In this month’s Marriage Partnership magazine, Jamie Bartlett relates a story about how—even as an adult—her father continues to teach her important life’s lessons.
Married but a short few months, Jamie had what she called “a major argument” with her husband, Mike. In a fit of rage, Jamie stormed out of the house and onto the back porch to call her parents in Michigan. As Jamie dialed her parents’ telephone number, she envisioned in her mind that she would them that she’d be on the first flight out of Philadelphia. Of course, her parents would take their daughter’s side in the marital dispute and say, “Of course, honey! Come home!”
The actual telephone conversation didn’t quite go the way Jamie envisioned, however. Her father told Jamie that coming home was not an option. “I’m sorry, Jamie,” her father said, “but if I allowed you to come home, I’d be interfering in what God is trying to teach you.”
“But I hate it here!” Jamie exclaimed. “You’ve never told me I couldn’t come home! Why are you being so unfair?” she demanded.
“Jamie, your gut reaction has always been to bail when things get difficult,” her father replied. “Your marriage vows were for better or worse, until death do you part. I know you didn’t think the ‘for worse’ part was going to come so soon, but it did, and you need to learn how to deal with it. You’re not welcome in our home under these circumstances. You need to work out things with Mike.”
With his daughter sobbing at this all too sudden reversal in her expectations, Jamie’s father continued: “I love you, and that’s why I can't let you come home. I’d be hindering what God wants to do in your marriage….You’re equally at fault in the argument you just had. Now go back inside and apologize.”
“Thanks a lot, Dad,” Jamie said sarcastically.
After the conversation ended, Jamie reported that she started crying, but these weren’t tears of sadness at being rejected by her father. These were tears of joy! “How could this be?” she wondered. It suddenly dawned upon Jamie that she had a father who knew what was best for his daughter and would tell her what was best for her but, in the process, would point her to God no matter how Jamie might feel or react.
The tears of joy carried with them an awareness at the way Jamie had treated her husband and feelings of humiliation for doing so. That’s when Jamie decided to go back inside the house and apologize for her behavior. Once inside, however, Jamie broke down in tears and it took a bit of time but Jamie explained the phone conversation she’d just had with her father. “I’m sorry I turned to my parents, instead of to you,” Jamie said. “From now on I promise I won’t try to run home when things between us get tough.”
Jamie is a lucky child because some 25 million American children live today absent or apart from their biological fathers. One in three children—and only one in five inner-city children—live in homes with their fathers. Millions upon millions of fathers have abdicated their divine responsibility for loving, disciplining, teaching, supporting, providing moral guidance, protecting their families, and leading their children to God. “Maturity does not come with age but with accepting of responsibility for one’s actions,” Dr. Edwin Cole, the father of Modern Men's Ministry, has written. Dr. Cole also has noted: “The lack of effective, functioning fathers is the root cause of America’s social, economic and spiritual crises.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Bureau of the Census, the 30 percent of children who live apart from their fathers account for 63 percent of teen suicides, 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions, 71 percent of high-school dropouts, 75 percent of children in chemical-abuse centers, 80 percent of rapists, 85 percent of youths in prison, and 85 percent of children who exhibit behavioral disorders. In addition, 90 percent of homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes. In fact, children born to unwed mothers are 10 times more likely to live in poverty as children with fathers in the home.
The correlation between fatherless children and crime is so strong, notes social researcher Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, that it cuts across all racial and economic lines. Furthermore, the President of the Institute for American Values, David Blankenhorn, adds, “The absence of fathers from family life is surely the most socially consequential family trend of our era.” Or, as the columnist Armstrong Williams has recently declared: “It is terribly troubling that our society accepts fatherhood as a luxury, not a necessity.”
That some marriages aren’t good enough to preserve may be understandable. Yet, it is particularly regrettable because fathers do matter. Undoubtedly, a mother is essential to a child’s development, but there are some life’s lessons that only a father can teach.
Why and how do fathers matter?
I think it comes down the fact that fathers who accept and understand their divine vocation to be a father to one’s children involves pouring out one’s and blood continuously for one’s children and, as fathers “do this,” they teach their children life’s lessons. These lessons don’t end when children move out of the house. They continue even into young adulthood, as Jamie’s story indicates, and beyond. These lessons last not only a lifetime but also extend down through the generations.
These lessons begin with little things like how Daddy isn’t Mommy; how to fish, ice skate, shoot baskets, golf, hit and catch baseballs; fixing things, mowing the lawn, and keeping the yard in shape; and, don’t forget, how to be stubborn driving the car around for an hour, all the while pretending to know where one is and refusing to ask for directions. These seemingly trifle experiences are what bond children to their fathers.
Over time, these lessons expand to include some more important and more valuable matters. Like how the most important assets aren’t found in brokerage accounts, property valuations, or fancy cars, but in the quantity of time a father spends with one’s children. Like how the most important ladder to climb isn’t the corporate ladder but the stairway to each child’s bedroom and every evening. Like how one’s commitment to a job pays the bills but that a father’s commitment to show up at each child’s late-afternoon, evening, and weekend activities is priceless.
Upon all of these foundational lessons, fathers teach their children what life is really all about. These are the truly substantive lessons. Life isn’t about being tough. Nor is it about being strong. Wealth doesn’t qualify either. Nor does always being right. What life is all about is being kind. Being understanding. Demonstrating a virtuous character. And, fidelity to one’s word. All of this requires a father who loves his children with a father’s “strong arm.”
Only a father can teach a son how to carry himself as a man, how to strive for lofty goals, work hard, and develop the character of a virtuous man. Only a father can teach a daughter how a man properly treats a woman—in the example of how he loves his wife—and how to interact appropriately with the opposite sex; to strive always to do one’s best, overcome challenges and adversity, and fulfill one’s potential. And, let’s not forget—as Jamie’s story attests—being a father also requires leading one’s children to God.
