This Sunday will be the first Father’s Day since my dad passed away. As the day approaches, I find myself facing fresh grief, but also feeling fresh gratitude. I wish I’d had more time with him, but I’m also aware that not everyone gets a dad like mine. He was imperfect, but he was good. When we’re young we tend to zero in on our parent’s flaws, because we think we don’t have that many of our own. Eventually we come to see just how difficult this parenting thing really is. It exposes us all for the selfish and sinful people we are.
But what I remember most often now is how much my dad loved us and how hard he tried. And being in the “dad trenches” myself, I find myself leaning on his example. Much of what I learned from him he never said out loud, and I think that’s how good dads often operate. When it comes to parenting, often more is caught than is taught, as the old expression goes.
When I think of the task of parenting, I often think of it like building the frame for a house. Each saying, each principle, every aspect of our example, is like a nail that helps hold the pieces of the frame together. We can either build a structure that is sloppy, ugly, and rough, or we can fashion a frame that is carefully crafted and beautifully designed, a structure on which our kids can build a life pleasing to the Lord.
In the final analysis, when I think of my dad, I see now how he hammered on a handful of good nails until they were driven in deeply. He didn’t need a box of 1,000 nails, because the ones he used provided stability to the entire frame. He helped my brothers and me to build a basic structure for our lives, and then he let each of us plaster our walls, paint the rooms, and furnish the house according to our own strengths and interests. I think that’s what a good dad does: He sets up a basic frame that his kids will need in order to become who God wants them to be.
Below are a few of the nails my dad hit repeatedly – the things he said to us and showed us — that I hope to drive into my own kids’ hearts, as well. I pray I’ll say these things often, both with my words and my actions:
“I love you.” Too many fathers never say those three words to their kids, either because they have some misunderstanding of what it means to be a real man, or because they’re just too embarrassed to express what they feel. My dad said those words to me often, even on days we weren’t getting along. If you’re a dad, say them to your kids often. Not every day, but many times a day. Don’t just assume they already know it. Your love should be a constant, a stable presence that they can rely upon.
“God loves you.” From the time I was young, my dad told me about God’s love. He told me how God loved me so much that Jesus died in my place. Because my dad’s relationship with his own father was complex and difficult, I think he sometimes struggled to understand God’s fatherly love. As he constantly reminded his children of God’s love, though, I think Dad came to understand it better and to trust it more fully. You don’t have to be a theologian to teach your kids the most important reality about God: He loves them and He gave His Son to save them. They should hear it from us fathers first, and they should hear it often.
“I’m so proud of you.” Many of my most cherished memories of my dad are those times he would look me in the eyes and say something to the effect of, “Matt, I am so proud of you. You are a good and patient dad. You are a good pastor. You are making an impact in this world.” No matter how old we get, and no matter how much we might act like we don’t care, we all want to know that our dad is proud of us. Tell your kids you’re proud, not only of what they’ve done but of who they are. Be proud of their grades or their sports accomplishments, but also of their character and their kindness.
“Hard work pays off.” This is one of those principles that my dad practiced as much as he preached. He took his work seriously, and he aimed to do his best. He made it clear to us that laziness wouldn’t cut it in his house. I can remember mowing the grass, only for my dad to decide that the lawn didn’t pass his inspection. If he found that I’d cut corners, literally or figuratively, he would make me go back and finish the job properly (even if I’d already taken a shower). Dad knew that hard work is a necessary component of a meaningful and successful life, and he made sure we understood that, as well. Hard work is value worth teaching to our kids, even when they resist it.
“Truth is worth fighting for.” My dad hated social media, but he loved a good debate. If you ever got into a philosophical or theological tussle with him, he might call your views “foolish” or even “cowardly.” But when the argument was over, he’d buy you dinner and an expensive bottle of wine. He believed that absolute truth existed, that it was found in God’s Word, and that it was worth defending. At the same time, he wasn’t afraid to change his perspective if somebody proved him wrong. He taught us that the truth isn’t something to fear, but something to seek. And once you find it, it’s worth fighting for, even if it costs you. Every kid should come to understand that truth is better than popularity. It’s even better than money and prestige, because it lasts a whole lot longer.
“Never stop learning.” This is a corollary of the previous principle, but Dad believed that there was always more to learn. He viewed stagnation as a sort of premature brain-death. Not only did he read voraciously, but he constantly asked questions of people. He had an insatiable curiosity, and as a result, he had a seemingly inexhaustible well of knowledge about nearly every subject under the sun. We learned from him that there’s always more to learn. He was even willing to learn from his sons if we had something interesting to tell him. Dads, we can show our kids that learning isn’t a chore, but a privilege. And it doesn’t end when we graduate from school. Just as hard work is necessary component of success, so is the willingness to admit that you don’t know everything and you still have a lot to learn.
“Don’t give up.” When he was only 53, my father was diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal form of prostate cancer. He was originally told that he only had about 5 years to live. He lived for 17. While his survival was largely due to God’s kindness, he also refused to give up too quickly. He fought the cancer until he simply couldn’t anymore. But he lived long enough to meet all of his grandkids. He once told me, “The final lesson a dad teaches his children is how to die well.” And he did. He was unafraid, because he knew would be with Jesus. But he was also no quitter. That was true of him throughout his entire life. Like every father, he had seasons in which it would’ve been easier to quit – on his kids, on his marriage, on his career, and on his faith. But he finished the race and he finished it faithfully. Dads, we have a precious opportunity to show our children what it looks like to finish well. Faithfulness matters. Keeping our commitments matters, even when it’s easier to quit. “Do not grow weary of doing good,” Paul told the Galatians. “For in due time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Keep loving your wife and your kids, and keep following Jesus. And tell your kids that it’s worth running the race to the end, even when you’re limping and tired and longing to quit.
“It’s OK to laugh.” For my dad’s obituary, we chose a photo that my wife Shannon took on an ordinary afternoon at his house (you can see it above). He’s wearing a blue t-shirt and his hair is illuminated by the sunlight streaming in from the window behind him. The most striking thing about the image, however, is that he’s laughing. Shannon caught him right in the middle of reacting to some comment or joke that clearly amused him. I can almost hear his laughter coming from the photograph. My dad took many things seriously: his faith, his work, the truth, and his commitments. But he didn’t take himself too seriously. He taught us that it’s alright to enjoy yourself, even though life can be hard. Even during his final days, while he struggled to breath and we knew the end was near, he would smile and chuckle as we talked with him. He knew that life is a gift, and it’s alright to laugh, even in the face of darkness and uncertainty. In fact, laughter and joy are necessary for our survival. So dads, tell your kids those goofy dad-jokes this week, and laugh as they groan. Tickle them, wrestle with them, and let them tease you a bit. Teach them that life is a gift, and it’s full of joy as well as suffering. Don’t be afraid to throw back your head and laugh with them.
No house is constructed in a day. Nail by nail, board by board, we create a structure on which our kids will build their lives. What are the nails we’re hammering into their hearts and minds? What will the frame look like when they have to press on without us? What will they pass along to their kids and grandkids that they learned first from us?