Father to the Fatherless (Jan-Apr 2000)

By Matt Dabbs

by Charles W. Mattis

January – April 2000

The most significant marker event in my life occurred in May of 1965, two months before I turned six. In my mind it was yesterday. A navy blue Ford with yellow-stenciled letters turned into our driveway on that clear spring day. A well-decorated Air Force officer walked up our drive and rang the bell. My sister and I sat upstairs on my bed with the window open, looking out at that car while my mother answered the door.

Several moments later, my mother entered the room with tears in her eyes. Her news betrayed a cloudless blue sky. She told us that our father had been killed in Viet Nam. While the nation was trying to make sense of the war, I spent the rest of the ’60s trying to make sense of why my father was killed in that war. My mother was only 40 but never remarried, stating that he was the only man she ever loved.

My mother, my sister, and I struggled with self-pit, doubt, depression, and with our different family roles. Unknowingly, I assumed the role as the man of the house, and placed the responsibility for everyone’s happiness on my shoulders.

I remember feeling cheated and abandoned. I would dream about him walking through the front door and making everything all right. Thirty-five years later, I can still smell the cedar chest where my mother kept his uniform and his medals. I have tried to fill the void he left in many ways over the years, searching for what I missed in my relationship with him. Growing up, I searched for other men to fill his place, always coming up empty. Even as an adult, I seem to place unrealistic expectations on my male friendships. Because of God’s grace, I was raised as a Timothy. My mother and grandmother were women of deep faith. Even though I shielded myself in relationships, anticipating the next tragedy, I saw how they responded by turning to God. If they still trusted him, maybe I could trust him. During my pre-teen years, I began to embrace the metaphor of God as Father. God was not only my heavenly Father, but he truly became my father. My faith deepened and when I was twelve, I gave my life to him.

Fast forward to 1983 when Mary Lee and I were considering marriage. I was afraid, not necessarily of getting married, but of being a dad. I though because I didn’t have a model, it would be impossible for me to succeed as a father. She encouraged me to see I knew more than anyone what I had missed, and what I needed in a father.

In 1987, I became a dad when Caroline was born, and then again in 1989 when Holton was born. They are among the richest blessings of my life.

Mary Lee is a woman of great faith and spiritual insight. She has helped me be a better dad, and has encouraged my spiritual leadership of our family. Her father was a tremendous influence on my parenting, and I miss him dearly. The greatest influence on my fathering, however, has been God … my father.

When I lose my cool with my children, I remember the patience of God. He was so longsuffering with the children of Israel and he is so patient with me. God’s patience reminds me to be patient with my children. When I am critical of my children, I think of the grace of God. God has forgiven me, covered my sin, and removed it from me. God remembers my sin no more. God’s grace prompts me to be more graceful and grace giving in my relationships with my children.

When I am tempted to micromanage my children, stalking their every move, reprimanding them at every turn, I remember God doesn’t do that. He told Adam and Eve what he expected of them, and then gave them freedom to choose. He didn’t stand next to the tree and say, “Eve, you are getting too close,” or “Don’t listen to that serpent.” He gave them the ground rules, let them make their own decisions, and disciplined them when they disobeyed. I am challenged to do the same.

When I selfishly try to make my children into something they are not, I remember that God created each of us differently. God’s creation celebrates diversity and so we have different walks. We each have unique expressions of ourselves and of our faith.

I must allow my children to be who God intended them to be, instead of forcing them into some mold of my design. God has called me to honor their uniqueness. It is not right for me to force them to fill my inadequacies.

Above all, God as my Father has taught me to love. The way that God the Father loves is how I try to love my kids. God shows his love for us every day in so many ways. I tell my kids I love them every day. I hug my kids every day, and I am going to keep hugging them as long as I can. I want them to know they are loved.

God loves me completely. There is nothing I can do to draw more love out of God; he already loves me … completely. Whether I am worshiping him or disobeying him, he loves me. With my children I try to never withhold love based on performance, or obedience.

Finally, no matter what I do, I am a child of God. Remember Paul’s words from Romans 8: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels or demons, nor the present or the future or any powers, neither height nor depth or anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” No matter what I do, where I go, or what ever could possibly happen, I am a child of God and he loves me. No matter what my kids do, they will always be my children. They may do things that disappoint me, but there is nothing they can do to quit being my children, and there is nothing they can do to keep me from loving them.

The seeds of my faith were sown early in the wilderness of heartache and trial. His love has provided living water in the desert of self-pity, anger, and doubt. What would my life be like if my earthly father had lived? What kind of father would I be? Would I be a person of faith? I have no answer to those questions. What I do know is that my heavenly Father has provided for me, sustained me, and revealed Himself to me through those events in my life. My only response is to say, “Thank you … Father.”Wineskins Magazine

Charles W. Mattis

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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