October 23, 2017

Do You Trust Your Father With Your Life?

Yesterday, I experienced the great part of being a teacher; one of those experiences that make all the others worth it.

It was in my advanced placement English IV class. Our brightest seniors. I’m fortunate to be able to work with them.

A few days before we’d taken our final exam, and with two days left in the quarter, I decided to show the 1989 Peter Weir movie, Dead Poet’s Society, featuring Robin Williams in one of his finest performances, and then write an essay.

It’s the late 1950s, and conformity is in the air at little Welton Academy, a college prepatory boarding school where Mr. Keating has been hired to teach senior English. Keating tosses the boys some high-grade existentialism and budding beat philosophy along with an adolescent love of romantic literature. The effect of Keating’s mentoring on his young charges is explosive, with results varying from the revelatory to the tragic.

If you haven’t seen the film in the last twenty years, then prepare for a spoiler. One of the boys, Neil Perry, has been ordered by his compulsively authoritarian father to become a doctor. Neil has little reason to resist until the acting bug bites and, against his father’s express wishes, he plays the part of Puck in a community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His father is furious and pulls Neil out of Welton with the intention of sending him to military school.

His first night home, Neil commits suicide.

I asked my students to write Neil a letter, assuming that he would read it before killing himself. I’ve done this assignment before, but this time I asked the students to read their letters before the class, with one student designated as a responder.

Predictably, all of the students advised Neil, among other things, to wait till he was 18, then do whatever he wanted to do, no matter what his father wanted for him. The point was getting out from under the authoritarian father and doing whatever you most wanted to do in life.

It was a good assignment and we had a good discussion. Then I asked Kim Kwan, one of my Korean students, to read his letter.

We have a lot of Korean students. They are, in the main, some of our hard-working and most successful students. I’m fascinated by the process they are part of as they bridge two cultures. This is particularly obvious on the subject of the value of education, as we were about to learn.

Kim very matter of factly told the class that Neil should obey his parents and become a doctor. Kim said that Neil’s parents had sacrificed for him and they loved him. His greatest happiness should be in doing what they wanted him to do in life.

My American students were stunned, to say the least.

Further, Kim said he related to Neil because he had wanted to be in the hotel industry, but his family wanted him to be a dentist. Without any of the expected bribery, his parents simply told him that he should be a dentist, and he changed his mind and vocational direction. His parents, he said, were willing to work hard and sacrifice so he could become a dentist, and he beleived their wisdom was best for him. He could make many persons’ lives better as a dentist, and he might even make enough money to buy a hotel. It might be difficult sometimes to make this choice, but it was the right decision and the way to the most happiness.

He trusted his parents, and he wanted to honor them.

The reaction of our students — and my own — was fairly predictable. We simply would never go this far. In fact, I have doubts, as a Christian, that anyone should go this far, though I have no problem with using as much influence as possible to keep a student in school and in a position to make a choice of careers based on a degree and an education.

But deciding for them? Like an arranged marriage? Believing that I know what my son or daughter should do with the rest of their lives? I’m not that competent. My own feelings about freedom are mixed in with my desire to be a good parent. In the end, I support my children’s decisions about vocation.

But I’m also an American. I’ve never believed that self-sacrifice was all that great an idea. My students and I are hard-wired to avoid difficult choices that might be less than what we wanted at the time. Why can’t we all do what we want as much of the time as possible? Why trust anyone when you can follow your own dreams and desires?

Kim was telling us that, in his worldview, doing what he wanted was not the way to happiness. Trusting his parents was the way to happiness, even if it meant sacrifice, suffering, an uphill struggle in a career that wasn’t his first choice.

Honoring his parents was more important to him than doing what he wanted to do.

We wanted his parents to make their happiness dependent on letting Kim do whatever he wanted to do.

Sound familiar?

Yes, that’s where I’m going.

I thought about it all day.

I should trust and honor God. I should trust his choices that are not my first choices. I should trust the sacrifice he has made for me. What further proof do I need that he is for me and wants what is best for me?

Why do I assume that the Gospel is all about a God who makes my happiness and a guarantee of my choices his greatest concern? Why do I assume that discipleship is a process where I will always get what I want, the way I want it, when I want it?

Why do I think that the way chosen for me by a loving Father can’t possibly be that path of sacrifice; that path of difficulty?

Why does what Kim Kwan is saying sound so strange to me? Why does it sound so unlike the way I want God to be?

Why does it irritate me that he trusts his parents so much?

