Recently I was scheduled to give the closing address at a conference on father involvement. I had thought and planned and prayed about what to include in my remarks. The Lord sent me an answer in the form of a group of men.
When the time came I asked several participants in the audience to share the most important idea they had learned at the conference. Then I invited six men from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale, Arizona to stand and come to the front of the room. These six men had attended the conference and put on seminars regarding the fatherhood program they are involved in with their community. They were handsome men. They were proud men. I asked the president of their organization’s chapter to come forward and share the most important idea they wished to communicate. He stepped forward and said it in three words.
Fatherhood is Sacred.
Fatherhood is Sacred.
Why Fatherhood is Sacred
The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community organized the first chapter in the nation of the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association. In the past three years, hundreds of men have worked with this program and begun to transform their own lives and the lives of their families and communities. This work was begun by the humble efforts of Albert Pooley, a man of Navajo and Hopi parentage, and who labors with love to reach men who need to re-connect with their children. He is the executive director of the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association.
The men in this program have created a T-shirt with the name of their chapter on the front with a beautiful Native American design and on the back their simple statement of belief: Fatherhood is Sacred. Al Pooley told me that when he sent the men in his program to design the shirt, he expected the statement to be in small lettering on the front of the shirt. Instead, it came back in large, bold letters across the back of the shirt. He smiled at this memory and said these men had taken this message to heart, and that for them, the reality that fatherhood is sacred has become a moving force in their lives.
The six men who came to represent this belief at a national conference were men with difficult lives. Some of them have spent time in jail. Some of them have sold drugs or used alcohol. Some of them have been divorced or fathered children out of wedlock. To see them was to see men who have reclaimed their lives and their hopes and their honor in the effort to be good and caring fathers, men who bring sacredness and joy into the lives of their children. No one had ever told them that to be a father is a sacred work. No one had ever told them that they are precious because the work of being a father is precious. No one had ever told them that they are sacred because they are working as co-creators with the Creator in the lives of their children. To understand fatherhood as sacred has begun to help them learn who they truly are and who they might become.
Fatherhood is sacred because it is a work of sacredness.
Men as Holy Figures in the Lives of Their Children
Not too many weeks ago I determined to improve my reading habits and picked up a book I had known and loved as a young man. The book was My Name is Asher Lev by the Jewish author Chaim Potok. It is the story of a father and a son and their relationship. It is the story of how young Asher Lev, an Orthodox Jew, learns to relate to the power of a father in his life and in his consciousness. His father tells him many tales of his own father and their ancestors, as well as stories about the father of their religious community, the Rebbe, who is recognized as a “tzaddik” among his people. A “tzaddik” is, in the Jewish tradition, a person of holiness or righteousness in the life of the family and community, a bearer of holy teachings and an example of moral and spiritual power. As I read this book and then later reflected on the message that fatherhood is sacred, I realized in a way I had not done before that men are meant to be holy figures in the lives of their children.
Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish thinker and philosopher, identified the father as a powerful figure in the family circle with a moral responsibility to teach and care for his children. He wrote:
“We, the adults, have delegated our moral responsibility to the schools, the social agencies, or the community funds. . . . Significantly, the Biblical injunction does not say that we are to appoint a teacher to train our children. The Biblical injunction is that the parent be the teacher . . . The teacher is but a representative of the father, according to Jewish tradition. Thou shalt teach them diligently, not vicariously.” (The Wisdom of Heschel, 1975, p. 91)
The concept of fathers as holy figures in the lives of their families and communities goes back to our earliest understanding of fathers. Adam, for example, was given the power by God to name the creatures that came forth upon the earth. To name is to give identity and purpose. Abraham 5:20 recounts how God “formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air, and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that should be the name thereof.” The privilege of naming is to hold the power of identity. It is a sacred power.
