THE MAN WITH THE BACKYARD SON: THE TEMPTATION TO BE AN ABSENTEE FATHER

June 17, 2001

Well, it has been a year since many of us first met because a year ago today was the day I candidated here. It was a day of you were checking me out and I was checking you out. The year has gone quickly by and I hope that you have been as pleased as I have been about the coming together we have done.

Again, I consider it an honor and a privilege to be your pastor. I think that we have had a great year and, because of God’s desire and mission for us, a great future as well.

I was going to wrap-up this current series today: Temptations Families Face, based on the book of the same title that is written by Tom Eisenman, but because we are honoring our High School grads and promoting our children next week, we will have what I call an appendixed sermon entitled: The Dangers of Giving Up On Our Children. I hope that you will join us.

Today is Father’s Day! And in honor of all that is good and true about being a dad and a man and, dare I say it? A GUY! Here is a list, entitled, Great Reasons To Be A Guy that features some absolutely truthful reasons about being one!

  • Phone conversations are over in 30 seconds flat.
  • You can kill your own food.
  • Three pairs of shoes are way more than enough.
  • You can quietly watch a game with your buddy for hours without ever thinking, “He must be mad at me.”
  • Wedding dress: $2,000.  Tuxedo rental: $75.
  • If another guy shows up at the party in the same outfit, you just might become life-long friends.
  • You are not expected to know the names of more than five colors.
  • The same hairstyle lasts for years, maybe decades.
  • Your belly usually hides your big hips.
  • One wallet, one pair of shoes, one color, all seasons.

Today though, is a day about one aspect, a very important aspect, of manhood – fatherhood. When one mentions the word ‘father’ there are often a wide range of reactions – from tears of joy to the pain and anger of disgust. Why is this the case?

While on vacation a few weeks ago, I was in the hotel room and, like the rest of the family, unwinding from the day’s travels and events. We had the TV on and a Promise Keepers commercial came on. Promise Keepers, I would remind us, is a wonderful organization, that reminds men of their God-given roles as a husband, dad, and man of God.

The commercial started with a boy in the back-yard who had rigged some kind of contraption that would mimic his dad’s voice that spoke words of encouragement and involvement to a pitching/hitting nylon backstop. The expression on the boy’s face was what caught my attention – it was sad and somewhat hallow. He was seeking to artificially relate to his father who was not in the back yard with him.

Where was dad? Dad was in the family room crashed in the large recliner in front of the TV with the remote on his hand. He sees out the large windows into the backyard and his expression too, says much. He is dressed in a shirt and tie and looks both exhausted from the events of the day and guilty for not being out there with his son. The tension is evident in his face. He knows that he should be out there but his body language says that he is exhausted – mentally, emotionally, and physically.

That commercial expresses the main idea of my remarks not just to my fellow fathers but also to all of us today and the need to address and admit to the very real temptation of becoming absentee fathers.

Now what is an absentee father? In an article published on the Assemblies of God website, Ron Roberts acquaints us with three kinds of absentee fathers: Physically-absent, Treated-as-absent, and Spiritually absent

Physically-absent fathers, notes Roberts have caused major social ills that will have far-reaching consequences in the generations to come. He goes on to note what many of us already know; that the affects of physically absent fathers has been far reaching and damaging beyond belief.

Treated-as-absent father, writes Roberts have failed to meet their children’s socialization needs. What does this mean? Quoting Dr Wade Horn who conducted the National Fatherhood Initiative, boys require an affirmation that they are man enough, while girls require an affirmation that they are worthy enough. A father, who is treated-as-absent, does not have an impact on the socialization of his children that is really necessary for their positive development.

Finally, observes Roberts, when fathers are spiritually absent, [they] have no spiritual impact in the lives of [their] children, [and they] convey an unclear image of exactly who God is.

That’s pretty heavy stuff. This what we hear in the press on an almost daily basis. This what our teachers and principals in our schools, our law enforcement personnel, and our elected officials, talk about as they have to deal with discipline problems, domestic violence issues, and legislative issues related to prison funding and other such things.

But, I want to move beyond reminding us of the situation to sharing a solution. Not a simple, one-step solution. But a solution that helps us move in the direction of our fathering and family life that God desires for all families. Because one of the things that I take comfort in when it comes to the issue of fatherhood is that the Bible presents both the truth about fathering as it is and the hope of God as it could be.

We are visiting two passages of scripture, both in the New Testament, that illustrate both the reality of fatherhood and the hope of God as it could be.