Today, I was the student and my Korean friend was the teacher. I’m not signing up for the superiority of this way of being family, but I see the beauty of it as well as the weaknesses. What I see most clearly of all is what Ravi Zacharias called “the imprint of the Father” on the human soul; the deeply imprinted fingerprints of a time when we trusted God more than we trusted ourselves. The deep imprint of what it means to be made in such a way that you know your happiness and your own choices are not the ultimate path to joy.

The shadow of the cross that lies at the heart of the Father’s love; the cross that made Paul say “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”

Comments

  1. Great post! I have been dealing with similar feelings. This past weekend the family and I visited Rock City in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. One of the attractions there is a pass between two rock faces called “Fat Man Squeeze”. I am big guy and navigating the pass required me to literally scoot sideways between these two rock faces. The whole time both walls were pressing against me. Initially, I was a little freaked out, but as I moved through the squeeze I began to feel comforted by the imposition of the rock walls. Reflecting back on it realized that my relationship with the Father is a lot like this. Initially, I am freaked out by the loss of control required to fully die to self and emulate Christ, but as time goes on I realize that comfort and all other things proper will come from being squeezed on all sides by the Father’s grace, peace, mercy, and love. Lastly, I agree that this concept of following the direction of the Father when it is counter to our own desire feels like a contradiction to most of us. A pastor once told me that submission never truly occurs until you disagree with that to which you must submit. Again, great post. Thanks.

    Tony
    http://www.kingdombard.com

  2. Kim is wise enough to realize that he, at his age, might not know it all, and his parents might know better.

    I certainly had no clue in my teenage years. I wanted to be a cartoonist—despite aptitude tests, teachers, and parents telling me that I was more suited to being a writer. And, after a few years of giving cartooning a shot, I finally realized writing was more fun. Now I write.

    God likewise knows better. Kurtwood Smith’s character in Dead Poets Society didn’t necessarily, and is a lousy example for trusting adult wisdom. (To be fair, Robin William’s character is a pretty lousy example too; he needed to teach his kids to critique, not defy, authority.) It’s good that Kim was there to pull the class back into reality.

  3. Mr. Grumpy Guy says:

    So profound. I think we all say “not my will but yours Lord” and nod our heads and agree that its faith that matters… but for the little stuff; right? Like which Chinese dish to get at the buffet.

    But a career? 5 years of schooling? How much money and effort would be “not my will… “. This is very hard teaching.

  4. Neither I nor the class entirely agreed with Kim. I do not believe the Christian position is that parents should dictate the adult choices of children. Kim clearly believes that parents continue to have the final word because of their own hard work and sacrifices. I think that is a two edged sword, because we are all fallen and no one, not even the best parent, is a complete stand in for God’s work and leadership in our life’s journey.

    We also strongly critique Keating. He is irresponsible and does not realize that existential passion must be combined with wisdom. At an ironic point in the movie, he tells Charlie that a “wise man” wouldn’t do stupid things. He attempts to guide Neil with wisdom about relationships. But where does this wisdom come from? Collective experience? Philosophy? Reason?

    Keating is inspirational, but doesn’t teach the necessary skills to combine and control the different kinds of pleasure in life into joy.

  5. I am not like Kim, but I have a real life example to give you. My wife, our children, and I were missionaries in South America for a decade. After three years in Bolivia, my bishop wanted to move me to Peru to head the Arequipa region. Initially, my wife and I said, “no.” He kept insisting, and finally said that he would only accept a “no” if we went to Arequipa on a visit, evaluated the placement, and prayed. Well, we did and ended up saying “yes.”

    To date, that was the most fruitful ministry in our lives. We left behind new churches in an indigenous Andean valley in the altiplano region of Peru. We left a school and an orphanage in the city of Arequipa. When we left, a Quechua indigenous priest, whom I helped to train, was appointed as head of the region by the bishop.

    And, so, we learned our lesson. It is not just our Father in Heaven who should be able to speak in an authoritative way into our lives. It is also the Church who should be able to do so. And, though not perfectly, when we struggle like Jacob, when we make our best decision and even submit, when we do that, God is pleased.

    I am at the mission here in Florida because we have obeyed our bishop after asking him not to send us here. We left behind two daughters and two grandkids. It has been very wrenching for us. But, I trust our bishop and he cares for us. No, he is not perfect, and I have seen him make mistakes. It might even be a mistake that we are here. But, then, if I had made the decision, by myself, it might have been even worse.

    So, obedience is sometimes the toughest thing you have to do. Not because of culture only, but because, as the military puts it, you might be getting sent “into harm’s way.” There is a real spiritual war in real churches that can cause you real pain and damage. Like the military, a priest often has to trust that the Church’s attitude will be that “we will leave no one behind.”