Obviously one’s job or career isn’t what motivates a father who understands his divine vocation and strives to live it out as God asks each and every day. No transforming these moments into life’s lessons and treasured life-long memories that enable one’s children to grow in grace and wisdom before God and humanity—just as Joseph taught Jesus—is what motivates a father.
I once read an article in which an author whose name I do not recall discussed how important it is for a child to see one’s father genuflect in church and kneel in a pew to pray. The author wrote that children believe their fathers are not only tough and strong but also omnipotent. “My father can beat up your father” is something most kids—especially sons—have said. But, the simple action of genuflecting in church and kneeling in a pew teaches children that there is someone or something more omnipotent than their fathers. It’s God before whom even fathers bend their knees and get on their knees in prayer when approaching the Omnipotent One. This is how fathers teach their children about reverence and humility before God so that when fathers do teach their children spiritual lessons and speak about God, their children understand that their fathers aren’t speaking about themselves. In this regard, Armstrong Williams has noted:
I saw [my father] read
the Bible daily, pray habitually, and attend and participate at church
every Sunday. My father provided the spiritual leadership that the
Bible calls for, and I believe this kind of leadership should ideally be
handled by a man. Regardless of the religion, this cannot be done
properly if the father is absent.
In all of these and so many more ways fathers teach their children the most important thing a father can give his children is his flesh and his blood, continuously poured out on their behalf, while asking for nothing in return. When fathers teach these kinds of life’s lessons, their sons hope to become the men their fathers are and their daughters hope to marry men who have the personal character and spirituality possessed in abundance by their fathers.
Where there is no such father in the home, children obviously suffer. The columnist Dutch Martin has written about his experience this way:
I grew up on welfare, the youngest of six children with an absentee father. My family life was dysfunctional to say the least, and not having my father in my life left a void in my soul that at times has been emotionally crippling. Who would teach me how to drive a car, tie a necktie, balance a checkbook, and relate well to the opposite sex? Most importantly, who would teach me how to be a man? I don’t care what modern feminists say, a woman cannot instill in a male child the tools he needs to be a man. I had to learn many of life’s lessons of manhood the hard way—pretty much on my own.
spiritual and moral decay that living in a fatherless home on welfare
festered in my family and all the families in our neighborhood makes me
both angry and sad….Don’t let anyone kid you, folks. Fatherlessness
hurts like hell! You never get over it; you just deal with it. I’ve
been dealing with it for 32 years.
Today we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ, God’s living presence passed to us through two millennia.
The Body and Blood of Christ make present for us what Jesus sacrificed for us. We give thanks for the Body and Blood of Christ because in pouring out his body and blood for us, Jesus has given us spiritual freedom. Since the night before he died when Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body,” and took the cup and said, “This is my blood,” Jesus has continued to be truly present, God and man, wholly and entirely, in the Eucharist.
Unfortunately, however, just as fatherhood no longer speaks to many men—not just those who have abandoned their children but also those whose children are not their first priority in life—the Eucharist no longer speaks to many of us. In fact, some studies suggest that more than 50 percent of Roman Catholics no longer believe that Jesus is truly present under the forms of bread and wine. Instead, these Catholics think, what happens when we gather around the altar is a mere symbol of Jesus’ body and blood. Like the important life’s lessons our fathers teach us, we oftentimes miss the important life’s lessons the Eucharist teaches us. Why? Because we fail to recognize and to appreciate what has been poured out for us. For Catholics, in particular, this is the true origin of the crisis of faith that exists in our Church and in our nation as well because if the Eucharist merely symbolizes Jesus’ body and blood, then Jesus isn’t truly present with us.
The Last Supper wasn’t simply an historical event, a sign of Christ’s friendship and love for his disciples that we memorialize each time we gather around the altar. It is the moment when Jesus first promised to give himself continuously—his real flesh and his real blood—each and every time his disciples “do this in memory of me.” Roman Catholics—as do the Orthodox—believe that Jesus is truly present in his body and blood. Furthermore, when we partake of his life, we experience not just Jesus’ physical presence but we also form a more intimate relationship with Jesus to the point that we actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ alive, present, and at work in the world today. Complex religious rituals, good works, faraway shrines, or apparitions to be close to God aren’t really what’s important. What is important is the Eucharist because that is how Jesus Christ becomes truly present within us. “You are what you eat,” St. Augustine told his congregation when preaching about the Eucharist. “Become who you eat.”
Just as many today believe that the Eucharist is merely a symbol of the reality, so too many today believe that fatherhood as I described earlier it is merely a quaint symbol of a bygone era. Now that women have greater control over their lives and reproductive “rights,” they don’t need men, at least according to Maureen Dowd in her recent book “Are Men Necessary?” For all too many women, having children out of wedlock with absentee fathers are “in” while carefully selecting a man who has the character and spirituality to be the father of one’s children is “out.” As Kathleen Parker asked in a recent column: “To say that children want, need and deserve to have a father seems as unnecessary as insisting that they want, need and deserve oxygen. How did we arrive at not knowing this?”
“If only you knew the gift being offered to you,” St. John noted in his gospel (4:10), we’d understand and we’d love what Jesus has given us in the Eucharist. But, on this Father’s Day, we’d also understand and love how our fathers have blessed our lives. They not only have taught us those life’s lessons which had to power to transform us into sons and daughters of God. They have also taught us, more substantively, to fulfill our divine vocations as they fulfilled their divine vocation by leading us to God.
Does today’s homily raise any
question(s) that you would like