“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they lose heart” -Colossians 3:21

It being Father’s Day, this verse was the text preached on at my church on Sunday. The NIV that I often use puts it differently: “exasperate” and “so that they do not become discouraged”, but I think I prefer the older language in some ways. Losing heart seems so much deeper and more profound than mere discouragement.

I started to think about the implications of this verse. The instruction is clear enough: don’t go out of your way to rile your kids. Be a Good Dad.

But the reasoning is interesting: “so that they do not lose heart”.

Discouragement and losing heart is so easy in this world. All around us there are attacks on our worth, our self-image, our value. Temptations to believe that only if we look or behave in a certain way are we valued and productive. We call a lot of these “advertising”, but they aren’t what I want to focus on right now.

No, what struck me on Sunday was the idea that a large part of a father’s role might be summarised as creating heart in your children.

If “losing heart” is more than just discouragement, building heart is more than just being an encourager as we normally think of it.

I sometimes believe that the spiritual gift of encouragement is the gift most misunderstood by all the various spiritual gift inventory questionnaires I’ve seen; to a one they all seem to envision a middle-aged woman whose gift finds expression in the sending of cards.

This isn’t very cool if you’re a young woman, and even less helpful if you’re a man. By and large, most men don’t express the gift in that prissy sort of a way, if they have the gift. In some cases it can lead to a lot of misapprehensions about encouragement and what it really is.

Creating heart might be a more useful way of expressing what I’m talking about; it has at least the advantage of not having any baggage of which I’m aware.

So what do I mean by “heart”?

Heart as I’m meaning it encompasses a number of different qualities, foremost among them courage, conviction, integrity, hope, fervour, compassion and faith. It’s a valorous blend of characteristics embodied in every true hero, a blend that enables them to slay the monsters, face down the odds, oppose the tyrant, stare death in the face and spit in his eye. It’s also the blend of qualities that reaches out with compassion and aims to make the world a better place, looking beyond oneself to others.

This is what I want for my daughters and son.

Courage has been described as “the first of qualities, because it guarantees all the others”. I’m not sure this isn’t going a little too far, but certainly courage is important, and a vital part of what I mean by “heart”. In the Colossians verse, losing heart is expressed in the NIV as “becoming discouraged”, and courage is at the heart of that word. Many spiritual virtues take courage: it takes courage to show faith, courage to love, courage to show compassion in a world where it’s thin on the ground. The quality is never listed in any Biblical list of spiritual fruit or character qualities, but perhaps that’s by design, because so much of the time we reduce courage to the physical exigencies of the battlefield and the toughness of mind and body that calls for, when much of what I’m talking about here is moral courage.

Conviction and faith are part of what I mean by heart, because unless you have your heart involved then your “faith” isn’t true Biblical faith at all, merely a sort of cold mental assent. Unlike believing in the Loch Ness Monster, simply acknowledging the existence of the Godhead isn’t enough if your life doesn’t change as a result. As a father, I pray that I’m raising my children to be men and women of conviction, knowing what’s right and pursuing it with vigour.

Integrity goes along with this, because heart encompasses the unification of the inner and outer person. It’s the opposite of wearing masks and hiding: knowing who you are as well as Whose you are, living out of your deep inner self with the courage not to hide and the conviction that there is a purpose for which you were created that will take all your God-given powers.

All of this takes Biblical hope. Not the wishy-washy vague feeling we’ve demeaned it into, but the strong certainty that God has plans and a future for me, to prosper me and not to harm me. That if His purpose takes my life, then it’s not the end, but in His economy some things are worth dying for.

Fervouris involved, because you can’t have all of these qualities and not live with passion. And compassion, because unless it’s directed outwards into the service of the Lord and the blessing of other people, what good is it all? No-one wants to be around a fervent, courage-filled person of conviction who hates other people.

A lofty task and a worthy goal, but how do we do this? I hope I’m building heart in my children, but I’m not always very intentional about it.