    As the medievalists put it, we are the Church Militant. The Church Militant is not a dictatorship, nor is it perfect, nor does it fulfill all of its responsibilities, but neither should it be treated as the Church Incapable or the Church Optional.

    Submission is played out in the Church, in Marriage, in Family relationships, and towards one another. It is not just a spiritual thing between you and God.

  6. treebeard says:

    I hated the ending of Dead Poet’s Society, because it didn’t ring true to me. Yes, the father was a domineering jerk, but it did not seem like any attempt was made by the son to communicate with him. Why should acting in one play be so detrimental to a future as a doctor? It’s just a school play. For this to lead to a suicide was too much of a stretch.

    But concerning the more important aspect of your post, I have spent a lot of time with Chinese families over the years, and it sounds like there is a similarity between Chinese and Korean cultures. (I don’t mean to make any sweeping generalizations about Asian cultures.) With these Chinese families the young people worked very hard at their studies, much harder than Americans their age. And there was definitely an honoring of the parents that was impressive. Yet I had the same reaction that you and your students did to Kim: “This is too much. Give the kids some freedom. Don’t plan their whole lives as if you know better.”

    Of course human fathers are very different than our heavenly Father, who truly does know what is best for us. My own father was an absentee, negligent father who gave me no direction at all. I would have been glad if he had told me what I should major in and what profession I should choose. But if he had, I would not be who I am today, and I think I am exactly where God wants me to be.

  7. Neil Perry is a singularly flawed character. When Keating says he is “playing the role of the dutiful son,” he is observing more than he knows. While Neil is kind and a natural leader, he is also a liar- both to his dad and Mr. Keating- and a narcissist who places such importance and getting to do what he wants to do for a few MONTHS that he can’t endure changing schools. Waaaa.

    He’s a good character for students to consider because for all his introverion and caution, Todd Anderson has more moral courage than Neil Perry. Neil is only brave in doing what he wants to do. Neil is caught in the suicidal fantasies of leaving his parents grieving and regretful when his better choice was to submit in the short term, then live his life successfully in the long.

  8. It is worth noting that arranged marriages have similar success rates to marriages of choice. Our American cultural biases don’t neccesarily like to hear that, but there it is. I’m not advocating a return to arranged marriages as the norm, but it’s hardly the worst idea human beings have ever had.

    Good for Kim, that he has such a strong relationship with parents who care about him. It’s rather inspiring, actually.

  9. It reminds me of Mary’s fiat and Jesus’ resignation to the Father’s will in the garden. Strange, distant ideas for self-made, self-centered, self-actualized, self-confident, self-ish Americans.

    We get it wrong two ways: we either think that God has to make us happy, because he’s suppose to be Santa Claus. But on the other side, I think we can believe that God had to do what he did for us out of duty or obligation – perhaps even just to save his glory (save face). One extreme makes God an “it”; the other extreme makes us an “it”. We can fall into either extreme if we forget that God seeks relationship with us, out of love for us (Buber’s “I-Thou”).

    I’m not convinced that the father figure in Dead Poets Society sacrificed for his son out of love, but to make himself look good – turning his son into an object, a trophy of his own success. (If that’s how we view God’s glory, then we’ve got serious problems.) I think that is one of the struggles taking place in the movie, not necessarily just a tension between freedom and fate.

    We need to believe in the sovereignty of God. Oddly enough, I think this is the hidden danger of open theism: if our decisions can mess up God’s plan, then God is put into a defensive/adversarial with his creation rather than a loving one (similar to Greek and Roman gods). It also makes God smaller than we are. Sovereignty means that we submit our free will to God’s will, which brings us back to the need to raise up our own fiat (behold, the servant of the Lord…).

  10. I know you are making a greater point about God’s authority in our lives, but an anecdote on authority and spirituality in general.

    Four years ago, on a trip to China, I met young Chinese believers whose believing parents had told them that they needed to believe in Jesus and be a Christian. Just told them to do it. And the kids did it. Really. I have no reason to suspect that their faith was not genuine.

    My pastor and I later reflected on the providence of God in his “afflicting” China with a totalitarian government for so many years. These people were accustomed to absolute authority in their lives. (Granted, a bad authority.) So when their parents told them what they most needed to do, they did it. Chinese young people don’t always obey their parents. In fact, many disobey their parents to become Christians and I’m glad. But I’m also glad that the ones I met chose to honor the authority in their lives at least once.

