Freight Train

Freight TrainThere it is, right in the Book of Ephesians.  It is just a small section, but it is as plain as day; “6:4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”   Years ago, when I was a young dad, I was on a drive with three of the kids. My oldest son, Kenny, was sitting up front.  I was having a bad day and though I can’t remember what the urgency was anymore, I was late for wherever we were going.  The little ones were in the back seat having fun and their volume, getting louder and louder, got to me. I lost my temper.  In something that was probably unintelligible to them but would be recognized worldwide by any child for its tone and volume, I told them in too many words to knock it off and be quiet.  I have a father’s ability to strike fear in the hearts of my children with tone and volume and I can do it in grand style.  The car immediately got quiet, with the exception of one of the kid’s muffled crying sounds.

After about two minutes, Kenny broke the silence with, “God says not to exasperate your children.”


That pierced me.

I pulled over to the side of the road and sat quiet for a minute.

Where did he get that?  I would swear to this day that Kenny had no idea what “exasperate” even meant.  But what he said was right and it was right for that moment and it became a very big moment.  I got the feeling that Kenny might be hearing directly from God (not the first time or the last time I sat in wonder after hearing such a thing from him).

“Okay, Kenny, what else did God say?”

“He said that He gave you children to love them.”

I couldn’t have been hit more plainly between the eyes if he’d swung a sledge hammer.  It stunned me in its conviction. Not only was what Ken said right, it was rightly fit to the circumstance.

After I composed myself, I pulled back onto the road in less of a hurry and thinking about what Kenny said.  I told the little ones that they had done nothing wrong and that I was wrong to have yelled.  I looked in the rearview mirror and saw two innocents recovering from something they shouldn’t have heard and simply didn’t understand.  This is what it means to inflict “father wounds.”

I know that I had inherited my dad’s temper (no, there is not a temper gene, I just followed in his footsteps).  I was never physical with the kids, but I did blow my top too often and it was unsettling for everyone when I did (I remember how unsettling it could be for me as a kid).  Some frustration would occur, my impatience would build, and I would lose it.  Lots of people live with someone like this in their lives.  They know the signs of its coming and have to walk on eggshells or avoid touchy subjects in order not to have to deal with their outbursts.  They know to scatter when they see it coming.  The problem is it makes men like me unsafe to those around us.  Those we love and live with cannot be at peace and cannot be completely honest with us in our insecure and sensitive areas.  Even if they have a possible solution to what is frustrating us, they are usually reluctant to share it.  We build impenetrable walls of isolation and behind them the pressure builds.  They have to be careful with what they say and so they learn to placate us.  We are adult versions of the child who screams at the top of his lungs for what he wants until his mom can no longer take it.  Who wants to live like that?   Who wants to mark his children by that kind of fear?

Sometimes it was nothing more than a simple frustration that sparked it. A definition of frustration is, “willing, but not able.”  That’s it.  It means that I have the motivation and desire to do something, but I am unable.  At work, I would try to self-assess when frustration happened.  Perhaps I am not gifted for the task.  Maybe I lack the equipment, training, finances or permission necessary to accomplish what I am set upon.  The mature way to deal with that is to recognize the limitations and figure out if there is a way to get the equipment or training or finances or permissions or even help from someone more gifted.  If it can’t be done after those considerations, then it is time to let it go.  There is no harm in that.  It reminds me of that simple prayer you sometimes see cross-stitch and framed in an office cubicle, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” 

Pressures build.  In the world we live in, things aren’t always going to go right and there will be plenty of times to recall such a prayer.   I grew up in Illinois northwest of Chicago in a fairly rural town that was crisscrossed by train tracks.  I remember as a kid watching one of the old steam trains pass by.  It was all sound and fury and made the chuga-chuga sound that you don’t hear anymore, but can hear in old movies with trains.  We stood near the tracks and made a signal with our arms to the engineer as he passed to blow the steam whistle.  As kids, we got a big kick out of getting train engineers to make that whistle wail.  At about the age of 20, I watched a steam train on that very same track go by on a summer day and couldn’t resist making the signal to the engineer.  The whistle blew.

