The Spirituality of Fatherhood: Jump

This week’s post launches a 6-part series focusing on the spiritual lessons learned from being a father. Look for “The Spirituality of Fatherhood” every Wednesday.

Judah, Drew, and Jenny (Photo by Stan Ford)

“What a little jerk!” is a publishable paraphrase of what I thought as I reread the story of young Jesus missing for three days in the temple while his parents frantically searched.

When they finally found him, Mary said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Jesus answered, “Why were you searching for me?”

The narrator tells us that Mary and Joseph “did not understand” this response, and it’s no wonder…. As the father of a very independent three year old, I can feel the rage simmering beneath Mary’s words.

Jesus was asserting his independence, just as he would 18 years later when his mother asked him to help the newlyweds who ran out of wine, or later still when he refused to let his mother and brothers stop him from teaching. My son Judah is endlessly inventive in his own defiance. He refuses to brush his teeth, dumps out his toys, and runs out into the street—anything he can figure out to sabotage my attempts to get him to school on time. I respond gently and patiently to each mess, each inconvenience, each delay, knowing to expect these things. But then, without warning, I snap. I go from calmly understanding his behavior as annoying but developmentally appropriate to screaming at him in the car as his shoes hit me in the head.

Seven months into this predictable pattern, I find myself wondering why I get so angry. I know that Judah is three, always exploring, touching, and playing with the world around him—whether doing so is convenient for his dad or not. I know it is foolish to expect him to share my sense of urgency when we only have five minutes to leave the house. I know that he is processing many layers of trauma after being abandoned at birth, having multiple surgeries as an infant, and leaving everyone and everything he knew in China to join our family. I know that this struggle is something he can’t articulate and I don’t notice except through these attention-seeking actions. I know that my anger does little but make him feel more unsafe. But it doesn’t matter what I know. Rage rises again and again from a place deeper than my reasoning.

What I am beginning to realize is that I am not really angry at Judah himself, but at the lack of control I am forced to confront as I learn to be his father.

I can’t keep his shirt clean. I can’t prevent him from being rejected on the playground. I couldn’t do anything this morning but trust the doctors and nurses as they wheeled him into surgery and ushered us into the waiting room. I couldn’t take away his pain or fear as the anesthesia and morphine wore off. All I could do was hold him in my arms and cry with him as he kicked and wailed.

My lack of control makes me feel just as vulnerable, powerless, and scared as I imagine Judah felt in that hospital room. Before I met him, I could ignore this reality. Now I get to see the fragile beauty of life unfolding each morning as he jumps from the chair to the couch.

I know one morning Judah is probably not going to stick that landing, and yet I let him jump day after day. Restraining him might keep his body safe, but I worry about what it would do to his brave soul. Judah needs me to hold him, but not too tightly.

This is what I think young Jesus was asserting to his parents, albeit rudely, when he asked, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The implicit message to Joseph was, “You’re not my Father!” These words feel like a punch in the gut as I wonder not if, but when, Judah will say them to me. However cruel and ungrateful they feel, they will, objectively, be true.

I have to acknowledge that the parents who birthed him and the aunties at the orphanage made Judah who he is today

But more than that, I have to remember that Judah’s only true Father (and Mother) is God. I have to accept that as much as I might call him “my son,” he isn’t mine to possess. He was meant to be his own person, unhindered by my expectations for what he will do with what Mary Oliver called his “one wild and wonderful life.”

In spite of this humbling and sometimes humiliating reality, I will choose again and again to be Judah’s father. I will keep showing up, motivated not by my desire to protect him or make him perfect, but attempting to love him unconditionally as he finds his own way. Sometimes I think this will mean plucking Judah from the air against his will before he hits the ground, but mostly I think it will mean letting him take a jump I think is too high and being there to pick him up after he falls.

Isn’t this what God does with us?

Drew Herring is the Pastor of Adult Education and Outreach at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. He is husband to Jenny and father to Judah. You can read his writing at

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