  11. A real rough spot to be in in when your dad says one thing but your Father says another.

  12. treebeard says:

    Concerning Sam’s point about arranged marriages:
    I know a man from India whose marriage was arranged. One time a person asked him about why his marriage seemed so happy and successful. His response: “In your country (America) you marry the one you love. In our country we love the one we marry. Love is a choice, not merely an emotion.”
    I’m not in favor of arranged marriages, but that strikes me as excellent counsel.

  13. To Korea and China, you can add Japan, India, Pakistan and other countries where the family is more important than the individual. As noted by Kurt McInnis above, this has significant implications to evangelism. Missionaries who are used to North American individualism can have significant difficulties with whole families coming to Christ (Acts anyone), or whole tribes following the lead of their chief and becoming followers of Jesus. (The Christian and Missionary Alliance saw this happen earlier in the century in Irian Jaya and had several missionaries resign from the field as a result.)

  14. Rob Lofland says:

    The fictional father in Dead Poet’s Society was a bad father.
    Kim’s parents are surely not perfect.
    However, his reaction to their authority is much more Christlike than anything in the movie or in most of American culture.

  15. Here in North America, the Once United States, There are many young men willing to go to extremes for Dad. Check out how many Police are second generation, Fireman [hi!], Marines, lawyers, even Shriners. A dad’s approval is precious. You need not separate Asian, American, or any nationality, it is human. What is probable is that the Western dad is more permissive and less restrictive in career choice.
    As much as sons seek dad’s love, daughters who do not receive what they need from dad will attempt to find a substitute. I just don’t think this is ethnic, or culture specific.
    If my dad really wanted me to be a dentist I’d be saying “open wide..”

  16. +I like the comments by treebeard as i,too, spent a year in Korea and observed the same honoring attitudes towards parents and the elderly.
    I admire the young Mr. Kim’s attitude.

    The trusting with your life issue falls squarely with IMonk’s essay on God’s provision over the years in the poor hollers of Kentucky.

    Trusting God can be hard. He has a pattern of letting the boat fill up with water before calming the storm.

    Freedom can make us arrogant and rebellious. I have seen far more success stories of fathers who closely guided their kids than those who damaged or ruined their kids guiding in the same way.

  17. Wow, I am so moved by this story and though I am not particularly sre WHY I am so moved, I’d guess that it is partly the fact that I am guilty of not responding to God in the way that I should, and partly your own humility at learning from your students.
    As a teacher myself, I love the idea of setting the kids this task!
    Keep up the great work and thanks for the story. There is much value in it.

    K. H

  18. I can relate to Kim for I am asian myself. It’s in the culture. Individualism is frown upon. We are taught to value being part of the group since kindergarten years. Whatever any individual does, it must be in the light for the greater good, for the family. To obey and respect your elders. Respect bordering to such an extreme that in many asian culture parents are the visible gods. (I can’t describe it right).
    Missionaries where I live make sure to identify the key person in one community, the elders. When the father/leading figure convert its very likely the whole household follow suit.

  19. I read this today, and it seemed appropriate:

    “The freedom of Jesus is not the arbitrary choice of one amongst innumerable possibilities; it consists on the contrary precisely in the complete simplicity of His action, which is never confronted by a plurality of possibilities, conflicts or alternatives, but always only by one thing. This one thing Jesus calls the will of God. He says that to do this will is His meat. This will of God is His life. He lives and acts not by the knowledge of good and evil but by the will of God. There is only one will of God. In it the origin is recovered; in it there is established the freedom and the simplicity of all action.”
    – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from “Ethics”.

  20. Dave Jaspersen says:

    Awesome Mike!

  21. this obedience reminds me of St Rita of Cascia, who, at age 13, told her parents she wanted to become a nun. They instead told her to marry, bc of the instability of the Church at that time (I believe the pope was in Avignon at the time and many orders were, well, disordered). She obeyed, and the result was her greatest act of love: after her husband was mudered, she acted as peacemaker between her husbands family and the family of his killers. She eventually became a nun, and then God gave her the greatest gift–a thorn from his own crown. Her trust of her loving and very faithful parents gave our faith and the communion of saints one of it’s greatest peacemakers, truly a patron of seemingly impossible causes.

  22. I still remember watching Dead Poet’s Society as a junior in high school. My favorite part was learning carpe diem, Seize the Day. That became my motto there for a while.

    I believe this post is the best you’ve written in a long time. I almost want to take back calling you a stuffy old grouch.

  23. Oh don’t do that. It would spoil my enjoyment of my upcoming revenge.

  24. What a beautiful thing to share. Thank you