My dad had died the year before and a friend of my dad’s was with me, someone who had known me all my life.  Earlier he had seen me fly into a tirade in the garage trying to fix something on my car.  He asked me, “Do you know what the purpose of the steam is?”

“Sure.” I answered.

He went on, “It is not to blow the stack, is it?  No, it’s to drive the train forward.”

I knew what he meant at the time and I think it made me mad at him.  I suppose when someone who has known you all your life and has seen you lose your temper many times tells you a train story about steam, he is trying to get your attention.  I didn’t want to hear it, but I haven’t forgotten it either.  Others tried to get my attention regarding my temper as I passed through life – a teacher, a friend, a boss, my wife.  But it finally hit home when my son Kenny gave me a piece of biblical wisdom.

By the way, the remainder of the Serenity Prayer says:

“Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him  Forever in the next. Amen.”

There are a lot of us men who need to get this right.  We have to learn to control this impulse for lashing out in anger, whether in words or actions.  If you are reading this and you do this, you know who you are and you know what I am talking about.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of wisdom for how to do that.  I knew it was wrong at the time and always felt guilty afterwards, so it isn’t as though I would ever have defended it.  I might have excused it saying that I couldn’t help it because it was just the way I was, but that wasn’t true.  Something about that time in the car made an impact on me.  I recognized it for what it was.  And I stopped doing it, for the most part.  When I occasionally slipped, I was quick to make sure that those who were there knew that it was my problem, that I was aware of it, and that I was working through it to stop altogether.  I gave them permission to get my attention on the matter when it was building.  And I say I am sorry.

Maybe that is the key – to begin to look at it and see it for the ugliness it is.  Understanding the root of it will probably help, but just acknowledging its destructive nature on relationships with people we love may be enough to finally get real about it.  Giving people we love some ways to speak to us in the midst of it helps, too.  They are willing to help if we will enlist them and make the effort.  Don’t be surprised if it takes time to respond in the right way when they try to help.  When we fail, we have to say we are sorry.  Trust takes time to build when it is damaged by explosive tempers and where old angers are concerned.    Getting it under control will test both you and your family, but not nearly like the pain of ignoring it and not dealing with it at all.  Enlist friends, a pastor, a small group or even a counselor.

I regret the many times I lost my temper over the years.  I know it was hurtful to my wife and the kids.  My wife should not have had to shoulder the burden of my unrestraint.  Kids learn what you do, not what you say, and I was not giving them the right tools to handle the normal trials and demands of life.  I hoped that they would not bear some ill effect from my lack of restraint in those early years.  Thankfully, it was stopped early enough that they don’t have the scars and father wounds that result from constant exposure to this.  They have not had to “inherit” the problem.  This is so important if a man wants to lead his home and build strength into the lives of his children.  We can get a hold of this and we are up to the task.  We have to choose.  We have to be willing to seek out godly counsel and find men to whom we can be accountable in this area.  Controlling anger is not optional for a dad – it is a necessary dad-kind-of-thing.

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,

And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.

(Proverbs 16:32)

About marknicklas

Mark Nicklas is a husband, father, son and follower of Jesus Christ. He is a pastor at Beaverton Foursquare Church and an adjunct professor at Multnomah University, where he earned his doctorate in Cultural Engagement. Like Jacob wrestled with God at Jabbok, this site is a place for talking about the identity of the church with respect to the cultures we live in. You are invited to share the journey.
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3 Responses to Freight Train

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks Mark, needed a good read like this today!

  2. Timothy Nigro says:

    That was a great article Mark! Thank you for the vulnerability of this post. You are a great mentor and friend. I am so thankful for your humility and the way you help teach younger dads like myself. Keep up the good writing!

  3. rmiller says:

    This may be the best (and least controversial) post you’ve written yet. 🙂

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