What is a father?

My Mother and I used to laugh at greeting cards that began: what is a x?

No relationship was so sacred that a card couldn’t make it ludicrous. They were either so over the top, “a mother is an angel in suburbia,” or weirdly negative, “we have never talked much about feelings” that we avoided them.

With apologies to Mom, however, this Father’s Day I feel inspired to list some of what Dad has taught me by word and example. Socrates would point out this list is no definition of Fatherhood and he is, of course, right, but Socrates also knew that a man could pick out a thing without being able to define it.

I cannot fully define a father, but Dad taught me how to pick one out of a crowd of men. It would be better if I had a definition of Fatherhood to avoid tricky mistakes, but Dad’s example is at least a start.

Dad knows.

Dad is a leader and so he values ideas. He is always reading and trying new things, but like any person, it isn’t his store of facts that makes him a great dad. Dad uses what he learns to make a wonderful life.

There is a scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when young George Bailey is in trouble. He sees a sign that says: ask Dad, he knows and goes to ask his father what to do.

His dad cannot give him direct advice that time, but the father has so formed George’s character that it is not really necessary, young George sees his dad acting with integrity and goes and does likewise.

Dad values people over stuff and us over people.

Dad once said to us: “in the culture that is coming, you boys will be fine, but what of those who don’t fit the college mold?” Dad had experienced the practical wisdom of common folks and never ignored anybody.

Not once did Dad ever pressure us to succeed, make money, or become famous. He wanted “two boys who served the Lord” and he meant it.

I never saw Dad do a single thing to make money at the expense of character or another person. He refused to defend himself if it meant hurting ministry and when I failed him, as to my shame I did, he never disowned me.

Dad tells the truth.

He will not promise much, but if he promises, then he will die or do it. He is a man of his word and that is a rare thing,

Dad’s love is safe. It was better and safer to face his wrath than most people’s affections.

I did not know how rare it is to have a Dad who never hit us in anger or abused us in any way, Dad never abdicated his position by using it to do lasting harm. I took it for granted as a kid, but decades of life have taught me better.

Dad is decent and kind. He gets angry and is imperfect, but he never crosses the line.

Dad’s love was limited and appropriate. Dad is loyal, but nobody’s fool.

A god can love without limits, but human roles are more limited. Dad did not try to love us unconditionally as a Dad. We knew there were limits to his role and to his authority, but also that if we chose to live in a pig sty, he would not follow us there.

Dad as a Christian would always love and pray for us, but Dad as Dad would let us go. He let his role change, even diminish, over time and he drew clear lines for us. We knew that we could leave Father’s house and he would let us go. We knew he would let us return, but only if we left the pig sty.

Dad made it clear he was finite and not infinite. More than anything else that pointed me to God. God was like Dad, but more so!

Dad is good, but repents openly when he is not.

Dad is so annoyingly good his faults are hard to name: I know because as teenagers my brother and I tried. When we drew a blank and went to complain to Mom, she left us with: “irritating, isn’t it?”

Still after forty eight years, I know Dad’s faults. They are no shock, because he told them to us and over the years has gotten better. Dad is a better man today than he was when I was a kid.

Dad is in transition.

It is a family joke that when asked about his life Dad can honestly say, “I am in transition.” This is true, because Dad never quits pursuing God. If Dad thought atheism were true, he would throw off fifty years of ministry and do it. If he thinks he should move to Texas, then he will and soon he will enjoy it.

Dad is Bilbo like in his knowledge that the road goes ever on.

Maybe I can propose a definition for fatherhood after all. A true father is the man who best images the masculine aspects of the love of God and then points his children to Him.

Thanks Dad.


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