MUST WE SAY FAREWELL TO FATHER'S DAY?

By David R. Leigh*

"Our Father who art in heaven, " — Matthew 6:9 "Father," — Luke 11:2

Ronny was a boy being raised in a family of women, two big sisters and his mother. Mom had been through three bad marriages, two of them to the same man—Ronny's frequently absent father. As much as we, their family and friends, felt a boy should know his dad, those of us closest to the situation winced when we heard Todd was in the neighborhood. It was no secret that the man was a substance abuser and a womanizer. When he did show up at

*

This is an excerpt from a book on the Lord's Prayer currently being written by the author. For contact and copyright information, please see the final page.

the apartment, it was usually because he needed a handout or a place to crash, tired of sleeping in shelters and boarding houses, or having been kicked out by his latest girlfriend. As you might expect, this resulted in a lot of male bashing at Ronny's house. I was the family's pastor. I observed how noticeably Todd's visits disturbed Ronny. And I have to admit that sometimes I secretly wished I could run the man out of town, like a shepherd routing a wolf, and warn him never to come back. One day Ronny, at age 9, came to see me. He wanted to be baptized. Concerned about Ronny's young age, I asked a number of questions to see if Ronny really understood the significance of the step he'd be taking. At one point I explained to him that one important part of being baptized is that it makes a statement to the world that we love, and have decided to follow, Jesus. In baptism we say we've died to our old self and have been born to a new life,

a new way of living. I explained to him that we should be sure we really mean it when we take this stand because some people make this statement and then go on to live immoral lives. “While none of us will live perfect lives,” I explained, “we should be careful not make a mockery of baptism or be an embarrassment to Christ, our church, and our Christian friends.” "I understand," Ronny said. "I know someone like that." My heart sank as I asked, "You do?" "Yeah....” he said, “my dad." Sadly, Ronny's dad had not only shamed Christ and Christians by his actions, but he shamed little Ronny—and very deeply. Ronny went on to be baptized and to be quite involved at church. But there was one Sunday each year when I could always expect Ronny either to volunteer for nursery duty or miss church altogether. It was Father's Day.

The Father Crisis As is the case for so many people today, Father's Day only pointed to a painful void, if not a festering wound. It is well-known that the western world is experiencing a "father crisis." Because of the current break up of the traditional nuclear family, we live in a day when "father" and “Dad” are not universally-accepted terms of endearment. For more and more people, these words are packed with increasingly negative connotations. If you've been blessed, like me, with a good and faithful father, the emotional struggle I'm describing may seem unreal or exaggerated to you. But if you stop to consider that today an American teenager who still lives with both original parents is in the minority, then the epidemic proportion of this crisis begins to sink in. Unfortunately, what happens in the world often ends up

seeping into the church. In this case the seeping is more like a monsoon. Mother's Day can be fraught with its own set of unique emotional pains. Although it usually fills the pews with families, Father's Day often means a decline in mainline church attendance. After all, it's Dad's day. If Dad is not spiritually committed, he may see Father's Day as a chance to sleep in, play golf, or go fishing. And then, of course, there are the Ronnys (and Rondas), young and old, for whom Father's Day is too painful. Let's face it, if your dad is not in a positive or loving part of who you are, and if the letters "D-A-D" spell “pain” for you, then why attend an annual tribute to him at church? Many times I felt I should have given my Father's Day sermon the week before or save it for the week after. I've spoken to other pastors who feel the same way. Many times I wished we could just skip or ignore Father's Day. It nearly wore me down to keep feeling like I had to defend or apologize for applying the title

"Father" to God. After all, God is so holy and the idea of fatherhood in our culture seems so hopelessly mangled, stained, and out of date. For many people in our culture it almost seems like an insult to call the loving, self-sacrificing, forgiving, merciful, and all-wise God by that term. The more I got to know the pains and struggles of my congregants, especially the pains of women and children who experienced fatherhood gone so wrong, I became more and more aware of how sensitive an issue this is for so many well-meaning people who need to know the love of God and who truly need to experience “Our Father” the way fatherhood was meant to be. Yet this sensitivity, and the tendency of our society to stereotype and to extend guilt by association, actually made me hesitate to push this precious metaphor for God. I found myself actually fearing that it would tarnish his good name and reputation. I did not want to place Yahweh in the same category with the men who had failed the

women and children of my congregation and of this culture so dismally in that role. As a father myself, I also wrestled with my own shortcomings. What was I doing to confuse my own kids about the Heavenly Father each time I was too overbearing, short-tempered, or exasperating in so many other ways? Even my best efforts were but caricatures of God's fatherliness. And my worst—well, that's the stuff my kids really had to sort through on their own, to see that Dad is only human. And there's the crux! While fathers are only human, fatherhood is divine. That's what makes it such a high calling, beyond even the important role it plays in just caring for and raising our children.

God As "Mr. Mom" Andrea was in tears. This time it was Mother's Day in

church. And the sermon was about maternal aspects of God's character found in the Bible. For just as the Bible shows God to be the example of what it means to be a good father, it also shows God as the model and source of godly motherhood. Andrea had grown up under the abuse of a father who claimed to be Christian but who exasperated his children. The dysfunctionality of that relationship and that home created enormous conflict within Andrea whenever she tried to think of God as her father. But now tears of joy and relief flowed as she heard about how both male and female were created in God's image,1 and how the Bible frequently used maternal imagery for God, as when God's word is called mother's milk, and how Isaiah likens God's love to a mother's love, affirming that God will not abandon us even if a

1

Genesis 1:26-27

mother could abandon the child nursing at her breast but instead jostles us on the hip and carries us through our struggles and adversities, comforting us. When Andrea discovered that these samples are just the start2 of the many ways that God showers us with parental love, then suddenly Andrea could put aside her scarred and wounded impressions of God and experience God's dear and tender parental love. As single-parent families become increasingly common, a number of unpleasant phenomena seem to accompany it, including but not limited to the following: 1. Mothers are increasingly the sole "head of the house" and the main provider; 2. “Deadbeat" and "dad" have become readily-linked for many;

2

See for example: Isaiah 49:15-16; 66:12-13; Matthew 13:33; 23:37; Luke

15:8-10; Acts 17:28; 1 Peter 2:2-3.

3. Many men fade into the shadows of church involvement and spiritual leadership, while others—trying to compensate—take on an overbearing role that improperly excludes women from their God-ordained place as full partners and coheirs in Kingdom service; 4. Some voices in the church have urged that God-talk would

better meet the needs and expectations of modern women and children if God were presented as our Mother instead of in traditional masculine language. Cultural conservatives push back with abhorrence of such ideas. Often the balance needed to heal an Andrea or Ronny's heart can get lost in the crossfire of culture wars. While it certainly is legitimate to rediscover the biblical character of God that God intended to be imaged within women and mothers, yet genuine healing does not force us to make an either-or decision about God's parental gender. Doing so leaves us

with only a part of the divine image that Yahweh intended to create in us as he placed humanity in the garden, blessing them, and commanding them fill and subdue the earth. We need to be careful not to win a culture war at the expense of losing a priceless biblical glimpse into our God's wonderful love. Both fathers and mothers are made in God’s image and are designed to communicate wonderful things to us about our Creator. While this kind of suggestion may jar us today, especially those of us who are traditionally minded, we should be careful not to respond with knee-jerk reactions. After all, the Bible wastes no time in telling us that both male and female are made in he image of God. It’s in the very first chapter! Theologians have long known that this reflects the fact that God is “prior” to sex or gender distinctions. God is Spirit and does not possess a body with chromosomes, hormones, or glands. Yet the text declares that humanity's original design has both “male and female” sharing in

the gift of being God's image-bearers. Therefore, not only can imperfect fathers possess godly attributes, but it turns out that even the most maternal and feminine qualities of our mothers and sisters originate from God and reflect aspects of who God is in relation to us. After we acknowledge this, it would also be a mistake to abandon the biblical teaching on God's fatherhood in a day when fatherhood is in such need of positive male role models. Men may fail at and even abandon their roles as father, but God has not. The masculine concepts of father, husband, and Lord remain the dominant metaphors God himself uses to describe himself in scripture. But why? Word Games It is only when we impose what we associate with "father" (as Ronny and Andrea did) that God's fatherhood becomes grotesque. The same can happen if we impose on God our own

notions of what it means to be a mother, or ruler, or Spirit, or friend. Consider the idea of resurrection, for example. This is a beautiful vision of hope in the scriptures. Hollywood and worldly literature, on the other hand, have made the notion of "coming back from the dead" to be a frightful and horrible thing, the bonechilling stuff of zombies, ghouls, and Frankensteins. If we let Hollywood's idea of rising from the grave color our thinking about biblical resurrection, we have nothing to look forward to with joy. In the same way, God is not to be thought of by the definitions or connotations our society and culture may give to the term “father.” Rather, God is the original pattern or blueprint and we must judge the correctness and integrity of one's fatherhood based on his original pattern. He remains the prototype father. It is not that he is like a father. Rather, he is the father that all others should imitate. He is not the metaphor—we are the metaphor! This means our

