“I’m gonna watch you shine Gonna watch you grow Gonna paint a sign So you’ll always know As long as one and one is two There could never be a father Who loved his daughter more than I love you.” [Paul Simon]
“father of mine tell me where have you been i just closed my eyes and the world disappeared father of mine tell me how do you sleep with the children you abandoned and the wife i saw you beat.” [Everclear]
The recent outpouring of grief for the late Pope John Paul II was unprecedented. I am sure there were many reasons why this was so. John Paul II was credited with helping to bring the Cold War to a peaceful end. He was the head of the worldwide Roman Catholic communion. And in a media age, everyone with access to a TV or a computer can feel like a participant in events far away.
I have another theory as to why there is so much grief at his passing. For many, he represented the father they never had. They wept because their virtual father had died.
Where have all the fathers gone?
*Some have been lost to AIDS or to war.
*Some have been lost because of divorce. When a family breaks up the children normally end up with the mother.
*Some have been lost to the new economy. Dads work until 10 pm or later and when they come home the kids are already in bed. Some have to move away from the family to find work.
*Some have been lost to the cultural gulf because parents function basically from a modern paradigm, while their kids are growing up in a post modern milieu. (This gap between the young and the old is of course a perennial experience but exacerbated because of the rapid changes in modern culture.)
Because of these and other reasons, we are living in a world where many are growing up without fathers.
Yet children need both mothers and fathers. This is how we are hot wired. We all need the love, affirmation, approval, and encouragement that a father provides. Paul gives us some idea of what a father can do when he talks about his own role as a spiritual father:
“For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” [1 Thessalonians 2: 11-12 TNIV]
Which is why the absence of fathers can lead to disastrous consequences. Charles Colson tells us that:
“Boys who grow up without fathers are at least twice as likely as other boys to end up in prison, Sixty percent of rapists and 72 percent of adolescent murderers never knew or lived with their fathers.” [Christianity Today, June 2004, 72]
His stats may be based on studies in the US but they are indicative enough of the critical role of fathers.
What can the Christian community do?
The first step is for fathers to play their roles. We can’t turn back the clock. The time crunch will continue to be there. But we can ask, how much money do we really need? How many hours do I really need to work? If I can’t be the ideal father, what can I do to be a responsible one?
Children do spell love t-i-m-e. And they need dad’s time as well as mum’s. And nurturing a child cannot be completely farmed out to the church and to Sunday school teachers.
There is a whole generation of children from Christian families who are questioning their Christian heritage because the only time they heard about God was in church. They never had a chance to see their parents integrate their faith into their lives.
Some of these families are from highly active churches that required that their members be active in church programmes. As a result, not only did members have little time and energy to be with their children, they also had little time to think through the implications of their faith for their lives. This has to change. The stakes are high.
Encouraging fathers to invest time to nurture their children will not be easy. I was terrified of playing the role of a father till I became a single father. It took me a long time to grow as an involved father. Now, when I look at my two boys, I am glad I did.
But clearly, activating the fathers in our communities will not be enough since many families do not have fathers to begin with. The church must begin to see itself as an extended spiritual family, which indeed it is. The men of the church will need to be surrogate spiritual fathers, uncles, older brothers etc.,
Unfortunately, the Christian education ministry seems to attract more women than men. For some reason, Sunday school teaching doesn’t quite sound masculine enough. Maybe we need to think in terms of disciplers and mentors. (Or spiritual masters and their padawans? Hmm? maybe not.)
Or maybe the way we presently do Sunday school is not sufficient. We may need to do a major rethink as to how we spiritually nurture our young, and how the men in the community can be involved. We need to see how men and women can provide spiritual mentoring in a variety of ways.
The first step however is to recognize how critical the issue is. Not only does the missing father phenomena lead to potentially horrendous social consequences, it may also jeopardize our ability to understand the nature of God.
Will the world, and our own children, be really able to understand what we say when we say that God desires to relate to them as a father if increasingly people have very little contact with a “father.” Thank God Jesus came to reveal to us what the Father really is like. [John 14:9] But the presence of loving fathers do help us understand the idea of a loving heavenly Father.
Therefore now is the time for the men of Jesus to be the masculine “encouragers, comforters, and urgers (leaders)” they were meant to be [1 Thessalonians 2:11-12]. And they need to be this both in the church and in society.
Pope John Paul II may have been the virtual father of many. But people need a father they can hug. And who will hug them. Now is the time.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan