Sunday, June 17, 2012

Song for Our Father

I spent last weekend in the company of women. I went to my first League of Women Voters Convention, in DC, and was blown away by the smart, committed, passionate women I met there. I learned a ton, enjoyed the speakers, caucuses and conversations, and was deeply impressed by the army of women who work tirelessly to register and inform voters and do all they can to ensure elections are fair and accessible.

Under all the convention energy, though, I sensed an air of sadness. It came through in the photos of early suffragettes, and in the feisty “Caught in a Bad Romance: Womens’ Suffrage” video we watched during the final session. Why did it take so long for American women to achieve the vote? What happened to the Equal Rights Amendment? Why are there still so few women in elected office?

Late one evening, a new friend and I found ourselves talking about faith. She was explaining that she felt something – she wouldn’t call it God – when she was outdoors in nature, or when things seemed to fall into place in unexpected ways. She felt something like design – or intent. Something good and gracious.

But the word “God,” for her, is tied to patriarchy, male oppression, road blocks she sees friends face when seeking opportunity. The idea of God as father bothers her.

I’ve struggled myself with the concept of God as father. For me, "father" was never a happy word. My father and mother married way too young, had four kids too fast, and decided before I was two that parenthood wasn’t for either of them. They disappeared in opposite directions, and my three siblings and I landed with my father’s parents. So I was the kid without a father – one of the few I knew. I hated Father’s Day.

In some ways my grandfather became a father figure, but that didn’t really help. He was an angry man who hadn’t enjoyed his own four children, and wasn’t happy about four more. Just before I turned thirteen he sold the house we lived in and moved away by himself, leaving my grandmother to piece together a new life for herself and four teenage grandchildren.

I understand - on a very personal level - the women, and men, who object to the idea of God as father, who resist praying "Our Father." I struggled for years with the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father” was not a phrase that made me feel safe, or cared for, or loved, or wanted.

Yet to see God as vague amorphous entity, or to refer to an androgynous “mother/father” spirit, is to lose something central to the Christian faith: the possibility of redeemed relationship, not only with each other, but with the one who made us, knows us, loves us. While it might have been easier to let go of the idea of God as father, I found myself inwardly insistent on a verse I had found: "A father to the fatherless, a defender of the widows, is God in his holy dwelling."  (Psalm 68:5)

As a teen struggling with the abandonment of both father and grandfather, I found myself convinced that “father to the fatherless” was more than an abstract idea, and that when Jesus told us to call his father “Abba,” he meant what he said: we were to consider God our daddy, the close, warm, loving father every fatherless child has watched and longed for from a distance.

In high school I started a kind of ongoing dialogue with God – more complaint than what I would have called prayer, although I believe it was prayer. Maybe more challenge than complaint: If you’re my father, you’ll help me avoid ridiculous mistakes. If you’re my father, you’ll help me know what to do. If you’re my father, you’ll provide the money I need for college.

I don’t have time to tell about the ways God did intervene in my life, the ways he led me, the ways he provided. As I asked him to be my father, he taught me what that meant.

Yes, I know that for some people the idea of God as father suggests that men are more important than women, that men are made in the image of God, while women are somehow different. Why use the word “God” at all, my friend wondered. Why not “life force” or “higher power”?

George Eastman House collection 1915
Language shapes our understanding, but at the same time, we can only use the words we have. As I tried to explain to my friend, God is more personal than a “life force,” more present than a “higher power.”

Picture the best dad you know – and imagine a dad closer. Picture the warmest father you’ve seen – and imagine a father who loves you more. God is beyond gender – not less than, but more than. Our language only gets us partway there.

Why are we told to call him father instead of mother? Here’s my theory: mothers are far more likely to be known to their children. Think about it- there is no child alive whose mother wasn’t present at the child’s birth. The father might have been nine months gone already, but the mother was there. It’s a simple biological fact.

But then picture patriarchal societies: in a household with multiple wives, each wife would have her own tent, or hut, or living quarters. The father’s space would be separate. It’s still that way in many parts of the world: mother and children living together, father’s quarters somewhere else.

In many cultures, fatherless children have less status, less protection, than children with fathers. And in any culture, at any time, fathers are more likely to be distant, absent, missing, than mothers.

So when Jesus tells us to call God “Abba,” or invites us into the close unity he has with his father, he’s not negating mothers.  Instead, he’s affirming our worth, all of us, fatherless children included, and offering us a relationship with God built on love and acceptance, not performance, perfection, fearful subjection to a harsh and distant father’s will. He's also demonstrating a shift in the way we understand power: God's power is not against us, but for us. His power is not there to force us into subjection, or to do us harm. Instead, amazingly, it's there to serve us, to aide us, to protect, comfort, heal.

Mary Ann Fatula wrote a helpful essay “On Calling God ‘Father’" back in 1986, drawing in part on the work of Diane Tennis and her book Is God the Only Reliable Father? (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985)  It’s still the best discussion of this I’ve found (if you have other suggestions, I'd love to hear them):
Diane Tennis . .  shows that a great wound of our society is exactly the absence of loving and reliable fathers. And so we women learn to take upon ourselves "enormous responsibility for the world," assuming the duties of both mother and father in the sacrificial role of "Inexhaustible Earth Mother." To reject God as our Father is thus to imprison ourselves even more deeply in damaging stereotypical roles by relegating the capacity for tenderness and faithful care to women alone. . .
Tennis concludes that our need as women and men for a faithful and caring father is too deep and ineradicable a component of our human meaning simply to abandon this symbol for God. On the contrary, we need to free it from distortions linking it with domination by drinking in the truth the Scriptures proclaim to us.
For the Father of Jesus knows and loves each one of us so intimately that every single hair on our head is counted (Mt. 10:30) . . .
These and other Gospel passages can only hint at the unbelievable tenderness which Jesus unveils to us in the one he calls "Father." But by recovering precisely this content of Jesus' own experience, we can open ourselves to the Father's extraordinary tenderness in our own lives and at the same time, as Tennis points out, hold out a "critique of patriarchal domination and violence within a male symbol." In this way the symbol itself can be used "to create a different human situation," a world in which women and men respect and relate to each other as equals.
Some ideas are too big to put into words. This, to me, is one. I babbled on to my friend a bit, aware that my brain was way past tired, that even at my best I couldn’t do “God as Father” justice, that my descriptions of God’s kindness and intimate comfort probably didn’t make much sense.
Don White, I Know What Love Is, 2009

When I stopped talking, she turned her laptop toward me.

“Watch this song.”

I watched it – if you have time, you might want to watch it too. The last stanza says it all.

Happy Father’s Day.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. I'd especially love to hear about your experiences of God as Father, or leads to resources you've found helpful regarding this topic. Click on __ comments link below to see comments and post your own.