When a father or father figure stands before a Latter-day Saint congregation, takes an infant child in his arms, and pronounces upon that child a name and a blessing, it is a dramatic symbol of this reality. Fathers are meant to be holy figures in the lives of their children. It is a tragic circumstance when a father ignores or abuses this responsibility and instead is hurtful or uncaring toward his children. Fathers must learn that to exercise power in the lives of their children does not mean to control them, but rather to bless them.
When the great patriarch Jacob departed from mortality, he called his children about him and said, “Gather yourselves together, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father” (Genesis 49:2). He bestowed counsel and blessings upon each of his children. He exercised a holy influence upon his children as he blessed them and uplifted them.
In him was the power to bless generations.
The Exercise of Power in the Lives of Children
Many years ago I did a study of the word “power.” It was a word that bothered me. I did not like the word. I preferred the term “strength” to identify the influence of fathers in family life. That was before I had children.
When my first child was born, she was transported within minutes to the newborn ICU for tests and intense efforts to save her life. Her life was at risk. I came to her side, helpless and scared, and unsure whether she would live beyond a few minutes or hours. My wife was in recovery and could not be at her baby’s side. I longed to hold my child and take her away from the pain and confusion that was accompanying her entry into the world of mortality. I needed more than strength. The doctors needed more than knowledge. For this child to live, I soon realized that I needed something that I alone did not possess-I needed power. In companionship with the Lord and my pleadings unto Him, and the support of my father and father-in-law, she received a blessing that brought into her life at that moment in time the power needed to sustain and even heal her life.
This experience changed my life in several ways as a father. First, it taught me that there would be many times in my life where I as a father would need power to help my children. Second, it taught me that I would need a certain kind of power to help my children. It is not simply power that a father truly needs, or the ability to influence and direct a child’s life and thoughts and feelings. It is the power to bless. It is what might be called “power in righteousness.” Men do not bless by the mere exercise of power. They bless only by the exercise of power in righteousness.
To be a holy figure in the life of a child, in the life of a family, requires an association with the powers that exist beyond our own mortal abilities, or the powers of heaven. Power in righteousness comes only as we associate ourselves through prayer and sacred living with the powers of heaven. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches clearly that “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled not handled only upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:36). A mere man, who becomes a father, must become a tzaddik. A righteous man. A man who realizes and accepts that fatherhood is sacred.
I recently purchased a beautiful sculpture of a man and a child. The man’s shoulders are broad and sweeping and his size dwarfs the child. He is reaching down in loving tenderness and connects his size and power with the upreached arms and hope of his child. Upon seeing this sculpture, I realized with great awareness that it represented a significant truth:
Men have great power in the lives of their children.
Men have great power, for good or ill, in the lives of their children. A man can be a blessing to his children, his family, his people. A man can be a burden to his children, his family, his people.
Significantly, for men who have become burdens by their careless choices, unrighteous acts, or deliberate mistakes, one of the “powers of heaven” that can work in their behalf is the power for repentance, change, and forgiveness. I have seen this power at work in the lives of men who have needed such change. It is a holy power. It is a power associated with the Lord Jesus Christ. It is His power.
Practices of Sacred Fathering
Sacred fathering recognizes the sacredness of being a father and accepts it with purpose. What might this mean? It means that a father recognizes that he can be a blessing or a burden to his children and the generations of his family yet unborn. A father can bring blessing or pain. I’d like to briefly suggest seven areas in which a father’s love and righteousness can impact the lives of his children in a sacred manner.
Beauty or Ugliness
I’ve always liked the phrase in Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, that refers to the intent to create a “beautiful family culture.” This, to me, does not refer to nice suits and trimmed hair and pretty dresses in a nice house. Of course, it is much deeper than that. It is the inner beauty of family life.
Is there order and peace? Is there appreciation and recognition? Is there love and tenderness? Is there laughter and learning?
Fathers have a great capacity, because of their power, to sow either beauty or ugliness in the lives of their children and family members. How do you sow beauty? Perhaps you begin by recognizing that to be the father and mother of a child is a beautiful thing.
