AUTHOR: MacDonald, Gordon
PUBLISHED ON: April 9, 2003


by Gordon MacDonald

from Preaching Today Tape #45

Ironically, Eli was a rotten father. The first two shots he took at raising
boys were an abysmal failure, and he gave the world two monsters. So God must
be a gracious God, because he gave Eli a third chance. When Hannah and
Elkanah presented their precious young son for service at the temple, this
time Eli performed.

Eli, what is your job description in the raising of Samuel? Answer: My
mission is to so raise this young man that when the voice of God is heard, he
will know how to decode the noise and respond obediently to it. There could
be no higher call for the man who was privileged to be called father.

Any healthy male past the age of puberty can become a father, but it takes a
man who understands this mission to be a father. The mission of the man
called father is to raise children in such a way that, like Samuel, they may
be able to decode the voice of God and make a proper choice as to whether or
not they shall respond. This encounter happened in the tabernacle at Shiloh,
for God called people to himself in special places.

In Lexington, Massachusetts, where Gail and I and our children, Mark and
Kristi, lived for thirteen years, we lived on Grant Street in a small,
ranch-type house with six or seven rooms and one bathroom. I now shake my
head in consternation to realize I raised a family with one john. One year
ago, my wife and I said good-by to Grant Street. As we got into the car, I
said, “Why don’t we go back into the house one more time. Let’s tour each
room and see if we can form one final memory of something that happened in
the vocation of mothering and fathering during those thirteen years.

The first room is the breeze way, sometimes the family room. It was a
marvelous place to eat and have a lot of fun in as a family. I remember
coming home one day when our children were probably around the ages of nine
and six. As I entered the breeze way, the two of them were standing
nose-to-nose, ripping each other apart. I was amazed at the words and the
anger. I was grieved, as a father would be watching his children rip each
other apart. Then I put my hands on their shoulders so they maintained this
limited distance, and I said, “Listen carefully. This place is called home.
It is unlike any other place. When you enter a home, people do things
differently. In a home, they build each other. Did you hear that word? They
build each other. Say it for me, very slowly.” And both children said, “Build
each other.” “Say it again louder, so I can hear you better.” “Build each
other.” “Yes, that’s what you do in a home. You build each other. Outside
that door, people carve each other up. They compete with each other. And
sometimes you have to look over your shoulder to see who may be coming up
behind you. You should never have to do that in a home. I anticipate from
this moment forward that the content of your conversation will always be in
the mode of building, because here we are growing human beings to the glory
of God.” That’s a definition of a home: a place where people are built. The
rest of the world is a place where people are discriminated against, are
denied their rights, are made to feel something less than they are. But in a
home, the number-one task of parents is to build people, to create an
environment in which people can grow.

I stood one day at the edge of a newly planted lawn. I loved the cleverness
of the planter who had put a sign there that said, “Please do not walk on
this ground; seeds are at work.” A sign like that could go on the front of
every home. Seeds are at work. Children are being grown. People are being

Our cliche became build. It came home to roost one day when I said an idle
word to my wife and one of our children said to me, “Now Dad, was that a
building statement? Why don’t you say it again to Mom and see if the second
time you can do it right.”

I believe one day those men entrusted with wives and children will stand
before God, and among the first questions he might ask would be, “Did your
child and spouse grow to be all that I designed them to be in the environment
you created?” In the breeze way, the great memory was the admonition to

You go from the breeze way to the kitchen. At one end was a lovely old table
we had refinished, and around that table we ate our meals. When it was time
to eat, the phone came off the hook because for the hour we were at the
table, the family was the ultimate priority. That did not happen by accident,
for as our children began to enter the pre-teen years, Gail and I discovered
that our family schedule was falling into the hands of everybody outside the
house. The children were victimized in a positive sense by the wonderful
things to do in the school. The church had its own programs. The community
had its programs. If we did not have control of our family calendar, before
long we would be going in four different directions, having almost no useful
time together.

