June 21, 2015

A Necessary Good

While there were many shows in this genre that pre-date my time, I grew up in what could fairly be described as the heyday of the family sitcom.  There was The Cosby Show, Full House, Step by Step, Home Improvement, The Wonder Years, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Boy Meets World, and Family Matters, just to name a few.  Today TV programming is mostly filled up by reality shows on pretty much every conceivable subject (including several that probably shouldn’t have been conceived), dramas of various sorts (especially superhero dramas these days), and sitcoms of the Friends or Seinfeld variety.  But through the 80s and 90s, the family sitcom ruled the roost.  These shows, beyond being funny, were interesting in that they gave the outside observer a glimpse into what our culture thought about families and the specific people in them.  More modern family sitcoms like…Modern Family…reveal what we believe a family even is.  What’s always been most interesting to me, though, is the way dads have been portrayed in various sitcom generations.

Before my time, dads were given the high place.  Dads like Ward Cleaver and Jim Anderson were cast to embody what everybody wished their dad was like: loving, committed to his kids, committed to his wife, hard-working, fair in discipline, and so on and so forth.  If that was the high point, though, the portrayal of dads in family sitcoms began to decline even as the genre was rising to the top.  Early in my time dads like Cliff Huxtable, Jason Seaver (Growing Pains), and Danny Tanner (Full House) were pretty good.  They were the butt of the jokes way more often than Ward Cleaver or Jim Anderson ever were, but still, they cast a vision of a kind of positively idealized dad.  From there things dipped a bit further south with Tim Taylor, Jack Arnold, and Carl Winslow.  Again, they were all pretty good, but their place in the family was not nearly as exalted as the early TV dads had.  Tim Taylor, for example, may have been the family breadwinner and loved his family, but Jill was always smarter than him and his role was usually to mess things up and then get advice from Wilson.

After these dads, though, the road pretty well ended in a cliff.  Almost everybody may have loved Raymond, but the few episodes featuring Ray Barone I watched made me sick to my stomach.  He wasn’t the leader of his family, he was their source of suffering.  He ranged somewhere between pointless and nuisance.  The quality of dads hit rock bottom with Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Dan Connor.  After those imbeciles there really wasn’t anywhere to go but up, and…I think they have.  In the early 2000s the family sitcom fell out of favor and there just wasn’t much new for a while.  Then, in the last few years the genre has started making a comeback.  One in particular that I have watched since episode one and which has really impressed me is Last Man Standing which is basically Home Improvement but Tim Allen has three daughters instead of three sons.  It has some modern elements Home Improvement would never have touched, but Allen’s character, Mike Baxter, is a good dad.  He’s not perfect and in fact I have some real beefs with the way they handle some of the issues they address, but he consistently offers an example of loving, disciplined, and fair parenting.  He matters to his family as more than just the butt of the jokes.  It’s the first show that’s come even close to that mark that I’ve been aware of in almost 30 years.

But of all the examples of TV dads that are out there, I think the one that’s literally the best I’ve ever seen is Henry Allen.  He’s the father of Barry Allen, more commonly known as The Flash.  I mentioned the rise of superhero dramas a second ago and The Flash on the CW network fits squarely in that category.  It’s about a young man named Barry Allen who gets hit with some weird energy and from a particle accelerator explosion and an unknown mixture of chemicals which together grant him the ability to run mind-blowingly fast.  Much opposed to most of the superhero fare out right now, and in particular The Arrow which is the sister show to The Flash and is also on the CW, Barry Allen is not some morally conflicted hero who rides up along the edge of right and wrong in his pursuit of what he defines as justice.  Allen is a pristinely good guy.  He’s kind.  He’s compassionate.  He treats all women with respect.  He values life—even the lives of his enemies.  He’s committed to real justice.  He is, in other words, truly a hero, not just somebody with super powers who helps people.  What stands out about Barry for our purposes this morning is the source of all this character.  The show is fairly explicit on the fact that it all comes from his relationship with his dad.  In fact, he has two great dads who have been the primary influencers in his becoming the man he is.

