On Being a Father

It’s Fathers’ Day. …And it makes me ponder my experience of being a Dad.

I love being a parent. But it’s not for the faint of heart. It takes time, energy, patience, attentiveness, love, creativity, constant adaptation, grace, and a whole lot of work. And it totally changes you, in ways you can neither predict nor expect.

In a podcast my wife recently listened to, pediatric doctor Hope Seidel compares parenting to planting seeds that come from unmarked, unidentified bags. You have no idea what will grow–and even less what it will look and be like. You might have high hopes for tomatoes, but end up with cilantro. You might hope for something hardy like marigolds, but end up with delicate and prickly roses. No matter the work you put in, you have remarkably little control over what grows and blooms.

This Spring, my wife asked me to buy some flower seeds for our garden. I picked out some whose packaging looked pretty. When I brought them home, my wife said: “You bought those? Do you know tall and massive those things get?” Truthfully, I didn’t have a clue. They just looked pretty. I had no idea what I was signing us up for. …Parenting can be a lot like that. It’s inevitably a signing up for things far beyond what we envision and can control.

In scripture, God has challenging experiences in “parenting.” God laments how God’s people turn out–how they forget God’s teachings, harm their neighbors, and ultimately forget who they are (e.g., Hosea 11:1-11). Once God even tries to start over again (Genesis 6:1-8:22), but it doesn’t change this pattern. Even when God came among us in the flesh (Christ), human beings did not welcome him readily and willingly. In fact, quite the opposite. …Throughout scripture, God’s people neither act nor turn out the way God would hope. Nonetheless, God in Christ never gives up on them, nor on us.

Comparably, I am learning this season of life that a huge part of parenting—at least for me—is letting go of unhelpful expectations. We all have expectations–for our children, our families, and our lives. But like seeds, few things we plant turn out the way we hope. And where we let go, to embrace with love, grace happens.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the problems of a “wish dream” when it comes to Christian community. We come often to experiences of community with unrealistic and unhelpful ideals for how others should be. As a result, we become disappointed: “when [our] ideal picture is destroyed…, [we] become first an accuser of [our] siblings, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of [ourselves]” (Life Together, p. 18).

I am guilty of holding onto “wish dreams” for my kids. I have ideals for their hobbies, their pursuits, and their interests. Most of these ideals are reflections of me: I hope they will like and pursue things that I like. Sometimes it happens. Many times it doesn’t. But as Bonhoeffer points out in Life Together, we are called to enter Christian community–including community within our families–“not as demanders but as thankful recipients” (p. 18). God has given us a profound gift in those with whom we live and are family. It’s not always (or often) pretty. But there is beauty, grace, and wonder nonetheless.

I am not the father I thought I would be fifteen years ago. Because my kids are not precisely whom I expected. And our kids change us. But I’m not a father in the abstract–only in relationship to specific people. In other words, I’m a father only in relationship specifically to several specific human beings. And like it or not, I am the father they have made me to be.

Being a parent isn’t for the faint of heart. But it’s the kind of thing God does with and for us all the time. And so my calling is to love those given to me just as God has loved me–with an immense amount of grace.

“But God proves God’s love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Citation: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Trans. John W. Doberstein. London: SCM Press, 1949.