One day my wife made an announcement with my support. She said, “From this
day forward, every evening at supper time, we are going to eat together. It
is an inviolable part of the daily schedule. I don’t care what time we eat,
as long as you tell me when you call can be here.” My contribution was to
suggest that supper time is more than eating. It is a relational event in
which people talk. That, I believe, is the second mark of a home in which
people grow: people learn to talk with each other. No one will learn to talk
if the time is not taken and if interruptions are not minimized. As we stood
in the kitchen of the empty house, we began to think of all the great
conversations that happened around that old table: The evenings when one of
the children came home defeated in an event at school and the opportunities
to give vent to feelings and frustrations; the moments when the interesting
questions merged into long conversations about sex, about marriage, or how
you hear the voice of God.

If your children are anything like mine, they don’t like to talk. “How was
your day?” “Good.” “Is that all, good?” “Yeah.” “But, that’s the way it was
yesterday, and the day before that.” So fathers have to be creative, like,
“If you don’t tell me what was the most interesting part of your day, it will
cost you a quarter.” Sometimes it takes a father who admits to his children
that he also had struggles that day, or that he has failed. But sooner or
later, because the time is taken, families learn to talk.

When you leave the kitchen, you come to the living room Our living room had a
large, plate glass window, and my memory as I entered that room was of our
daughter, Kristi, who often sat on the love seat looking out the window. I
often saw her there at 5:30 in the morning, when, for an hour with her Bible
and journal, she would spend time ordering her world and bringing it into
reconciliation with God.

She often did her homework out there. And it was not unusual to walk into the
living room and see eight or ten young people sitting around the fireplace as
she and the others talked about the Scriptures or a summer mission trip. The
living room was a lovely place, and Kristi liked it very much. But one
Saturday afternoon, Kristi sat in front of that window, and I knew the
thoughts this time were difficult thoughts. Gail had put me on to the fact
that Kristi was struggling, and maybe it was time for her father to enter the
act. The issue was simple. She had to make a big decision as to where she was
going to attend high school. One group of friends thought she ought to go to
the public school, and the other group thought she ought to go to the
Christian school. She knew that to make a decision would hurt one group. Here
was a fourteen-year-old child, more girl than woman, wrestling with a massive

As I listened to her talk, I finally heard myself saying, “Kristi, all men
and women, be they teenagers or adults, have moments when they are like an
oak tree or a tulip. The trick is to know which you are. Oak trees grow and
stand tall. They take a long time, but when they get to full growth, no one
messes with them. You walk around them, because oak trees stand by
themselves. They are strong and beautiful and tall. And Kristi, I have seen
you when you are an oak tree. On the other hand, tulips grow to fullness and
beauty also, but even at their greatest height and beauty, they need to be
protected. You need to build a fence around a tulip, but you don’t have to
worry about an oak tree at all. So, it’s important for fathers to ask their
daughters, `Are you today an oak tree or a tulip?’ because if you are an oak
tree, Kris, I’ll leave you alone. But if you are a tulip, I’ll build a fence
around you today.”

She pondered the alternatives, and then came the tears and finally the quiet
voice. “Daddy, today I’m a tulip.” With those code words, father knows it’s
time to protect. Thank God, there are moments when fathers have that
opportunity to build a fence. And thank God for the moment when he gives us
the spirit of discernment to know when our children need the fence because
they are tulips and when we need to stand aside because they are becoming oak

If you walk down the hall, there’s a bedroom where our son, Mark, lived. I
remember that bedroom vividly. And now a memory quickly came to me. Mark was
a sixth grader when the event happened. He had rushed in the door of our home
after school and said, “The kids have asked me to go with them to Cape Cod
this weekend. There are fourteen of us going, seven boys and seven girls.
It’s going to be fantastic!” Sixth grade. For seventy-two hours. I took one
look at him and with all my good interventive techniques, said “No way!”
Sixth grade is generally the year when boys and girls form peer groups, when
popularity becomes an issue, when being in the in- group is the most
important thing in the world. To be invited to go to the Cape for a weekend
is a special privilege, and to hear from your parents that there’s “no way”
is devastating.

Mark quickly disappeared, and for a half hour I didn’t hear anything from
him. I began to search the house, but I couldn’t find him. Then suddenly my
mind turned back to the bedroom, and I realized there was something unusual
about that bedroom: the closet door had been shut. So I went back into the
bedroom and opened the closet door. There, back in the corner, was my son,
sitting with his knees wrapped up to his chest, quietly weeping. I’d never
seen him do that before.