I occasionally teach a class for couples who are divorcing. One night the recriminations voiced against former spouses by class participants were so vehement and bitter that the class simply stopped. The tension was palpable and painful. I finally asked quietly whether any single person in the room could raise a hand and say one thing in sincerity that was good about a former spouse. Not one person raised a hand. The silence continued. I then asked, “How many of you believe that your children are beautiful? Please raise your hands.” All hands raised. I then asked if any of them had produced that beautiful child on their own with no marital partner. None of them raised a hand. I said, “You and your former spouses co-created the most beautiful part of your lives-a beautiful child. That beautiful child is part of your lives. And yet, you choose to sit here and sow only the seeds of hurt and bitterness and ugliness in the lives of your children. Can you not at least acknowledge the presence of beauty in your life, a child, because of that person and cease to create ugliness where beauty exists?”
The discussion that ensued was very interesting. A child is beautiful. But you cultivate beauty in the life of a child only as you act with care and love toward the mother or father of your child. This is part of sacred fathering. To treat the mother of your child with honor and respect. You may sow beauty or ugliness.
Blessing or Pain
There is a fine book out by a woman psychiatrist, Rachel Naomi Remen, and the book is called My Grandfather’s Blessings.
I love the title. It captures the spirit of this essay. How do fathers, grandfathers, and other father figures bless our lives?
Men have great power to bring blessings or inflict pain upon the lives of their children and family members. I recall the funeral for a beloved choir leader of mine from high school. At the funeral, an adult child of his reminisced about seeing her father’s hands in various positions throughout her life, poised to work, to pray, and to bless. That image of her father’s hands, working at night to repair watches or raised in careful anticipation of a musical number before a choir, has always stayed with me. The most lasting image was of her father’s hands, settled in blessing upon a child’s cheek or giving a priesthood blessing, and their lasting impact for good.
Hands may bless. Hands may minister pain and hurt.
Joy or Sorrow
Joy and sorrow are both part of the mortal experience. But the degree of joy or sorrow in family life may be related to the manner in which fathers act in caring and compassion.
Fathers may bring sorrow by their absence and joy by their presence. I have talked with many little children who seldom see their fathers. This may be due to divorce. Or abuse. Or neglect. Or simply travel and “other” priorities. God sees the tears of children. He counts those tears.
Fathers should seek not only to be present in the lives of their children, but to live in a way that their presence is a joyful presence to their children and spouses.
I watched a child of mine, a son, participate last year in a soccer game. I arrived a few minutes late to the game and he was not aware of my presence at first. I made my way to the sidelines and watched him from afar, my heart full of hope and encouragement for him, as he had struggled at times on his team and with the game. Suddenly, toward the end of the game, he found himself near the goal and in scoring position. He hesitated and then took the ball, kicked it toward the goal, and then reacted with wonder when it bounced into the back of the net. Joy lit his face. And then he looked around. He looked to see if anyone was there to share this moment of triumph. And he saw me. And I saw him. He waved and jumped up and down with his teammates, and I cheered, and I will admit shed a quiet tear on the sideline by myself.
It was a moment that perhaps he will forget. I will never forget it. Joy is most joyful when it is shared, especially between a father and a child.
Gentleness or Anger
Fathers are kind of like bears. They can be gentle with their own but they can also get mean and angry at times. Gentleness versus anger. How much does it matter?
As I noted earlier, fathers have power in the lives of their children. When fathers give themselves over to anger and they yell, rage, curse, or act with a controlling and cold purpose toward a spouse or children, for children it becomes a terrifying thing. Power unleashed in anger is frightening to a child.
Gentleness, by contrast, soothes and comforts and stills the feelings of a child who is sick, upset, or feeling hurt. Fathers have great power when they choose gentleness rather than anger.
On the first day I had my driver’s license, I managed to run into the side of a woman’s car and do about $2,500 worth of damage. In front of my own house. I went to get my father and he came out and helped to resolve the situation. Then we went inside. My father sat me down and we looked at each other. Then he said, with gentleness, “Son, I want you to understand one thing. A car is like a gun. If you use it incorrectly, you can hurt someone or even kill someone. You have to be more careful. Do you understand?”
