Tyrone presented the family’s new puppy in for his first exam yesterday, and brought along his son, “To meet me.” I was taken back by this comment, and quickly replied that I was so glad that he had, and then I said something about how I was sure he was glad school was out for the summer. I asked if they had plans for the summer, and Andrew, reaching his hand out for me to shake it, said, “Yes sir, I’m working as a camp counselor at Wadeview Park.”
“Really?” I said, “That’s fantastic. What a great summer job! What kind of a counselor? Will you be teaching, like arts and crafts, or more like a coach, supervising athletics?”
Andrew, who looked to be about 15, respectfully looked me directly in the eye, and said he’d be willing to do whatever they needed, working with the underprivileged kids there. I looked over at his dad, and I said, “Good job, what a great person you’ve raised.”
Tyrone agreed, “He is a really good kid,” but shook his head, claiming none of the credit. But I knew better. If nothing else, he had been present for the boy, and done his best to be a really good man.
What makes some fathers step up and be “Dad,” and others walk away or stay around, but not really be “present,” is such an important question. What, in fact, is a “good father?”
Do you have to be perfect, never letting your shield down to reveal your human-ness? Should you lay down the law, and be the disciplinarian (because you used to be so wild and get into so much trouble). Or should you strive to be their best friend, letting them drink beer and smoke weed, high five-ing over last night’s “conquest,” and providing the latest and greatest toys?
I’ve seen both extremes. I’ve been both extremes. OK, not really so much the last one, although at some level, I really wish I could have been “closer” as a friend to all five of my kids. But we don’t get any do-overs. A priest at Whitehouse retreat in St. Louis once told me:
We are (and more specifically, that I am) much too hard on ourselves. “The world only has one Messiah, and you (thankfully and most assuredly) are not Him. You are not perfect. You are the way God made you – imperfect, but with the heartfelt longing to be as good as you can. And that’s good. But you can’t go back and do things differently, with all your new-found wisdom. Didn’t you always act out of love? Didn’t you always do what you thought was the best at that time?”
Yeah but nothing. By continuing to add that qualifier, Yeah, but…, you deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer, the one who makes all things new again. We must strive to accept Him as our redeemer, and allow ourselves to be human. You are how you are, and its so much better to accept that. We are called to always strive to be better, even perfect, and we must try, day after day. But we’ll never be perfect. Not on this Earth.
You are made of blood and bones, breath and vapor. You are the product of the genetics He orchestrated, and that imperfect nurturing from your parents, or lack of them. Let Jesus carry the cross, you have plenty of other things to do. As the song goes, “He is God, and you are not.”
A lifetime ago, I was doing everything I could possibly do to save my first marriage. So in our first session with the marriage counselor, I proudly puffed out my chest and said I’d do anything to save the marriage, that divorce absolutely, positively was not an option. Less than two months later, he was just as positive that it was the only option. But we should continue on, to counsel with him, so we could be “better,” and so that we’d not keep “making the same mistakes” (presumably in our next attempts at a relationship).
And so, right out of his Gestalt theory textbook, the family therapist (sic) had me pacing around the psychologist’s office, shouting at my father, “seated” in the empty chair “What I really felt! What I needed so badly to tell him!” When I couldn’t come up with enough garbage to dump on him, I was goaded and prodded, “Tell him about all those little league games, band concerts, award presentations, and wrestling matches! Tell him he should have been there!” I continued to pace in silence. “But shouldn’t I be shouting at his father?”
He looked at me like a deer in the headlights, “You’re enabling him, you’re giving him excuses, he wasn’t present!”
“Can’t I just forgive him?”
“This will help you do that, you’ve got to put the blame on him!”
“But it’s not his fault. I think he did the best he could do.”
I don’t think I went back to Dr. Tony after that session.
And so this father’s day I had much to reflect on. And even more to let go of. If I can let the old man off the hook, shouldn’t I do the same for myself? It was a chair I’d sit in too soon myself.
There are consequences to sins, and since we are social creatures, such consequences often impact others, including within the family and subsequent generations. I think this is called Generational Sin. The concept, I’d suppose originated with the “original Adam,” whose act of rebellion and disobedience resulted in our sinful nature, not coincidentally coined “original sin.”
Regardless of whether or not you buy into the whole Christian creation story, it’s a striking allegory. Clearly, something happened along the lines of (I’d maintain, “designed”) human evolution and development where we as a species developed a sinful nature. As a reasonably intelligent science based professional, I know of no other “creation” with the the willingness, or even the ability to choose to do evil. And somewhere, somehow, we made the first act of defiance; Our greatest gift became our greatest curse. Free will spawned original sin.
But God does not hold children, or present generations, morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. This is clearly laid out in Holy Scripture when the Israelites were blaming their troubles on the sins of their forefathers (see Jer 23:5-6, and Ez, 18:1-4).
Indeed, we need to look into our own hearts and repent so that we can find (and give) our own forgiveness and healing. God is surely not so unjust as to force children to “pay” in justice for the sins of others.
