by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
A few years ago, in Arizona, I had the privilege of working with in a prison ministry for teenage boys once a month at the Black Canyon Department of Juvenile Corrections. Most of these boys were gang-bangers. Others were there because an addiction to drugs sent them down a path of other crimes. Still, others of them were there simply because of violent crimes they had committed against their already highly dysfunctional families. This was their last stop before adult prison, or worse…death…so the hope was that while they were being incarcerated there, they might be rehabilitated and reconciled-back-to-society in meaningful and lasting ways. One Saturday I gave a presentation to about 50 boys on a topic that I guessed would perk-up their interest…“Manhood.” I’d noticed that every single one of those boys was trying with every ounce of their being to be a man. But I knew that every single one of them had also learned some pretty bogus things about what it meant to be a man…everything from a sexual virility; to out-drinking someone else; to violence, and you name it…they had all been given a recipe for manhood that insured a life of disappointment and pain for everyone in orbit around them. Most of them had fathers who were atrocious examples of what it means to be a man. So they were fervently motivated to learn from this presentation, more than I would have ever dared dream.
What I didn’t realize would happen was just how much this topic would resonate, not only with them, but also for the 5 guards who were there with them during this presentation on Manhood. Just like the boys, these grown men were also on the edge of their seat, entirely engaged in the conversation that was going on. They wanted to know and to articulate the path to manhood just as desperately as any of those boys…and I suddenly realized just how much this question resonates universally. “What does it mean to be a man?” Both men and boys want to know, “What does it mean to be a man?” Whether we are a son or a daughter, or a sister or a brother, or a father or a mother, or a grandfather or a grandmother, the manhood of the men we know has a profound effect on everything around us and touches upon every single one of our lives.
Our world, especially in recent years, has suffered the effects of leaders and men-in-general who haven’t the foggiest idea how to man-up. The Church, most especially, has suffered the effects of men who have forgotten what it means to truly be a man and have abdicated their role as priest of their household. So, how can a dad man-up to his God-given role as priesthood of his household?
Fathers Determine Their Children’s Faith
We get an important clue about this husbandly and fatherly priesthood in the Orthodox marriage ceremony. In that ceremony there’s the epistle reading (Ephesians 5:21-33). It essentially calls men to the role of priest of their household. How do they become these lay-priests? It says they do it by offering themselves up “just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (v. 25). Why? Why does Christ do this…and thus, why should the husband/dad to this? Saint Paul says our Lord did this “to sanctify her, to make her holy” (v.26-27) or in other words, ‘so that He could lead her to become set apart unto God.’ That was Christ’s reason for offering Himself to the Church, self-sacrificially, and it’s the reason every man of a household should also live that way…to make his family holy, to set them apart unto God. Essentially, our Lord wants every husband and father to know that the most important role that they have in life is to lead their families to heaven through their own self-sacrificial spiritual leadership.
Believe it or not, this selfless spiritual leadership begins, first and foremost, with dad’s regular and enthusiastic participation in the sacramental life of the Church. This was a significant find in a study done a few years ago by Werner Haug and Phillipe Warner.
In that study, questions were asked to determine whether a person’s religion carried through to the next generation, and if so, why—or if not, why not. What they discovered is powerful. Stunningly, they discovered that there is one critical factor: “The religious practice of the father of the family, above all, determines the children’s future attendance at—or absence from Church.” In short, the study determined that if a father does not go, or rarely goes to Church, no matter how faithfully his wife is devoted, only 1 child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. However, if a father enthusiastically attends Church services weekly, regardless of the practice of the mother, then between 65%—75% of their children will become active practitioners of their faith.
This is because, when children begin to grow up, engaging with the world “out there,” they look increasingly to dad as the role model of what it means to do adult things. Where dads are indifferent, inadequate, or just plain absent from their faith…it becomes much harder for the child to see their faith as important to adulthood. When adult children see that church was mostly a “women and children only” thing, they’ll respond accordingly—by not going to church as an adult, or going much less. Curiously, both adult male and female children of such fathers will conclude subconsciously that Dad’s absence indicates that going to church is not really a “grown-up” activity.
So, when children see their dads attending Church services weekly, offering the stewardship of their treasures; enthusiastically participating in the ministries of the Church; becoming devoted disciples (or student/followers) of Christ’s teachings, then those children will grow up realizing that this is what it means to be a mature, responsible adult. The chances are high that we will see those children carry the Orthodox Christian Faith into their adulthood.
Men, this Fathers’ Day how do you want your families to remember you? Can you imagine if their fondest memory of you was as an icon of Christ? Can you imagine that your family’s fondest memory of you was as someone who was willing to man-up as a follower of our Lord? Can you imagine the day that your family will have learned from your example what it means to live their faith with conviction? Can you imagine the day when your family will know, from the pattern of your life, what it looks like to be an authentic Christian? Receive the blessing from God that comes from offering yourself up for your children, so that by your example, they will become set apart unto God, finding the blessed path to the everlasting Kingdom.