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The Immeasurable Influence of Godly Parents

One of the most challenging and inspiring books I have ever read is the 500-page biography of the Scottish missionary John G. Paton’s (1824-1907). Paton brought the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to the cannibals of the New Hebrides, now called Vanuatu, in the South Seas. He saw hundreds delivered from the most depraved practices of which humanity’s corrupt nature is capable, and saw them transformed into Christ-like disciples through nothing but the preaching of the gospel. The sufferings, sorrows and privations he endured while living and preaching among the islanders – and the miraculous preservation from frequent mortal danger he experienced – leave one shaking one’s head in amazement.

Paton was to a large degree prepared for his life’s task by the influence of his godly father and mother. His childhood, as recounted in his biography, take us back to a world almost unimaginable to 21st century folk like us. Here is John’s description of the impression his Father’s prayers made on him and his 10 siblings:

“How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When, on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in family worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the heathen world to the service of Jesus, and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Saviour, and learned to know and love him as our divine friend. As we rose from our knees, I used to look at the light on my father’s face, and wish I were like him in spirit – hoping that, in answer to his prayers, I might be privileged and prepared to carry the blessed gospel to some portion of the heathen world.” (Autobiography, p. 21)

John was converted to Christ in his youth and eventually left home to go to “divinity school” in Glasgow in his early twenties. The record of his leaving home for the ‘big city’ has to be one of the most moving pieces of prose ever written:

“…I started out from my quiet country home on the road to Glasgow. Literally ‘on the road’, for from Torthorwald to Kilmarnock – about 40 miles – had to be done on foot, and thence to Glasgow by rail. Railways in those days were as yet few, and coach travelling was far beyond my purse. A small bundle, tied up in my pocket-handkerchief, contained my Bible and all my personal belongings. Thus was I launched upon the ocean of life. I thought of One who says, ‘I know thy poverty, but thou art rich.’

“My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence – my father, as was often his custom, carrying hat in hand, while his long flowing yellow hair (then yellow, but in later years white as snow) streamed like a girl’s down his shoulders. His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! We halted on reaching the appointed parting place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said: ‘God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!’

“Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him – gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I rounded the corner and out of sight in instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me further, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for time. Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dike to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dike and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face toward home, and began to return – his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as he had given me.

“The appearance of my father, when we parted – his advice, prayers, and tears – the road, the dyke, the climbing up on it and then walking away, head uncovered – have often, often, all through life, risen vividly before my mind, and do so now while I am writing, as if it had been but an hour ago. In my earlier years particularly, when exposed to many temptations, his parting form rose before me as that of a guardian Angel. It is no Pharisaism, but deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped, by God’s grace, to keep me pure from the prevailing sins, but also stimulated me in my studies, that I might not fall short of his hopes, and in all my Christian duties, that I might faithfully follow his shining example.” (pp. 25-26)

The influence that a parent’s example exerts is immeasurable, for good or for bad, for an apple never falls far from the tree. By way of contrast, the tragedy of neglect in this area is encapsulated in Sandy Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle, a secular song that describes the dangers of ‘absentee parenting’.

My child arrived the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad
You know I’m gonna be like you.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you comin’ home Dad?”
“I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then.”

My son turned ten just the other day
He said “Thanks for the ball Dad, come on, let’s play
Can you teach me to throw?”
I said “No, not today
I got a lot to do.”
He said “That’s okay.”
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
It said “I’m gonna be like him, yeah,
You know I’m gonna be like him…”

And he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
“Son I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while?”
He shook his head and he said with a smile
“What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys.
See you later, can I have them please?”

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said “I’d love to Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu,
But it’s sure nice talkin’ to you Dad,
It’s been nice talkin’ to you.”

And as I hung up the phone
It occurred to me,
He’d grown up just like me,
My boy was just like me.

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you comin’ home Son?”
“I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then Dad,
We’re gonna have a good time then.”

For further encouragement in parenting, see Tools for Effective Child Rearing and J.C. Ryle’s The Duties of Parents

Michael J. Penfold