Several weeks ago my oldest son told me, rather frankly, “I know you didn’t really have a dad growing up, so it’s not your fault that you don't know what you’re doing.”
His words - as truthful as they were comical - inspired me to spend a few moments staring out the back door towards the slim forest that lines my property. There, amidst the eastern hemlocks and stands of poplars, is a tree fort. Built with several bunks, a zip line off the front deck and a carpet-lined interior, it is, without doubt, one of the finest I have erected over the years. Unfortunately, that has much more to do with my own paternal expectations than any passion I have for fine carpentry.
When my wife and I became parents to our three boys, there were two things I was certain a “good” father needed to do: take his kids fishing and build them a tree house. For whatever reason, nearly every book on manhood, masculinity or fatherhood I read seemed to point to these two watershed events as crucial turning points that enabled children to somehow discover their ultimate purpose in life. I am fairly useless with a hammer, but I am even worse with a fishing rod, so I ventured off to find a tree and some nails.
I started building my kids a tree house as soon as we owned a home with a tree that could support one. Despite the fact that my boys took comparatively little interest in the project, I would lie awake at night and fantasize about my next great construction. My first attempt consisted of a brown tarp that I hurriedly wrapped around the base of a stubby pine tree. I declared it a tepee and it went virtually unused for a year until the wind and rain tore it to pieces. My second attempt required a little more planning as I pinned a series of bamboo limbs into the shape of a platform with handrails. So sure was I that it would collapse at any moment that I had to stand next to it each time a child climbed aboard for fear of certain tragedy. We all agreed to dismantle it the following month. Then there was the log cabin I took from a vacant lot, followed by the pirate ship built from an old deck a friend was tossing out. And then, I finished our Taj Mahal.
My first attempt consisted of a brown tarp that I hurriedly wrapped around the base of a stubby pine tree.
To be sure, I knew early on that these houses were metaphorical, having little to do with my kids and everything to do with my own personal need to have a home or a dad who would build me a fort. Added to this craving for emotional healing were cultural expectations of fathering that left me feeling like a constant failure. As my son had pointed out so poignantly, I was entering fatherhood with a bit of a limp and what I needed was guidance and grace, not more people telling me how messed up my kids would be if I couldn't perform the task at hand with perfection.
What I longed to hear as a dad was not another message on character, headship or integrity, but one on identity. The truth is that I don’t want my kids to struggle like I have. I don’t want them to distrust my love, to be driven towards earthly success, to be constantly looking over their shoulder for my approving nod. I don’t want them to ever guess whether I am proud of them.
Above all, I want my sons to be deeply aware that they are part of a family of sinners whom God has never given up on. Sinners like my grandfather, sinners like my dad, sinners like their dad and sinners just like them. Sinners who are lavished with the unconditional love of a Father who calls us all His children. When it comes to living out metaphors, that one should always trump a tree house.