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Faith of a Father

A child's parents' greatest duty is to make their home a place where people grow.

Ironically, Eli was a rotten father. The first two shots he took at raising boys were an abysmal failure, and he gave the world two monsters. So God must be a gracious God, because he gave Eli a third chance. When Hannah and Elkanah presented their precious young son for service at the temple, this time Eli performed.

Eli, what is your job description in the raising of Samuel?

Answer: "My mission is to so raise this young man that when the voice of God is heard, he will know how to decode the noise and respond obediently to it." There could be no higher call for the man who was privileged to be called Father.

Any healthy male past the age of puberty can become a father, but it takes a man who understands this mission to be a father. The mission of the man called Father is to raise children in such a way that, like Samuel, they may be able to decode the voice of God and make a proper choice as to whether or not they shall respond. This encounter happened in the tabernacle at Shiloh, for God called people to himself in special places.

In Lexington, Massachusetts, where Gail and I and our children, Mark and Kristi, lived for 13 years, we lived on Grant Street in a small, house with six or seven rooms and one bathroom. I now shake my head in consternation to realize I raised a family with one john. One year ago, my wife and I said to Grant Street. As we got into the car, I said, "Why don't we go back into the house one more time. Let's tour each room and see if we can form one final memory of something that happened so we can carry it with us." And so we went from room to room and decided the most memorable experience that had happened in the vocation of mothering and fathering during those 13 years.

Admonish your family to build one another.

The first room is the breezeway, sometimes the family room. It was a marvelous place to eat and have a lot of fun in as a family. I remember coming home one day when our children were probably around the ages of nine and six. As I entered the breezeway, the two of them were standing , ripping each other apart. I was amazed at the words and the anger. I was grieved, as a father would be watching his children rip each other apart. Then I put my hands on their shoulders so they maintained this limited distance, and I said, "Listen carefully. This place is called home. It is unlike any other place. When you enter into a home, people do things differently. In a home, they build each other. Did you hear that word? They 'build' each other. Say it for me, very slowly."

And both children said, "Build each other."

"Say it again louder, so I can hear you better."

"Build each other."

"Yes, that's what you do in a home. You build each other. Outside that door, people carve each other up. They compete with each other. And sometimes you have to look over your shoulder to see who may be coming up behind you. You should never have to do that in a home. I anticipate from this moment forward that the content of your conversation will always be in the mode of building, because here we are growing human beings to the glory of God."

That's a definition of a home: a place where people are built. The rest of the world is a place where people are discriminated against, are denied their rights, are made to feel something less than they are. But in a home, the task of parents is to build people, to create an environment in which people can grow.

I stood one day at the edge of a newly planted lawn. I loved the cleverness of the planter who had put a sign there that said, "Please do not walk on this ground; seeds are at work." A sign like that could go on the front of every home. Seeds are at work. Children are being grown. People are being built.

Our clich became build. It came home to roost one day when I said an idle word to my wife and one of our children said to me, "Now Dad, was that a building statement? Why don't you say it again to Mom and see if the second time you can do it right."

I believe one day those men entrusted with wives and children will stand before God, and among the first questions he might ask would be, "Did your child and spouse grow to be all that I designed them to be in the environment you created?" In the breezeway, the great memory was the admonition to build.

Learn to talk to each other.

You go from the breezeway to the kitchen. At one end was a lovely old table we had refinished, and around that table we ate our meals. When it was time to eat, the phone came off the hook because for the hour we were at the table, the family was the ultimate priority. That did not happen by accident, for as our children began to enter the years, Gail and I discovered that our family schedule was falling into the hands of everybody outside the house. The children were victimized in a positive sense by the wonderful things to do in the school. The church had its own programs. The community had its programs. If we did not have control of our family calendar, before long we would be going in four different directions, having almost no useful time together.

One day my wife made an announcement with my support. She said, "From this day forward, every evening at supper time, we are going to eat together. It is an inviolable part of the daily schedule. I don't care what time we eat, as long as you tell me when you all can be here." My contribution was to suggest that suppertime is more than eating. It is a relational event in which people talk. That, I believe, is the second mark of a home in which people grow: people learn to talk with each other.