In the first passage we encounter the reality of fatherhood but on a hope filled note because of the commitments made and supported by Godly examples and care. This passage is 2 Timothy 1:5 in which Paul affirms Timothy’s faith heritage, “I know that you sincerely trust the Lord, for you have the faith of your mother, Eunice, and your grandmother, Lois.”

Where was Timothy’s dad? Maybe he was dead. Maybe he was deceased before his mother and grandmother as well as himself made their profession of faith in Christ. Or maybe dad wasn’t around at all.

Maybe he had nothing to do with this thing called Christianity and Timothy had to look to his mother and grandmother for his faith and values.

The good in this young man’s story though, is that he did believe! He did choose to believe that there was a God who did care for Him as he was and that He mattered to a heavenly father even though no earthly father appeared to be involved in his life.

About four years ago the Messiah College Behavioral Science Department conducted a study:  INFLUENCE OF FATHER ABSENCE IN COLLEGE STUDENTS’ CONCEPTION OF GOD, SELF-ESTEEM, AND RELATIONSHIP INTIMACY.

It examined the relationship between college students’ relationship with their fathers (i.e. positive relationship, negative relationship, and father absence) and their perception of God as well as their level of self-esteem and relationship intimacy. The researchers believed that in cases where fathers were absent or where there was a negative relationship with fathers, there would be a higher likelihood of lower self-esteem, increased difficulty in forming adult attachments and a more negative perception of God. But what they found indicated a positive relationship between a positive conception of God and a positive relationship with a father, self-esteem and relationship intimacy and something else that I consider a ray of hope.

Now I would be interested to know the kind of students they studied because Messiah is a wonderful Christian and if they only interviewed Messiah students then the study might be slightly biased.

But, as a graduate of a Christian College like Messiah, I know that not all the students come from perfect Christian homes. So the subjects studied would have had varying kinds of family backgrounds.

The glimmer of hope in this study was the sentence at the end of the summary, “No significant relationship was found between father absence and a positive or negative perception of God.” In other words, there was no evident cause and effect between experiencing father absence and having a negative view of God!

And yet, as we review 2 Timothy 1:5 we know that a father absence of some kind was a reality for a dynamic and young Christian leader in the early church. But it does not have to have a negative affect on our belief and trust in God or in the ability to live a quality and fulfilled life. But, having a dad fully present does help a great deal and that leads us to the second, and very familiar passage regarding God’s purpose and plan for our fathering.

In Luke 15 is the story about the lost Son. Traditionally it has been called the story of the Prodigal Son because it tells the story of the son who decides that it is time to live life his way and asks for the ability to do so, and then realizing what he had, he comes “limping” home.

But, before I read the story I want to briefly set for us its context. At the beginning of chapter 15 Luke says, “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such despicable people-even eating with them!”

Jesus then tells his angry and indignant audience three stories in this order – the story of a lost sheep, the story of a lost coin, and the story of a lost son. Jesus masterfully builds on his point about what is most valuable. He moves from an animal to money and finally to a human being.

In the first two stories he identifies with a common desire to find something of great worth that would have been sorely missed in that time and society. Animals were a source of income for many persons and to lose even a cent of that hard-earned income was devastating.

But, Jesus went a step further and in doing so, He gave both His audience and us a glimpse into the heart of Father God. And what He said is directly related to fatherhood. Let’s take a closer look at the father in this story.

In verse 11 we read that he had two sons. As a father of two sons, not yet of the age that these two sons were, I can somewhat relate to the challenges of fathering that being the father of more than one child brings on a daily basis.

Parenting two children requires the skills of a diplomat, the patience of Job, and quickness of a referee in a hockey game. Each child is different and requires, at various times, a different approach in parenting. So this father had two sons and as we read later in the passage we realize that each son is different.

In verse 12 we read that this father agrees to split his wealth with his two sons. We must assume that he was wealthy enough to do this. But, there is another dynamic at work in this family and it is revealed by the desire of the younger son as we also read in verse 12, “I want my share of your estate now, instead of waiting until you die.”

Now the main focus of this passage has traditionally been on the life that the son leads after he has left his father and his home. Briefly, he lives a life of waste and degradation. So much so he ends up feeding pigs, an animal that is despised by his society.

But, I want to spend a few moments thinking about what might have caused this younger son to want to leave and head out on his own.

Was his father so busy making money that he had no time for this younger son? Maybe this father was one of those Treated-as-absent fathers. Maybe this father was viewed as moneymaking machine and nothing more.

