Editor’s note: this piece appears in a somewhat different form in Tim Bayly’s upcoming book on fatherhood.
“It’s a boy!”
It took a while to sink in. A boy. Mary Lee had given birth to a boy. Our firstborn was a five-year-old girl, so we’d had some time to get used to raising a girl. We were fine with girls. We played with Heather; we listened to her and laughed with her. She was the greatest joy we’d ever known and suited us fine. But now we had a boy and I was fearful.
Oh no. What am I going to do with a boy? I don’t have a clue how to raise a son.
I kept these thoughts to myself. God had given us a boy and I was afraid to tell Mary Lee how scared I was. I felt ashamed at my fear and kept it a secret from my lover. How could I admit my response to having a boy was radically different than my response to having a girl? People were people, after all.
Mary Lee and I had both been raised in godly homes, yet we were typical children of the sixties. We thought people made too much of what we condescendingly referred to as “sex roles” in marriage and family life.
People needed to think less about who was the man and who was the woman. In the foolishness of pride, Mary Lee and I did our best to deny that from the beginning God made us male and female, and it was good.
What our denial of the meaning and purpose of sexuality meant in practice was that we sorted everything out by fighting. Nothing was a given due to our sexual identity—nothing other than marital intimacy, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing the baby. But as for doing the dishes, checking the oil, cooking dinner, changing the sheets, doing the laundry, writing the checks and balancing the checkbook, every task became a matter of negotiation.
Our pride was so awful that even walking together was tense. I wouldn’t slow down and Mary Lee wouldn’t speed up. It didn’t occur to us that our sex—how God divided us into male and female—was a gift in sorting out who did what. As we saw it, we were way superior to all the old man/woman stereotypes. It was time to leave them behind.
But with this second pregnancy, we were seven years into marriage and the hard realities of married life had been used by God in His great mercy to alter our idealism a little. To this day I remember the morning my dear brother-in-law asked me to go on a walk with him, and after we’d left the house he said, “Tim, God wants you to be the head of your home.”
In His kindness, God used my faithful brother-in-law to say those simple words which produced the fruit over time of exploding my conceit and leading me down a road of repentance by which Mary Lee and I over many years came to love and live out loud Scripture’s commands concerning man and woman, husband and wife. The road of repentance was long and winding, though, and Mary Lee was not always an eager fellow traveler. Especially at the beginning.
Especially at the beginning. So when I finally told Mary Lee how fearful I was, she was irritated: “Why do you think you can’t raise a boy? How’s it any different from raising a girl? We’ve done fine with Heather. Why are you afraid of raising Joseph?”
I crawled back into my hole with a red face and my tail between my legs. What was wrong with me? Didn’t I know raising a boy was just like raising a girl? Except, of course, you had to think about circumcision. So why was I afraid to have a son?
The reason was I myself didn’t know how to be a man, so how on earth could I be a father to a son? What was a man? What was a son? What was a father?
It’s thirty years later now, and our son, Joseph, is all grown up. Now he himself is the father of a son. During those thirty years I’ve learned a lot about being a father. And one of the key things I’ve learned is that I’m not alone in my fears. Many of us don’t have a clue how to raise a son because we were never taught what manhood is. !us fatherhood is mysterious and intimidating, particularly when we face raising a son.
Nevertheless, life goes on, marriages are vowed, wives get pregnant, and about half of those who are born will look to their fathers to learn the nature of manhood, sonship, and fatherhood. Do you recognize the weight of fatherhood? Do you see the work cut out for you in becoming a father and teaching fatherhood to your son?
Likely one of the reasons we are fearful of fatherhood is we have come to recognize the sins and failures of our own fathers and we’re afraid we will repeat them. But realizing God is the Father from Whom all fatherhood gets its name, we surely can’t be surprised that every man ever born has failed at this glorious task. That is, if failure is defined by our Heavenly Father’s perfections. Here’s a quote I’ve become fond of: “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them” (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890).
May I gently say to you that it’s time to forgive your father and move on to the task at hand? Soon enough your own sons will be working to forgive you. And don’t worry so very much about your own children judging your fatherhood. God Himself is keeping perfect record of what we do right and wrong, the good we do and the good we fail to do. So will we step out by faith and give ourselves to the fatherhood we have been dignified with by the Father Almighty? Yes, we will fail. But wouldn’t it be better to fail trying?
Some of my most precious memories are of my father failing while trying to be my good father. When I was a little boy I had a brother one year older who was my perfect companion. I remember playing with him in the living room, making tents by draping blankets and bedspreads over the backs of chairs and pulling them over to the back of the sofa. Then we’d crawl under our tent and play. Danny was the perfect older brother and I was his tag teammate. Where he went, I always followed. What he did, I did. What games he played, I played with him. Brother and brother growing up together in peace and joy.
