His arrival in this world was also his first losing brawl. From the moment he took his first breaths, he was imperfect. He wasn’t granted a grace period of a few hours or even days of being an adorable baby boy. He was born ugly — blemished right from the start.
During the delivery, my son Charlie decided to come out face up. While exiting the birth canal, his head got caught on his mother’s pelvic bone. The attending obstetrician was confident that his mother could push him out on her own strength, without the doctor wrestling him out himself. She pushed and pushed and, finally, he crowned.
When I first saw Charlie, his right eye was black, there was a swollen bump on his brow, and a thin coat of blood across his face. He looked as if he’d gone 12 rounds, trying to punch his way out of the birth sack. The bump and the bruised eye stayed with him for at least another week. We gave him kitchen-sink baths while he sat up in his high-back tub, his fists clamped, almost as though he was looking for another opponent. With his wounds so fresh and raw, for a few weeks he still looked nothing like the adorable baby we expected.
Our firstborn child, my daughter Annie, was a gorgeous nine-pound baby. Her delivery was so by the numbers, it was almost mechanical. My wife plowed through it like a machine, her body pushing and breathing on rhythm like an Olympic athlete. The end result was (initially) a gray blob of skin and fat that, after a quick bedside rinsing by the nurses, came to resemble a beautiful baby girl.
But my perception of my son’s arrival — battered and bruised as he was — made me reconsider so much of what I had been taught in my life about perfection.
The arrival of a child is not like shopping for a car. You cannot look over your son or daughter and send them back if you find an overwhelming amount of flaws while still on the lot. There is no row of vehicles from which to choose. Your son is your son, your daughter is your daughter, whether they have a missing hand, a cleft lip, a birthmark over their eye, heart problems, or are stillborn. You can’t refuse to buy them like you can a peach that is too squishy. They are your flesh and blood. They are what God has given you. Not subject to an obstetrician’s return policy.
The moment of my son’s birth was important to me, as a man, and especially with my backstory. My own father never put pressure on me to be perfect — he knew there was never, ever really any chance of that. But what he did do over time was learn to expose my weaknesses to the point where I often became a bumbling idiot. In our home, there was always a threat of violence. My dad seldom laid his hands (or feet) on us, but it did happen … and you never knew what might set him off. Given that inherent fear, no matter how straightforward or easy a task was he asked me to complete, with his eyes watching, I was 110% more likely to screw it up.
I remember once I was carrying a cup of juice across the living room. My parents had just paid to have new carpet installed. I was probably only four or five years old and granted, it was not a good idea for me — the clumsy kid — to bring a drink into the living room in the first place, but when my father scowled at me, shaking his fist at me like he always did (the not-so hidden message was that me or my older brother were getting close to a beating) and said, “Don’t spill that juice!”, it created an immediate reaction. Almost as if on command — either because he suggested it, called my attention to it, or just didn’t believe I could not make a mistake — my hand started to waver and that glass of juice went spilling right onto the living room floor.
My flaws were not evident to my father the day I was born. Some time would have to pass before he could make me into a nervous wreck. But as I held my newborn son Charlie in my arms, watched him in the bathtub, and held him on my chest as he fell asleep, he clearly was — and would always be — a flawed little boy.
Almost every man I know has issues with his father, and there are plenty of women who do, too. Maybe you have a forehead bruise of your own, not from the delivery process but from butting heads with your father your whole life. Maybe you blame him for who you become. Maybe he held you to an impossible standard of perfection and kept moving that line whenever you surpassed it so that you were always in check. Or maybe it didn’t matter what you did and he took out his toll on you with his fists or sometimes — maybe even worse — abusive verbal put downs that have lasted a lifetime so far. And now, like me, you find yourself a parent trying to lead not only your son but yourself down the path of righteousness — a lasting faith that will help your boy be a lifelong man after God’s own heart.
This is harder than it seems, especially for Christians. Whether or not you’ve thought about it (it took me a while to comprehend why it took so long for me to connect with the Lord), the essence of Christianity involves having a father-son relationship with God and doing our best to measure up to the perfect standard set by his son. Do you see the issue here? You, who despises your own relationship with your earthly father, who are all too aware you are not even close to touching perfect, is taking on a leadership role in the Christian faith, not only for yourself but your flesh and blood.
By acknowledging our weaknesses from the get-go, we can take on a more realistic perspective. You aren’t perfect. Your earthly father isn’t perfect. But your Heavenly Father is. And so is his son. All babies come with assumed innocence. But baby Jesus — the Christ child — was born into a world of sin and yet remained unblemished. Before Jesus was born, it was foretold that he would a baby unlike any other. In Luke 1:31, an angel tells Mary, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
A few passages later in Luke: 1:35, the angel goes on to tell her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.
When our children are born, we are not privy to this information. We don’t know that our sons or daughters might become the manager at First National Bank, a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, a firefighter, a dentist or a missionary. But we do know our children are to follow Christ’s path.
You are your child’s parent, either biologically or through appointment. And he was given to you from God. He is God’s son, just as we are, and just as Christ is. Your duty is to encourage your son to follow the Lord, through all his days.
With Jesus’ love, you can start a new relationship with your Heavenly Father and break the chain of poor fatherhood starting with the relationship you foster with your son. Or maybe you can ask Jesus for the strength to repair the chain starting with the man who brought you into the world. Whatever you do, don’t let a failed relationship with your own dad separate you from God’s love. What he has in store for you is far greater than you could ever imagine, and well worth the sparring.
My son Charlie is not perfect — but he is perfect, in his own way. Our flaws shape us. They make us who we are. And if you let them, they can bring you closer to the Lord.