Or maybe this father was one of those spiritually absent dads. Maybe he was faithful to attendance at the local synagogue and did his duty in that regard. But that’s all he did – his duty. Maybe his faith was simply a Sabbath only faith that was cast aside during the rest of the week.

But, this is only conjecture of a 21st century pastor. Yet maybe it was part of the equation.

The primary point that Jesus was getting across was that to God the value of a human life is greater than anything else and that included everybody including tax collectors and other notorious sinners as our text says.

Such people still exists today. They are people that all of us know who are sometimes loud, rude, obnoxious, stubborn, rebellious, and just plain difficult to get along with or tolerate.

And I would suggest this morning that one thing that they might have in common is a troubled family life which includes either a little or no quality at all relationship with their fathers.

Over the past 12 years an organization out of Minneapolis, Search Institute, has focused its efforts on determining what are essential “building blocks” for healthy growth and development of our children.

They started out researching adolescents and came up with a list of what they call “assets.” They have, in the past 12 years, and I am quoting from their website, measured developmental assets in more than 1 million 6th to 12th graders in communities across the United States.

As a result of this extensive survey, more of which I will share next week, they have identified 40 of these assets which they believe can help kids and teens successfully move into adulthood. One of the 40, by the way, is “spending one hour or more a week in activities in religious instruction.” Now there definitely more to it than that, but the value of a faith is stressed in their research.

20 of the assets deal with “external assets” that focus on Support, Empowerment, Boundaries and expectations, and Constructive use of time. The other 20 assets deal with “internal assets” that focus on Commitment to learning, Positive values, Social competencies, and Positive identity.

The average number of assets, according to their research that an average teenager has in place is only18. That’s less than half. Which means, our children and teens do not have a high number of these all-important ‘building blocks’ in place that are necessary in becoming stable and positive adults.

Which brings me around to the strategic place of fathering. In this body of research, the family plays a strategic and vital role in the development of stable and maturing kids and teens. And a critical part of parenting and family life is dad.

Which brings me back to our passage in Luke. I wonder what went through the father’s mind and heart all the time his youngest son was gone. Did have time to reflect on the past, on his relationships? How many nights did he spend awake and in prayer?

Did he make a list of the times when he wished that he had done things differently? Did he earnestly desire to make things right with his youngest son? Did he hope, did he wish that he could have a second chance with his son?

He did get a second chance. One day, he looks off in the distance and he sees a familiar shape. We parents know what that ability is like, don’t we?

There is his son coming home – contrite, repentant, and ready to have a reduced role in the life of his family. But, not with this dad, no not with this dad.

What does the father do? Have you ever noticed it? We read in verses 20 and 21 “his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”

This man was a father! He did not care what his son looked like or smelled like or what other people thought. All that he cared about was that this son of mine was dead and has returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found!

We know who the father is in this story don’t we? The greatest father in the world, no in the universe! God the Father!

And dad, I would remind us today that no matter how old or young our children are; God wants to help you be the best father that you still can be!

He stands waiting to embrace you and help you come home to him and come home to your family. He wants to pronounce you “found!” so that you can also “find” and be “found” by your family!

As I prepared for this sermon I decided to do find out how many websites there were for the following categories that began with fathers and _____. This is what I found.

Fathers and sex – @ 272,000 websites; Fathers and Work – @ 579,000 websites; Fathers and Family life – @ 466,000 websites; and Fathers and the Christian Faith – @ 222,000 websites. Dads, I think that we already know what we are up against, but our heavenly father does as well.

So what is the solution that I spoke of earlier? Dads, we need to get out of the house, out of the office, out of our hideaway and into the backyard, the playgrounds, school auditoriums, and the life of faith, which includes, but is not limited to, this facility. We need become fully present for our kids, no matter what age they are! We need to root them on at the ball fields, make the time to watch them perform on stage, celebrate with them when the accomplish something or even just try, and be a guide and a mentor regarding their faith issues. It also means that we are willing to ask those hard questions of faith that require not just our kids to face the issue of faith, but also requires that of us as well. Dads, we have the awesome privilege and responsibility to ask our kids not just about their careers, their friends, their interests, but about their souls and the values and beliefs that they are putting into those souls!

Now, I know that there are some here this morning that no longer have children at home. And there are some here who have grandchildren.

My encouragement to you is to make it a priority to be there for your grandkids and be involved in the ways and ask the questions that I have just mentioned. But, also become a partner with your children to care and support and mentor the next generation! I believe that God would be honored and He would give you the strength and ability to do so. And who knows? Maybe the distance between you and your adult kids would close and you would finally experience a relationship with your children that I believe that would honor God. Amen!

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