Then tragedy struck. Danny was diagnosed with leukemia and one year later he died. I was inconsolable. We had family devotions each night and I distinctly remember thinking that God could do anything He wanted and that He’d promised to answer our prayers.
So, each night following Bible reading when it was my turn to pray, I’d ask God to raise Danny from the dead. Night after night this was my prayer. Think about the knife that must have cut through the hearts of Dad and Mud (our family’s affectionate term for Mother) and my older brother and sister as Danny’s younger four-year-old brother asked God to bring Danny back.
Let me tell you, right now I am crying as I write this. The sadness was unbearable and I wanted it over (as I’m sure everyone else did, too). In our Facebook world where nothing has weight or glory, never forget that death is an enemy; and it’s a terrible enemy.
Seeing my pain, Dad did his best to love me back to health. He got an idea. He and I would carve a boat together out of a block of wood. Then we’d attach a miniature electric battery-driven motor to the boat’s stern and take it to a lake and watch it putter across the water. Dad bought a block of wood and some knives and took me out to the country where he and I sat on a large log and began to carve.
It wasn’t a one-day job. The block of wood we intended to turn into a boat was thick and long and it would take many days of carving to form its bow and stern and hollow it out. After our first day of carving, we went home and a day later I broke out in the most awful rash. It was all over my body, but particularly high up my legs. It turns out Dad had sat us down on a log covered with poison ivy and I’d been wearing shorts, so I had poison ivy everywhere. And that was the end of Dad and his son Timothy’s happy time carving a boat together.
What was Dad’s failure? Well, for starters, he sat his four-year-old son wearing shorts down in the middle of poison ivy. Then, when the damage had been done, he gave up on carving the boat. It was a great disappointment.
About six years later, Dad and Mud lost their eldest son, Joseph. (In the interim, another son, Johnnie, had died so Joe was their third loss.) Cheerful, kind, and gentle, Joe was a man who kids loved. He was an excellent scholar and planned on grad school and then serving the Lord in foreign missions. He and Dad were very close.
Following Joe’s service and burial at Glenwood Memorial Gardens on a cold January afternoon, we said tearful goodbyes to our Blue Church and Delaware County Christian School loved ones, got in our car, and drove out to the Midwest where Dad had taken a new job. Our family was in agony.
Meanwhile Dad was on the road representing his new employer, speaking and preaching at Sunday school conventions, Inter-Varsity summer camps, church conferences, summer conferences, and out on the mission field. My older sister, Deborah, was the child hit hardest this time since she and Joe were inseparable, but a year and a half later Deborah was gone to the University of Illinois, leaving Mud out in the country, in the middle of corn fields, with a son about to enter adolescence and two toddlers. She had no friends and Dad was gone more than half the time. She was dying emotionally, and so was her husband. He travelled and spoke while she gardened. Half the time, Dad was gone.
But when he was home, he was gone, also. One of my memories was how, when he was in town, he’d get home from work and sit in his chrome and leather recliner, reading. When I’d get home after he did, Dad would call out, “How was your day, Tim,” and I’d answer, “Fine, how was yours, Dad?” He’d answer “Fine” and that was it. Once or twice I tried to break the pattern: “No, Dad, really; how was your day? What happened? What did you do?”
Any attempt to escalate our intimacy was useless. In fact, worse than useless: as far as Dad was concerned, I’d gone off the reservation and my questions fell to the ground and lay there stinking. One time I tried to take a besetting sin to him for his counsel and it is telling that I used Mud as my intermediary. I asked her to ask him for me what he thought I should do about the sin and a couple days later she reported Dad had told her to tell me there are some things a man has to figure out for himself. That was it.
You know, speaking of Dad’s failures, the Bible records a key moment in the life of Noah and his sons that we should consider:
Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.
When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said, “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.” (Genesis 9:20–27)
Am I not doing precisely what Ham did? Why is it right for me to speak publicly about my Dad’s failures here, and not just to my family (if any of them read this), but also to perfect strangers? Dad isn’t here to defend himself. He’s entered his heavenly rest in the presence of the Lord.
It may be wrong, but here’s my reasoning in thinking it’s good and necessary. Maybe even that, if Dad were present, he’d approve. If you, good reader, think my Dad was perfect, you may be tempted to think the only sons who can become good fathers are those who had good fathers. But there are no good fathers. Remember Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler?
As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17–18)
And when Jesus was speaking specifically about our fatherhood, do you remember what He said about us?
Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a $sh, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him? (Luke 11:11–13)
Don’t allow any man to fool you: no father is good. God alone is good. And according to our Lord Jesus Christ, every one of us is properly described as “being evil.” This is our steady state. We have not been glorified, yet. Being evil, we are being made holy; and it’s a long and winding and painful road. That’s the nature of the life of faith. A Christian is a man who, by faith, has committed himself to failing in the right direction.
