James and Rebekah Friesen Coyle sled together at Abshire Park in Goshen, Indiana. Photo by Cynthia Friesen Coyle. 

By Joe Sawatzky
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"All parenting is expected to take on the quality of mothering."

Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a theologian from Ghana, used these words to describe an ideal for parenting from the wisdom of the Akan, the West African people to which she belongs. Oduyoye defines the "understanding of mothering that is expected of all Akan men and women" as "living for others."[1]

In today's North American context, "toxic masculinity" associates manhood with a cool detachment that underlies violence against women, children, and other men. We might describe such maleness as living against others. This is also the context in which the United States, with some 90 other nations, marks Father's Day on the third Sunday of June.

Despite the cold and destructive distance of toxic masculinity, fathers have a huge role to play in raising up adults that will "live for others"—loving God and loving neighbor as oneself. In fact, when the largest-ever study of the transmission of faith across generations was published in 2013, it concluded that "the crucial factor in whether a child keeps the faith [of the family] is the presence of a strong fatherly bond." Vern Bengtson, the primary author of the study, described these "emotional bonds" as "a warm relationship with the father." In other words, warmth—the realm of the heart or the arena of the emotions—is the conduit of faith, including the moral/ethical values intrinsic to "religion that is true" (James 1:27). Coldness, by the same logic, dams faith's flow—no matter how many words one might speak or how many works one might perform. While faith is more than feeling, feeling is essential to faith.

Bengtson's research rings true to my own experience. As I remember my grandfathers, I feel their faith, whether in the Pietist hymns or the Gospel songs I heard them sing.

                O power of love, all else transcending, in Jesus present evermore . . .

To our bountiful Father above, we will offer our tribute of praise, for the glorious gift of his love, and the blessings that hallow our days.

Even today, when Anna and I return to my parents' dining room table with our own sons, I feel the warmth in the voice of my father's prayer.

                We thank you, dear Jesus, for your constant love and care . . .

I also felt that warmth as South African Christians, among whom I lived for eight years, sang their faith in an anthem of racial reconciliation. In the Xhosa language, the song says,

                Masibulele kuYesu, ngokuba wasifela

                Wasenzela izibele, ngokusifela kwakhe

Loosely translated, the song exhorts "Black and White together,"

                Give thanks to Jesus because he died for us

                He showed compassion for us by his dying.

In the hymn, the root of the word izibele, "compassion," refers to the breasts of a woman, the place of warmth where children are nourished into life. Also in the imagery of parental warmth, John 1:18 refers to Jesus as "God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart," or more literally, "who is in the bosom of the Father" (compare NRSV with RSV). Whether in feminine or masculine tones, both song and Scripture speak of the warm presence that expresses faith, that "makes God known" (John 1:18).

Through that same warmth, human fathers, and all men who nurture children—like women who "live for others"—birth new generations of faith.

[1] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, "Feminist Theology in an African Perspective" in Paths of African Theology, ed. Rosino Gibellini (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), p. 174.






​Joe Sawatzky is a Church Relations representative for Mennonite Mission Network.  



A conversation with Myrrl Byler -- Part 2https://www.mennonitemission.net/resources/the-hope-series/A-conversation-with-Myrrl-Byler--Part2A conversation with Myrrl Byler -- Part 2The Hope Series
Despite Manifest Destiny, Indigenous cultures have survivedhttps://www.mennonitemission.net/blog/Despite-Manifest-Destiny-Indigenous-cultures-have-survivedDespite Manifest Destiny, Indigenous cultures have survivedMother Earth's Pandemic
Mennonite Mission Network personnel help refugees stranded by Lesbos firehttps://www.mennonitemission.net/news/Mennonite-Mission-Network-personnel-help-refugees-stranded-by-Lesbos-fireMennonite Mission Network personnel help refugees stranded by Lesbos fireAid for Refugees
Mission Network collaborates with global pandemic relief fundhttps://www.mennonitemission.net/news/Mission-Network-collaborates-with-global-pandemic-relief-fundMission Network collaborates with global pandemic relief fundGlobal gift sharing
A conversation with Rebekah Yorkhttps://www.mennonitemission.net/resources/the-hope-series/A-conversation-with-Rebekah-YorkA conversation with Rebekah YorkThe Hope Series
COVID-19 pandemic grew from centuries-old rootshttps://www.mennonitemission.net/blog/COVID-19-pandemic-grew-from-centuries-old-rootsCOVID-19 pandemic grew from centuries-old rootsMother Earth's Pandemic