(Short explanatory note: My dad has been in the ICU with life-threatening injuries for over two weeks now due to medical issues which you can read about in more detail here. If you want to know more about how he’s doing, you can follow our family blog right here.)
I’ve been thinking a bit more about my dad today because two days ago when I went out to start one of our cars, it was dead. I didn’t have time to deal with it then but yesterday was able to deal with it—just needed a new battery, so an easy enough thing to fix.
That said, whenever I’ve had car trouble, dad is the one I’ve called. So to not be able to call him when the car wouldn’t start was one of those moments where I felt his loss (even if we hope the loss is only temporary) more keenly. It made me think of a scene in one of my favorite movies, No Country for Old Men:
In the scene, Tommy Lee Jones, a now thoroughly disillusioned and recently retired sheriff, is telling his wife about a dream he had the night before. One of the main themes in the movie is that the great old men of previous generations that Jones and his friends revere are inadequate for dealing with the nihilistic evil represented by the film’s antagonist, Anton Chigurh. Jones has walked away because he has come to believe that good men are powerless to resist evil so dark and depraved as that of Chigurh, who he never actually meets but who exists in his mind as a kind of horrifying phantom.
But what’s so interesting about the movie and what is one of the many things that sets it apart is what the film wants us to be most appalled at. It’s not the evil of Chigurh. That’s horrifying, but it isn’t the most horrifying thing. The note the film ends on, and the note it returns to time after time throughout the story, is the lack of men adequate to resist Chigurh. The Coens set the scene with Jones’ opening monologue:
So when the film ends, Jones has reached his conclusion: He can’t push his chips in because he has confronted something he can’t understand. And as the story ends he tells his wife about a dream he had of his father who rode out in front of him on horseback through a dark and stormy night, carrying fire. Fire is a fairly common literary trope; for the novel’s author McCarthy fire often symbolizes life and goodness, as when in The Road the boy and his father talk about “carrying the fire.” The good people are the ones who carry the fire, the bad ones do not. In Jones’ dream, he sees his father riding out ahead carrying the fire and he knows that somewhere out there in all that dark, all that cold his father would be there waiting for him, ready to welcome him and guide him.
“And then I woke up.” If you understand what Jones is actually saying then that sentence will devastate you in a way that the images of Chigurh senselessly murdering person after person cannot even approach. That sentence contains in it the death of a world—and Jones knows it too. He’s come to the conclusion that the only thing he can do is retreat to the edge, as far from Chigurh as can be, and live out his days as comfortably as he can, wistfully remembering the old timers who never even wore a gun.
One of the things that is remarkable about my father is that for my whole life I’ve had that same feeling that Jones describes as part of his dream, only it wasn’t a dream. It was just my life.
Fathers speak. They protect. They make themselves known as they clear a path for their children to walk in. When Jesus begins his ministry his Father speaks. He says “This is my son. He is with me.” And that has always been my experience of life as a son.
When I was six-years-old, I started a Sunday night boys ministry at our old church. We had only recently begun attending the evening services so we knew virtually nothing about the program. So when I arrived, I was the only first grade boy whose father wasn’t there. That night on the way home I cried as I told my parents that I was the only boy there by myself. That wasn’t their fault, of course. They just didn’t know that dads went to the program with first and second graders.
The next week my dad was there. He stayed in my room through my graduation from the program after sixth grade, becoming a room leader when I hit third grade. After I left the program, he stayed on and became the director, a position he held for (I think) 14 years.
The above is not exceptional either. I can honestly say I’ve never had a day in my life where I lacked confidence in my dad to lead, to protect, and to serve his family and friends. That kind of security that I so took for granted as a child I now know is incredibly rare and unusual for many of my peers.
The remarkable thing about that is that when you come to a time where you are asked to step forward, to assume a fatherly role yourself, you do not feel over-awed by it. Certainly to be a father is a frightening thing. You will show your sons what it is to be a man and model to your daughters how women ought to be treated by men. The things your children learn from you will shape them for the rest of their lives, for good or ill.
As men age, they will also be asked to assume fatherly roles in the lives of other people as well, which is something my dad did better than anyone I know. I cannot tell all these stories in this space, but if we sat down over drinks I could tell you story after story after story of men he has helped to mentor and care for. One young man from our church is getting married the first week of January and has only gotten to know my dad in the past year, but dad had been meeting regularly with him for coffee to talk about marriage right up until his injury.
The burden of fatherhood is heavy. Yet when your father truly has ridden out ahead of you carrying the fire, you come to the task in a different way. You are able to believe that it is possible for a father to carry the fire and is, therefore, possible for you to do the same—with the aid of the Holy Spirit (who, interestingly, in the book of Acts appears as tongues of fire). To be clear, this is not Pelagianism, but simply a version of Paul’s exhortation to his readers to imitate him as he imitates Christ. When Christian fathers live well, they can rightly encourage others, especially young men, to imitate them as they imitate Christ.
It was a century ago that Yeats said that the center cannot hold. If it will hold, it is likeliest to do so through the ordinary fidelity of fathers who ride out ahead carrying the fire, showing their sons that it is possible for them to one day do the same.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).