As the years have passed, I’ve come to love my Dad most for these very failures. It’s not that I no longer wish we’d finished carving the boat. It’s not that I don’t still feel some sadness that Dad and I didn’t talk about my sin. Rather, it’s that even in these failures I learned the nature of the love of a Christian son for his godly, kind, intelligent, thoughtful, wise, and tender Christian father.
It wasn’t that Dad sat me down in poison ivy, but that Dad had an idea that carving a boat together would heal my grief. And maybe his, too. Daddy tried.
But what about his avoidance of intimacy? What about his road trips after his eldest son Joe died? Looking back on it, I see how easy it would have been for Dad to give in to his overwhelming grief and leave his wife and children entirely (as so many other men did and do still today).
The divorce statistics for parents who lose a child or children to death are much debated over, but clearly the loss of one child is a stress many couples never recover from—let alone two or (in our case) three children. Dad and Mud persevered, and I’ve come to realize that Dad and Mud both had such gaping wounds that it was a victory they stayed together at all. Their commitment to marriage was faith. For some time theirs was a very weak faith—and therefore theirs was a far greater faith than I’ve ever been called by God to exercise myself. Who am I to judge my father?
No, I will not judge my father. I will love him. I will forgive him. I will pray that my Heavenly Father never calls on me to demonstrate the faith He called on my father and mother to demonstrate. What terrible suffering they went through! Here’s a poem Dad wrote about this suffering after his third and eldest son, Joe, died:
What waste Lord
this ointment precious
is treasure great
beyond my mind to think.
until this midnight
it was safe
contained awaiting careful use
The world is poor
so poor it needs each drop
of such a store.
!is treasure spent
might feed a multitude
for all their days
and then yield more.
This world is poor?
It’s poorer now
the treasure’s lost.
I breath its lingering fragrance
soon even that
What purpose served?
The act is void of reason
madmen do such deeds
The sane man hoards his treasure
spends with care
to feed the poor
or else to feed himself.
Let me alone Lord
You’ve taken from me
what I’d give Your world.
I cannot see such waste
that You should take
what poor men need.
You have a heaven
full of treasure
could You not wait
to exercise Your claim
O spare me Lord
that I may see
beyond this world
Your sovereign plan
or seeing not
may trust You
Spoiler of my treasure.
Have mercy Lord
here is my quitclaim.
Our fathers are weak. We are weak, too. God is strong. It took about a decade, but Dad came home in time for my two younger brothers to enjoy him fully.
My image of David and Nathan as they grew up was Nathan sitting in Dad’s lap or over on the $replace next to Dad talking with him while David lay on the floor behind Dad’s chair reading. It was a tender sight.
Beyond David and Nathan, though, Dad and Mud healed together and I had the full benefit of Dad’s wisdom and counsel as I got married, had our first two children, and entered the pastorate.
When Mary Lee and I had our tenth wedding anniversary, Dad and Mud o#ered to come up to Wisconsin and take care of our two children, Heather and Joseph, while Mary Lee and I used two nights they gave us down in Chicago at the Marriott on North Michigan Avenue. Dad offered to preach for me and before I left, I took a small Post-it note and wrote “I love you, Dad” and stuck it to the top of the pulpit so when he began preaching, he’d see it.
You can see how much I love my Dad, right? Is it because he was perfect? Is it because he did everything right? No, it is because, sinner though he was, I hope to rise to his level of godliness before I die. And I even dare to think that the places he did fail us are the very places God will use in my life to help other fathers become better fathers.
Beyond that, I’ve spent much of my ministry loving men, and calling the other pastors and elders I work with also to love men drowning in father hunger. How could I have seen it if I’d not felt it myself? And there’s no question much of my commitment to help these men, and to get other men to help them, comes from my memory of Dad being gone those years after Joe’s death.
Recently I exhorted a man in his late fifties that he must not die a victim. I was pointing out that he’d spent his life up until now being bitter about hurts suffered in the past and if he didn’t repent of his bitterness, he’d die a victim.
What a faithless thing that is, to die feeling sorry for ourselves because of our father’s failures! Can this possibly be the life of Christian faith and hope and fatherhood?
Of course our fathers were failures. So were their fathers. And their father’s father before them. Fact is, we can trace our own fathers’ failures all the way back through history and back through Scripture itself. But if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are the adopted son of the Father from Whom all fatherhood gets its name, so you have nothing to complain about, really. He is perfect. He never fails us. He is not fickle. He doesn’t avoid intimacy with us. He’s a friend who sticks closer than any brother. And He knows our weakness:
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and
plenteous in mercy.
He will not always chide: neither will He keep his anger
He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us
according to our iniquities.
For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His
mercy toward them that fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed
our transgressions from us.
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth
them that fear Him.
For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are
As for man, his days are as grass: as a “ower of the $eld, so
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place
thereof shall know it no more.
But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
upon them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto
To such as keep His covenant, and to those that remember
His commandments to do them. (Psalm 103:8–18)