Since the death of my father a few years ago, I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering the subject of fatherhood. My dad wasn’t an especially attentive father, nor did we have the kind of father/son bond that others seem to enjoy. He loved me, to be sure, but in a very nondescript, emotionally detached way, which is the way my grandfather loved him. As a young man, I had determined that I would be a much better father when I had my own children―and in some ways I am―but alas, I also struggle in this God-given parental vocation, and this fact has only served to deepen my affection for my own father’s failed attempts at fatherhood. Mark Twain said essentially the same thing of his dad, but with far more wit than I: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
As Scott Keith discusses in his book, Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace, our culture struggles with fathers. In modern cartoons and sitcoms—from The Simpsons to Arrested Development to Modern Family—the father figures are almost always endearing idiots. They are barely tolerated by their wives and they certainly never garner the respect of their children, who are always cast wise beyond their years. The bar is set very low when it comes to Hollywood and fatherhood, and we have traversed a long way from Father Knows Best.
One of my favorite film-makers, Wes Anderson, captures the contemporary tension of fatherhood in every one of his movies as he explores the dysfunctional family; particularly between fathers and sons. His critics often pan him as a “one-trick pony,” but I find his movies fascinating - not to mention funny.
I resonate with Wes Anderson films because he is simply tapping into the heartbeat of the American family that is broken, dysfunctional, and quite often, ridiculous. But amidst all the tension, struggle, and sin there is the ever-present desire to love and be loved, to accept and be accepted, to forgive and be forgiven.
This is especially true of my favorite movie, The Life Aquatic, starring Bill Murray. Every character in the movie is longing for affection and love, but lacking the ability or the courage to lay down their guard in order to receive it until the son, played by Owen Wilson, tragically dies. Through his death, the family confesses their weakness, divisions are healed, and their story is able to move forward. This certainly has connections to another well known story, doesn’t it?
Whenever I think of the Bible and this time of year, the prophet Isaiah comes to mind simply because the lectionary is always replete with his readings. For example, the OT reading appoints for the third Sunday in Advent (series B):
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. (Isaiah 61:1)
Jesus has been anointed to bring Good News. This is key! He was to announce the day of God’s favor, which is echoed in the Angel’s announcement to Mary in Luke 1:28–33:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Notice in these passages what God our Father does not give us. Good advice! There’s plenty of good advice in the world, and while it may afford a certain kind of help, it is not what brokenhearted children ultimately need from their dads.
Our Father in heaven knows what you need. He has sent the gift of His own Son to set you free from the law. The law finds its fulfillment in His own perfect life (Rom 10:4 – Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.), so that He can gift us with His own life and righteousness. May this precious gift that begins with a baby in a manger deepen your affection for your heavenly Father who sent Him to you, and may it also deepen your appreciation for your own fathers, as flawed and fragile as they may be.