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Questions From the Heart?

I take fatherhood very seriously. In my role as a journalist for the Daily Tribune, I see too many examples of fathers who either can't or won't take seriously their responsibility towards their children and the result is a relational vacuum that produces confusion, uncertainty and anger among the emerging generation. When fatherhood goes missing the resulting lack of guidance and direction leaves that emerging generation without map or compass. (or, in their case, without a GPS!!)

It was such thinking that occupied my mind as I travelled this road for the third time. The two previous times had taken me to the same home. Now my editor wanted me to complete what would be a trilogy of articles - assuming I could get to speak to the father of the family.

I use the word "family" loosely. This particular Father and his two sons gave every appearance of being  dysfunctional in the way they related to each other. As I read through the brief that my boss had given me for this third visit, it struck me that the father initially appeared to be weak, even insipid, in how he related to his sons. The younger son seems to have played upon that weakness while the older lad had nothing but condemnation for his father.

One memory of my earlier visits led to another....then another....and another. I recalled the bitterness that was so evident in the older son when I interviewed him those few months back. He didn't have one good thing to say about his dad - only a totally negative critique of his father's failure as a father.

Then again, I couldn't help but be impressed with the depth and quality of the relationship that was shared by the younger lad and his father. Something good had definitely happened between those two. The spirit of rebellion that saw him leave home with the determination to live his life the way he wanted to live it, was long gone.

Nonetheless, I admit that my thoughts about the father were not altogether gracious. The way the brief portrayed him could easily lead one to believe that he was something of a weakling without authority in his own home. His goal seemed to be making his boys into his good mates - even if he did have to compromise and play to their disrespectful words and actions towards him.

As the bus arrived at the depot, I looked for the father. The thought crossed my mind that I must not allow any negative, personal bias that I may have towards the father interfere with an objective reporting of the truth. I had very little contact with the father on my two previous visits and I only had a vague recollection of his appearance.

To my surprise he was a rather tall man whose presence seemed to fill the large entry area. I guess I had in mind that he would look liked a 'mousey' kind of person, you know the kind of character with horn-rimmed spectacles, somewhat unkempt hair and shoes that hadn't seen a polishing brush for a long time.

In fact, he presented himself with a demeanour that dismissed such descriptions as unworthy of a this strikingly handsome man. So far as his appearance was concerned, he was anything but 'mousey'.

He had reserved a table for us at a local restaurant so we wasted no time getting on with the interview. Apparently his wife had died when the boys were very young and he had obviously tried to fill the emotional and relational gap left by her death. But despite his very best endeavours, both boys had become a source of disappointment to him.

No matter how hard he tried, all he could 'produce' was a first son who also tried very hard to fulfil what he believed were the expectations of his father upon him.

His 2nd son, who also believed that his acceptance by his father was based upon his performance, felt that he just could not measure up to those expectations so, instead of staying at home like his brother and trying to gain that approval, he abandoned such futile efforts and went a long, long way away - both geographically and relationally.

The man who sat opposite me was staring into me in a way that I found very unsettling . It was as if he was reading my thoughts concerning the way he had handled the raising of his two sons.

"I sense something of a negative response to the way I raised my two sons. Would that be right?" His comment held no malice. He obviously wanted to maintain a high level of honesty in our discussion.

"Well, not so much critical as puzzled." I replied, feeling somewhat embarrassed by the directness of his question.

"Let me see if I can anticipate the nature of your confusion and the question it prompts." He paused a moment as if carefully choosing the right words. "You are puzzled because of the way I responded to my younger son's demand for his share of the inheritance. You wouldn't have given him his part of the inheritance, would you?"

Again I was feeling awkward. His insight was very accurate. "Well, no, I wouldn't have done what you did. I can't help but feel that you gave him a green light and condoned his rebellion. Could you not have exercised your parental authority?"

"And end up with two sons resenting me? Yes, I could have made rules and regulations and enforced them with harsh authority. But all that would achieve would have been some form of a contract. What I wanted was a relationship, not a contract. The reason I released my youngest to leave with his share of the inheritance was both simply and dangerous.

Freewill is both simple and dangerous. The only way I could have a relationship with that boy was to provide him with a choice. He had to choose to have that relationship - father and son - which meant that I had to allow the possibility that he would say "No!" And if he did respond negatively, for the sake of that potential relationship in the future, I had to let him go".

"Can't you see that if I let him go and he came back, he would do so because that was his free choice, not my threats. Whereas if he came back of his own freewill, then there was something foundational upon which we could build a relationship together".

I was still processing what I could now see as the wisdom of the father, not his weakness, when I heard his question.

"Well, that certainly gives me a different 'take' on your motivation in letting him go. But what about his return? Didn't you feel the need or desire to discipline him? After all,  he had trashed the family name and dishonoured you, his father.

It was with a smile that the father responded.

See, you are still thinking 'contract', not relationship. That's the way my eldest son thinks. He gave me quite a serve of criticism when his younger brother came home. As much as I try, I just cannot convince him that it's the dynamics of relationship not the terms of a contract that matter to me.

At this stage my criticism of the father was beginning to lose credibility. I was beginning to see that what I thought was weakness was, in fact, strength. Something else was happening. My mind was going back to my first interview with the older son. I had just a few minutes to introduce myself to the father on that occasion. I had already settled on the title for my first article, "A Fall From Grace" and I had made the observation that the younger son didn't deserve this grace.

I recalled that the father had responded to my remark with a profound observation

If he deserved it, it wouldn't be grace.

As I travelled home on the bus, from somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind came echoes of former Sunday School days. I've long since given up on religion but the clarity of one statement that I had not heard for years and years was unmistakeable

Grace is getting what we don't deserve and not getting what we do deserve.

I can only hope that both those boys can see the incredible future that awaits them if they will reject the contract mentality and enjoy the relationship with their father.

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