I guess it begins here, with this verse. Don’t provoke your children. Don’t exasperate them. Don’t aggravate them. Be reasonable, able to be reasoned with. When you have to lay down the law, do so with grace. Set the example you wish you’d had; everyone comes from an imperfect family and a father’s care that had holes in it, but you need not reproduce all of that.

At its most basic, building heart in your kids means not tearing it out of them. We fathers are often considered the disciplinarians, but correction needs to be delivered in a way that makes our kids want to get it right and which builds into them the ability to do so. That means not tearing into them for trifling offences, but it also means bringing correction when it’s due. Our kids aren’t perfect either, and we who might have had harsh parents need to be careful we aren’t becoming so permissive that our children have no boundaries at all.

Something it’s taken me a while to learn is that my kids respond to different things. One of them, physical discipline just makes her stubborn. If you want to get through to her, she needs to understand why. Another of them, the prospect of reward works wonders (ok, so I bribe my kids sometimes. It seems to work). As their father, I have to tailor my engagement with each of my children, knowing that what encourages one may exasperate another, and yet trying to be even-handed in my approach to them. Nothing poisons family relationships like favouritism (look at the book of Genesis); that would be provoking them.

I’m not trying to claim I’m there or that I do it perfectly, because I’m painfully aware of just how far I fall short. I hope I’m building heart in my kids more than I’m making them lose it, but I expect they’ll have their individual hangups from well-meaning mistakes I made. Hopefully none beyond the grace of God, though.


I Want…

How many times have we heard the accusation that Christianity is just an angry God telling me not to do stuff I want to?

It’s sometimes a fair accusation. Sometimes we Christians act as though angry is God’s natural state, and a lot of the time our “standing up for moral principles” involves a lot of telling people not to do things. Combine the two, as we’ve all seen happen, and it’s entirely understandable that someone who doesn’t know any different would come to that conclusion.

And then we come to Luke 11:9-13.

Jesus is teaching on prayer. He’s just taught the disciples what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer”, and told them a parable about a man knocking on his friend’s door late at night asking to borrow some bread.

Even if the friend won’t get up just for friendship’s sake, Jesus tells them, he’ll get up because their friend asked boldly. They exhibited faith that their friend would help them if they asked.

And now Jesus says “Ask, and it shall be given to you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened. For whoever asks, receives, he who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened”.

In order to ask, you have to have a desire. You need to want it. Jesus doesn’t say that’s wrong. He doesn’t say stop wanting. Buddhism does, but this is one of the big differences between Christians and Buddhists. From the same problem – people want to do wrong things – two vastly different solutions. Buddhist teaching, as I understand it, is to stop wanting anything. Followers of Jesus trust Him to purify our hearts so that we stop wanting what is evil.

“Whoever asks, receives” is pretty broad. So broad that we often want to try to protect God’s reputation by hedging it about with conditions and nuances. We have to have pure motives. We have to be seeking first His Kingdom. We have to ask according to His will.

It tends to become an exercise in what I call “magical thinking”. Fulfill all of the preconditions and you can manipulate God into giving you a pony.

Jesus pares all of that away, leaving the crux of the matter.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”

God is a good father. He’s not going to give His child something harmful when they ask for something good. He’s not going to give them something harmful if they ask for it directly, any more than I’m going to leave my four-year-old unsupervised around power tools, or give him a cup of WD40 to drink if he asks for one.

We fallen, fallible human beings – human beings who do terrible things and commit all manner of crimes against one another – know how to give good things to our own kids when they ask. And we think that God, the Source of goodness and the One from whom every good and perfect gift comes cannot be trusted to do the same?

When he says no, we can trust Him that what we’re asking for really is power tools in the hands of a four-year-old. We might hurt ourselves and other people with it if He lets us have it.

“If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

Give what now? The Holy Spirit? Well, that’s nice and all, but what I was needing was food. A healing. Wisdom and guidance. Whatever.