No one will learn to talk if the time is not taken and if interruptions are not minimized. As we stood in the kitchen of the empty house, we began to think of all the great conversations that happened around that old table: The evenings when one of the children came home defeated in an event at school and the opportunities to give vent to feelings and frustrations; the moments when the interesting questions merged into long conversations about sex, about marriage, or how you hear the voice of God.

If your children are anything like mine, they don't like to talk. "How was your day?" "Good." "Is that all, good?" "Yeah." "But, that's the way it was yesterday, and the day before that." So fathers have to be creative, like, "If you don't tell me what was the most interesting part of your day, it will cost you a quarter." Sometimes it takes a father who admits to his children that he also had struggles that day, or that he has failed. But sooner or later, because the time is taken, families learn to talk.

Discern when to protect and when to stand aside.

When you leave the kitchen, you come to the living room. Our living room had a large, plate glass window, and my memory as I entered that room was of our daughter, Kristi, who often sat on the love seat looking out the window. I often saw her there at 5:30 in the morning, when, for an hour with her Bible and journal, she would spend time ordering her world and bringing it into reconciliation with God.

She often did her homework out there. And it was not unusual to walk into the living room and see eight or ten young people sitting around the fireplace as she and the others talked about the Scriptures or a summer mission trip. The living room was a lovely place, and Kristi liked it very much. But one Saturday afternoon, Kristi sat in front of that window, and I knew the thoughts this time were difficult thoughts. Gail had put me on to the fact that Kristi was struggling, and maybe it was time for her father to enter the act.

The issue was simple. She had to make a big decision as to where she was going to attend high school. One group of friends thought she ought to go to the public school, and the other group thought she ought to go to the Christian school. She knew that to make a decision would hurt one group. Here was a 14 child, more girl than woman, wrestling with a massive decision.

As I listened to her talk, I finally heard myself saying, "Kristi, all men and women, be they teenagers or adults, have moments when they are like an oak tree or a tulip. The trick is to know which you are. Oak trees grow and stand tall. They take a long time, but when they get to full growth, no one messes with them. You walk around them, because oak trees stand by themselves. They are strong and beautiful and tall. And Kristi, I have seen you when you are an oak tree.

On the other hand, tulips grow to fullness and beauty also, but even at their greatest height and beauty, they need to be protected. You need to build a fence around a tulip, but you don't have to worry about an oak tree at all. So, it's important for fathers to ask their daughters, 'Are you today an oak tree or a tulip?' because if you are an oak tree, Kris, I'll leave you alone. But if you are a tulip, I'll build a fence around you today."

She pondered the alternatives, and then came the tears and finally the quiet voice, "Daddy, today I'm a tulip." With those code words, Father knows it's time to protect. Thank God, there are moments when fathers have that opportunity to build a fence. And thank God for the moment when he gives us the spirit of discernment to know when our children need the fence because they are tulips and when we need to stand aside because they are becoming oak trees.

Learn to flex within your principles.

If you walk down the hall, there's a bedroom where our son, Mark, lived. I remember that bedroom vividly. And now a memory quickly came to me. Mark was a sixth grader when the event happened. He had rushed in the door of our home after school and said, "The kids have asked me to go with them to Cape Cod this weekend. There are 14 of us going, seven boys and seven girls. It's going to be fantastic!" Sixth grade. For 72 hours. I took one look at him and with all my good interventive techniques, said, "No way!"

Sixth grade is generally the year when boys and girls form peer groups, when popularity becomes an issue, when being in the is the most important thing in the world. To be invited to go to the Cape for a weekend is a special privilege, and to hear from your parents that there's "no way" is devastating.

Mark quickly disappeared, and for a half hour I didn't hear anything from him. I began to search the house, but I couldn't find him. Then suddenly my mind turned back to the bedroom, and I realized there was something unusual about that bedroom: the closet door had been shut. So I went back into the bedroom and opened the closet door. There, back in the corner, was my son, sitting with his knees wrapped up to his chest, quietly weeping. I'd never seen him do that before.

There aren't textbooks that tell a father how to perform in a moment like that, but instinct told me I ought to join him. I found myself closing the closet door behind me and getting down on the floor in that darkened closet. I sat in the darkness for 10 minutes and listened to my little boy weep.

