It was nearly 8 PM — that means bedtime for the kids. I pushed my books aside and met them in their room, where they were already lying down. The lights were off, and the stage was set for me to swoop in and perform my household priestly duties — a prayer, a blessing, and a goodnight kiss. I knelt beside our four-year-old's bed to begin my typical routine of asking God to give her rest, both for the night and forever. Just running through the motions.
“Father, please give Elizabe—”
“Pray for my lip!” she snapped. It was more cute than rude. I couldn't be upset. She had hurt it earlier in the day and it was still on her mind. Without missing a beat, I adeptly turned the prayer towards her little cut — sounding very spiritual, of course.
“Father, please help Elizabeth to trust you in—”
“My lip! My lip!" now with more urgency, interrupting me, as if she were too vague the time before. I chuckled inside and started again.
“Please make Elizabeth’s lip to feel bett—”
“Ask him to heal it!"
This third time she was different. Her tiny voice had one of those screechy sounds somewhere between desperate and angry. She was frustrated with me, and for good reason. She could tell I was just going through the motions. Her tone made it clear that she doubted whether I was for her or not.
At this point, I didn’t say anything. I had been hoping to get back to those books. My time is limited, you know. But now I just stopped. I couldn't move. Kneeling there by her bed, face in my hands, I felt the prick of a four-year-old's rebuke. A rebuke for how I pray, and especially how I parent. Just going through the motions.
It was a plain request she put before me. Her lip hurt and she wanted God to heal it. And there I was, wooden and dusty. Or better yet, plastic. I had walked in that room as some figure of a dad, a hollow manikin dressed up in all the right ways and positioned in all the right places. Yet when it came to actual life — down where my children live — when it came to them knocking on my heart, all they heard was the thud of their little knuckles against what fooled them as real.
We've Got to Get This
That was a hard night, but it was good. A glass of cold water had been dumped on my face. I was awake now. And thinking.
I realize that not everyone reading this post is in theological education. And if you are, even fewer of you have children. But for the handful of readers to whom this directly applies, we must understand this: it's not that we're in seminary and happen to have a wife and children, but rather we're husbands and dads who happen to be in seminary.
As much as deadlines and workload would tempt us to believe otherwise, parenting doesn't wait until we've finished those remaining M. Div. credits. Neither does marriage — perhaps especially marriage. There are no footnotes to Ephesians 5 that qualify Paul's instructions as pending until graduation. We can't be duped here. It's too costly.
Even as unique as the experience may be, we shouldn't chock up the abdication of our responsibilities as dads to that "only a season" talk. If you're a husband and dad now, then you're a husband and dad now. What God intends for the men of families he intends for us, no matter what our schedule looks like, or how important that paper is that's due next week.
However clear our subjective sense of “call to the ministry” may seem to us, the objective calling to husband and father is much clearer.
Not This or That, But You
In 1 Timothy 3:5, Paul tells us that men who can't lead their own household well shouldn't lead in God’s. This means we don't learn how to be pastors to then figure out the home stuff later. It happens together, if that home stuff hasn’t already happened first. What we do at home is more pertinent to our future ministry than the best class we'll ever take or any exegetical gold we'll ever dig up. Every bit of gospel growth we receive by means of our theological training is aimed by God to touch all of our lives. A solid seminary experience doesn't change just this view or that, but it changes us — as husbands, as dads, and then as leaders for the church as well.
And take heart. There is a Shepherd who has gone before us. A Husband who gave himself up for our holiness. A Brother who is always with us. An Overseer who bore our sins in his body on the tree — including our fatherly failures — so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. We don't have to kick the dirt in frustration at how many times we've gotten it wrong. We can look to him in hope. The work of his wounds heals us, and the example he left is our glad path by the Spirit's power.
Real husbanding and fathering never gets put on hold for any season, or for any degree program — no matter how hyped we are about our little pastoral callings. Way too much is at stake with our families right now to just go through the motions while we prepare ourselves for some future ministry. In Jesus we become the real husbands and dads we're called to be now, in seminary, for the good of his church tomorrow.