Broken crucibles, part 2

Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. —Malachi 4:5,6, NLT

simpsonsEugene O’Neill fathered three children that we know of, but he didn’t stick around to raise any of them. Today, we would call him a “deadbeat dad.” A talented deadbeat, but a deadbeat just the same.

As a kid, one of my favorite playground rides was the merry-go-round. A bunch of us would climb on and hold tight while someone spun us faster and faster. Centrifugal force would slide us towards the edge. Finally, when our strength gave out, we’d tumble off into the dirt, arms and legs flying. It was a blast.

Naturally, there were no lawyers in my neighborhood.

Family is like that merry-go-round. The forces tearing it apart have always been stronger than what holds it together. And men, I’m sorry to say, have been far too quick to let go. It was just as true in Malachi’s day as now.

Some of the sad statistics from Fathers for Life:

  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes;
  • 90% of runaway children are from fatherless homes;
  • 71% of high school dropouts live in fatherless homes;
  • 85% of all youths in prison grew up in fatherless homes;
  • teenaged girls are 6.6 times more likely to become pregnant when they live in fatherless homes.

My father was the youngest of seven children. By all accounts, my grandparents were deeply in love and had built a good home together. My grandfather was an engineer with the gas and electric company and rising into management. Life was good, until he fell off the merry-go-round.

While recovering from the birth of my father, my grandmother contracted a blood infection and died.

My grandfather was crushed by her death and panicked at the thought of carrying on alone. He started drinking. He lost his job. He stopped coming home. Neighbors took turns caring for the children until the state stepped in and parceled them out to foster homes. My father, an angry and unhappy child, was bounced from home to home, rarely seeing his siblings. At 16 he ran away and joined the Army.

The Army was good for him, and after he was discharged he put himself through night school, found a promising job, met my mother and married her. Their future seemed bright, until I was born.

I have to think that my birth brought back some difficult memories of his tortured childhood. The responsibility of fatherhood unnerved him. He began drinking, living lavishly and spending beyond his means. He would disappear without explanation. As his debts piled up, he got himself into an illegal financial scheme. And then he got caught.

With his world coming apart, he decided he had only one choice: on a cool spring morning, he wrote my mother a short note and killed himself. I was nine, my sister and brother were seven and three.

When you grow up living in the middle of a hurricane, you learn to lean into the wind. Despite the craziness of that time, I never thought of our family as anything but normal. Like most boys that age, I worshipped my father. When he died, I felt the most terrible grief I’ve ever known. And, I took it personally.

How does a nine-year-old process such a thing? I reasoned that my father had abandoned us because of something deeply wrong with me, and I carried that conviction with me into adulthood.

I’ve called these posts “broken crucibles” because that’s my image of family. Even in an intact family, the challenges of the marital relationship and parenting are huge. The best of us from the most well-balanced families can still be unprepared for all that parenthood throws at us.

But thank God for grace. Thank God that nothing is beyond his redemptive art. God can be exalted in the most fractured places in our minds and hearts. He can heal our wounds; he can work around our weaknesses.

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me. Since I know it is all for Christ’s good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul speaking

Throughout my life, men have stepped up and become surrogate fathers for me. With so much fatherlessness in our society today, children need godly, masculine role models. We men need to look for opportunities to be influential in their lives.

I am indebted to the men who have challenged me to be a good father, and have prayed for me when I was losing my grip on the merry-go-round. Familyhood is hard. Men need to encourage each other to stick with it, and all the more so with young parents who are just starting out.

We live in an imperfect world—we should not be surprised that our families, and our children, are imperfect. But in the hands of a Master Artisan, even a broken crucible can produce a dazzling gold ring. By the grace of Jesus Christ, our families can become places of redemption and love.

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  1. Hi Charlie:

    These two posts are very insightful; thank you for sharing from your personal story.

    Over the years, through the church, I have also had opportunity to have the influence of godly men who have given me “fathering in the Spirit”, since my Dad wasn’t and isn’t a Christian.

    The world celebrates talent and achievement, but men who neglect their primary responsibility to be good fathers and husbands as they pursue their careers are not successful in God’s eyes.

    As one with artistic ambitions, I have mused over the success of famous artists who seemingly were driven by passion for their art, but in their personal lives could be terribly irresponsible. This kind of drivenness can lead to achievement, but at what cost?

    I think that men are (by God) oriented towards work, task and mission, but the man who fulfills his true calling is one whose mission serves others, rather than simply himself.

  2. God bless you, Charlie. Someone in our extended family has also experienced this. I have to think it is very rough, for those who are left behind. I appreciate your sharing this.

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