Sometimes we act like the gift of the Holy Spirit is a nice extra for church time and the spiritual part of life, but not really what we need.

Wait a minute, though.

We believe and teach that the Holy Spirit is God. So what God is saying He wants to give us is the gift of Himself. Provision? He’s Jehovah Jireh. Healing? He’s The Lord Who Heals You. Wisdom? He’s the only wise God, our Saviour. Cleansing? With Him is forgiveness.

And on a God-sized scale, too. This is the One who created billions of galaxies full of trillions of stars each many thousand times bigger than our own sun. This is the One who fills meadows with hundreds of wild flowers, who created the Paramecium and the Parasaurolophus. Whose greatness – perhaps the least of His divine attributes – no-one can fathom.

He gives royally, because He’s a Royal giver. He gives greatly, because it reflects His greatness. Not with a dropper, but with a downpour. We can trust Him to meet our needs with His abundance.

The Prodigal Father

I related to American depictions of the father/child relationship a lot more as a child than I do as a dad.

Americans, it seems, are obsessed with this relationship. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Ariel and King Triton. Gru and his girls. The dad in The LEGO Movie. And it’s all the same story.

The father is aloof and cold. Or actively cruel and heartless. Or overbearing. Or a fool. Or simply overprotective. Or not there at all. Vader is actively evil. Gru is cold. Triton is overbearing and overprotective. Green Lantern is absent. Even the parents in Frozen lock their daughter up “for her own good”.

This can’t be how American dads actually behave; I know too many good ones. Surely they can’t all be exceptions; if they are, it makes America seem downright scary. Where are the fathers who are actively involved in their kids’ lives? Who encourage their kids to explore and be creative? Who are actually competent? Who, get this, act like real Dads?

British media don’t obsess about the father/child relationship in the same way. You might see a dad who’s a fool, but the focus is usually on the dysfunction between him and his wife, not between him and his children. Being a sap with his kids is incidental.

No, it’s just American media that obsess about the relationship.

The PBS Kids show Sid the Science Kid seems to be a lone exception to this. Sid’s Dad is competent on his own ground (he’s a construction worker, not an intellectual), present in the family, loves his wife and kids, is actively involved in their lives, is not afraid to defer to his wife’s expertise in areas of her competency, and encourages his children to explore. But Sid’s dad seems an almost solitary light in the paternal darkness of US film and TV. Gru in Despicable Me 2 is pretty good, but he acts more like a playmate than a father, and we had to see him become Good Dad in the first movie.

And a whole lot of everything else is dysfunction.

More, it’s all the dad’s fault. Always. Vader must be brought to the light side. Gru’s heart must be changed. Triton must let his daughter swim and be free. The dad in the LEGO Movie must awaken to his son’s creativity and stop being so controlling. The child may be rebellious, a runaway, a disgrace, but it was their father who drove them to it. They were just trying to express Who They Really Are. As a dad, it’s… uncomfortable.

We can see that it’s the dad’s fault, because itVs the dad that has to repent. The child may have to make some sort of surface “apology” for running away or “letting you down” or whatever, but it’s the father who has to truly repent. Show me a scenario in American media where it’s the child who has to grow up, repent and change. No; this is for the Dad to do.

As a child with a not-entirely-working relationship with my own dad, this was great news! I didn’t need to do anything; it was his fault!

As a man, I’ve come to realise that my dad was right a lot more than I cared to admit back then. Characterising it as All His Fault isn’t fair. I contributed to the mess.

I’ve become a dad now. I know a lot of dads. They aren’t like this media picture. I don’t think I’m like this.

If this isn’t a real reflection of the real state of American families, and I don’t believe it is, what is going on here?

Personally I blame the American War of Independence.

Yeah, it’s easy for me to come in as a Brit and blame everything on the piece of American history that I still can’t quite get my heart around. But put the Thirteen Colonies in the role of the child and Britain in the role of the father and the two are one and the same. Britain may be a motherland, when we think of her at all that way, but here, we are the Father. The Authority, with a capital “A”.