Now I don’t want to take a lot of time summarizing 24 hours of programming, but the gist is that Henry was falsely accused of murdering his wife when Barry was a young boy and has been sitting in prison hoping for justice ever since.  A neighbor and family friend, Joe West, who is also the detective who investigated the case, took Barry in and has raised him as his own son ever since.  Both men are outstanding dads, committed to seeing Barry become fully the man he can be, Henry from prison, Joe on a day-to-day basis.  When Joe finally accepts Henry’s innocence (mostly because of Barry’s becoming the Flash), the two men work together to steer Barry down the right path in light of his newfound abilities.  In the season finale, Barry is finally able to run fast enough to time travel back to the moment when his mom was killed and prevent it from happening.  Changing, the past, though, will change the future in unknown, potentially dramatic ways.  Barry goes to Henry to let him know he can do it and to ask whether or not he should.  The ensuing conversation is one of the best examples of the power of being a good dad I’ve ever seen on a screen, big or small.  You’ve got to see this for yourselves.

Isn’t that powerful?  The first time I watched that I got teary.  When I watched it again the other day while making sure I had the right video and then again when I was getting it ready to show this morning I teared up again.  And just because I suspect I’m the only one in here watching the show, Barry does go back in time but ultimately doesn’t save his mom mostly because of what his dad said there (although he does get a touching final conversation with her).  How that will affect him long term we’ll have to wait until season two to find out, but that kind of truth speaking soaked in love is one of the most important things dads can do for their kids.

And yet, far too many kids today don’t get that either because they were never taught to do so, or as is increasingly the more common case, because they never had a dad who was actively and positively involved in their life.  And you know what, the impact of this on a culture is not simply noticeable, it’s measurable.  There are 24 million children in America—that’s 1 in 3—who do not have their biological dad present in their home.  A great deal of data all suggest that the other two-thirds of children fare better than these in every measure of child well-being.  Fatherlessness creates poverty.  Kids who do not have involved dads wind up living in poverty almost four times more than those who do.  They tend to be more aggressive than those with dads.  The incarceration rate for fatherless kids is significantly higher which is because crime activity is higher.  Drug use among children in single-parent homes is significantly higher than for kids in two-parent homes.  Even the grades kids get is affected by the presence of a male role model in the house.  Having a dad in the house—even if it’s only a dad in the house—who gives some attention to what’s going on at school results in better grades.

Here’s the point: Father’s matter…a lot.  Culturally we used to understand that.  For a number of reasons, though, about a generation ago we started thinking of fathers as pointless at best, harmful at worst.  We decided the Emperor didn’t have any clothes on and had a great time telling him over and over and over again.  We told dads in every conceivable way that they don’t matter and eventually, guess what happened?!?  They started to believe it!  And when they started believing they don’t really matter, they started acting like it.  Get this: today 41% of all births happen out of wedlock and among women in their 20s the number soars to 59%.  Well, given all the studies we just breezed through a minute ago that particular statistic should cause our entire country to collectively gulp because we’ve got the makings of a hard, hard road ahead of us.

So again: Dads matter.  But, their importance goes way beyond mere economics or sociology or psychology or physiology or biology.  Those are all important things and we can’t ignore them.  But there’s something missing in all of these numbers: spirituality.  We are not mere physical creatures that can be described in purely materialistic terms.  We are spiritual creatures and what happens to our spirits affects our bodies and by that the culture in which we dwell.  And while statistics and surveys and studies can tell us the impact dads have on our physical world, the Scriptures speak directly to the kind of impact dads were created to have on the spiritual lives of their families.  You see, while we are indeed both spiritual and physical creatures, if our spiritual lives are in good shape, everything else in our lives will work out for the better.  The reverse is not true.  And while there are many places in the Scriptures that offer a word or two about why fathers matter, I want to share one with you this morning that knocked my socks off when I first read it.

Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Proverbs 14.  Proverbs are wise sayings, mostly written by King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, that describe how the world works, all things being equal.  You could no doubt find counter examples for almost every proverb in the collection, but that’s because sin has left us with a world in which all things are not equal.  That being said, making the proverbs our goal will very often lead to the happy ends they describe for the one who is wise.  As far as I’m concerned, that goes double for this one.  Check this out with me at Proverbs 14:26.  We’ll unpack the first part and then move to the second: “He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress…”

The concept of the “fear of the Lord” is a big one in Scripture and a multifaceted one at that.  Think of it like this.  Jurassic World just came out last weekend and is showing itself to be a summer blockbuster of the first order.  In the movie, Chris Pratt plays a Velociraptor trainer.  If you can remember back to the first…and second…and third movies in the franchise, while the T-Rex was always the big bad dinosaur, the Velociraptors were a much greater source of fear because unlike the T-Rex which was more of a wrecking ball, the Velociraptors were smart and lethal.  As a raptor trainer, Pratt has to maintain a constant “fear of the raptor.”  This is in part an awe-filled respect of them because they are genuinely impressive animals (at least in the movie!), but it is also part terror because they hold his life in their claws.  They could kill him in an instant if they decided to.  The fear of the Lord is kind of like that.  We maintain a healthy respect of God because He is awesome in the fullest, richest sense of the word.  But, there’s an element of terror as well because He’s awesome in power and could wink us out of existence with barely a thought if He desired.  And consistently in the Scriptures, when people have powerful experiences with God their first reaction is terror.  Angels bearing the glory of God consistently start their messages with, “Do not be afraid.”  Why?  Because the folks who encounter them are afraid.  The effect is magnified infinitely with God Himself.

In any event, Solomon writes that the person who fears the Lord has a secure fortress.  A fortress is simply a place of refuge from the turmoil of the world.  Well, if we properly fear the Lord, we will be rightly related to Him.  And if we are rightly related to Him, we will indeed have in Him a place of refuge from the turmoil of the world.  Here’s the thing about a fortress, though, it does not make the turmoil of the world go away, rather, it gives us a place of refuge from it.  Finding rest in God doesn’t make the turmoils of life go away, it rather gives us a place of refuge from them.  It allows us to have peace in the midst of the storm.  What more, this is a secure refuge.  It won’t ever get compromised or overrun.  We can trust in it explicitly and rest comfortably while the battles rage.  We still stay alert.  We still fight hard.  We still actively resist invaders.  We still make preparations for sieges and occasional sorties.  But we know we are secure.  We are secure when the unexpected medical emergency arises.  We are secure when the sting of betrayal knocks us off our feet.  We are secure when temptation rises us to sweep us away.  We are secure when a job disappears and finances become impossible.  We are secure when we are threatened and persecuted for being faithful to the way that is good, true, and right.  We are secure.  This is the legacy of all those who have a healthy, lived-out fear of the Lord.

In fact, a more literal reading of the verse allow us to go even further.  More literally this verse reads: “In the fear of the Lord is confidence of strength.”  When I wrestle around with my boys, I do so with great confidence.  I have no fear that they will beat me.  One day that will change—I still remember the day it changed with my own dad—but for now I wrestle with confidence.  Why?  Because I know I’m stronger than they are.  Another way to imagine this might be as the kid who proclaims his superiority over other kids by saying, “Well my dad can beat up your dad!”  When we fear the Lord and are thus rightly related to Him such that He is for us, we can walk through this life with the confidence of strength.  We still wrestle and fight and struggle, but we do so from a place of confidence because greater is the one who is in us than the one who is in the world.  Again, if we fear the Lord, this is our portion.  It is our legacy.  But, this isn’t just a legacy for us.  Solomon makes clear that the payoff for practicing the fear of the Lord is much bigger than that.

