The Spirituality of Fatherhood: Forgiveness

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I have two children. My son is 14 and my daughter is 9. As much as I want to, I cannot recall all of details of the day I first became a father. This may sound strange, but the day we induced labor to bring our son into the world, I was also preparing to preach my uncle’s funeral one day after my son was expected to come home from the hospital. My uncle died of cancer the week my son was born. He had asked me six months earlier to give the eulogy at his funeral. I agreed having no idea that life and death would collide in a way that prevented me from grieving normally or celebrating joyfully.

Life and death have always been a part of the story for me as a father. Being the parent of a young, African-American son, I often think about what it means for him to come of age in a culture that is still painfully, sometimes fatally, polarized by race. I am keenly aware that I learned how to navigate the murky waters of race in America in a different time and place. In the worldview of my childhood and adolescence, racism was always a given. I was warned by my parents to expect bias and I was tutored by them in how to transcend it. Even though I grew up in a multi-racial church in the south in the 80s and 90s, I never had any illusion that the world had changed radically from my parents’ generation to mine. So, I often struggle with how to provide guidance in 2019 as a father to a young, black son because, for his sake, I long to live in hope. Yet I feel compelled to arm him for the world as it is. It is my instinct to protect him and prepare him. As this tension plays out in our lives, I am learning about forgiveness, grace, and the surprising nature of God’s love.

My son attended a predominantly white, socially progressive middle school. One day I received a long, disturbing email from the athletic director. Long emails from the school about your child are rarely good. My son has always been a passionate person. He studies hard and he plays hard. He enjoys winning and really does not like losing. During a game at recess, my son decided that the reason his team was losing was that one of his classmates, a white female, was not doing enough to help the team. The way he handled the situation left the student visibly upset. The email from the athletic director, which gave a detailed account of what happened, left me feeling angry, anxious, and embarrassed. As an African-American father who has tried to teach his son to act wisely in spaces where adolescent shenanigans may be viewed and judged harshly through the eyes of racial prejudice, I was anxious about what would happen to my son. How would he be treated? On a deeper level, I was angry that he did not seem to understand the fragility of a good reputation when race is involved.

Beyond these temporary emotions, I had to decide what I was going to do about what happened. God allowed me to see that this situation was not simply about a child’s misbehavior at school. This was a moment for me to choose how to respond to a human being I deeply loved. Paul reminds us in Romans that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1). How was I going to handle this situation as a father, as a pastor, and as a human being? When I paused long enough to reflect on what I wanted for the outcome of this situation, I realized that one of the most important lessons I could teach had less to do with race and more to do wisdom and human dignity. Race was the “straw man”, as it often is. This was a moment to embrace the gift of forgiveness and being forgiven.

After my son and I talked about what happened, I invited him to put his feelings into words by writing to his classmate and humbly asking for her forgiveness. As his father, I really wanted him to know how to reflect on his actions deeply and lovingly and to honestly evaluate himself in the eyes of Christ. While he wrote the letter, I sat with my own feelings about this situation. So much of my emotional response had to do with the politics of race and fears about what the school authorities might do to my brown-skinned son who had upset his white female classmate. None of these fears were confirmed.

My son gave his one-page, hand-written letter to his classmate the next day at school. It was a carefully stated note that demonstrated the ability for self-awareness and self-examination, virtues that undergird the best of Christ-centered manhood. The following day, he came home from school and showed me the card that his classmate wrote back to him. It was a lovely thank you card in which she thanked him for his sincerely apology, accepted his apology, and promised to try harder for the team next time.

We all learned something in this experience. I learned that I am still learning. Being a father requires far more than the hypermasculine discipline of tough love. When I “see what love the Father has given us” (1 John 3:1a), I see an image of fatherhood saturated with tenderness, abounding in grace, overflowing with humility, and teeming with patience. I asked my son to save his classmate’s card. We all need reminders that we have been forgiven. The memory of my first day of fatherhood might not be as clear as I would like it to be, but every day since has taught me about myself, about my children, and about God in ways that I pray I will never forget.

Prince Raney Rivers is senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in Durham, NC. In addition to delivering lectures and preaching widely, he has published blogs and book chapters on mentoring and leadership. He currently serves as third vice-president of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and on the board of trustees of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. He and his family live in Durham, NC.

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