In this context, the child has to be right because the child is America. The father has to be demonstrably cruel and overbearing, because that justifies the child’s actions. The child isn’t being an uncontrollable rebellious brat in dire need of loving discipline in order to become who they can be, they’re just expressing Who They Really Are Right Now. They need to be Understood and Accepted, and everything will magically become OK.

I don’t know if this is really what’s going on, but it explains a lot. This is the story in most American writers’ hearts because America itself feels like their “dad” Britain Just Doesn’t Get It.

But it leaves me with questions. If this is really the case, what do you want from us, America? The Revolutionary War wasn’t entirely the fairy tale you envisage. The “evil British tyrants” weren’t doing things just to be cruel, any more than the American colonists were rebelling because they were ungrateful scoundrels who thought that everything revolved around them.

America is a grown-up nation however that happened. We don’t (seriously) hold the Revolutionary War against you. I have a hard time around the Fourth not because I’m carrying a grudge but because I have a secret fear that you still might be: Paul Revere still rides through a dozen newspaper comins. Hollywood still treats an English accent as evidence of villainy. Even your national anthem subtly paints us as the bad guy shooting rockets at the heroic American defenders of liberty.

The job of a father is to raise their child to become an independent adult. America is an independent adult nation. Maybe this year I can celebrate that fact without unleashing my “but you still think we’re villains!” fear.

Maybe this year I can find a way to love the USA even on the Fourth of July that doesn’t make me feel like I’m expected to believe that I am a tyrant and the son of tyrants.

Maybe I can stand blinking in the dawn’s surly light and truly celebrate the independence of a free nation under God.

I’ll keep trying.

What Did You Learn From Your Father?

Whenever Father’s Day rolls around again, it seems like someone in my church circle asks this question.

It’s a good question, because a lot of what we learn from our own fathers can frame our understanding of God as Father, but it also seems in some ways a very American one.

Americans are obsessed with the father-child relationship. It comes into almost every film an American has had a hand in, from The Empire Strikes Back to Despicable Me. It would be interesting to speculate on why this is, but in this post I want to actually answer the question.

The contrast between the sorts of responses I’ve typically given to this question and the sorts of responses I’ve heard from almost every American I’ve heard give an answer are striking. They are different enough, in fact, that in answering this question I tend to feel more like an alien than at any other time except perhaps the Fourth of July.

In my experience, the number one thing Americans say about their Dads is Hard Worker.

There are various forms this takes, but in essence it’s the same. The value of hard work. Always working around the house. Doing whatever was needed to keep things working.

It’s not that my Dad was lazy, but hard worker simply isn’t what I most associate with him and what I consider I learned from him.

So while everyone else is talking about working hard and putting in an honest day’s work, I’m talking about how Dad would never let other people’s opinions slow him down, about generosity, about knowing what you want and then going for it wholeheartedly.

Dad’s never been afraid to be in a minority, even a minority of one. If he knows he’s right, the whole world can be against him and he simply doesn’t care. He wants to do the best thing (at least, as far as he sees it), and whether that is simple or very hard is nigh-on irrelevant.

When making decisions in a group setting, the absolute worst thing you can say to him is “we’ve never done it that way before”. Say that, and it’s a virtual guarantee that that will become the way he wants it. Other people’s opinions, whether current or filtered through the overarching structure of tradition, simply don’t matter to him.

It’s given me a unique perspective on the world. I come from a country famous for being attached to its traditions, but my father would seem to break traditions just to watch them explode, especially if he could see a better way.

His desire to do the best thing carries over into his generosity. As a child, I knew our family weren’t made of money. There were things I might have asked for for Christmas some years that I didn’t want badly enough to ask my parents to pay the massive price tag involved (a Grifter bike like some of my friends had was what I can currently remember). I figured that I could ask for it, but I probably wasn’t going to get it, so why go through the motions?