Finally, when there were no more tears, I began to rethink the decision I had made and whether I had been too arbitrary. "Son," I said, "let's talk. It's obviously very important to you. Tell me about the ground rules. Tell me what's going to happen." And with that, the story came out, the story I had been too gruff to listen to. When he finished, I said, "Bud, I'll back off. You go. But I want you to promise you will watch everything that happens this weekend. Watch the way the adults act and the way they treat their son. Watch the way the young people interface with each other. Promise that the minute you get back, the two of us will sit down and have a long talk about everything you saw and how you felt about it."

He said, "Dad, I promise." He went, and thank God, he had a thoroughly miserable time. "It was crazy, Dad. Those parents didn't care what their kids did. The kids were left on their own, hour after hour. Something wrong could have gone on. You and Mom would have never acted that way. I'm really pleased that you let me experience that, because I saw how different families treat each other."

From that weekend, because I made a choice to flex as a father, my son and I had a different relationship, which lasts until this day. He learned and I learned that part of good fathering is to have principles and convictions, but also to learn how to negotiate and flex and allow one's son or daughter to take a few chances for the possibility of learning valuable lessons on their own.

Be open and available for deep heart conversations.

Down the hall is the bedroom where Gail and I lived. When we reached that room, we laughed a bit as we remembered that it was to that room late in the hours of the night that the children often came with all sorts of wonderful and troubling stories.

There was the night at 12:30 when a soft knock came on the door and a rather quiet male voice said, "Dad, can I come in for a moment?" The door opens and our son walks in at the age of 17. He's breathing hard. He says, "Dad, I don't know how you are going to take this, but I got a speeding ticket tonight. You warned me, and I've gotten it, and I'm very, very sorry." And he sits on the edge of the bed and he talks about how he made the mistake.

You say to yourself, "Thank God we have achieved a point where the boy can admit he's wrong." We talk about what we're going to do about it. We give each other an embrace, and he goes to his bed.

Or there was the night when the same kind of knock came on the door, and this time it's a feminine voice: "Daddy? Mom? Can I come in?" And a little girl now turned 17 sits on the edge of the bed and tells you about a handsome guy she has met, and how he has feelings for her, and she has feelings for him. You look mesmerized as the little girl unfolds the fact that now she has become a woman, her heart has been captured. Just two weeks ago I walked her down the aisle to commit her to that young man. But there in that bedroom, we heard the story of a budding romance for the first time.

Gail and I look at each other in that empty bedroom and remember moments like that when there was the admission of pain and the first seeds of joy, and we say to ourselves, "Thank God, our children knew this was a room to which they could come no matter what the hour to talk about what was in their hearts."

Release your children to grow through experience.

The garage brought to us the memory of a red pickup truck that for many years was housed in it. When our son turned 16, the learner's permit was hardly dry or in his billfold when he came to me and said, "Dad, next Friday I have a date. I'd like to take her in the truck."

I said, "Well, Bud, you can't do that. You only have a learner's permit, and you can't go out at night without someone who has a license."

"Dad, she has a license."

"But the licensee has to be 18."

"Dad, she's 18 and a half."

"Where is the date?"


"What time does it start?"


"Have you ever driven in Boston at 5:30 on Friday afternoon?" I wanted to say, "No way!" but I had learned my lesson. I said, "Bud, give me two hours to think about it."

I go call the father of the girl and say, "Don, you know your daughter and my son have a date next Friday, don't you?"

He said, "Yes, I do."

"How would you feel if you knew that Mark was going to drive on that date with just a learner's permit because your daughter has a driver's license?"

He said, "Gordon, I trust Mark's judgment. If you feel he should do that, it's fine with me."

The two hours are almost gone, and I say, "Mark, my answer is yes under one condition. On the night before your date, you and I will drive the route to the date at the same time of day, and you will permit me to create any kind of circumstance and you will have to react to it."

He said, "Sure, Dad."

So the next Thursday at 5:30, we started out in traffic, bumper to bumper. I suddenly say to him, "Son, I'm sorry, but your right front tire just blew out."