On the other hand, it is also true to say that the sins of our ancestors — right back to those “first parents,” do affect our lives today and leave us inheriting some pretty heavy baggage to carry around. With each passing day and event, I’m more convinced that we are connected by that “red thread,” or what ever you would call Providence, so that we can and do suffer both spiritually and bodily from the sins of others. We may think this unfair, but remember that the interdependence of the human race is also the source of most of our highest blessings, for example, the solidarity and intimacy of family life and the communion of love with all of us as brothers and sisters.
To make such supreme blessings possible to creatures with free will like us, our creator also had to permit us to misuse that freedom and interdependence, with all its tragic results.
This “interdependence” of the human race also means that the sins of ancestors and parents can affect us in other, more subtle ways. For example, some destructive conditions (such as alcoholism, depression, and hair-trigger tempers) can be passed down to us by genetic inheritance.
Moreover, the problems of our immediate parents and grandparents can be passed down to us in other ways, too. If they set a bad moral examples for us as, sadly, people tend to do from generation to generation, or if they abused us or failed to give us the love we needed when we are growing up. In such instances, we can become “saddled” with emotional and developmental scars.
For instance, if we weren’t given the love we needed as children, we may spend our lives struggling to learn how to love others and ourselves. This does not make them fully “responsible” for our sins and all our problems today, of course, and we have the responsibility to take action to find healing for these generational wounds ourselves.
Furthermore, in a concept known as transference, we tend to see God the father much as we have had that model of fatherhood displayed by our own father. If our’s was not forgiving, compassionate, and capable of unconditional love, it is extremely difficult to understand that our heavenly Father could behave in ways like this. And how could we believe selflessness and unconditional love even exist, if we reject that Jesus came to show us that very thing? St. Paul says Jesus brought this undeserved grace to the world as the “second Adam.” (Romans 5:12-21).
We did nothing prior to our conception to warrant or deserve original sin. Likewise, Christians believe we do nothing to “deserve” this Grace that Jesus brings. But we must accept it, we must open the door He’s been pounding on. We must forgive, and accept His forgiveness, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus the Christ came and suffered to show us how to love, what unconditional, undeserved love is. When people fail to fully receive that gift from Him, through repentance and faith — i.e., if their contrition for sin and love for God was “half-hearted” in this life — then they remain in partial debt to God (still owing for, in theological jargon, “the temporal aspect of sin”).
In His parable of the prodigal son, Jesus used the image of a family to teach us God’s love. The “younger son” could not wait – and in demanding his inheritance, he effectively wished for a dead father, or at a minimum, felt that he was “dead to him.” The only way for the father to allow his son to really learn to love was to allow him that free choice. We all know how it ends, with the father’s unconditional love allowing the prodigal to return, but we often miss two points.
Is the father angry only grudgingly allowing this man to return? No! In fact, from what Jesus describes, this father daily peers into the horizon, hoping to get a glimpse of his returning son! After all, he still loves his son! In tears, he runs to welcome him home!
Although we play both of these character roles during our respective lives, it’s a harder concept for us to accept that more often than not we’re the other son, the good child. Too many times, I shout up at Him, “You’re not being fair! I do what you ask of me. I go to church. I believe in you. I play by the rules! And yet you allow this to happen to me? Yet I look around at other “prodigals” (from outward appearances) who have so much success and happiness. Ouch. The mirror is seldom a pain-free zone.
I was blessed to have a wonderful father. He was not perfect. He had his many faults. He didn’t lose his temper often, but when he did, I was sad and sometimes afraid and, now looking back, very disappointed, because I wanted our home to be “perfect.” Of course, it couldn’t be. But I knew absolutely, without a doubt, that my father loved me, and that he loved my children, and we were all blessed that he could show my oldest three just how much he loved them.
What is your story? Many of you have the vocation of fatherhood. Do unresolved issues with your own father or mother hinder your acceptance of God’s unconditional love? Do they cause you to have a negative relationship with your children? Do not let these keep you from experiencing the Father’s ever-faithful love.
Perhaps some among us desire to reconcile with our earthly father. We will need God’s grace either to ask our father to forgive us or to tell him that he is forgiven. If our fathers are already deceased, we can still do this, with or without the empty chair.
The prodigal son believes that his father will take him back, even if just as a lowly hired hand. Jesus paints a brighter picture: The father loves so much that he puts a ring on the son’s finger and kills the fatted calf.
We must believe that Our Father in heaven will do the same for us if only we go back to Our Loving Father. Pope Francis keeps reminding us: “God never tires of forgiving; we are the ones who tire of seeking His mercy” (cf. “Joy of the Gospel,” No.3).
The elder brother stands in the shadows with resentment and judgment, perpetuating his own cycle. But Michelangelo paints it so very clearly: We see how the cycle is broken: The prodigal son is on his knees, asking for forgiveness. We break the cycle on our knees.
After all, we cannot help our sons become the men they need to be until we allow ourselves to return to the Father. We cannot help our daughters become the women they need to be until we enter into the kind of relationship which Jesus invites us to experience. Husbands here today cannot be the husbands they need to be if they are not coming before the Father like the prodigal son.
Thank you for this excellent post on fatherhood. Thank you too for showing interest in the 15-year-old boy when his dad brought him to meet you. I know it made a big difference for both the boy and his dad.