I do remember one year, though. I was completely obsessed with lego, and Space lego was a brand new thing. These were the original blue-brick sets with grey wings, yellow-tinted windows and a gold planet logo on the front. The spaceman figures came in all-red and all-white suits only (though they later introduced first yellow and then blue-suited spacemen) and specially-shaped bricks were the minority rather than the norm.

The ultimate set of these original space lego kits was the big Space Cruiser. I can’t remember how much it cost, but it seemed like an exorbitant amount to my child brain.

I can remember calculationg to myself, “Well, I’m pretty sure the Space Cruiser is out of reach, but I might be able to ask for the next one down, the Space Transporter.

The Transporter was pretty cool-looking. It had a little moon buggy thing that came out of the back of it. (So did the Space Cruiser, but they didn’t show it on the box so I wasn’t aware of it). I would have been well satisfied with the Transporter.

Come Christmas Day and the opening of main family presents in the afternoon, I unwrapped the big present from Mum and Dad to find… The Space Cruiser itself. The big mama of all the original space lego sets.

I actually thought at first that they’d got it by mistake, thinking it was the smaller Transporter. The two ships were alike enough in appearance that you could get them confused. Had they got it for me thinking it was the smaller set I’d asked for?

But no. This is my Dad’s generosity at work. I got the Space Cruiser I had really wanted but hadn’t dared to ask for.

He’ll spend whatever he needs to spend (within reason) to get something that the recipient will be really happy with. If that’s a small amount, that’s what he’ll spend. If it’s a big amount, he’ll try and find a way to make it affordable.

Stack that up against your hard worker for what my father taught me about God.

The biggest thing I learned from my Dad, though, the one thing he tried to impress on me, was “you can do anything you set your mind to”. High expectations? Yeah, but in fairness, not unreasonably so. I was a lazybones as a kid, and more critically, hadn’t a clue what I wanted. I know it must have aggravated him; his whole mindset was geared towards knowing what you wanted to achieve and then wholeheartedly working toward it, not letting anyone tell you you couldn’t.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and was brainy enough that I didn’t often need to make much effort in learning things. It carried over into a tendency to coast and drift, and Dad was determined that I wasn’t going to get away with it.

This is as close to the value of hard work that my Dad got. But it was more about working smart, using all of your powers, putting the effort in to make something of yourself.

I never had to deal with the situation some people describe, though, where they want to be a chef or a journalist or whatever and their father was determined that they should follow in his footsteps and join the Army. Dad made sure I always knew that the decision about my future was mine, not his. He just wanted me to hurry up and make it.

Whatever I decided, once I’d really made my decision, I knew that he’d back me, even if it wasn’t the one he’d have made. (If it wasn’t the one he’d have made, he’d try to talk me into his way of seeing, but it was almost like he wanted you to fight him sometimes. Like his opposition was more of a test to see how badly you wanted something. If you were willing to argue with him over it, you had the right level of commitment.)

Give him credit, too; the rules he laid down were always negotiable if you could present a good case. If it really wasn’t working, he was always willing to revisit it. Responsibility, not rules, was what drove him.

So this is what I learned from my Dad. Independence, Generosity, Commitment, Responsibility.

The really interesting part is when you make the step to think about what those imply about God.

I learned that truth is not a popularity contest. I learned that God doesn’t care about What Everyone Thinks as much as he cares about Doing The Right Thing. I learned that God is more generous than we sometimes dare to ask; that He’ll do whatever it takes to bring us an eternal happiness that will not fade. I learned that He cares about commitment. And most of all, I learned that He is not a rules mechanic. He doesn’t want legalism, He wants our hearts right with Him. He couldn’t care less about the religious niceties of our “do this”es and “don’t do that”s. He will, in fact, sometimes bust those wide open just to watch them explode.

A happy Father’s Day to all. I’m off to enjoy the day with my own father. For once I have him here with me.