There aren’t textbooks that tell a father how to perform in a moment like
that, but instinct told me I ought to join him. I found myself closing the
closet door behind me and getting down on the floor in that darkened closet.
I sat in the darkness for ten minutes and listened to my little boy weep.
Finally, when there were no more tears, I began to rethink the decision I had
made and whether I had been too arbitrary. “Son,” I said, “let’s talk. It’s
obviously very important to you. Tell me about the ground rules. Tell me
what’s going to happen.” And with that, the story came out, the story I had
been too gruff to listen to. When he finished, I said, “Bud, I’ll back off.
YOu go. But I want you to promise you will watch everything that happens this
weekend. Watch the way the young people interface with each other. Promise
that the minute you get back, the two of us will sit down and have a long
talk about everything you saw and how you felt about it.”

He said, “Dad, I promise.” He went, and thank God, he had a thoroughly
miserable time. “It was crazy, Dad. Those parents didn’t care what their kids
did. The kids were left on their own, hour after hour. Something wrong could
have gone on. You and Mom would have never acted that way. I’m really pleased
that you let me experience that, because I saw how different families treat
each other.” From that weekend, because I made a choice to flex as a father,
my son and I had a different relationship, which lasts until this day. He
learned and I learned that part of good fathering is to have principles and
convictions but also to learn how to negotiate and flex and allow one’s son
or daughter to take a few chances for the possibility of learning valuable
lessons on their own.

Down the hall is the bedroom where Gail and I lived. When we reached that
room, we laughed a bit as we remembered that it was to that room late in the
hours of the night that the children often came with all sorts of wonderful
and troubling stories. There was the night at 12:30 when a soft knock came on
the door and a rather quiet male voice said, “Dad, I don’t know how you are
going to take this, but I got a speeding ticket tonight. You warned me, and
I’ve gotten it and I’m very, very sorry.” And he sits on the edge of the bed
and he talks about how he made the mistake. You say to yourself, “Thank God
we have achieved a point where the boy can admit he’s wrong.” We talk about
what we’re going to do about it. We give each other an embrace, and he goes
to his bed.

Or there was the night when the same kind of knock came on the door, and this
little it’s a feminine voice: “Daddy? Mom? Can I come in?” And a little now
turned seventeen sits on the edge of the bed and tells you about a handsome
guy she has met, and how he has feelings for her, and she has feelings for
him. You look mesmerized as the little girl unfolds the fact that now she has
become a woman, her heart has been captured. Just two weeks ago I walked her
down the aisle to commit her to that young man. But there in that bedroom, we
heard the story of a budding romance for the first time.

Gail and I look at each other in that empty bedroom and remember moments like
that when there was the admission of pain and the first seeds of joy, and we
say to ourselves, “Thank God, our children knew this was a room to which they
could come no matter what the hour to talk about what was in their hearts.”

The garage brought to us the memory of a red pickup truck that for many years
was housed in it. When our son turned sixteen, the learner’s permit was
hardly dry or in his billfold when he came to me and said, “Dad, next Friday
I have a date. I’d like to take her in the truck.” I said, “Well, Bud, you
can’t do that. You only have a learner’s permit, and you can’t go out at
night without someone who has a license.” “Dad, she’s eighteen and a half.”
“Where is the date?” “Boston.” “What time does it start?” “Five-thirty.”
“Have you ever driven in Boston at 5:30 on Friday afternoon?”

