Men and their Fathers

 One of my favorite pieces of art is a linoleum print by New Mexico artist Jack McCarthy, entitled “A Walk with Dad.”  Based on the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, it portrays a frightened Isaac held and muzzled by his father, a knife poised for the sacrifice.  Only the one eye betrays Isaac’s fear.  Abraham’s expression is without emotion.

Over the years my conversations with men have convinced me that there may be no relationship that exercises greater influence on men than their relationship with their fathers.  Deep into adulthood, that early and influential relationship can determine the choices we make.

The engine can vary, whether it lies in the behavior of a son or it lies in the behavior of the father:

  • a son’s conformity or rebellion
  • a father’s absence or presence
  • a relationship governed by life-giving guidance or overbearing control — gentle care or cruel mistreatment
  • a journey into adulthood marked by freedom and maturity nurtured — or control and permission giving that stifles the journey

In telling the story, McCarthy challenges us to think about this seminal Old Testament story from a different point of view than the one that typically shapes the way we read it.  Historically the discussion of this story has focused on the nature of God’s demand and the test that Abraham faced.  The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard describes the story as one that distinguishes between actions that are ethically and religiously right — between resignation and faith.

McCarthy’s image takes us to another level in the story and one that original writer did not contemplate:

  • What was Isaac’s relationship with his father?
  • How deeply did he understand his father’s faith?
  • Did Abraham confide in Isaac?

McCarthy’s image suggests the possibility that Abraham’s faith and behavior were less than transparent to his son — his relationship with Isaac thread through with unknowns and fears.  That may or may not have been the case.  McCarthy may or may not have meant for us to get that out of his retelling of the story.  But I keep a print of McCarthy’s work in our library to remind me of how deeply we all struggle with the inheritance of our relationships with our parents.

Some things to remember:

  • Honesty, love, trust, and conversation are essential to life-giving relationships.
  • Where we have been denied those gifts, it is important to remember that the relationships we have had with our parents can be just as influential as positive relationships.
  • When we simply rebel and rebel blindly a difficult relationship with our parents has the potential for exercising destructive power over our lives.
  • When that happens, surfacing the history and weighing it with spiritual maturity is the only key to freedom and health.
  • If your parents have blessed you with a life-giving relationship, pass it on.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.


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