Father’s Day is a time to remember and acknowledge dads and other men who have been mentors and guides during our formative years. Many of my memories of my dad have merged to form a collective impression of warmth and security, but some memories stand out in sharp relief for the impact they had going forward. I’d like to share one such memory.
Recently, one of my nephews interviewed my parents for a high school assignment. When he asked them, “What in your life are you most proud of?” My dad’s response was, “Being able to let our children go.” He and my mom have let us go in a literal, physical sense; two of my brothers live in my hometown, but the rest of my eight siblings and I are scattered all over North America.
I remember a time when my dad let me go in a different, and maybe even more important, sense. When I was in high school, the church I had attended all my life split over issues that included whether or not women should hold the offices of deacon, elder or minister in the church. The denomination was starting to be open to the idea. Members of the congregation, including my parents, disagreed and left to start a different church. I felt very conflicted over the whole situation. I didn’t know exactly where I stood on the issue, but I remember the sense of pressure I felt. One day, while walking to the barn with my dad, I put down the bucket I was carrying, turned to face him, and asked, “What would you do if I disagreed with you and Mom about women in office?”
My dad set down his own bucket, looked at me, and said, “Don’t believe something just because I do. You need to figure out for yourself what to believe and why.” With his words, I felt a weight fall off my shoulders. That verbal permission to take ownership of what I believed was so freeing! The process of learning to think for myself carried a lot less angst after hearing those words from my dad.
Of course, now I know that each of us must learn to make our faith our own. That was highlighted for me in an introductory philosophy class in college. The professor regularly gave us a chance to respond to what we were learning through “no risk writes,” in which we could write down a question or comment on a piece of paper and pass it in without any concern about what we wrote affecting our grades. Early in the course, I confessed on my slip of paper that I really didn’t feel equipped to discern the contours of a Christian worldview. I didn’t use those terms at the time—I didn’t yet have that kind of language—but I distinctly remember my professor’s response, blunt and unsympathetic, scrawled on the scrap of paper that he handed back to me: “Then may God have mercy on you and on your future children.” Ouch! It made me realize how critical it was for me to think through an issue for myself rather than accept someone else’s conclusion uncritically.
Now, as a parent myself, and having taught my own children for many of those years, I remember my dad’s words, and those of my professor, again. Being able to think critically, to figure out what you believe and why, requires exposure to ideas. It requires a knowledge of the Bible and of church history. It requires prayer. It also requires interaction with ideas from opposing points of view, including discussion of why an author might believe what they do and considerations of what consequences an idea might lead to.
If you wrestle through an important issue to determine your stance on it, you will naturally want others to reach the same conclusion—especially people for whom you care deeply. Parents love their children fiercely, want the best for them, and influence them greatly. As children grow and develop, they need to decide what they believe and why, but we cripple them if we try to control their thoughts.
Though letting a child go is not easy, it is important for both parent and child. My oldest is halfway through university. He is an adult already, even though it doesn’t seem long ago that he was a tiny newborn, a curious toddler, an earnest child, a lanky teenager. As much as I want him to make good choices, I also want him to make choices that stem from his own convictions. There is freedom in letting go of my expectations for what he will do and who he will be. And there is comfort in knowing that God understands and cares for him and for my other children on a level deeper than I do. I have prayed for my children all along, but more and more I pray that the Spirit will help me let go appropriately, and that my children will know the love of Christ and feel him present with them through the Spirit as they make their faith their own.
This Father’s Day, I am thankful for the way my dad guided and equipped me during my growing-up years. I am thankful again for his long-ago words that set me free to find my own way. As a result, rather than pulling painfully away, I find myself reaching in for connection, no matter the physical distance we find between us.