When I first started writing this post, I don’t think I had any idea of the places it would take me as I thought about what it truly means to be a dad. After being a father to 8 amazing children, I also never expected that I would come out of this feeling wholly unworthy as their father. Certainly, I went through many revisions for this post as I explored different ideas and cultural norms. But in the end, what I came down to was the simple statement that, dads are called to be a living icon of Christ. A simple statement to be sure, but oh what an enormous calling!
When I first started thinking about this topic, I considered how today’s modern culture portrays a father and his role in the family. All too often, he is portrayed as little more than a big child. A somewhat bumbling loveable oaf who stumbles through his days relying on another to fix his problems. The idea and image of the strong family man has certainly suffered in the last few decades. So instead, I looked to other examples of what a father might be.
I then looked at the role of the priest, another man whom we call father. We consider our priest a spiritual father who is there to guide and pray for us. They are there to show us God’s mercy and to help provide for our spiritual upbringing. They teach and challenge us, always striving to lead by example. They are there, truly, to be a living icon of Christ as they guide, teach, and discipline.
And so, it occurred to me that just as the priest is to be the living icon of Christ in our parish family, so too are fathers called to be a living icon of Christ in our homes. Each family, each home, is a little church. They are a very personal extension of the Christian faith and community. The father, just like the priest, is called to be an example of Christ to his wife and children. He is called to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
So what exactly does this mean? The Bible gives many examples throughout the Old and New Testaments of what a father should do. In the very beginning, we see God as Father in Genesis and the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are his children and God provides for them, cares for and protects them, teaches them, and ultimately disciplines them when they disobey His words. But most importantly, He also shows them mercy and forgiveness. Although He dispels them from the Garden of Eden for their sin, He forgives and provides a path back to Him.
Likewise, in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we see God again as Father. He protects the Hebrews from the plagues and from pharaoh’s army. He provides for his people, giving them water in the desert and mana from heaven. Again, He is their teacher as He gives them the commandments. And as in the Garden of Eden, He disciplines his people when they choose to disobey His commandments and causes them to wander lost in the desert. But, as always, He shows them mercy and forgiveness by bringing them to the Promised Land.
This example is carried throughout the Bible and is shown also in Jesus’ miracles. We see Jesus as provider when he nourishes the five thousand with the 5 loaves. He protects the apostles from the storm when he calls for Peter to walk on the water. We see countless examples of Jesus being a teacher to the disciples and His mercy is shown as He forgives sins and heals the sick. All of this sets the example for the role of father within their family.
As I said before, even after 8 children, I feel unqualified to give direction on being a father because I feel I am still learning myself. But here are some of the things I have done and am still striving to accomplish to meet the goal of being a living icon of Christ to my family.
Like the priest in a parish, I try to be the spiritual leader for my family – our little church – by always pointing our life to God. I lead my family in prayers before meals and also try to lead bedtime prayers as often as possible as well. (Although, it often falls to my wife since I travel quite often for work.) Over the past six months or so, my wife and I have developed a morning routine where we wake up earlier than needed so we can have a coffee date together before our kids wake up. (It seems to be the only time their “parental close proximity radars” do not immediately go off.) During this time, we have started reading the daily scripture readings as well as morning prayers together before I have to leave for work. It’s our hope that this will not only become a daily routine for us but also help us to start each day in a more peaceful frame of mind. (The app we have grown to love is the GOARCH Daily Readings App for your phone.) I also try to make attending church services a priority, even when my work schedule is demanding my time, as it so often does. Additionally, I encourage my sons to participate as altar boys and try to attend weekday services with my family whenever I have the opportunity. In all things, I try to lead by example and let my children see the importance I place on my faith through my actions and not just my words.
The role of provider can and does take many forms. Most people instantly think of the material needs of the family (food, shelter, clothing, money) but that is not necessarily the role of the father. While I am the primary earner in my family, that is not my main role of being a provider for them. A father’s role as provider must focus on the spiritual, emotional, and educational needs of his family as well. It means that I must always work first for my family. I must work to build and obtain what my family needs beyond just the physical needs of food, shelter, clothing, etc. I do this by listening and giving them my full attention, showing them that they are important to me through the time I spend with them, and offering my help to them whenever it is needed. The support I provide for my wife manifests itself in many ways, but for me personally, it resides primarily in helping her around the house with chores and repairs, working towards family goals, listening to her when she needs to talk, and giving her rest when she is overworked. Just as I want God to be an active part of my life, so too must I be an active part of my family’s life.
As a dad, I feel it is my responsibility to teach my children about the skills and knowledge they will need to be successful in life. I do not necessarily mean the basic lessons of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Those do not have to come from me. (Actually, it would probably be better if spelling was not taught by me.) I see my role as a teacher as someone who is called to model a Christian life. Some of the ways this is done is by teaching them how to work hard, how to admit mistakes, how to be honest, how to pray and worship, how to love and respect, and how to be disciplined in their actions. For example, I often ask my kids to be my helper when I am repairing or building something for our family. In this, I strive to teach them to always finish what they start, to always put your best effort into whatever they are doing, and to also do it as a loving gift to our family. These are the lessons that children need to learn from a father. Mothers teach this through their actions as well, but the importance of both parents modeling a Christian life cannot be underestimated nor can the importance of one parent’s influence on their children be downplayed over the other.
Teaching and discipline go hand in hand. I find it important to remember that discipline does not mean punishment – nor does it contain negative connotations. Discipline is a very positive thing in and of itself because it means control of one’s own actions. As a father, I try to not “punish” my children out of anger. (Admittedly, I fail at this too often.) When my children stray off the path that has been set before them, I always try to focus on teaching them through discipline instead of through punishment. I try to model this approach from what I have learned through the sacrament of confession. When we go to confession, the priest often gives us tasks to perform, not to earn forgiveness (because it is through the grace of God that we are forgiven) but to learn discipline so as not to repeat the sin again. This is a very healing process that invites forgiveness. Likewise, I try to teach my children discipline by following the fasts of the church, in this, they begin to learn self-discipline. It is through fasting that they learn they cannot have everything they want, whenever they want. Another approach I have tried to incorporate with my kids (especially my pre-teen and teens) is the use of scripture during our talks. Whenever I can, I try to include Bible passages that deal with the actions we are correcting. The Bible is always far more eloquent and profound than myself, directing my children and myself always to God and focusing less on ourselves.
Protection and sacrifice are also closely linked but separate goals of a dad. Protection means not only protecting them from bodily harm, but also protecting them from spiritual harm as well. Fathers are called to protect their families from evil by actively living their faith and participating in the life of the Church. Sacrifice also goes far beyond laying down one’s life for their family. I have little doubt that any dad would not hesitate to protect their child or wife by offering his own if their lives were threatened. However, laying down your life for your family when they are in danger takes relatively little thought in comparison to sacrificing your wants and desires for the sake of your family on a day to day basis. It’s hard. Very hard. Sacrifice often means giving up your “me time” in order to take care of the needs of your family.
As I think about my role as a dad in my family, I realize it is a far more demanding and complicated calling than I ever really considered – but I realize now that it is a calling and a path towards my salvation. I remember reading a quote a long while back that God does not grant patience, He gives opportunities to LEARN patience. I believe the same is true in relation to my role as dad in my family. In praying for salvation, God gives me the opportunity to learn and work for my salvation through the help of my children and wife.