fatherhood needs to find its definition and example in God. To say it another way, the degree to which a man's “fatherness” is real and genuine, the degree to which it is an accurate, true, and a complete example of what it means to be a father, can only be measured by God as our standard.3 Perhaps the greatest implication of the Lord's Prayer for our struggling world today is that there still is at least one good, reliable, admirable father left—"Our Father, who art in heaven." As our Father, God is tender toward us and free of the negative connotations and failure we've come to associate with earthly fathers.

3

And, by the way, the same is true for mothers, by virtue of Genesis 1:27 and

the other passages footnoted earlier in this chapter. Godliness and spirituality know no gender. And the degree to which we fulfill our created design as men, women, fathers, or mothers, is directly proportional to how true we are to our calling as God's image-bearers.

God our Father cares about each of our needs and knows them even before we ask.4 Therefore, Jesus warmly assures us that because his heavenly Father is “Our Father,” Yahweh is rightly the object of our prayers, the cause of all our worship, the source of our hope, and the refuge to whom we turn for all our needs—be it for bread or deliverance from temptation, forgiveness of our ugliest sins or escape from the oppression of evil. It will not do to pray to anyone else. This not only means there is hope for fatherhood—our fatherhood—but it also explains why the title “Our Father” appears where it does at the head of “The Jesus Agenda” outlined in the Lord’s Prayer. The Old Testament ends with a chilling ultimatum regarding the coming messianic kingdom: "See, I will send you the

4

Mathew 6:8

prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of Yahweh comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:5-6). Clearly Jesus saw the priority of this needed relationship. He modeled it in his own relationship to the Father. He wanted us to share that relationship with his father. But the turning of our hearts between fathers and children to each other is a heavy kingdom matter. When Jesus was asked by his disciples how to pray,5 he did not offer them any options, as if there might be other gods, or angels, or even saints, to whom we might turn our hearts or bring our petitions or praise. No, he settled the question then and there. "When you pray” he said, “say, `Our Father.'"

5

Luke 11:1

In effect, every prayer is a celebration of true fatherhood and every worship service is a celebration of the Father—making every Sunday not only Father's Day but a prong in Jesus' strategy for advancing his kingdom in our families and our world.

You Are Not Alone Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, could have called God “My Father” in this prayer. He could have told us that we should call God that too—“My Father!”—Sounds nice, doesn't it? But lest any of us be tempted foolishly to lay exclusive claim to God's affection, Jesus teaches us that God is our Father collectively. Hubert van Zeller comments, in Prayer In Other Words, "If it began `My Father' it might be a more private prayer but it would not have as much charity in it. And charity matters more than privacy." In other words, as we pray this prayer, it reminds us that each of us comes not as an only-child but as part of a family. We

cannot get away with claiming to love God and only God; loving God obligates us to love our brothers and sisters as well. Yahweh is their Father too. The "Our-Father-ness” of God also assures us we belong not only to God, but that God intends us to belong to a loving support system of brothers and sisters who care for us and who love the same Father we love, "our Father, who art in heaven."

“In Heaven”? How Far And Yet So Near In a culture of silent males and emotionally detached or distant fathers, we might find ourselves troubled by the next phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, even if we've resolved the apparent conflict between our earthly parents and God being a loving, nurturing, parental presence in our lives. After all, heaven seems kind of far away, doesn't it? What happens to all the warmth of God being our Father if he's going to be far off in some lofty throne, attended to, if

not guarded by, unearthly angelic beings. Even they must cover their faces and bow before this awesome Ruler. What are we to do with this? If Jesus' depiction of God being in heaven makes God seem remote to you, consider that other passages of the Bible take this matter yet a step further! The Scriptures tell us in many places that God's glory, loving kindness, and exaltation are in fact above the heavens. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus himself is exalted above the heavens as our High Priest. The triune God reigns over the heavens. In fact, God made heaven and earth and therefore existed without them just fine. Solomon, that wisest of Old Testament kings, exclaimed upon completing the first Jerusalem temple that “the heavens, even the highest heavens,” cannot contain Yahweh!6 The Psalms depict him as having to stoop down