Look at this in the next part of the verse with me.  Solomon doesn’t say simply that living with a healthy fear of the Lord will provide a secure fortress for us.  Look at what he says here: “…and for his children it will be a refuge.”  Our fear of the Lord certainly provides us with a secure fortress, a well from which we can always draw the confidence of strength, but it also does this for our children.  Our faith provides them a secure fortress.  It gives them the confidence of strength.  Godly dads create a stronghold of faith for the family.  The reverse this time is true.  If we have no faith; if we do not fear the Lord; if we do not actively demonstrate that our relationship with God is the single most important thing in our lives, it may be that they will come to a robust, saving faith on their own, but the much greater likelihood is that they will not have this fortress; they will not have this confidence; they will not have this strength.  Godly dads create a stronghold of faith for their family.

Here’s why: as a general rule (meaning there are some exceptions…but the safe bet is to assume you’re not one of them), kids adopt the religious identity of their mom and the religious devotion of their dad.  This means that if Mom was a Baptist, then absent an intentional conversion to something else they will always identify as a Baptist.  If you want your kids to be Baptists then, ladies, you’re in the right place.  But, they will almost always practice their faith with the same intensity and intentionality of Dad.  If he shows them by both what he says and what he does (with an emphasis on the latter) that his faith is important, then they’ll make it important.  Godly dads create a stronghold of faith for their family.  I’m living proof of this.  If, on the other hand, he shows them (usually mostly by what he does) that work is more important or sports are more important or hunting is more important or recreation is more important or even that they are more important, they’ll follow suit.  They may not pick the same things as more important, but something will be more important.  And, in a culture where it is increasingly becoming normal, acceptable, even admirable to not identify as a Christian in any meaningful sense, the pretense of faith practiced by so many in the past in spite of having their hearts more fully somewhere else won’t be copied.  In other words they aren’t going to go to church like you did just because it’s what they are supposed to do.  Thus the chances of an accidental conversion decreases precipitously.  It’s always been kind of a truism used to guilt parents into bringing their kids to church that the faith is always a single generation from dying out.  Friends, we are living in a culture in which what was formerly merely a truism is being seen more simply as true.  And it is a generation of dads who have believed the lie that they don’t really matter who have more to do with that than anybody else in the world.  Moms, you are really, really important, but a faith that is not handed down from Dad is usually not handed down at all.  And a life without faith is a life without a place of refuge; without real confidence; without genuine strength.  It is a life adrift in a storm with no safe harbor.  Godly dads create a stronghold of faith for their family.

Let me say one more thing and then we’re out of here.  It’s not just biological fathers to whom all of this applies.  If you are a man, whether you have children or not, your practice of the fear of the Lord can create a secure fortress for another young person.  Remember before I said that Barry Allen’s biological dad was falsely accused of murdering his mom and had spent most of Barry’s life in prison?  Barry was raised by Joe West—someone not his biological dad.  And yet Joe determined to shepherd Barry into becoming a man in the truest sense of the word.  He took seriously his duty to pour himself into another young person who would have otherwise not had the regular presence of a dad in his life.  And late in the season when Barry makes some decisions that are unwise, Joe speaks into his life to call him back to who he should be.  Check this out.

Today is Father’s Day and we should celebrate dads because they matter more than we could possibly describe.  Godly dads create a stronghold of faith for their family.  Even ungodly dads, though, are worth having because they make radical improvements to our culture simply by being present and involved in the lives of their kids.  But I don’t care if you are a biological dad or not.  If you are a man, you have the ability, no, you have the duty to pour into the life of a young person.  God may not have chosen to give you children of your own.  That’s a hard place to be, a hard place to understand.  But I dare say one possible reason for it is that He wanted you free to be able to impact a young person who doesn’t have a meaningful relationship with their dad.  If your kids are grown and out of the house, the same goes for you.  Your work isn’t done.  You have much to give and you need to give it.  In two words: you matter.  Godly dads create a stronghold of faith for their family.  Godly men create a stronghold of faith for their community.  Let’s rise up, men, and be fully who God designed us to be to His glory, our joy, and for the sake of the world around us.