No Perfect Dads Allowed

Today Ted Beasley spoke at Gateway‘s McNeil campus, and I spoke at the South campus. Here are some of the thoughts we shared:

“At Gateway we recognize that this can be a bittersweet holiday, especially for those who have lost a father or a husband or a child. And we have plenty of single parents here at Gateway, who play one of the toughest roles in the world. They make a living, and then they come home and pour themselves out for their kids. And it’s worth it. And some of us on this day are reminded of how divorce can be so far-reaching and painful. The reality is that Father’s Day is hard for some of us. You need to know your church stands with you today.

There’s a story in Scripture of how King David fights one of his last big military campaigns, and he gets word that the enemy forces have been routed, and David’s chief rival had been slain on the battlefield. And you would think that David would be jubilant. But instead he cries hot, wet, bitter tears. Because his foe, the adversary who was cut down in battle was own son. And a thousand family pictures flash before his eyes. The memories wash over him. The day he swaddled the newborn Absalom in his arms. The day of baby Absalom’s first steps. Instructing his son is swordplay and military strategy. All of those memories. All of those dreams. And there at the city gate, when David gets the report, he cries out:

“O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

How did it come to this? How did this godly King David, the man who composed the Psalms, the man after God’s own heart, the guy who built up the kingdom of Israel . . . how did he lose his son? And could it happen to me?

Even if you don’t have kids, someday could you ever be staring over the grave of some relationship that was important to you wonder, “How did it ever get here?” Was it that David didn’t love Absalom enough? Of course he loved his boy all of those years. But get this, dads. Understand this, moms. Be real clear on this, Gateway. Love is not enough when it comes to sustaining a relationship. At least not as a feeling. Love must take decisive action.

When it comes to the most important relationships in our lives, I am convinced we have to ask three questions, and these questions today will come straight out of the story of David and Absalom – Will I give attention? Will I accept? Will I go “all in” when necessary?

Our first question today that fathers, or anyone else who loves another must ponder: Will I give attention? Will I authentically pay attention to my kids?

Daniel Blankenhorn, in his book Fatherless America, writes that 40% of children in America will go to bed at night in a home where father isn’t present. By the age of 18, over half of all American children will have spent a significant part of life in a home where dad wasn’t really around. A University of Michigan Study found that dads, who reside at home with the kids, spend on average 1.2 hours engaged directly with his children during the week. Believe it or not, that’s actually double the amount of time that our dads spent with our generation growing up. But still, every dad struggles being fully present mentally at home. We’re preoccupied, distracted, tired. Sometimes we just feel like we need to recover from the work day. But here are these lives that God has entrusted to you, these characters that you are intimately involved in shaping and forming. Are you the kind of father who, in any given season, knows exactly what’s happening in the heart of your children?

Our story about David and Absalom begins in 2 Samuel 13. King David is the rock star of Israel. He’s a military and diplomatic genius. Under his reign, the borders of the kingdom of Israel are greatly expanded. He’s a builder. He launches construction and infrastructure projects. He leads the way in the arts and music, and he is regarded as the spiritual pastor of the whole nation. Sometimes business people who break records at the office also break the hearts of their kids. Absalom was born in David’s ladder-climbing years – when he was fully-engaged at work. And it was as if David didn’t even notice his kids.

David was a man after God’s own heart, but he made choices at times that were counter to what God wanted. The consequences of his actions affected his family which became incredibly dysfunctional. For example, the writer of 2 Samuel relays a story of how Amnon, David’s firstborn son, falls in love with his half-sister, Tamar. One day Amnon hatches a scheme to get his half-sister Tamar in bed with him. He fakes being sick, and sends for Tamar to come to his bedside and tend to him. She bakes him his favorite cakes to help him feel better, but when she delivers the food, Amnon is so full of lust that he seizes Tamar by the wrist and pulls her in close. She kicks and screams and pleads with him not to do this evil thing, but Amnon is stronger, so he has his way with her. I’ll pick it up in verse 15. Amnon has done his business. Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!” He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. (15, 17)

Put yourself in Tamar’s shoes. It’s her worst nightmare. She’s violated by her own family member, the very people who are supposed to cherish and protect her. She’s kicked out of the house and she hears the click of the bolt on the door as she stands in the street with her tattered robe hanging off of her. And Tamar is the one person in the whole sordid story of David and Absalom who shows any integrity, because when she gets thrown out into the gutter in front of Amnon’s house, she begins to proclaim in a very public way what has happened to her. She will not be a silent victim. She wants justice. Why is she willing to go public? Because her dad is the king. He’s a man after God’s own heart. He commands armies. He can do whatever he wants to bring justice. Of all the people on this earth, surely her own father will have her back. But her big brother, Absalom, is the first responder to her side. He wraps his cloak around her, and says, “Come to my house, sis. We’ll get you cleaned up. I’ll keep watch over you until dad does right by you.” So Tamar goes to live with Absalom. And the two of them wait on David. Days, weeks, months. Every day they thought, “Today’s the day when our father will come to the rescue.” But the call never comes. David gives them no attention. 2 Samuel 13:21 says, “When King David heard all this, he was furious.” Furious, but impotent. Maybe he’s just busy. Maybe he’s afraid of punishing Amnon. Maybe David looks at his own history and brokenness and figures, “I have no moral authority to get involved.” What a coward. He leaves poor Absalom and Tamar twisting alone in the wind.

