On Father’s day weekend I thought I would share some thoughts on why we avoid referring to God with paternal language and how we may be missing out on helping people experience the reconciling love of God.
As I sat across from one of my favorite parishioners he looked over his notes. For the last five years I have met with him every couple of months and he always brings a list of thoughts and questions. I love these meetings. They usually take place at a coffee shop. He brings the thoughts he has been having over the last month or so written on a scrap piece of paper. The paper is usually folded up in his pocket. He carries the piece of paper around with him at his work and adds to it when something strikes him. By the time we meet the piece of paper is usually well worn and folded and refolded many times. I love his well thought out questions and reflections. This was going to be our last time meeting before I transition to my new church. I had a sense of sadness. I could tell there was one notation he wasn’t sure he should share.
The thoughts are usually about sermons I have recently given. As a preacher there is nothing better than discovering that someone is listening to your sermons, and actually taking time to ponder and reflect on the words. This afternoon he was hesitant, but finally took a sip of his Ice tea and said, “I really like when you call God Father.” He said it almost apologetically. At first I will admit I was really hoping he wasn’t going to share how he could only see God as a man and the times I refer to God as a woman are distracting. He continued “I know you don’t always do it, but it has brought me closer to God. God has always felt distant, but to think of God as a loving father has helped me. My own dad is an incredible man and I have always looked up to him and his faith.” This caused me to pause and think. I even wrote a quick note on my phone that simply read “God the father?”
Why did his words strike me as odd? So many of us grew up only hearing images of God as the father. So let me give you a little piece of my history. When I was in seminary I handed in one of my first papers and received some jarring criticism. My undergrad was in Biology and Psychology so theological/academic writing was definitely a new way of writing. It took sometime to be able to write papers that weren’t too short. I would get right to the point like a scientific report. Finally one of my friends who helped me edit gave me some advice, “Sarah in order to write theologically you have to conclude and then conclude your conclusion.” I thought I was getting the hang of it when I received a paper back from one of my TA’s and it looked like he had bled all over the paper in red ink. My eyes grew wide and fear turned to confusion when I read the main note he had “don’t use gender specific language when referring to God. You appear sexist.”
Sexist? Me? I am after all the girl whose own father gave her the coffee mug that simply declared “The right man for the job is usually a woman.” I am also from a very politically correct country (Canada for goodness sake) and grew up pretty PC. How could I be sexist? But it was true I had used mostly male language to refer to God. I know how damaging only seeing the male attributes of God can be. I also know that using dad language can remind people of the less than ideal way that their humanly father parented or didn’t parent. I thought about my own dad. He is an amazing dad. Do I think my dad is perfect? No. My Dad is amazing and supportive, but he was also busy growing up and he was a high achiever so I spent many years just trying to impress him. I wanted to be good enough to make him proud. I felt unseen unless making a scene for achieving something or creating something. When I look back on my faith I think I have had the same relationship with God. I wanted God the Father to think I was good enough and I saw God as busy and hard to impress. Is this my dad’s fault? Nope it was an unintended consequence.
As I look through scripture I see that one of the new ideas and notions that Christ’s incarnation brought was the idea that God was indeed our Abba that through Christ we are adopted into this family. Perhaps into the only family where we will experience paternal love done right. But it doesn’t just transfer we have to be more clear about why we use the language and names we use. Reconciliation with our faulty images of fathers can only come through recognition. Perhaps a middle ground of noticing all the names and descriptions of God that scripture gives us will help people find a way to connect to God- What do you think? Are there names for God that are helpful for you?