Stepping up and becoming a patriarch may be the most courageous step a man ever makes. It’s not only politically incorrect, which makes an even stronger case for it, but it’s countercultural, demanding grit and character to go against the grain of a youth-oriented society.
A man who doesn’t step up at this point in his life will most assuredly step down. True patriarchs are such an endangered species that most men don’t know this step exists. Others wrongly assume that they could never stand on this step; they don’t see themselves ever becoming a patriarch. As a result, we have a generation of men entering this last season of their lives feeling aimless, useless, and bewildered, instead of being on the cutting edge of what could be their most productive and fruitful years.
Grand theft of the elderly?
About a dozen gray-haired men sat at the table in a prestigious country club, all former executives who had been highly successful. Leaders. Champions. Bright, intelligent minds. These were risk takers who’d led big lives, checkered with successes and failures. Married between 45 and 60 years, these men clearly had plenty to impart to younger generations. As I prepared to speak to them, I couldn’t help but think that their gray heads only added to their dignity.
They had asked me to speak for 10 minutes about what FamilyLife was doing to strengthen marriages and families. As I unpacked what we were doing, I mentioned that I would be speaking to a gathering of executives a couple of days later about “Three Qualities of a Patriarch.”
What happened next was fascinating. It was as though I’d touched an open nerve. For 45 minutes, they peppered me with questions, peeling back their hearts and sharing disappointments, frustrations, doubts, and desires.
They talked about how their adult children were critical of them, pushing them to the fringes of their lives. They were treated as unnecessary — except as babysitters — and they felt their families really didn’t want their influence or their involvement. They said the only opportunities their churches offered were ushering, serving on the stewardship committee, and giving to building programs. They lamented that the culture had become so youth oriented, they felt emasculated — treated as though they were done and had nothing to give back.
These men — who had once been kings in their families, their businesses, and their communities were for the first time in their lives uncertain what their roles should be. Like broken antiques gathering dust in the attic, they were without purpose.
But as they interacted, I could see in their eyes that they longed to be challenged again. War hardened and savvy, these sage soldiers wanted to fill their nostrils with the smoke of the battlefield and engage in the fight again. They really didn’t want to trade their swords and armor for a 5 iron and a golf shirt. They realized they were made for something far nobler than watching cable news in a La-Z-Boy recliner.
I sat there astonished at what amounted to “grand theft” — men robbed of their glory — no longer dreaming because of a complicity of forces that had cruelly swindled them out of their courage to step up.
These men had been left behind. Disoriented. Lost. And if they didn’t act soon, this last season of their lives would be wasted.
Pursuing the most courageous step?
I left that meeting with two conclusions: First, most men don’t know how to think about aging. They don’t know what the Bible has to say about aging. Instead of facing upward on the fifth step and pursuing God and his purposes for their lives, they step down and squander a lifetime of experience, wisdom, and abilities. They erroneously conclude that their impact is over and take their cues from the culture about retirement. As they shrivel in self-absorption, all wrapped up in themselves, their lives become the smallest of packages. The result? A perennial shortage of sages.
Think with me for a moment: How many men do you know in their sixties, seventies, and eighties who are vigorous, still growing, and still using their influence for good? Men so visionary, so alive, so positive and expectant about how God is going to use them that you’d want to be like them when you grow old.
A second conclusion was evident: It’s time to resurrect the mantle of patriarch. It’s time for a new order of noble, life-seasoned men to courageously arise, strip away encumbrances, and do battle on behalf of their children, grandchildren, communities, and nation. God created men not to rust out but to wear out as they stretch out toward the finish line.
For those of you who are over 55 years old — and especially if you are retired — I have a tough question: If you’re finished making a difference, then why are you here?
Do you think your best days are behind you? Do you think you don’t have anything else to give? Are you going to believe the culture that thinks you should clip coupons, collect seashells, and spend your kids’ inheritance?
Or on the other hand, wouldn’t you love to be able to articulate your mission for the years you have left? Wouldn’t you like to know and feel noble about what you’re living for? Could you imagine others considering you to be … a patriarch?
A word that drips with dignity
The word “patriarch” comes from the Latin word patri, which means “father.” Webster defines a patriarch as it relates to a family as, “a man who is a father or founder, the oldest representative of a group, a venerable [esteemed] old man. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, many people consider “patriarch” a dirty word. For some it conjures images of male chauvinism, of self-serving men who rule their homes through fear, force, and manipulation.
But I believe it’s a word that drips with dignity. In the Old Testament, patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and David served as heads of their families and were described as men after God’s heart. In today’s culture, patriarchs are men who spend their final years investing in the generations to come. They are men who realize their potential to have a lasting influence in their families and in their communities.
I began to become interested in the thought of being a patriarch as my children grew into adulthood and began to marry. My role as a father was changing; I knew that as they established their own families I no longer had the same type of authority in their lives. But I also began to recognize that my work as a father was not finished — it was just changing. Even though my children were adults, they still needed my encouragement and prayers. I’m no longer the head coach calling the players, but I’ve become a fan on the sidelines, cheering them on. Young men raising a family in this culture need enthusiastic applause.
As patriarchs we have the time to cheer for our grandchildren and pass on stories of how God has worked in our lives. One of my grandchildren once asked me how I helped start FamilyLife. I gave him the Reader’s Digest version of the story, and was reminded of Psalm 71:17-18, a passage you might call the memoirs of a patriarch: “O God, You have taught me from my youth, and I still declare Your wondrous deeds. And even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to all who are to come.”
A new title
What an opportunity we have as we enter into the final years of life to use the wisdom and influence we’ve accumulated to reach out to the next generation. This is the vision many men today need for their final years. I think of Bill Barber, a lifelong Texan with a wonderful, earthy sense of humor. I met Bill after his son, Clay, came to work at FamilyLife, and I remember when I called him a patriarch. He later wrote me to say he was surprised at my remark. “Heck, I didn’t realize that I was one.”
Bill said he’s been called repulsive, obnoxious, anachronistic, a con man, funny, crazy, opinionated, a rascal, and “an enigma with savoir faire.” But he kind of liked this new title of “patriarch.”
“Fact is, I’m really loving this patriarching,” he wrote. It is “a lot simpler than most of my peers think. You gotta quit fighting it. Admit your age. Oh, yes, it doesn’t hurt to be 1) an encourager; 2) a servant; 3) a discipler; 4) a man who is silent sometimes; and 5) forgiving to others and self.
“Being a patriarch is just not too bad.”
Taken by permission from Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood, by Dennis Rainey, FamilyLife Publishers. Copyright © 2011 by Dennis Rainey. All rights reserved.
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