Father. It’s a weighty word for me. Like stained glass, the image it brings to mind is a mosaic of different colored fragments. Some are beautiful. Some full of tension.
Strength. Sometimes gentle strength, sometimes raw and frightening. Provision. Authority. Protection. A disciplinary look or word. A few spankings. Many more cuddling hugs. And then a big gap, missing spaces, leaving a picture less than half formed.
My personal father story is fragmented. I’m adopted. I know only one fact about my birth father. He left my birth mom when he found out she was pregnant.
It was my adoptive father, Ken Schelske, who I experienced as “Dad.” He loved me, provided for me, disciplined me. Of course, it wasn’t just him. He did this along with Val, his wife, my mother. Honestly, she did most of the heavy lifting of raising me. But this reflection is about fathers, so no offense meant for my mom or other moms.
Ken was a good dad. At least I think he was. My memories of him are partly the spotty, hero-worship-tinged memories of a small boy, party the residue of stories I’ve repeatedly been told over the years. Story and memory are inextricably tangled.
Ken and Val wanted me badly. My adoption was one of those stories where God and circumstances compensated for the pain of infertility with an unexpected adoption. I know that I was profoundly loved, but life being what it is, I only got my dad for a while. He died in an accident when I was eleven. In so many ways, my life has been shaped by the deep and painful aftermath of that loss.
One thing I found while looking for fathers:
Growing up, I looked for relationships with older men. Camp counselors, bosses, mentors. I realize now that I was driven by the void my dad left.
I am a follower of Jesus and for twenty years now, a pastor. The stories of the Bible have shaped my mind and heart profoundly. One particular story always brings me to a tender place, full of ache. It’s a story that speaks to the loss of my father and to the long search my heart has made for father-figures. It also pointed me in the direction of my most important task as a father to my own children.
In the Gospel according to Mark, there’s an interesting scene. John the Baptist, a scraggly-haired teacher and prophet was down by the river, preaching. His message was classic street preacher: “Judgment is coming! Get right with God!” His invitation was for people to get baptized in the river, an act which symbolized starting over and being washed clean.
Jesus happened upon this scene and asked for John to baptize him. When Jesus came out of the water, something remarkable happened, something that has tugged deeply on my heart my whole life.
The scripture tells it like this: “He saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending to Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are My beloved Son; I take delight in You!’”
Jesus stands in the river with the river water running off him and he hears something life-changing. He hears God, the God he identifies as His father saying, “You are my beloved Son; I take delight in you.”
These are the words of a father’s blessing. They are also words that every child needs to hear from their father.
Thirty-five years after my dad’s death, I still ache to hear him say words like this. For years, I looked for men in my life to say words like these to me. And now, I know my most important task as a father is to plant these words deep in my children’s hearts, both through my words and my actions.
1. You are mine.
These words provide a sense of location. Every child wonders where they came from. Who is my father? What is my father like? Will I be like him? This is the seed of identity.
Telling your child that they are “yours” isn’t about ownership or control. If that’s what you mean, you’re doing it wrong. These words are about a profoundly rooted sense of belonging. They are not alone. They walk their path in life with a mentor.
Our kids will struggle with identity and belonging, as all kids do, but if their essential sense of identity is rooted in belonging spoken into their hearts, they will navigate those turbulent times so much better.
2. You are beloved.
Every child wonders if they are loved, but love is complicated. So often it is conditional. Most of us know the love and pride parents give when we obey or perform or accomplish. That feels nice, but it’s not the kind of love you can build an identity on.
That’s why I like the old word beloved. To know you are not just loved, but beloved… that is a love rooted in your identity. You are loved for you. Loved for existing. Loved for being exactly who you are.
Any child who knows they are beloved comes to life with a safety net. They can risk. They can try. They can fail. They can fall and get back up. They know that they are loved for who they are, not for what they do. This love creates freedom.
3. I delight in you.
To be loved is vital, but to be delighted in? That colors life with joy. When a father takes delight in his kids, it makes clear that the relationship isn’t a chore, or an obligation, or a burden. It’s a joy.
When you know that someone delights in you, that their eyes light up in your presence, that their heart lifts when they think about you, that delight gives you a gift. You are able to see past painful circumstances a little easier. You are more able to take criticism without letting it wipe you out. You are able to deal with the inevitable negative people you encounter more easily. Why? Because you know that the people who matter delight in you.
Give an Unconditional Blessing.
There’s one more part of the story in Mark’s gospel that’s interesting to me. The timing of these words matters. When Jesus heard these words, he hadn’t done one significant thing yet. He hadn’t preached. He hadn’t healed anyone. He hadn’t said any of the things that we quote two thousand years later. There was no following, no crowd, nothing.
Here at the beginning, before anything notable has been accomplished, the Father speaks an affirmation of Jesus’ identity. “You are mine. I love you. I take delight in you.”
We live in a world where we are valued for our accomplishments. We are respected for our credentials. If our sense of belonging and value is tied to our performance, life becomes a never-ending treadmill trying to secure our place. On this treadmill you hand your sense of self off to other broken people. That’s a trap!
I can see the world my children are growing up in. I want to equip and prepare them for it, as best I can. I can teach them practical skills. I can talk with them about money, relationships, sex, and politics. There are many things I convey as a father, more through my actions than my words.
But I’ve decided that the most important task I have as a father is to give them this empowering blessing I learned in the Gospel of Mark. It is my goal to communicate to them in words and actions these words that will give them courage, freedom and power.
You are mine.
You are beloved.
I delight in You.
Marc Alan Schelske writes about life at the intersection of grace and growth at MarcAlanSchelske.com. He is the teaching elder at Bridge City Community Church in Milwaukie, Oregon where he has served for 17 years. He's the author of Discovering Your Authentic Core Values. Marc is a husband, dad of two, speaker, writer, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist who drinks tea & rides a motorcycle. You can follow him on Twitter at @Schelske