So many “gifts” children receive rank among the unwanted or unsolicited. Tube socks and underwear beneath the tree Christmas morning. Green, leafy vegetables in the corner pocket of a dinner plate. Gratis advice about when to use walking feet and how to shape up their posture.
I wonder what gifts I give my son that he wouldn’t wish for or want to keep.
Parents commonly bequeath modest inheritances, gifts that can’t be discarded or outgrown. A son receives his mother’s chin, a daughter her father’s eyes. The cadence in a laugh, a certain spring in the stride embodies the link between two generations.
Other birthrights, less noticeable at first, reveal themselves with time. A daughter inherits her mother’s gift for music. A son takes on his father’s quiet work ethic.
Some hand-me-downs expose themselves as burdens, not blessings. A hereditary disease qualifies as an inheritance, albeit an unfortunate one. A struggle with alcoholism becomes a way to carry on the family name.
The manner in which these gifts are received varies from child to child. Some express gladness at resembling their parents. Others feel stuck with the crooks in their noses and neuroses.
No child chooses his or her parents, a reality brought into sure, stark relief when a child joins a family through adoption. My epidermis is white; my son’s skin a deep brown. We share few similar features, the beauty everyone from strangers to friends recognizes in him, a gift from his first parents.
With that in mind, I question whether he will feel stuck with me in another sense. Annoyed with my laugh, kept at arm’s length by my anxieties, weighed down by flaws and traits he can’t simply shrug off as family history.
Someday he might feel like the doubt-wracked Christians of Shusaku Endo’s Silence—saddled with a God who seems to do them no immediate good, sure life would be easier if they’d been picked for a different team.
These questions, and my lack of answers, make the onus of leaving him something worth inheriting feel ever more present. In these weeks before his fifth birthday, when the shadow of my influence looms larger than it will at, say, fifteen, I’m trying to pass down good taste and pass along key cultural artifacts to serve him like arrows.
I want to leave him my love for Thelonious Monk, The Clash and ’90s hip-hop; leave him with the knowledge that Nina Simone’s version of “To Love Somebody” is the greatest cover song committed to tape; leave him with a fundamental understanding of baseball strategy and the ability to execute several different basketball passes.
I want to leave him loving a good-natured joke. Right now, our favorite bit involves pretending we’re asleep when my wife returns from work or running errands.
More than anything, I want to leave him a church better than the one I found. I fear this is the one inheritance I can’t deliver—at least not by myself.
“Pillar of Truth,” the penultimate track on Lucy Dacus’s stellar new record Historian grants all my fatherly fears and debts language to express themselves. Over billowing guitars, the twenty-three-year-old sings with an understanding that surpasses all attempts at peace:
Lord, have mercy
On my descendants
For they know not
What they do
For they know not
Who you are
And they know not
What to do
Within those lyrics lies an all-too-real recognition. What I leave my son will shape his understanding of the gospel. Without enough care, my sins, failures, and blind spots might be the reason he knows not. This goes not only for the life I live at home, but the systems to which I belong.
I fully understand resentment at remarks from public-facing men, men who start their stands with women by saying, “As a father of daughters . . . As a husband . . . As a brother of a sister. . . .” Common critiques hold water—it shouldn’t take a daughter, a wife, a sister to champion the inborn truth that women are people too.
And yet I resemble the remark. Shame weighs my heart down as I recall just how little I fought for racial justice and reconciliation before my son, how weak my punches and how few of them landed. Proximity shouldn’t precede doing the right thing, but so often it does. The face you know best causes you to recognize thousands of faces you’ve overlooked, all of which usher you before the face of God.
I can spend my days and nights at home preaching a gospel that reconciles humans to God—and each other. Now I know all my preaching might be negated if my son fails to see flesh on that gospel within the church.
What in-real-life friends or online agitators don’t understand when they deny race as a gospel issue is that my son’s understanding of the gospel, and that of many other sons and daughters, might hinge on unity between people who look like him and like his dad. The realities he will internalize rest in the hands of a church fighting to reckon with the full weight and meaning of the gospel.
Jesus assures me that even though I’m evil, I instinctively know how to give my son good gifts. Bread, not a stone. A fish, not a snake. What does it say about me if I can’t leave him a full gospel?
Any consolation I own, though it feels like cold comfort as I type it out, comes in the “how much more” of a heavenly father who perfectly provides, who repays what others, including his dad, have stolen, who assures all he paid in full, every bit of himself he gave away, will one day materialize.
As I sift through the rest of what I have and aspire to, I know what I want to leave behind: a soft heart, a quickness to acknowledge the divine spark alive in every kind of person. A way of speaking that only blesses and never curses, that knows the safety of bringing God both our laments and praises. The knowledge that we imitate God when we are a safe place for others to land and we speak strongly on behalf of justice. That we are most ourselves when we are closest to Jesus.
I hope even these words will be an inheritance, even in their imperfection, even as I know I’d write this differently after another year or two of learning and submitting, even though they came late. In them, perhaps he will hear the promise he will not bear his burdens alone.
Maybe his father’s words will pique his curiosity and whet his appetite for a better Father, one who gets it all right and has all along. If all I give him is that desire, I will have left him something worth keeping.