The Repatriation of Father

Stephen Lownes
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
May/Jun 2005

To solve the problem of fatherlessness in our churches, we must begin by understanding that dads are not just little boys who have run away to play hide and seek. It is far more dire than that for both the absent fathers and the church which has chased them off. In the broader culture, many fathers have been pushed into passive, invisible roles by the media. And the church has not stood against this. When the church does support the father’s involvement in the family, it is often as a second mom. The church would not do this if it understood the importance of the father to belonging. As Dr. Rod Rosenbladt has often said, “Fathers are far more important than you and I know.” Our earthly fathers bring us a sense of belonging. If we do not understand what a good father does, will we truly understand what the Bible means when it speaks of God as our Heavenly Father?

In his book, Father Presence: The Obscure Voice of Empathy, Paul Fairweather says, “fatherlessness is an illness.” With fatherlessness we lose a sense of belonging or the sense that we need to belong. Fairweather goes on to point out that the father gives the child meaning. He gives the child a context for who he is and to whom he belongs. In my work as a therapist I have seen the evidence for Fairweather’s thesis borne out. I have found that we treat others and ourselves as if we don’t belong together. There is a non-connection, as if we aren’t in the right place, we don’t fit in, fit together, or feel right. We do not connect in relationships meaningfully. There is little capacity to empathize with one another. We lose the motivation to bond to and with others. We lose ourselves and it is due ultimately to the lack of father in our lives.

One research study from ten years ago focused on adolescent bull elephants in Africa that had become quite violent. They were ravaging the countryside, killing and destroying everything in sight. After some study, scientists realized that there were no adult bull elephants to help socialize these adolescents. When the adolescent elephants were moved to a herd with mature bull elephants, the adolescents began to calm down and become socialized. It’s an interesting correlation to our own problems of fatherlessness.

I have found that Fairweather’s theory of the father’s role in giving a context for bonding and connection is especially true within the church, which is often as guilty as society-at-large for chasing fathers out of our lives. A number of my church-referred clients seem to have no connection with or to their families. Through a “genogram,” a picture of the family and their relationships, I find that many of my clients know very little about their own parents and the siblings they say they are close to. Some don’t know what their own mothers and fathers do for a living. They don’t know birthdays or ages or to whom their siblings are married. I notice how estranged they are from their family members. A unifying factor among these cases is a glaring lack of a father’s presence and closeness in their lives. Their fathers have been absent, dead, drunk, abusive, or so passive they may as well be absent.

I should remind you that this rehearsal of societal breakdown is not being presented so that you can go through all the mental machinations of “Oh, if only I had called my sister and asked her more questions,” or “I should have listened to more stories from my great aunt Fanny,” or “If I had just done so-and-so…” It isn’t about whether you should or shouldn’t have done more. It’s not a matter of law; it’s a matter of a gift and the gift is that we need the Father as well as masculine fathers! With them comes the belonging we need. Without them, it is no surprise that we don’t do the things people do when they belong.

For a long time I believed in the culture’s dictum and the church’s not so subtle message that my child didn’t really need me. That he didn’t need his father but he needs his mother. Fortunately, my son and I were rescued by a small group of men who gather on Saturday nights. Dr. Rosenbladt and Dr. Fairweather are the authors of that rescue. They helped me understand just how important my role was and is in my child’s life. I am one of the lucky single fathers because my ex-wife knows the importance of fathers. My son will grow up belonging and connected.

Other fathers and their children are not so lucky. Fathers are told to be more like mom or they are pushed to be invisible. They no longer show up-anywhere, not even in church! I was talking recently to a pastor who shakes his head because fathers aren’t teaching their children the Scriptures anymore.

The church has bought into a feminine mystique to be more popular with the broader culture. It has done so at the expense of belonging. It used to teach the catechism, beginning with “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Now there is no beginning. It is all a muddled middle of disconnected suggestions. We get seven highly enlightened ways to be a more sensitive loving father or sixty-seven days to becoming the husband you ought to be or twelve steps to being the perfect husband, father, or employee. (Don’t laugh, there are such pamphlets.) Sound familiar? How about being told you have to do more work in the church? Serve on more committees? How about attending all those seminars about keeping promises? “So, how is your spiritual walk?” This is law and it’s bad law at that. Its connection with the Scriptures is usually an afterthought.

