My father died of a rare blood disease when I was two years old. I have no memories of him.
Growing up, I was raised by my mother and grandmother, with the occasional input of an emotionally distant grandfather. As a result, I often have felt as though my entire life has been an attempt to fill the void that fatherlessness leaves in a man's heart and psyche. I have found many men over the years that have, for a time, filled the void. Some were family, others were mentors, and some were friends, but none truly filled that niche.
The void also led me down a path that I could not have predicted or even recognized, until recently. For as long as I can remember, I have only desired to do one thing really well: be a father. In turn, I got married very young (by today’s standards) and we had children immediately. Before I knew what hit me, I was thrust into what I had always wanted and yet I did not know what to do. That was in 1995, and that same year I began the culmination of undergraduate studies at Concordia University Irvine. There I met for the first time a somewhat odd man, who would in more ways than one change my life. That man was Dr. Rod Rosenbladt.
At the time, I was a theology student at Concordia University ('religion major' in those days), so my next three years would be full of classes taught by this eccentric theology professor. From his lips, I learned about 20th-century theology (which he hated and I in turn now hate), philosophy, dogmatics, confessional studies, religious bodies in America, comparative religions, and many more classes all of which I cannot remember.
Further, what I noticed was that if I paid close attention, Dr. Rosenbladt was also teaching me explicitly and implicitly about fatherhood and being a dad. He had a knack for teaching his students about grace and graciousness, thus what it means to be a dad, and modeling that grace and graciousness in his every step as a mentor and professor.
It was by listening closely to Dr. Rosenbladt's words and watching his quiet actions that one could learn many things about being a dad. First, a dad is the model of grace in the home. Second, a dad is not a mom. Third, life as a dad is about raising children who are in turn gracious and kind, yet not always compliant. Fourth, the father models in the home not only grace, but a masculinity that is firm and strong but not threatening. Lastly, a dad needs to be forgiven as often as he needs to forgive. Below is my attempt to restate what I learned from Dr. Rosenbladt during those years, and in the years since, so that I might turn over to you the wisdom he shared with me, albeit in an incomplete way.
First, A Dad Is the Model Of Grace In The Home
By using the picture of a father as the model of grace, the intent is not to imply that a mother is not a model of grace or that a mother cannot be gracious. Rather the intent is to say that God calls fathers, dads, into the lives of their children so that through these fathers the children may experience God's grace in a very personal and intimate way. The emphasis here is one of calling or vocation, not of quality, influence, or importance.
Obviously, as someone who was primarily raised by women, I have through the years struggled with this concept. Often, as one who loves his wife with a passion unequaled this side of glory, I still struggle. But my struggle with these statements does not make them less true. This reality is vocational and theological.
Vocationally, the father's role in the home is to point his children, through his words and deeds, to the graciousness we have received on account of Christ. Every move that a father makes with his children ought to be oriented around understanding that theological and vocational reality. Fathers, according to this view, are not called to play the "wait till your father gets home" role represented by 1950s sitcoms.
Rather, a father is called to be little Christ, as Luther would say, to his first neighbors: his family. Fathers teach grace and forgiveness to the family, wife, and children, by what they do and what they say. It reminds me of that little line from the Small Catechism: "As the head of the household (that is, the dad) is to teach his family."
Second, And Correspondingly, A Dad Is Not A Mom!
In other words, if you are a father you are not a mother with bigger muscles and a deeper voice. Sure, mom will need your help on occasion, but the temptation is to mistakenly believe that your full-time family-related calling is being the heavy in every family dispute. This sometimes-unpleasant reality that your calling as Dad is to be graceful rather than the heavy will, at times, put you at odds with your wife. The key is to remember that it is not you against her, but rather that mothers and fathers each have a calling in the family, and those callings are not the same.
When I think about the different callings, I often fall back on the words of Paul:
"Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body." 1 Cor 12:14-19
The dad is not the bicep! The father is the head of the family and thus as Christ is the head of the church, is grace and graciousness to that family. That is what God has called him to be.
Third, On Compliance and Good Behavior
Though I have always wanted compliant children, I am proud to say that I think I have throttled that sinful desire enough to have raised gracious and kind children instead who know that they are forgiven on account of Christ.
Compliance is of the Law. The Law always condemns. Therefore, compliance equals condemnation. How can a father be about grace and forgiveness if he is rather about compliance, which equals condemnation? He can't. Melanchthon claimed in the Augsburg Confession that good works would naturally flow from forgiveness.
If we as dads want our children to be good, or gracious, or kind, first preach, teach, and model to them the Gospel of Christ, which is God's grace and forgiveness. After all, we all know that compliance is not all that it's cracked up to be.
Fourth, Fathers Need To Be Masculine
Masculinity, in turn, does not need to be seen as a bad thing, but rather like what a man was created to be... a man! This picture goes hand-in-hand with a dad not being a mom. That is, men aren't just bigger women.
Sometimes men are coarse and gruff, and rough around the edges, and callous, and offensive, and brave, and daring, and careless, and quietly kind. A man will often say that he loves you as much with his gestures as with his words. A man will encourage you to be adventurous while mom is telling you to be careful, and that is okay.
Masculinity is not about taking off one's shirt and thumping one's chest. Masculinity is about teaching the qualities of a man through being honorable, trustworthy, brave, and strong while being kind and forgiving all at the same time. Being masculine is difficult. But to be masculine is a laudable goal, not a deplorable one. Our culture could use a few more—probably many more—masculine men stepping up and being fathers.
Lastly, Dads Need Forgiveness As Much As They Give It
Believe it or not, the burden of being the model of grace in the home is not an easy position to take. It is hard. I have lost my temper and been the heavy as much as I have been this idealized model of grace and for that I am sorry and ask forgiveness from my entire family.
Too often I have demanded compliance when I ought to have shown mercy and compassion. Too often I have been the mother with a deeper voice and bigger biceps. Too often I have been suspicious when I should have trusted. Too often I have praised the use of the Law in my house over and against the need for the Gospel.
I am a dad, and while I strive to be grace to my children and my wife, I am often the very opposite. I need forgiveness because I am a dad. Having found perfect forgiveness in Christ, I am now set free from the Law that binds me. I am free to be (as Gerhard Forde might say) forgiveness to those God has placed in my care. I am a dad!
To Dad Rod (Dr. Rod Rosenbladt) I say thank you. It is my sincere hope that I represented well what you were trying to teach me all of these years. I am sure that I have much yet to learn, and I look forward to many more lessons at your feet on this and many other subjects. I believe that you have taught me to raise my children to be gracious, intelligent, and thoughtful, not merely compliant. As my son Caleb recently said to the wedding photographer at his wedding while that photographer (who also happens to be Caleb's future father-in-law) was trying to get the Keith family to pose in a certain way: "The Keiths are not compliant!" Maybe I managed, in spite of all of my failings, to listen to you after all.
Thank you, Rod!