Thanks Dad, for Keeping me on the Path

If you’ve been alive long enough, you’ve probably had the jarring experience of suddenly sounding or acting just like one of you parents. It’s especially ironic when you find yourself doing exactly what you had vowed you would never do when you grew up. I've had a number of these "Whoa, that was just like Dad" moments. I had another on a recent family trip. 

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Southwestern Colorado with my Mom, brother Ty, and my brother Dave and his family. Sunday afternoon, after a pristine morning at the Silverton Branch and a breathtaking mountain drive to the village of Ouray, a few of us decided to go for a short hike before dinner. We started up a dirt road into the mountains adjacent to our rental. Before too long, the babies were spent and most of the group turned back. My brother Ty and I, along with my four-year-old son Jonah, decided to press on  little longer.

Not too far into the forest the road turned into a trail traversing the mountainside through stands of pines and aspens. I tossed Jonah on my shoulders we hiked, enjoying good coversation and the beautiful scenery along with way. After about a mile and a half, evening was coming on and it was time to get back for dinner. At the same time, the trail had sort of vanished into the forest.

The obvious choice was to turn around and head back on the way we had come. It was the quickest and easiest way back and we were probably late for dinner already. But of course going back the way we came was boring, and we thought there was another way back. We had come to the edge of a canyon we knew had a road running along side a river that would also lead back to our condo. We couldn’t see the river or road from our vantage, but we had a contour map on a phone and we could see that if we went down the mountain a couple hundred yards into the canyon, we would come to the road. The bushwhack through the forest in front of us would be rough. There was a lot of deadfall crisscrossing the mountainside. It looked challenging but doable, and after some deliberation we headed towards the canyon floor to satisfy our curiosity and wanderlust.

After a few minutes of climbing over, under, and around multiple downed trees, which was not easy with a toddler on my shoulders, we came to a steep incline that appeared to descend to the canyon floor. From the top of the incline we could glimpse the river, the road, and even a bridge. Perfect. The distance between ourselves and the road was steep, but grassy and clear of deadfall. The way back to the trail was rough and inconvenient, so we decided to push on. 

I very carefully held my son and started making my way down the incline behind my brother. It was slippery. We went slowly, knowing one wrong step could lead to both of us tumbling down the hill. Soon we caught up with Ty perched on the steep hillside looking downward. 

We could now see the road, the river, and the bridge very clearly. And we had a problem. The river was not small. It was wide and fast moving. There would be no rock-hopping across. The bridge didn’t span the river either, it crossed a small fork on the other side. And perhaps most damning to our journey, we were standing above an almost sheer cliff dropping straight to the river. We were stuck.

What had looked like a sure bet from our earlier viewpoint had turned out to be a complete impossibility. The hill we had just come down, while not particularly long, was too steep and slippery for me to climb without using my hands. How could I hope to hold my son while climbing out? Knowing now that a wrong step would have us tumbling not just down a steep hill but possibly off a cliff into a raging river, I began some pretty serious internal prayer. Here I was standing on that edge with my little boy, who was still as cheerful as ever enjoying this adventure with his dad in complete trust, and I wasn't sure I could get him out of there safely. 

Then it happened “This is just like the situations I tease Dad about!” I thought. Don’t misunderstand. My Dad wasn’t abnormally prone to putting my life in danger. But as happens over the course of a lifetime, there were mishaps, like my first time at raging waters when I fell off the tube at the end of the slide and he landed on top of me and fished me out of the pool by my ankle. Or the time he was helping me get my fishing line unstuck from a tree and he clubbed me in the head with a small tree trunk, or my first deer hunt when he told me to sit and wait and he walked off only to shoot the biggest deer of his life moments later and I went home empty handed. Even worse, I’ve never let him live these moments down, jokingly blaming my shortcomings on the trauma induced by these blunders, as if I was sure that I would never make a mistake with my kids (incidentally, this was proven completely false about three months into fatherhood when I lifted my daughter toward the sky all filled with love and joy only to run her head right into the ceiling fan of our living room.)

My prayers were answered. We made it up the steep embankment, through the deadfall to the trail, and back to the condo (unfortunately late for dinner!). As we slowly made our way up the hill, searching for safe places to put my feet and branches to hang onto, I realized that how foolish I had been. At one point, holding all our weight on a small sapling jutting from the hillside, I had the distinct feeling that I had no business bringing one of God’s little sons into such a risky situation. 

