I first learned about Dick Hoyt and Rick Hoyt in 2005. I’m not ashamed to say their story reduced me to a sniffling, weepy mess. If you don’t know about the Hoyts, they exemplify a father’s extraordinary love for his son. Nearly strangled by his umbilical cord during birth, Rick was born with severe disabilities. The doctors called him a “vegetable” and wanted to put him in an institution. Undaunted by their son’s limitations, Dick and Judy worked diligently to provide their son as normal a life as possible. They taught him to read and found a machine that allowed him to type with movements of his head.
When Rick was 15, he told his father that he wanted to enter a five-mile race. Dick was overweight and out of shape, but he completed the race, pushing Rick in a wheelchair. Later, Rick typed the sentence that was to change their lives forever: “Dad, when we were running, it felt like I wasn’t disabled anymore!”
They’ve been running ever since. As of April 2013, Team Hoyt had completed more than 1,000 competitive events, including 70 full marathons and six Ironman triathlons.
The Hoyts’ story is inspirational, but there is more to it than Hallmark emotionalism. People flock to them because this kind of love is so rare.
Ernest Hemingway told the story of an old man in Spain wishing to reconcile with his estranged son. He put an ad in the paper: “Pablo, all is forgiven. Meet me at the plaza at noon on Sunday.” When the day arrived, hundreds of men milled about the plaza waiting for papa to show.
This “father ache” is widespread and devastating. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 41 percent of children in America are born to unwed mothers, and according to research published by The Heritage Foundation, half of children born to married parents will experience divorce before they turn 18.
This helps explain why the bond between Dick and Rick is so remarkable. We see in Dick’s sacrificial love the best of humanity, which cannot be found in the daily absurdity driving our tabloid culture. All around we see hollow caricatures and middle-aged adolescents whom we instinctively know better than to call men. Ours is a locker-room culture, a “me-first” society, and rare are the examples of authentic masculinity — much less the abiding love of a father.
Focus on the Family President Jim Daly offers a deeper spiritual explanation for the hunger we have for a father’s love:
Jesus spoke of His Father over 170 times in the New Testament, and in nearly every case He used the word abba, an intimate and exclusive form of address that only a father’s own beloved child would use. This intimacy, love, acceptance and self-giving between the Father and the Son is what Christians understand the ‘core of the universe’ to be. This is what lies at the center of all reality and our very lives, our deepest essence. No wonder fatherlessness hurts. It is contrary to the very nature of the universe. It is contrary to what each of us are made for!
Fatherhood lies at the center of all reality.
Daly is communicating an unbelievably important idea that is all but lost from contemporary society, even within the church. A father’s love conveys life, security and identity, among countless other blessings. Fatherhood, rightly lived, is a sign pointing to the love of the Trinity, through which we were created and for which we are destined.
Stepping Into the Wound
The self-giving love of God is, indeed, the core of the universe, but it is not the foundation of many men’s lives today. We often feel lonely, abandoned, angry and restless. We are confused about who we are and how to find our way in the world. For some, fatherhood is incompatible with the free and easy life that we seek. For others, it’s a goal for the future, but not something we want or have the opportunity for now.
I’d like to propose a radical idea. If the Father’s love is the core of the universe, then it must also be the center of our lives. I don’t believe we are called to simply receive this love, but to also become this love.
I believe every man is called to be a father.
Henri Nouwen touched on this in Bread for the Journey: “When the two sons of the parable of the prodigal son both have returned to their father, what then? The answer is simple: they have to become fathers themselves. Sons have to become fathers; daughters have to become mothers. Being children of God involves growing up and becoming like God.”
Nouwen helps us understand that spiritual maturity requires men to develop the heart of a father. A potent response to the cultural and spiritual crisis of today is for all men to embrace fatherhood as an ideal to reach for and a distinct way of living in the world, regardless of whether we have children or not.
“But my father was abusive.”
“I’m too young.”
“I never knew my father.”
We have many questions and, perhaps, more doubts about whether we could live this way or even if this is biblical. If we don’t have strong role models of our own, how are we to become a model for others?
I clashed with my own father for many years. Yet I was drawn to him, hoping he could be the dad I always wanted. When he failed to live up to my ideals, I grew increasingly frustrated and bitter.
