The Hearts of the Fathers

Kathy has been reading a parenting book by home-schooling authors Steven and Teri Maxwell to me lately … persevering cheerfully against my resistant and somewhat unteachable spirit. As a rule, I don’t have much patience for non-fiction, and I am quick to be critical of the writing style of many such authors. Of course, this has the happy (unintended?) side-benefit of plugging my ears to those who would challenge me to change – and so I can continue my pursuit of mediocrity.

(Parenthetically, it is rather ironic that I myself write non-fiction, with only occasional forays into the more difficult arena of the imagination. I find it particularly amusing that my main complaint against non-fiction authors is that many of them take so long to say so little; yet this very accusation can be made against me in most of my blog entries. I guess the only ‘moral high ground’ that I can occupy is that I am unpublished and therefore am wasting the time of only a few friends and family members. Perhaps, under the covers, my dislike of non-fiction is mere jealousy. That said, I happily disregard proverbs that speak of the “pot calling the kettle black” or “people in glass houses throwing stones”, and press on.)

A lesser-known proverb is: “People with blackberry patches shouldn’t throw neighbor boys’ shoes around their backyard.”

The parenting book (Keeping Our Children’s Hearts) speaks, not surprisingly, to the idea of ‘capturing the heart’ of children, so that they are tightly bound up in an intimate relationship with the parents and the rest of the family. Thinking forward a few years, as my older kids reach their teen years, I am open to anything that can offer me hope that I can protect my future teenagers from themselves and from those who would prey upon them.

Also not surprisingly, one of the first topics of discussion in this book deals with the need for the parents to ‘turn their hearts toward their children’. This is rooted in scripture, and appears in Malachi 4:6 (and is quoted again in the gospels, including Luke 1:17). It prophesies the advent of the spirit of Elijah (John the Baptist), who prepares the way for Jesus:

“He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”

Anyone who has been a kid has probably dealt with a two-faced peer or grown-up who acts in a warm and friendly manner for a short while in order to get something they want. Sometimes they desire the good will of the parent, or are seeking some temporary advantage … but it isn’t long before their true uncaring nature is revealed. For this reason, even young children will quickly master the skill of separating the phony from the genuine.

If you asked me, “Is your heart turned toward your children?” I would of course answer “Yes.” I’m a good father, I think, and I work hard to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of my family, teaching my children from the scriptures and raising them up in a godly and loving home. I am reasonably patient and try very hard to be just and kind.

But suppose you pressed me, and asked, “If you got home from work today, and had two free hours to spend however you wished, how would you spend them?”

Truth be told, I’d probably play a computer game by myself. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Age of Empires III. Unfortunately, this doesn’t demonstrate (at least in that microcosm) a lot of ‘turning my heart toward my children’. Why wouldn’t I spend that two hours playing games with my kids, or reading them a book, or riding bikes with them, or letting them do chores alongside me?

Or even just talking (or being talked-at)?

I don’t really have a good answer for that question, except for the obvious (and rather painful) reason: because I’m self-indulgent. Life has come easily to me (for the most part) and I am a man who is weak in spirit, in the sense that I have rarely needed to discipline or steel myself to long-term perseverance or excessive diligence.

One outgrowth of the men’s group led by our pastor this year has been the exercise of my spirit … by setting goals and being held accountable for them, I’ve begun to develop some spirit muscles that I haven’t used in a long time. Still, my spirit quails when I consider limiting or giving up my entertainment … it is hard to do the right thing when your muscles are atrophied from a life of taking the easy path.

I try to visualize what it would look like if my heart were really turned toward my children. If that was so, it would be the rare exception, rather than the everyday rule, that I would pursue my own interests apart from my family. When I walked in the door, my first thought would be to listen to my children report on their day (they all want to tell me at least 5 things) rather than checking my e-mail. Before dinner, I would seek to have a ‘special day’ with the next-in-line child as often as possible, rather than sticking to the minimum of 2 a week as set out in my goals. When we sat down to dinner, I would seek to teach them something rather than watching a movie. When dinner was over, I would help with the dishes or play games with them or go for a walk rather than play my computer game. When it was time for bed, I would seek to make the most of the ‘chapter time’ Bible reading, rather than rush through it so I could get back to my game or get to bed myself. I guess every day would look like an abbreviated version of last year’s Fathers Day.

In general, I would jealously guard the time I spend with my children and prioritize it above anything that is self-serving. Admittedly, work around the house that really needs to be done, time with my wife, and time worshipping and serving my Lord may still occasionally ‘outrank’ time with my children … but most of the ‘free’ time that I currently guard and protect is really time that I just want to spend on myself.

I’m enjoying a narrow window of life in which my children are old enough to have fun at or near my level of sophistication (OK, I’ll admit, that level isn’t very high), yet still young enough to want to spend time with me. Nearly everyone I know who has grown children has told me at one time or another, “Those early years go by pretty fast … enjoy them while you can.” Why shouldn’t I make the most of every opportunity to love and cherish my kids? Why shouldn’t I be genuine in turning my heart toward my children, putting them ahead of my own self in the way that I use free time?

Who could fail to turn their heart toward these little faces?

These aren’t really rhetorical questions. There is no reason for me not to do this. Therefore, I hereby resolve to place a limit of 1 use-or-lose hour of solitary computer-game-playing per weekday (2 hours on weekends or holidays). I resolve to turn my heart toward my children and to love and cherish them above myself. I also resolve to welcome any who seek to hold me accountable on this, and not to become resentful or hard-hearted toward them.

One of the ladies in our small group Bible study recently reminded me of an acronym for JOY: Jesus, Others, Yourself. I think I want to put that on our wall … thinking of Jesus first, Others second, and myself third is an excellent recipe for joy, as I have many times experienced.

Whew! Now if I can just ‘forget’ to publish this …

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