I’ve been a father for 27 years.
The day my first child was born was amazing, partly because I was laying eyes on the first DNA relative I’ve ever known. (I was adopted at birth.) Three kids later, I feel a graduation of sorts from intensive fatherhood as I plan my youngest child’s 21st birthday at a party place of her choosing.
But there now emerges a new field of play as more and more people are calling me a father figure. At first I bristled at this description. I’m not a member of the AARP. But now I see it for what it is—a grim reminder of our country’s fatherhood crisis. I don’t know where the rest of the weenie boys in our culture are who refuse to step into a manhood that is helpful and father-like. Some are moral trainwrecks, others are wasting their lives away in unending trivial pursuits. This is partly why I wrote a book called The Five Marks of a Man. These marks don’t just enable men to leave boyhood, but in turn can serve as a magnet for people who need a father figure. If you have the marks of a man, you’re needed in what may be the most powerful thing you can do: Impact a life.
One Sunday a woman came up to me and said, “My husband left me, my daughters, and his faith two years ago for another woman. Today, my daughters come to church and look to you as their father. Thank you.” Wow. I’m actually a poor substitute for a physically and emotionally present father, but I find myself where I am because of certain values I hold. Though some of my new “sons” and “daughters” will never have me at their birthday party because I don’t have that personal relationship with them, I’m still the best they have given the faults and defaults of older men in their lives.
Whether you are an actual father or a father figure, here are some ways to have a life of impact.
Live a consistent life.
A number of years ago I read an article called “The Day Superman Died.” It was about that fateful day when we find out that our own fathers are mortal and have flaws. I have my faults and my vices. My children know them well. My children also aren’t surprised by anything in my life. Children want to see their fathers be consistent and consistently growing toward a higher purpose. Endless predictability may sound like a boring life, but when it comes to integrity and mentoring relationships, it is an absolute necessity.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Children have to be around their fathers regularly in order for impact to take place. For that to happen, they have to want to be around us. This means we must have an actual personality and be likeable. Being a teacher of moral principles isn’t winsome enough to keep someone relationally engaged for the long haul. We have to represent fun. Fun through a night out. Fun through a joke. Fun through a simple, light-hearted demeanor. Fun through paying for the first drink in public on a 21st birthday.
Call out what others won’t or can’t say.
While bathing my three children, I would sometimes point out their body parts and the role they had in sex. This was long before they ever could comprehend sex, but it was important for me to broach a holy subject in our oversexed culture which often gets it wrong. Parents need to be the first voice in areas where children will later hear harmful lies. This continues on with 30-year-olds who need to hear a voice of clarity from a father who can call “bullshit” on cultural values that don’t work.
Tell your kids who they are.
A young man I’m influencing has had some anger fits recently which includes breaking inanimate objects. It rightfully concerns him and his wife, so he is going to get some potential help from a health professional. I could tell he was concerned, and maybe a bit too concerned. I’ve been concerned for a while that the pace of his life was leading him to the edge, and it has. But he didn’t need anxiety meds. He needed an older male to hold the back of his neck and confidently look him in the face and say, “You are fine, and you are going to be fine.”
One of the unintended blessings of spending four weekends a year off the grid at Man Camp and Couples Camp is that I get to grow closer to a lot of new people. Thousands of people get to observe me in a wider variety of settings than my normal preaching from a well-produced stage. They hear a more unfiltered language. They see me using tobacco. They see me in unscripted situations. They see me worshipping, praying, and putting my faith to practice in situations beyond a stage. These are the kinds of things a child gets to see with a parent, and because people are seeing me in these ways, my father figure family has expanded.
There is nothing more destructive than a male who has gone in the wrong direction. The older that male, the more destruction they leave in their wake. Ours is a culture filled with disillusioned children of all ages who long for a father. Shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “This is Us” have a thriving fan base because everyone wants Coach Taylor or Jack as a father. Though this can’t happen, those fictional characters are still tapping into the emotions of viewers by being a fictional father figure.
Likewise, there’s nothing more powerful than a man going the right direction. The older and stronger that man is, the more expansive the line of his “children” will be. This isn’t fiction. It is truth. We’re all longing for a father to model what it looks like to head in the right direction. Being a father figure for many could feel like an ominous and unfair burden. In reality, it’s actually a blessing to be used in the lives of God’s children.
A man’s work at his paying occupation is likely not going to last months, let alone decades into the future. A man’s pursuits of healthy play won’t create a legacy. On the other hand, the individual lives we each impact will not just last months, years, and decades, but they will outlive us. Let’s embrace more of the blessings that come with fathering others, whose lives will bear fruit long after we’re in the grave with an expired AARP card.