A Christian counselor helped me see that not only would my dad not be able to live up to my expectations, but that I was allowing these unmet needs to stunt my own growth as a man. He encouraged me to identify the qualities I was seeking and begin developing them in myself.
Once I released my expectations, I was free to love my father as he was and not who I wanted him to be. This was a major step in our reconciliation.
Nouwen suggests that we should not avoid, reject or minimize our own painful experiences. Rather, we should let them guide us on the path to greater spiritual maturity. He wrote:
The father in the story of the prodigal son suffered much.… During these long years of waiting the father cried many tears and died many deaths. He was emptied out by suffering. But that emptiness had created a place of welcome for his sons when the time of their return came. We are called to become like that father.
There is an immense amount of suffering in the world today. By suggesting that every man begin to see himself as a father, I mean that we transform our own emptiness into a place of homecoming for others, or as Jim Daly put it, a place where intimacy, love, acceptance and self-giving abound. This unquestionably involves right relationship with our heavenly Father, who alone can achieve it in us.
The question now becomes, “How are we to allow our suffering to carve out a place for those needing refuge, solace, shelter and hope?”
Consider these stories that correspond to three of the blessings of fatherhood.
1) A father gives life.
We must understand that giving life is much more than begetting children. We offer life to others when we speak a kind word, send flowers when someone is hurting, or give hope to one in despair. Are we living in a way that nurtures a sense of hope and expectant wonder among those around us? Does the spiritual life of God flow through us to those in need?
The Rev. Walter Hoye exemplifies the life-giving heart of a father. Hoye was arrested in 2008 for offering words of hope to women entering an Oakland abortion clinic. Unlike some of the angry protestors featured in the news, he was always peaceful, quiet and respectful. Nevertheless, he was arrested and found guilty of “unlawful approaches” to women. Hoye was given a choice: Give up the protests or go to jail. He chose jail and gave hope to the inmates there for 18 days before he was released.
Walter Hoye poured himself out for the lives of preborn children, for their mothers, and for the young men lost and angry in jail.
2) A father gives security.
Scott Southworth was a captain with the Wisconsin National Guard serving in Baghdad in 2003. While visiting an orphanage, a young disabled boy named Ala’a crawled up to him and spoke a few words of broken English. Southworth returned frequently and began to form a bond with Ala’a. When his tour was over, Southworth arranged for the boy to come to the United States for medical care and was eventually able to adopt him as a single man despite enormous obstacles.
The Bible tells us to care for widows and orphans, but how many of us take that command literally? What would the world look like if we did? Scott Southworth was compelled to care for Ala’a after watching The Passion of the Christ. His heart became a father’s heart that spent itself to protect children in need.
3) A father gives identity.
The idea of a heavenly Father was merely intellectual for me until God spoke to me soon after my eldest daughter was born. At the communion rail one Sunday, the pastor did something he had never done before. He spoke my name.
“Daniel, the body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.”
These words haunted me. There I knelt, a forgiven and free man, welcomed with open arms by a Father who called me by name into His family through Christ. I had received communion perhaps a thousand times by then, but none was so powerful and so revealing of eternal truth as that day when I was called by name.
A father’s love reveals the truth of who we are. When my children come home from school upset at the names someone called them, I remind them who they are and plant their identity in a place of love. All of us have this gift within us, to speak the powerful truth to one who is lost, doubting or alone. You are God’s beloved child, and He loves you with an everlasting love.
What Kind Will You Be?
A father’s life embraces suffering and pours itself out for many. If you do not know how to do this, pray for your Father in heaven to show you. I’m convinced you will find opportunities every time you ask.
Take a look around. The world desperately needs fathers — by blood, by adoption, by passion, by spirit. People are starving for meaning, for a safe place to rest, for real life. These we can offer because they have already been given to us. Take a look in your heart, too. Our spiritual growth depends on embracing the challenge to become all of whom God created us to be.
The truth is that we are made to be fathers. God’s first command was for us to be fruitful and multiply. Fatherhood is our true calling and highest destiny.
What kind of father are you? Now is the time to find out.
Copyright 2013 Daniel Weiss. All rights reserved.