I reflected on the lesson learned, one that I should’ve known from countless past experiences: stay on the path. I thought more about living the gospel in modern society, I was struck by just how logical and enticing it can seem to leave the path, and yet how dangerous it can be. We had a map. We knew about the river and the road. We weren’t lost. We even got to a point where we could see the river, road, and bridge. But we couldn’t see everything, and the few things we didn’t see clearly were the very things that crippled us. We had no idea that the edge of the river was a cliff. The map couldn’t us how big and fast the river was, and our very eyes deceived us; the bridge didn’t even cross the river. 

Of course he wasn’t mistake free, (why do children expect perfection from their parents anyway?) but one key way my dad never erred was in keeping us on the path that mattered. I don’t think I know anyone (except my Mom) who is so relentlessly committed to doing what is right. We were never forced or coerced; in fact, I enjoyed more freedom than many, especially as a teen. But Dad made crystal clear his commitment to God and his Kingdom, and he expected the same commitment from us. 

I’m learning now just how hard it can be to maintain such levels of commitment day in and day out. This kind of parenting demands endurance, devotion, and sacrifice. By the most basic definition, being a “father” is quite easy. A father is a male parent. One who “begets" another. The act of begetting, especially for men, is not particularly challenging. But deeper definitions reveal that true fathers, those who to me actually deserve the title of father, do much more than supply the biological means for originating life: 

  1. Father: (noun) a man who exercises paternal care over other persons; paternal protector or provider:
  2. Father: (verb) to perform the tasks or duties of a male parent; act paternally: to assume as one's own; take the responsibility of.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World, solidifies the role of fathers in God's eternal plan. Here are a few samples:

Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.

We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God.

True fathers sacrifice. Consider our Heavenly Father: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…" (John 3:16). Consider HIs son Jesus Christ, also known throughout the scriptures as Father, "Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father" (Mosiah 15:27). These sacred examples show that a father, far more than providing existence, is essentially a man who gives of himself for the sake of his children. 

Ironically, children do not recognize most sacrifices made by devoted parents until they become parents themselves. Everything a good father hopes to provide, a roof overhead, dinner on the table, a voice of reason in the midst of turmoil, comes to be expected; even demanded. I was no different. As a fledgling father myself, I’m just beginning to appreciate the sacrifices my own Father made for me and my siblings. It began, impressive enough when he sold his beloved Jeep to help pay for the birth of my oldest sister. The sacrifice continued as he worked tirelessly through graduate school in New York, providing for his family not just in the moment but establishing the conditions necessary to raise his family in comfortable, safe circumstances that would eventually put the world at their fingertips.

Along the way, he has given his life for ours. How often my little legs and cold feet must’ve slowed him down and turned him home early when he took me hunting. Only now do I realize what it patience it takes to play Legos with your little boy, but he played Legos with me. I never thanked him for coaching my basketball team in junior high or patiently teaching me how to landscape so I could make money throughout high school. Even as an adult, I failed to appreciate his service to me as my YSA bishop at Utah State. 

Perhaps most valuable and thankless is the tapestry of wisdom, woven from a lifetime of careful decisions and keen observation, that he has shared over the years. I must’ve given him more than one ulcer when that wisdom fell on deaf ears. In every bit of council Dad invited me to walk the safe path of faith and obedience. Sometimes that path seemed simplistic or boring. Sometimes I thought I saw other viable pathways that would provide a more enjoyable journey and still get me where I wanted to go. In word and deed, he never led me astray. I have seen since that leaving the gospel path is a recipe for eventual sorrow and regret. Life is littered with deadfall, slippery slopes, cliffs, and raging rivers. The gospel trail, while rigorous in its own right, is the only safe way to navigate the challenges of life.

I’m so grateful for parents who carefully walk that path. Kudos to the true fathers everywhere, so perfectly imperfect, who try to help their little clan find safety, success, and salvation. Fatherhood is sacrifice, and sacrifice brings blessings. Devoted fathers are blessed to become bit by bit more like our Eternal Father and His Son, both so worthy of the title of Father. I can only hope to learn to give the way my Father has given for me, and to guide my children on the path that he has so well worn into the ground stretching on before me. 

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I didn't fit these into my post, but here are a couple of my favorite things on the topic of fathers. The first is an explanation of how Christ is Father as stated many times in the scriptures. The second is Elder Christofferson, who opened my eyes to the sad caricature of fathers permeating modern society (namely that we are all bumbling oafs) and who has taught so well the true divinity and importance of fatherhood.

The Father and the Son, A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from Improvement Era, Aug. 1916, 934–42

Fathers, D. Todd Christofferson

Let us be Men, D. Todd Christofferson