The gospel of the Father gets thrown out and the parishioners are slammed with this new law by our preachers, “Christian” radio guys, and peers who are trying to be perfect and recruit every other guy around them to be perfect. No gospel is given for when we do break things in our sinfulness. Generally, we are pushed aside or “encouraged in Christian love” to comply and be more “Christ-like.”

When I have attended churches, Bible studies, small groups, and accountability groups, I have never felt like I belonged. My question to myself after attending was always about how I could do better what I was already doing wrong, or what did I do wrong? It was always a feeling that I had to appear better than I was; otherwise I would be ostracized from the group. There was no sense of belonging. Just last month I was told that I wasn’t happy enough and that I should have more joy in my life. The man who made this diagnosis, of course, said he would give me the steps to having more joy. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I knew that what was coming wasn’t going to be gospel.

Even when the church allows men to gather apart from women, fatherlessness is evident. It’s interesting to watch the interactions of some of the men’s retreats I’ve been to. All day the men sit in a class and are taught how to be “godly” and “Christ-like” and then when they are released for “free time,” the basketball court or field becomes the place where the kind of fierceness you get from having no father is expressed. It becomes mean, violent, and hidden in a way that is natural (given the lack of father in the class, the containment in the room, and the religious curriculum they had been subjected to all day). It is my observation, and this holds for both men and women, that the nicer, sweeter, or more syrupy a person is, the more enraged or angry they are. The more men cover up their fierceness the more dangerous they become. There is, of course, a good, healthy danger. But this isn’t it. Instead, it becomes a backstabbing, dark, and evil danger. There is no sense of connection, bonding, or belonging. They are out to rip each other’s heads off. They have reverted to the state of the unfathered elephants. There is no gospel.

So what do I mean by gospel? I think George Strait puts it well in his song “Love Without End, Amen.” It’s a father telling his son about a secret. It was a secret that God the Father shared with all of us.

Last night I dreamed I died and stood outside those pearly gates.
When suddenly I realized there must be some mistake.
If they know half the things I’ve done, they’ll never let me in.
And then somewhere from the other side I heard these words again.

And he said, let me tell you a secret about a father’s love,
A secret that my daddy said was just between us.
He said, daddies don’t just love their children every now and then.
It’s a love without end, amen, it’s a love without end, amen.

The gospel in J. R. R. Tolkien’s terms is the “Eucatastrophe.” It is that moment when all is lost and you have nowhere to turn. You know you are doomed and suddenly the cavalry comes rushing in to save the day. It is walking up to my father knowing I’ve really blown it big and finding that, instead of judgment, he brings out his best rings and robes, kills the fatted calf, and throws Me a party. It is standing before God the Father knowing just how broken and undeserving I am-facing the flames of hell-and seeing Jesus step in and say, “No, you are Mine; you belong with Me.”

This is the message that our churches need to recover and proclaim to fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. As the message of the gospel is proclaimed, churches need to courteously and respectfully invite dad back into the picture. We have to invite him to move forward from the back of the bus. Or, maybe we need to let him get off that bus entirely and choose between a Harley-Davidson or a wild stallion. We will let father know that we are not going to try to tame him with the law. We will tell him that it is good to be free and masculine. We will let him run his family as the priest of his home and the church will participate by preaching the Word, serving the body and blood of Jesus, and baptizing infants and converts.

We have to let masculinity find its proper place in our churches. In order for that to happen, we must lead our churches out of the feminine matrix that we have adopted. Letting masculinity find its place means that we stop sanding the rough edges off the role of father. We let men feel strongly about things. Who knows, maybe the church will begin to feel strongly about things again, too. We must stop insisting that our men sing romantic love songs more appropriate for a night club and allow them to sing about a masculine God by recovering hymns that speak of the Father’s strength and rescue of his creation.

If Fairweather is right, and I believe he is, then there is a chance that dad will begin to bind the family together and so also bind the church together. It may be too late for society, but it’s not too late for the church. If the church recovers its belief in the importance of the father’s role, it may also find that its own ranks are strengthened, that cohesiveness and belonging are rediscovered, and its the gospel is recovered from the ruins of the law.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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