I wanted to say, “No way!” but I had learned my lesson. I said, “Bud, give me
two hours to think about it.” I go call the father of the girl and say, “Don,
you know your daughter and my son have a date next Friday, don’t you?” He
said, “Yes, I do.” “How would you fell if you knew that Mark was going to
drive on that date with just a learner’s permit because your daughter has a
driver’s license?” He said, “Gordon, I trust Mark’s judgment. If you feel he
should do that, it’s fine with me.” The two hours are almost gone, and I say,
“Mark, my answer is yes under one condition. ON the night before your date,
you and I will drive the route to the date at the same time of day, and you
will permit me to create any kind of circumstance and you will have to react
to it.” He said, “Sure, Dad.” So the next Thursday at 5:30, we started out in
rush-hour traffic, bumper to bumper. I suddenly say to him, “Son, I’m sorry,
but your right front tire just blew out.” “What do you want me to do?” “What
do you do with tires that have just blown out?” “You change them.: “Then get
over there and change it!” So we pull over into the breakdown lane with me
praying that a copy won’t stop, and I’ll have to explain all this. Mark
climbs under the pickup truck to get the jack. Jacks in most pickup trucks
are under the hood. Mark found out that afternoon. He also discovered what to
do when an alternator burns out. He discovered what you have to do when you
plan to go down an exit ramp and the freeway is blocked because of
construction, and you have to take an alternate route. He also learned what
happens if the truck completely breaks down and you have to make a decision
late at night whether to call the girl’s father or not. When we got home that
night, I think Mark knew every contingency about driving a pickup truck to
Boston on a Friday afternoon. I smile about that as I stand in the empty
garage in the house on Grant Street. But that’s the act of fathering. It’s
releasing the child to face the possibilities and to grow through experience
once you have taught him everything that’s possible to give him.

The last room we walked through was the dining room, and the memory I have of
the dining room is not as happy as all the others. It came the night of a
birthday party for me. Gail had cooked my favorite food. She put together a
beautiful cake. The presents were all wrapped. The lights were now low, and
the family gathered for the supper. But it was clear from the outset that the
children were not in sync with the evening’s activities. They were caught up
too much in their own thoughts. Soon they got to complaining about a
vegetable they didn’t like (which I did), and they started bickering with
each other. Then they sprang up from the table and announced they were going
to watch a favorite television show and they’d appreciate it if we wait for
the. We sat at the table for thirty minutes, me saddened that the kids had
forgotten it was my birthday, that they were spending too much time thinking
about things that were important to them. We were even tempted to ask the
questions parents ask on occasion, “Where did we go wrong?”

Finally after an hour they came up and one said, “Where’s the cake? When are
we going to open the presents?” I said, “I’m sorry, the party has been
canceled.” “It can’t be canceled. This is your birthday.” I said, “I know
it’s on the calendar, but a party is a party only when the people determine
it’s supposed to be a party and act in a party mood. Two of the four of us
decided today to party by themselves. So maybe we’ll have the party in
another few nights. But not tonight. The party’s over.”

It was not a pleasant scene as our children walked away with tears. Later
that night, sitting at the edge of the bed with my son and listening to him
apologize to God and to his father because of his selfishness, I realized
there are moments in the raising of a family when fathers have to make
difficult decisions and say and do painful things. In my journal that night,
I wrote these words: “It would be so easy, God, to make simple decisions
dictated by convenience and the desire to be liked. But just as I withdraw
the hand that offers pain to my children, you remind me, God, that one never
learns and grows and blooms when the climate is easy. Teach me therefore,
God, like a father to think with eyes and ears, to brood with a heart just
like yours, which sees in the scope of eternity’s process what makes people,
even my children, become like your Son, Christ. The ecstasy of this one
moment when simple decisions might bring temporary tranquility is not to be
compared with the maturity of all the tomorrows through which my children
must live.”

For the final time, we locked the door on the house on Grant Street. It’s not
quite the same place with the furniture gone and the curtains down and the
pictures off the wall and the shouts and the joys and even the tears of the
children not there any longer. It’s just an empty, four-walled structure that
a new family will fill with its artifacts in another day or two. A house is
not made of dry wall, studding, and plate glass windows. No, a house is a
place that becomes a home when there is a decision on the part of a father
and a mother to make the people inside it grow. And there comes a day when,
having grown, the children leave and become what their choices are making
them become. As we drive up Grant Street, leaving behind us the empty house,
we are able to pray, thanking God that he gave us a home where children grew.

For some of you, that is a dream yet to happen. For others, it’s a dream in
progress. For many of you, like me, it is a past memory. But thank God for
fathers who help children and young people hear the voice of God. It is one
of the greatest privileges in the world.

Copyright 1995 (c) Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP JOURNAL


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