Dads, paying attention is not just about showing up at baseball games and dance recitals, it’s not about lecturing your child the do’s and don’ts in life. It’s about making yourself aware of what’s happening in the heart of your child. It’s possible for you to be physically there in a relationship, but never really be emotionally there.

This week take 45 minutes this week to explore the heart of the one you love. Get in a quiet place. Deliver your full attention. Don’t make it about you and what you want to say. Just ask a few powerful questions: What makes you happy? What are you worried about these days? How can I help you? What’s God up to in your life? If you could be anything, what would it be? If you could change anything about our relationship, what would it be?

If David had just paid a little attention.
Question #2: Will I accept?

Some parents drive a wedge between themselves and their kids because they turn a cold shoulder when the child needs acceptance most.

Absalom and Tamar put their lives on pause for two years in expectation of David intervening. Finally, Absalom, totally disgusted, elects to take matters into his own hands. He lures Amnon outside of the city gates, then gets him drunk. So Absalom brutally murders Amnon to avenge his sister then Absalom flees into exile. He checks out for three years.

Here’s what the text says in verse 39. And King David longed to go to Absalom, but he once again couldn’t bring himself to bridge the distance. Has your heart recently longed to go to someone, to make contact with someone with whom you are separated? Listen to your heart, before it’s too late. Well, David has a very shrewd Chief of Staff, a commander named Joab. And Joab sees this rift between father and son, so very adeptly, he persuades David to allow Absalom to return home unharmed. Then Joab sends word to Absalom, “It’s okay to come back to Israel, now.

Now, just for a moment, consider what it’s like to be Absalom. You haven’t really talked to your dad in five years. He wonders, as he approaches the city gates of Jerusalem, what’s dad going to do? Is he going to punitive, or is he going to be filled with forgiveness? Will he be cold and uncaring, or will he wrap me up in his arms like a prodigal son? Walking back to Jerusalem is the defining moment of Absalom’s life. He needs his father, and how David responds is going to determine their destinies. And at this critical moment, David refuses to offer acceptance.

2 Samuel 14:23 – But the king said, “He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.” So Absalom went to his own house and did not see the face of the king. Fathers, there are critical moments in which you extend grace, not justice, to your kid.

There will be moments when your children break your heart. There will be moments when they disobey or say hurtful things to you or turn their backs on what you’ve taught. Moments when you’ll have to watch helplessly as your child suffers the consequences of choices. And at some point, your child will look up from the mess and say, “Will you accept me?” That’s the deepest longing of all of us – to be loved unconditionally – to know that whatever we have done, love will never be withdrawn. Dads, don’t withdraw your love and affection as punishment to a child for not meeting God’s standards or your standards. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you condone everything or that you are somehow silent about your convictions that a child has done wrong. But acceptance says, “Regardless of what you’ve done, nothing will ever change that I love who you are.”

Absalom comes home to a father who has no grace for him, so he sits in house arrest for two years waiting for his dad. But no word. No tenderness. And while he sits there, he cultivates contempt for his father.

Question #3: Will I Go “All In” When Necessary?

Once a relationship has turned to contempt, it’s hard to restore it. And Absalom is now bitter beyond repair, so he spends the next four years undermining his father’s authority, and so he stole the hearts of the people of Israel. (2 Samuel 15:6)

Now 11 years of since the crime against Tamar his sister, Absalom instigates a coup. He overthrows his father’s rule, the entire country rallies around him, and his David flees for his life into the countryside. Now, dad, now do I have your attention? Once again, David has a choice. In light of these hostilities, will he stop running and go confront his son? Will he go “All In”?

Some dads choose to finally go all in with their kids, to cross the chasm of awkwardness and distance. David does not. He garners an army there in the wilderness to oppose the forces of Absalom. He draws out the battle plans with his generals. And before he sends them off to war, he make this statement, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” (18:5) His heart is stirred with compassion, but like he has for so many years, he is unable to call him his son. He says, “the young man Absalom.” Be gentle with him. Capture, don’t kill. But that’s not what happens on the battlefield that day. The armies of Absalom are routed and the young man Absalom is dead.

And there is this moment of clarity, which for some fathers and mothers comes too late. The text says that David shakes all over. He tears his clothes and beats his chest and gnashes his teeth and cries out. Because reality comes crashing down on him. This little life he was entrusted with is gone. All of these hopes and aspirations and memories flood over David. And he sobs. He thinks of all the ignorant choices he made. All of the late nights at the office. All of the words he should have said. And ironically . . . tragically . . . in this last moment he pronounces the one word that he should have been able to say all of his life, but couldn’t. The word that would have made all the difference if he had said it 11 years before. It’s the word son. Son. “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

We have been given grace, and we can extend grace to others. There are no perfect dads allowed. All of us could be better. And what matters most is not what you have done in the past. What matters is what you do with this moment. Will you give attention, accept and go all in? Because, even though you aren’t perfect, God’s love is. And his love can change everything. 1 Peter 4:8 – Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

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