Mark Sly serves as the (un)adopted Regional Coordinator for Africa and Eurasia. He is the father of three children and on youth ministry staff for nine years before coming to Lifeline.
Parenting. Fatherhood. For Mark Sly, those two words initially wrought fear into his heart, as the heavy responsibility of raising a child dropped its full weight on him through an 8-pound newborn. Eighteen years later, Mark has learned that he doesn’t have all the answers, but God has guided him to several survival skills through life that has helped him move from parenting in fear and anxiety to parenting in the strength of Christ and community. He shares his encouragement to dads below:
Don’t be overcome with fear.
I remember the fear that welled up inside my heart as the nurse placed a precious little boy into my arms eighteen years ago. Sure, I had feelings of anxiety leading up to that point. Still, they were always quelled by the next task I could focus on to prepare for his arrival. There was a room to paint, another piece of furniture to put together, and a fifteenth check of the “go bag” for the hospital to keep me busy. Distractions and goals kept my heart and mind from becoming too consumed with thoughts of my inadequacies, my awareness of my flaws, and, of course, my ignorance of taking care of a baby, much less raising a child! All of those thoughts came rushing into my consciousness as I held this baby boy. His eight pounds paled in comparison to the weight of responsibility I was now feeling.
Fast-forward ten years – after two bio-kids and a flight across the globe, not much had changed when we were holding our one-year-old daughter in Uganda. Every fear, every anxiety, and every unknown was as honest and terrifying that day as it had been any other time I held one of my children for the first time. The only difference was that I had ten years of being familiar with this feeling! As a parent, as a dad, and as a human being, these realities never go away!
So how do you go from your flight, fight, or freeze response to daily living? I’m not going to lie: there are no Amazon re-order buttons, apps, or life hack videos on YouTube for this. There are simply a few survival skills — we’ll say principles — that helped me move from reflexive responses to fear to less feelings of inadequacy as a dad. And as cheesy and overused as sports analogies can be, these are still the things that help me to this day.
Play the long game.
The terrifying part of holding my sons or daughter in my arms for the first time wasn’t that I was fearful of dropping them at that moment (although, maybe I should have been); it was that I thought I had to know all the answers and be all the things I thought I needed to be in that moment. I felt that somehow I needed to be the expert dad and have the perfect relationship with my child from day one, and that isn’t realistic. Whether you are a parent of a child who shares your DNA or not, no relationship (or former empire seated in current-day Italy) was built in a day. God’s word says in Psalm 145:1-2, 4, 13:
I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever . . . One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts . . . Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. (Italics mine)
God’s perspective is one of the long-game. Eternal impact is what He is working toward and what we are involved in as believers and as parents. So, when you think you’re failing; when you’re scared of what you don’t know or can’t do; when you’re agonizing over a decision your child has made or a gap in your relationship, let this be a reminder. God is working our circumstances toward our eternal good, and the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). A momentary affliction does not equal a monumental failure!
Play as a part of a team.
Think back to the last time you felt overwhelmed by any situation. Was it at work when a deadline was looming for a project you were responsible for? Was it when you had to take out that large loan for a mortgage or a car loan? Was it when a relationship felt like it was unraveling? Was it when your child seemed to have their greatest meltdown in response to something you did or didn’t do? My guess is that whatever the circumstance was, you felt alone. You were the one who would be held responsible; you would be the one on the hook for the payments; you were the one with the compounding thoughts of how broken things were. Sure, that probably wasn’t the reality. In fact, I guarantee that is not how it was, but that is how you felt. Hebrews 13:5 reassures the believer that God will never leave us. Matthew 28:20 carries with it the promise that Jesus will always be with us, and yet we allow our thoughts and emotions to tell us otherwise.
So, where is the breakdown, and how do we avoid being pulled into this mental and emotional trap? The truth is we succumb to the notion we’re alone when we try and operate on our own! This reality isn’t true; it’s the place we’ve put ourselves in mentally, and it isn’t how God designed us to live. Over and over, we see the metaphor used in the New Testament that we are a part of the body of Christ. (See 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12) In Hebrews, we are told to “encourage one another daily” and not to neglect “meeting together.” (Hebrews 3:13, 10:25) We are on this journey called life (which includes adoption and parenting) together. When we try and go it alone, we are leaving ourselves open to committing the biggest mistakes of our lives. (Just ask King David!) I love what Stephen Mansfield says in his book Building Your Band of Brothers, “The guy who goes off into the wilderness to go it alone was (and is) viewed as a fool.”
Don’t try and be a dad on your own. Meet with a group of like-minded and like-hearted Christian men regularly to encourage, challenge, and hold one another accountable. You’ll have guys who can affirm you when you’re right, give advice to help you avoid needless mistakes, and be honest enough to tell you when you’re wrong. Most of all, they will be by your side regardless. Life isn’t an individual sport, and no man can succeed in trying to make it one!
Follow the game plan.
If life is designed to be lived in community with other believers, then it means that there is, in fact, a design. There is an end-game objective that God is directing things toward, and we are called as men to be leveraging our lives, our families, and, yes, our children toward that end. Paul said it best when writing to the church in Colossae, “Him (Christ) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:28-29) This design isn’t just for missionaries, pastors, or zealot church planters in the first century. This is for dads!
We want to parent with the design God has put into place. The rules we set in our home, how we react to our children when they make a mistake or disobey, and what we celebrate and commend them for all point to what we believe is most important. It will impact what is most important to them, too. Paul was going, speaking, leading, challenging, equipping, discipling, and writing with making disciples in mind. As a father, have you taken the time to think through why you do and say what you do? Do you reflect God’s plan? Do you read God’s word for yourself to allow it to shape your life as much as you want it to shape your child’s?
Trust the coach.
There comes a time in every parent’s life when they question everything they have ever done as a parent. There will be failure. There will be mistakes. There will be regrets. But keep this in mind: it is your job to lead your child, but it is the work of the Holy Spirit to shape your child. Philippians 1:6 tells us we can be confident “that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Despite all your faults and flaws, God is making you more and more into the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. However, this is just as true for your child as it is for you. God loves your child more than you do! He will work through you, and He will work in spite of you.
So, what’s the takeaway here? It’s that you can trust Him. Trust Him to fill in the gaps created by your inadequacies. Trust Him when you feel like you’re failing, and know that He isn’t. Trust Him when your decision to follow Him and parent according to His Word causes you to receive push back. Trust Him when worry and fear try to take the driver’s seat of your decision-making. Follow Him, and trust Him with the consequences of those gospel-driven decisions. When the game is on the line, a player can try to take it upon themselves to “make things happen,” which, in most cases, results in their demise. However, when you know the one giving direction is the Creator of the universe, take a moment to stop, breathe, and turn your attention and affections toward the One holding all things together. (Colossians 1:17)