I understood. I had some consequences to live with. I was so nervous to drive again that I walked to school for six months. I learned something about being a good driver. But I learned something even far greater. I learned something about the power of a father in gentleness. How I thank my father that he chose gentleness that day and not anger. He taught me by his example about exercising power, in gentleness, in the life of a child.
Guidance or Wandering
Fathers have enormous capacity to direct their children in the paths of life. Without a father’s guidance, children are much more likely to wander into paths that are unsafe or uncertain as they travel through life.
When you train a horse, especially a young horse, you spend a lot of time training it by leading it. You must get out in front of it and show it by guidance and direction which way to go and how to act. If a young horse becomes rowdy or upset, it is not uncommon to put it with an older, more mature horse that can teach it good habits and lead it in the right direction. However, if a young horse gets mixed in with older, rowdy horses it quickly learns bad habits and these can be very difficult to break.
Fathers play the powerful role model in the lives of their children that older, responsible horses play in the training of a younger horse. They provide guidance and help in the development of good habits. They keep children away from unhealthy influences and provide a protective buffer between children and the world. They provide guidance rather than letting children wander, and in doing so, they may be a great blessing to children.
Integrity or False Hopes
Children are seekers of truth. Children hold parents to the truth if parents have made a promise. Fathers must be careful that they not break promises to children. The trust of a child is a sacred thing.
I have noticed that my children “call me on it” when I make a commitment to them and then fail to keep it. They are very attentive to my integrity towards them. They let me know with frowns and whines and complaints that I am not doing my job when I fail to keep a commitment I have made, whether it be going out for ice cream or taking them with me on an errand.
As a father, I have learned the power of keeping a promise to a child. When promises are not kept, a child’s hopes are dashed and disappointed.
It is too easy, as a father, to break a promise to a child. Why? Because fathers have greater power in the relationship and it is much more difficult for the child to “hold a father accountable” for the broken promise. Children cannot revoke your allowance. Children cannot suspend your driving privileges. What is the consequence then of a broken promise to a child? Mistrust. Lack of confidence. Disappointment. Even despair.
I recently made a promise to one of my sons. I kept the promise. Later that evening he came to me, put his arms around my neck and whispered, “You’re the best dad in the world.” I didn’t even have to pay him to say that. It signaled to me the power of integrity in keeping promises to children and the cost of false hopes for a child when promise are unfulfilled.
Support or Neglect
For me, one of the most sacred aspects of the sacred work of fathering is the support that a father provides to the mother of his children. The manner in which men support women in their own demanding and sacred work of motherhood is one of the most significant aspects of a father’s role and calling.
Several years ago, a man died whom I loved very much. At his passing, his wife was alone with him. It was a difficult time with very sensitive circumstances. One person was there to support her in that hour of need and pain, her son-in-law, and he provided comfort, support, and practical help in her moments of difficulty. I have heard her remark many times how grateful she is for the quiet and practical support that was given to her by this son-in-law at perhaps the most painful moment of her life. His support made all the difference.
No one else saw this support of a man for a woman in need. There were no cheering bands. There were no media flash bulbs popping. There was only a man, a father himself, who knew that to support a woman, a mother, is to do a sacred work.
To abandon that support for women, for mothers, in their particular stewardship of life as mothers, is to leave out much of what it means to do the sacred work of fathering. To neglect rather than to support is to deny what it means to truly be a father.
Fatherhood is Sacred
To father is a child is more than a biological act. To father a child is more than a social role to fulfill. To father a child is sacred work.
To truly father a child is to nurture the soul of a child. To truly father a child is to honor and respect womanhood and motherhood.
Fatherhood is sacred. I am grateful for this reminder from a group of men from a small Indian reservation in Arizona.
(You can share any comments or feedback with Sean Brotherson at [email protected]“>[email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you! If you would like to know more about the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association, would be interested in supporting their work, or learning more about anything I have mentioned in this article, please feel free to contact me.)