On Becoming a Grandfather

Image: Holding my granddaughter

Holding my granddaughter for the first time

Becoming a grandfather has the potential to be one of the defining events in a man’s life, on par with becoming a father or a husband. There are a handful of events in any man’s life which, if taken seriously, will significantly alter his perception of the world and his role within it. Sometimes these events arrive unexpectedly or with little warning and require some effort to adjust and embrace. As I am slowly adjusting to being a grandfather, I have also reflected on what it is that makes grandfathers unique and special.

At the risk of applying too many stereotypes which clearly do not represent all grandfathers, it seems to me that there are a few reasons why grandfathers are often dearly loved by their grandchildren. At their best, grandfathers have a unique and irreplaceable opportunity for positive influence.

I make no claim to having mastered the role of grandfather. In fact, I am painfully aware of how unprepared I really am for this role. My guess is that I will spend the rest of my life working on this – in the same way that I still strive to be a better parent even though my children are all grown. Relationships are dynamic, and the best role models are not those who have life figured out (none of us do), but those who continue to strive toward being a better person.

Following are a few of my observations about being a grandfather, and why grandfathers often hold a special place in their grandchild’s heart. These observations are certainly not comprehensive and are obviously not applicable in every situation, but they do fairly represent my own experiences.

Time

It is easy to be too busy, particularly as a young parent trying to raise a family and establish a career. While there are plenty of modern exceptions as some people now work well into their 70s or beyond, grandfathers are often retired or otherwise working less than they did when their own children were young. Grandfathers often either have the time or are willing to make the time to spend with grandchildren.

Patience

People often mellow with age as they learn to slow down and to appreciate what is really important. Patience is a virtue, and one that many of us learn slowly. It is not uncommon for people to find it easier to be patient with their grandchildren than they were with their own children.

Priorities

Priorities tend to evolve (and hopefully mature) over time. Things that seemed important when we were young may seem much less important as we grow older. Instead, new priorities take the place of the trivial and irrelevant – priorities like investing in people and spending time with loved ones.

Experiences

We all amass a collection of knowledge (and hopefully wisdom) as we go through life. The best role models are able to share their experiences with younger generations in ways that are fresh and applicable. Grandfathers are often unique and interesting because they have so many experiences to share. A grandfather who is a skilled storyteller can be an endless source of entertainment and wisdom.

Compassion

Compassion seems to come more easily as a grandparent than as a parent. To be sure, there are plenty of compassionate parents and uncompassionate grandparents. Nonetheless, the combination of patience, experiences, time, and priorities seems to make compassion more natural for grandparents.

Becoming a grandfather has turned out to be a unique and rewarding experience. To be honest, I was not in a hurry to assume this role. My reluctance was a combination of not wanting to feel old, feeling grossly unprepared, and being afraid of the responsibility that goes with being a grandfather. Regardless of my preparedness (or lack thereof), the time came. As I am adjusting, I am also learning to enjoy being a grandfather. Hopefully I am able to rise to the challenge.

The Looming American Elder Care Crisis

Americans are facing a looming elder care crisis. With increasing average lifespans and a decreasing workforce, we are fast facing the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare. Politicians argue about how to fix social programs, but offer no real insight to the problem and make no real progress. However this situation turns out it is time the Christian community offers some Biblical insight.

Does the Bible actually have anything to say about our coming elder care crisis? Actually, the Scriptures do address elder care quite plainly, but the Christian community has sadly misinterpreted some key Scripture texts. This is not a new problem though – the religious scholars of Jesus day made the same mistake. Of course, Jesus set the record straight – we just choose to repeat history rather than learn from it. There are actually at least three key passages addressing elder care in the Bible. All three have been systematically misinterpreted in recent years.

The first text goes back to the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus:

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which Yahweh your God gives you.”
Exodus 20.12 WEB

This text is always applied to children, usually with a message to the effect that if you want to live to old age you had better obey your parents. Unfortunately, this message stops far short of God’s intention. I think we prefer this interpretation because it lets us off the hook once we become adults ourselves. However, note that the instruction is not to obey parents but to honor parents. Honor involves much more than obedience; in fact, it is possible (and sometimes necessary) to honor without obedience. The full intent of this passage only comes into clear focus for us as we move forward into the Gospel of Matthew. It is clear that a cursory reading of this passage by modern readers may miss the significance to elder care; however, those originally taught these commandments fully understood the implications as Jesus explained.

The next text comes from the Gospel of Matthew:

“Jesus answered them, ‘Why do you also disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever may tell his father or his mother, “Whatever help you might otherwise have gotten from me is a gift devoted to God,” he shall not honor his father or mother.’ You have made the commandment of God void because of your tradition.”
Matthew 15.3-7 WEB

Now we begin to see the full impact of the commandment recorded in Exodus! We are instructed by God to honor our father and mother no matter what their age or our age. We are not exempted from honoring our parents because we become adults ourselves. Jesus also clearly stated that we have an obligation before God to honor our elderly parents with our financial support – just as they themselves once financially supported us. What Jesus is speaking against here is the teaching by the religious experts of the day that it was acceptable to avoid helping elderly parents financially. Jesus exposes their theological and financial manipulations as wickedness and godlessness. If we want to claim we follow God we must honor our parents all of our days – and that includes with our financial support as they become unable to work and have financial needs. The sad thing is that we have many Christian teachers today (both theological and financial) teaching people to do exactly what the Pharisees taught their followers to do. The Gospels also tell us that the Pharisees were angered by Jesus teachings on financial matter because they were lovers of money.

The final text comes from 1 Timothy:

“Honor widows who are widows indeed. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show piety towards their own family, and to repay their parents, for this is acceptable in the sight of God. Now she who is a widow indeed, and desolate, has her hope set on God, and continues in petitions and prayers night and day. But she who gives herself to pleasure is dead while she lives. Also command these things, that they may be without reproach. But if anyone doesn’t provide for his own, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.”
1 Timothy 5.3-8 WEB

Focus for a moment on the last sentence here: “But if anyone doesn’t provide for his own, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” I have never heard this text taught to mean anything other than, “Get a job, you bum!” This text seems to be universally applied to men who don’t work to support their wife or children – sort of an anti-welfare proof text. Sadly, this is a gross misinterpretation as well. Anyone reading this text in context of the larger writing will easily grasp the meaning. Paul is discussing the church supporting elderly widows in their congregation. Before any women were to be put on this support list they were to be tested. If these elderly widows had adult children it was the responsibility of the adult children to care for their elderly parents. This passage has nothing to do with getting a job to support your wife or children. This passage is all about elder care.

The Bible does have plenty to say about our coming elder care crisis. Unfortunately, too many Christians love money just as much as the Pharisees did. Consequently, we find ways to justify ourselves while we refuse to support the elderly members of our own households. This makes us, in the words of the Apostle Paul, worse than an unbeliever. The ultimate responsibility for the care and support of elderly parents does not rest with the government or social service programs – it rests squarely on the shoulders of the adult children.