The most compelling finding from the report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, is this: the role of fathers in the faith practices of their children matter. As a husband and a father of three, it is very important that we fathers understand that we make a difference in our children’s lives, regardless of the shape of our family. Not merely by what we actively do, but simply by being present to them. In the last year, I attended funerals, several months apart, of two very important men who were also widely respected civic leaders. At both services, the adult children who eulogized their fathers spoke nothing of national awards, community recognition, or public accolades. What they remember instead about their respective father were they ways he helped with homework; how he was there to get them out of a jam; how he simply could be counted on.
Moreover, as a pastor who’s served as senior minister of three different congregations, it is also compelling that we fathers matter when it comes to the faith of our children. We cannot allow the stereotype to be self-fulfilling that mothers and grandmothers are to be the purveyors of faith for the next generation. The report, Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, convinces us that this is simply not true. Our children are watching us too, dads. They are persuaded by the religious choices we make (or don’t make) as well.
Fortunately, we have a great role model in the figure of Joseph and the role he played in the nativity of Jesus. He was engaged to Mary. Shortly before the wedding (in contemporary terms, after all the invitations had been mailed and deposits on band, DJ and reception hall paid) he found out, from a stranger no less, that Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child. How many guys would want to trade places with Joseph? Wouldn’t Joseph be justified if he canceled the wedding and went to find a partner he could more fully trust? To masculine ears, there is something quite disempowering in the way that Joseph is portrayed for us. If Joseph did do what he could have done, we would likely not even bat an eye. Joseph is known for what he does not do. He did not run away. He did not abandon Mary and Jesus. He chose instead to be present in Jesus’ life and to be the father that both Mary and this son would need. Not only is there great power in what Joseph chose not to do, the story of salvation could not be told without him. Long before Jesus saved any of our lives, Joseph saved Jesus’s. When King Herod ordered that the infant Jesus be killed, Joseph was the one who sheltered and protected Jesus until things were safe. This he could only do because he chose to be present to his family.
Joseph stood by a child that wasn’t even his. I wonder how closely we fathers are willing to stand by to the children that are ours? And I wonder how much the church today is challenging fathers to do so?
This doesn’t mean that a father isn’t justified in wanting to kick back on Sunday morning and watch the NFL pre-game on ESPN; or go hunting with the guys every weekend in the Fall; or to the gym, because he’s in a better mood when he works out and that ultimately benefits the whole family; or work extra hours on the weekend, because that will allow him to provide more fully for his family. As an avid distance runner, I make time to run every day of the week. But we should not make these choices at the expense of being present to our children and modeling for them what an active faith life looks like. And if we make the choice to have family, we must make the choice thereafter to balance time spent at work with time spent with family.
If we fathers want children who are expert marksmen when they are 30, we should take them hunting every chance we get. If we want them to be championship weightlifters when they are 30, we should hit the gym every time the doors open. But if we want them to be believers when they are 30 – committed to a faith community and enjoying the incredible gifts that come from it – we need to set the example of being active in a religious community with them now.
True power, as Joseph shows us, is choosing not to do something, even though we may be fully capable and justified in doing it, because it’s not what’s called for at the moment. When Jesus was arrested the night before his death, he said to the arresting soldiers, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” He could have saved himself. He didn’t “deserve” to die. He would have been justified in retaliating. But it wasn’t called for at the moment. And because Jesus didn’t do what he could have done, he exercised a power so great that it offered salvation to the whole world. Who knows? Maybe he learned this from Joseph, who set a similar example as his father years earlier.