As today is Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking a lot about fathers and sons, and wanted to share a bit of it here. I remember a riddle that I first heard in junior high, in which two fathers and two sons go fishing, and each catches a fish, totaling just three fish. I don’t remember if I figured it out on my own or had to be told the answer, but it’s a fairly clever puzzle. SPOILER ALERT: the three fish were caught by three people: a grandfather, his son, and his grandson. The grandson and his father are the two sons, the grandfather and his son are the two fathers; like any brain-teaser, it’s tricky, but makes sense (though technically the grandfather is someone’s son too, even if that man isn’t with them fishing, so it should be two fathers and three sons). My life, like this conundrum, is defined by the identities of two fathers and two sons.
I’m not sure if I’m the only person who went through stages in how I viewed my dad, but I’m guessing not. I can remember being a little kid, somewhere between 4-10 years old, and thinking that my dad was basically a superhero. He was the strongest, smartest, fastest, bravest, richest, coolest… and he was my dad! My dad would wrestle with me, help me with homework, give me hugs when I was sad, let me sit on his shoulders to see over crowds, let me wear his t-shirts to sleep in or his shoes to tromp around the house in, and he taught me to ride a bike. When I was a boy I couldn’t wait for him to get home from work, and I couldn’t wait to be just like him.
Then I got older, and more knowledgeable about the world. I noticed things I didn’t before… mistakes, quirks, hurts, fears, frustrations, and habits all tainting the reputation of my hero, if only in my own mind. I learned that my dad wasn’t perfect… he wasn’t the strongest or the smartest or the fastest, and certainly not the richest. Realizing your dad is a flawed person for the first time can be hard, at least it was for me. I remember feeling disappointed and a little upset; though he may not have ever told me he was perfect, he allowed me to see him that way, right? Now his jokes seemed tired, his mannerisms irritating and embarrassing. I became a bit ashamed of my dad. And suddenly I didn’t want to be anything like him.
Then I got old enough to realize that all the things I thought I understood about the world, the knowledge I thought I had, was pretty shallow and wholly untested. I learned even more about Dad as I left my teenage years and entered young adulthood. This new information didn’t undo the things I’d judged him so harshly for as a teen, but put it all in better context. Growing up, my dad used to pray over my siblings and I while we slept; He’s worked multiple jobs (from bus driver to teacher to pool guy to valet) and consistently took part time positions during the summer to provide extra income (and ways for my mom to stay home with us kids growing up). He plugged himself into a church to be sharpened, encouraged, disciplined and challenged by other godly men. He volunteered in our youth group to have more time and opportunities to exemplify servanthood and spend with us. I still recognize my father as limited. In fact, it’s entirely possible he has more weaknesses than strengths… even so, when I see the way my father embodies the ideas written about by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, I see that the biggest reason my dad can be one of my heroes is that he isn’t perfect; the fact that he knows he needs Christ, and strives to impart that lesson to me daily, makes him ten times more super than I used to think he was when I was a child. Now I know I’ll be lucky to be half the man Kelly O’Neil is; both because I see him as twice the dad any boy could ask for, and because the less of a man I am, the more opportunity I’ll have to rely on God to fill me and use me.
You see, it’s easy, especially on Father’s Day, to focus on our earthly understanding of father and son relationships. We can praise the parents who provided half our DNA for the ways they came through for us, we can curse them for the ways we feel they have failed us, or we can fall somewhere else on the spectrum of judging their efforts, but until we learn to focus everything on the Father/Son relationship that matters most, we can’t begin to make sense of the other father/son (or daughter) relationships we experience on earth. If I try to identify my father without first having some knowledge of the identity of the Father, I will invariably feel consumed by disappointment or appeased by naiveté. If I try to identify myself as a son without first acknowledging the identity of the Son, I will inevitably feel condemned by shame or swollen with arrogance. So instead of posting ridiculous superlatives about my earthly father, I just want to thank him for how frequently he directed me to how ridiculously superlative God is. Instead of claiming he is the best dad in the world, I want to applaud him for pointing me to the God who really is.
John 10:25-30, NASB
25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. 26 But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”