as someone’s middle-aged father is a humbling-terrifying-joyful experience, but I’ve found that my new role opens up more questions than either I or a phalanx of psychotherapists can answer. So I did the only reasonable thing one could do in such a situation…I sought perspective online. The oracle that is Google answered all my poorly-worded search queries with sobering results like ‘101 things you must do with your son before you die’; at least that’s how the results sounded to me. Admittedly, my cyber quest was a bit self-serving in that it sought the path of least resistance to fatherly greatness. However, the first website I stumbled upon only confirmed why my paternal anxiety is not entirely inappropriate: one never quite outgrows one’s relationship with their dad. More on that in a moment.
I was fortunate enough to have a father (and grandfather) who played catch with me, took me skiing, fishing and camping, bought me a BB gun and taught me how to shoot empty Pepsi cans from twenty paces, patiently read Narnia and The Hobbit to me and my siblings, took us to a pretty great church, etc. My dad went to Woodstock, now he manages trust funds; which basically means that I was allowed to have a glass of wine once in a while when I was still just a teenager, but I still got properly grounded when dad found a joint in my room. I do not want to give the impression that my relationship with my father was perfect or that we have completely figured out how to reconnect like we did when he was big and I was small. Nonetheless, I am grateful for these memories because I see he was trying to figure out fatherhood back then just like I am now.
Now it is my turn to play the father and I don’t want to screw it up. Easier said than done; fatherhood is a recipe of a million ingredients and nobody knows what the proper ratios are…we all seem to be making it up as we go, adding a little dash of ‘quality time’ here and there for good measure. Even when we come to realize that dads always muddle the recipe, I think ‘sacramental’ is not too strong a word to define those warm moments spent in the company of our respective fathers.
Now that I am a father too, I am acutely aware of just how significant such small rites of passage can be in a child’s life. I am equally aware of the fact that I stumble in many ways as a father to Sebastian. Thanks original sin! I assume that I would be a better father if I just had a bit more control over the space-time continuum, which is why I resent that I do not have access to a remote that allows me to stop, record, pause, fast-forward or rewind life. Perhaps it is for the best. Since the effects of fatherhood are felt for decades after the accumulated micro-events that, when pieced together like a giant mosaic, constitute one’s childhood, what father would not want to do yesterday over again, and better? But what father could? If Roman 7 applies anywhere, it applies to fatherhood.
I digress. My search for the holy grail of websites that would help me to make sense of fatherhood led me here, to ‘The 11 Best Father/Son Activities’…but it was the comments, not the article, that led me to write this post. The comments on the article are both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. They fall neatly into one of two categories…dad was great…dad was awful. Here is an example:
I can only speak from my point of view, but when my father tried to “help” by feigning an interest in my activities, he often came off like a bumbler and a meddler. I can only remember watching him lose his temper attempting to “coach” me in something he had no interest in, and my stomach knots itself in embarrassment for both him and me. All I remember is wishing that this man whom I did not understand and who did not understand me would just go away. He tried, but it would have been better if he hadn’t.
And a happier one:
When I was a freshman in high school my dad and I had a little hauling and salvage business. He provided the pickup truck and I provided the muscle (as much as I could for a 14 year old). We cleaned out garages and basements, collected newspapers, and sold firewood. We were going through some hard times and needed the money, but dad always made sure that I had some “walking around money” at the end of the day. One of the best moments of my life was the first time Dad discussed the price of a job with a customer and then said “Let me talk to my partner about it.” And then he walked over to me and we talked about the price as two businessmen. I learned a lot about reputation and reliability and always doing a little more than the customer expected.
The work was hard and I didn’t make much money, but I helped to put food on the table. Looking back it was fun and it was a good time with my dad.
And here’s one from a father’s perspective:
I did a lot of these things with my son Evan, but today he doesn’t even talk to me, he must take after his Mother!
The subtext is where the real tale is found, that this poor man is still searching the internet for articles about father/son bonding activities even now that his son, Evan, is grown and invested in anything but his father.
There really isn’t a satisfying moral to this story, though it begs to write itself. However, there is an invitation to identify with the rest of humanity, with the brokenness found in people we meet at work and church and the grocery store. There are scads of folks whom you already know whose stories are similar to the ones above…praise God for good fathers, but still, who isn’t trying to paper over some the cracks of their childhood or their fatherhood? Despite knowing these things, I need something more redemptive and substantive than personal experience, introspection or observation to carry me and my son along the long and winding road of fatherhood that stretches out ahead of us.
The gospel is that something which speaks to fathers and sons whose childhood seems little more than a missed opportunity, whose Jeremiads are immortalized in cyberspace rather than shared directly with one another, and whose expectations of one another have gotten the better of them. The gospel offers a good deal more than retrospective commiseration, a means of avoidance, or a list of activities by which to measure the quality of your or your father’s fatherhood.
The gospel is seen in the life and teaching of Jesus, but it is most prominently demonstrated in the cosmic blitzkrieg of the cross. Although the historical event of the cross was so peculiar and terrifying that even those closest to it instinctively ran for their lives and hid, it is actually a means of reconciliation. The convulsive and spasmodic episode of Jesus’ alienation from his own father on the cross is the prelude to our inclusion into the family of God…in my Father’s house are many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you. This is why Christians tell and retell the gospel, and it is obviously why I feel there is nothing that could possibly be more beneficial to fathers and sons than to accept that their family story also begins and ends at the cross. What makes the event and the message of the cross so remarkable is that it is nothing less than a divine pledge that a day awaits us when we shall all be children again…even our fathers.