"What do you want me to do?"

"What do you do with tires that have just blown out?"

"You change them."

"Then get over there and change it!" So we pull over into the breakdown lane with me praying that a cop won't stop and I'll have to explain all this. Mark climbs under the pickup truck to get the jack, but he's under there for ten minutes. When he appears, there's no jack. Jacks in most pickup trucks are under the hood. Mark found out that afternoon. He also discovered what to do when an alternator burns out. He discovered what you have to do when you plan to go down an exit ramp and the freeway is blocked because of construction, and you have to take an alternate route. He also learned what happens if the truck completely breaks down and you have to make a decision late at night whether to call the girl's father or not. When we got home that night, I think Mark knew every contingency about driving a pickup truck to Boston on a Friday afternoon.

I smile about that as I stand in the empty garage in the house on Grant Street. But that's the act of fathering. It's releasing the child to face the possibilities and to grow through experience once you have taught him everything that's possible to give him.

Be willing to make painful decisions.

The last room we walked through was the dining room, and the memory I have of the dining room is not as happy as all the others. It came the night of a birthday party for me. Gail had cooked my favorite food. She put together a beautiful cake. The presents were all wrapped. The lights were now low, and the family gathered for the supper.

But it was clear from the outset that the children were not in sync with the evening's activities. They were caught up too much in their own thoughts. Soon they got to complaining about a vegetable they didn't like (which I did), and they started bickering with each other. Then they sprang up from the table and announced they were going to watch a favorite television show and they'd appreciate it if we'd wait for them. We sat at the table for 30 minutesme saddened that the kids had forgotten it was my birthday, that they were spending too much time thinking about things that were important to them. We were even tempted to ask the question parents ask on occasion, "Where did we go wrong?"

Finally after an hour they came up and one said, "Where's the cake? When are we going to open the presents?"

I said, "I'm sorry, the party has been canceled."

"It can't be canceled. This is your birthday."

I said, "I know it's on the calendar, but a party is a party only when the people determine it's supposed to be a party and act in a party mood. Two of the four of us decided today to party by themselves. So maybe we'll have the party in another few nights. But not tonight. The party's over."

It was not a pleasant scene as our children walked away with tears. Later that night, sitting at the edge of the bed with my son and listening to him apologize to God and to his father because of his selfishness, I realized there are moments in the raising of a family when fathers have to make difficult decisions and say and do painful things.

In my journal that night, I wrote these words: "It would be so easy, God, to make simple decisions dictated by convenience and the desire to be liked. But just as I withdraw the hand that offers pain to my children, you remind me, God, that one never learns and grows and blooms when the climate is easy. Teach me therefore, God, like a father to think with eyes and ears, to brood with a heart just like yours, which sees in the scope of eternity's process what makes people, even my children, become like your Son, Christ. The ecstasy of this one moment when simple decisions might bring temporary tranquility is not to be compared with the maturity of all the tomorrows through which my children must live."

For the final time, we locked the door on the house on Grant Street. It's not quite the same place with the furniture gone and the curtains down and the pictures off the wall and the shouts and the joys and even the tears of the children not there any longer. It's just an empty, structure that a new family will fill with its artifacts in another day or two. A house is not made of dry wall, studding, and plate glass windows. No, a house is a place that becomes a home when there is a decision on the part of a father and a mother to make the people inside it grow. And there comes a day when, having grown, the children leave and become what their choices are making them become. As we drive up Grant Street, leaving behind us the empty house, we are able to pray, thanking God that he gave us a home where children grew.

For some of you, that is a dream yet to happen. For others, it's a dream in progress. For many of you, like me, it is a past memory. But thank God for fathers who help children and young people hear the voice of God. It is one of the greatest privileges in the world.

Gordon MacDonald is a writer and speaker and pastor emeritus of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. He is author of A Heart for the Master.

Gordon MacDonald

Preaching Today Tape # 45


A resource of Christianity Today International

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Admonish your family to build one another

II. Learn to talk to each other

III. Discern when to protect and when to stand aside

IV. Learn to flex within your principles

V. Be open and available for deep heart conversations

VI. Release your children to grow through experience

VII. Be willing to make painful decisions