6

1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 6:18

just to look upon the heavens!7 And so, God our Father only inhabits heaven by way of what theologians call “condescension.” That is, God lowers himself to inhabit heaven! Think about that! Heaven is actually a stopping point for God on his way to us! Heaven is his throne and the earth is his footstool.8 Yet in his loving compassion and infinite desire for us, he chooses to dwell among his people in both heaven and earth! Remarkably, Jesus tells us that when we speak to God, our words are heard in heaven. Heaven is that close. Though heaven seems to us to be beyond the stars, heaven is so near that the One who inhabits its throne hears our every whispered word in prayer and even the inaudible longings of our hearts.9

7

Psalms 113:4-6 Isaiah 66:1; Acts 7:49 Romans 8:26-27

8

9

These precious opening words, “Our Father in heaven,” communicate to us that God is both near to us (as Father) and far above us (in heaven). Yet at the same time they tell us that the highest realm of all creation is also as near as the words in our own mouths and the longings in our hearts. There is only one reason for this. It is precisely because of who it really is who reigns there and hears our every sigh: It is Our Father in Heaven—our loving Father. Heaven is not just a "home beyond the stars," although it certainly is that and more. It has rightly been called "the capital and powerhouse of the cosmos" from which all is created, governed and sustained.10 Yet although every human parent may abandon us, and every earthly relation might fail us, there is One on the throne who is on our side and who can be trusted more than the dearest

10

Simcox

earthly father, more than the tenderest of mothers. He is not a stranger or a tyrant up there on the seat of power, not an old man with a telescope, and not a remote, aloof monarch who needs to be approached through channels, no matter how saintly. He is our Father and his nature is the true nature of fatherhood. He is holy, just, and pure, and from his capital of power he rules all things. His fatherhood tells us he is willing to help us. His heavenliness tells us he is able. Because our Father rules and inhabits heaven, we can rest assured that all things ultimately will work out for his glory and for the good of all he calls his own (Ro 8:28). Our loving Father is on the throne of omnipotent sovereignty. His enemies, no matter how fearsome and threatening they may seem to us, are but kindling for his consuming fire. Yet his throne is for us called "the mercy seat."

Without Exaggeration

It has been said that Jesus was given to hyperbole, or overstatement, as when he tells us to cut off a hand that causes us to stumble. But when Jesus calls God "our Father in heaven," this is nothing less than understatement. To say God is in heaven is actually to bring him down. He transcends all things, including heaven, yet he stoops down to us to raise us from the dust and seat us with him and princes,11 loving us and calling us his children. What a wonderful thing it is, then, to be able to say, "Our Father, who art in heaven." It should fill us with wonder and joy, assurance and courage. When we pray this way, we address the most powerful Being in the universe, the One who sits enthroned securely in the most powerful place in the universe, and we find that this powerful Being is not only mercifully inclined toward us in Jesus Christ; he is intimately attuned, intertwined, and involved

11

Psalm 113:4-8

with us and as our perfect dad. This is Jesus' heart in prayer. It is at the forefront of Jesus' prayer for us, as it is at the forefront of his agenda for all whom he loves.

What I'd Like To Say To Ronny Certainly no earthly father can compare to "Our Father in heaven." The very best men fail at some point. I know that I have failed most miserably of all. But Ronny, if you're out there, don't give up on fatherhood or on Father's Day. Someday you may be a father too. And when you are, don't sleep in or go fishing when that June Sunday comes around. Don't follow any earthly man's example of what it means to be a dad. Imitate the original Dad. Make him your role model and your standard—someday there may be a little Andrea in your life who depends on it! Celebrate the fact that our heavenly Father has never let you down and that God wants you always to turn your heart to him to experience his amazing love. Because of this, Ronny, Father's Day is for you.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION: 1. How would you explain to the following people that God is their father? [] A person who grew up without a father. [] Someone whose father was physically abusive. [] A feminist who believes it is sexist to refer to God in any masculine terms.

2. What does the term "Father" communicate to us about God?

3. Why is it significant that our Father is in heaven?

4. What are some other ways we can address God in prayer? How does this way differ in its meaning from the others?

5. How has this chapter affected the way you feel about God? How will it influence the way you pray?

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© 2010 Copyright by David R. Leigh, P.O. Box 268, Fox River Grove, IL 60021. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For

more information contact the author at Dave@TheJesusAgenda.net or call 847-571-3011.