Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wisdom from two fathers

My father taught me many good things, but one of the most valuable was the day he sat me down and explained that he wasn't really my father.

He was just my biological father, he explained, and that didn't count for much. My real Father was my Father in Heaven, and it was His love that gave the life that really mattered. The biological life my earthly father gave me would run out in at most 80 or 90 years, possibly much less, while the life that my Heavenly Father could bestow would last forever. My Heavenly Father was the source and supply of all good things in my life, and the most loving thing my earthly father could do was put me in touch with my Heavenly Father.

(For the record, my mother totally agreed with this, and reinforced what my father said.)

This is a lesson I remembered, and passed along to my children in turn. And helpful as the lesson was to me when I was young (once I eventually learned it), the it was even more helpful when I had children of my own. It helped me keep my task in perspective: my role as father was important, but ultimately I was merely their earthly father, and the most important thing I could do was put my children in touch with their heavenly father.

Another bit of fatherly advice I got was from a kind evangelical gentleman with whom I became acquainted toward the end of my Coast Guard years. I hung out with his two sons, so he sort of took me under his fatherly wing. One time he was talking about principles that guided his raising of his sons, and I've never forgotten it.

He told me that when he had to discipline his sons, especially as they approached adulthood, he made clear to them that they were only under his authority for a short period. As their earthly father he had responsibility for them for a while, but in time they would pass out from under his authority and be directly responsible to their Heavenly Father. His tutelage over them was like "training wheels", to get them accustomed to fatherly discipline, but the day would come when it would end.

Because of this, his discipline was not arbitrary: he didn't just order them to do this or not do that because of what he felt like, but because he wanted them to get used to being responsible to their Real Father. He also made clear that even just because he, the father, didn't have an earthly father ordering him around, that didn't mean that he could just do as he pleased - he was directly responsible to his Heavenly Father, as his sons soon would be.

This helped me clarify my task as a parent. When we have children under our control, it can be very tempting to exercise power arbitrarily. Raising children is troublesome, and sometimes the easiest immediate path is to say "no". Also, life can be difficult and even abusive, and it's tempting to lash out in frustration. Since we can't lash out at our boss or the grocery store clerk, we're tempted to lash out at those over whom we have power: our children. Whenever those responses tempted me, I remembered my friend's lesson that his fatherly authority was not arbitrary, but entrusted to him by Someone Else, to whom he would be responsible for its use. It was useful ballast to keep in mind that my parental authority was temporary and provisional, and the goal of its exercise was to get my children to a point where they could step out from beneath it and be directly responsible to their Real Father.

I'm immensely grateful for the wisdom of the fathers in my life, both my biological father and my fathers in the Church. Their advice helped me, and I only hope it helps others.