I’ve been thinking about fatherhood over the last few days. I suppose Father’s Day last weekend got me started, although the day itself was a fairly muted affair around these parts. Oh, it’s Father’s Day? Um, well, happy one of those, dad… Yawn. Which was mostly fine with me. I’ve never been a terribly enthusiastic participant in the dictates of the Hallmark calendar, anyway.
But it’s a strange thing, this being a father, not least because you inhabit a word that we also use for God. We are trained from our earliest days to think of God as something like a father. Our Father, who art in heaven, we pray, just like Jesus taught us. We thus grow up imbibing assumptions about fathers that come along with all kinds of impressive words. Words like “power,” “strength,” “resourcefulness,” “mercy,” “authority,” “provision,” and “love.” These are words that we often predicate of God. These are “father words”—words that we get to try (and fail) to live into.
Because, of course, all human fathers are pretty pale imitations of Our Father. Some people are forced to deal with abusive and absent fathers, manipulative and controlling fathers, apathetic and incompetent fathers. Or worse. But less sensationally, sometimes we just have no idea what we’re doing. Sometimes there’s nothing evil or malicious about how we inhabit this word called “father.” We’re just, well, not God. Unsurprisingly, the word “father” can look pretty un-God-like when we try to take it for a spin.
So, we’re used to looking at God’s fatherhood and then trying to emulate it. This morning, I’ve been thinking about fatherhood with the arrow going in the other direction. Instead of saying, “What kind of a father is God and how am I measuring up in my own life,” I’ve been thinking, “What might my own experience of fatherhood tell me about what it’s like to be God?” Perhaps the question is poorly or illegitimately framed. I don’t know. But I often find it helpful to think along these lines.
When our kids were younger, this was a relatively easy (and flattering) task. I peered into the contents of my heart and mind and discovered a surfeit of love and warm fuzzy goodness spilling over the edges. I was the father of kids who were filled with exceedingly lovable cuteness—kids who thought I was awesome and eminently competent. People were constantly oohing and ahhing at them, and it filled me with magnanimous fatherly pride. This is what God must feel like when he looks at us, his children, I would sometimes think. Not all the time, to be sure. I wasn’t naïve or stupid. But being a father of vulnerable, dependent, little creatures whose needs were relatively easy to meet on a consistent basis gave me, I suppose, a sliver of insight into what it might be like for God to be proud and delighted in his adoring and grateful children.
And then, toddlers became teenagers. Now instead of cute little vulnerable bundles of squishable goodness, they tower proudly over me. Now, instead of oohing and ahhing, there are winces of understanding and shared suffering. Now, the kids who once thought you could do anything are convinced that you know next to nothing, and the little that you do know isn’t really worth listening to. Now, I suspect that the word “father” is, for my kids, sometimes less about pride than embarrassment, sometimes less about joy than sheer endurance. Now, there are head-spinningly irrational exhibitions of anger and defiance. Now, there are rolled eyes and, seriously dad’s?! Now the needs aren’t always as easy to meet (or even figure out!). Now there are days when I collapse into bed at night wondering what on earth just happened.
And this, too, must be part of what it is like to be a parent for Our Father, who art in heaven. To be on the other end of rejection. To be wounded. To be misunderstood. To agonize and worry and long for his children. To stare incomprehensibly at the decisions his children sometimes make. To be blown away by those first sheepish, halting steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation. To stand restlessly at the gate, eyes peeled on the road that leads away from and back to home. Yes, this, too, must be what it is like for Our Father.
The difference, of course, is that Our Father loves consistently, perfectly, and always with his children’s best interests in mind. Our Father does not, like this father, love fitfully and clumsily, often seeking little more than to protect and justify himself. Our Father takes a longer view of things. Our Father knows what his children need when they do not. Our Father forgives more readily and restores more fully. Our Father’s will is trustworthy and worth being done, on earth as in heaven.
Our Father makes the word “father” worth trying to inhabit in better ways. And sometimes this father simply needs the reminder that his children are loved deeply and truly by Our Father. Just like he is. Despite all their faults. Despite all of his.
I snapped the image above a while back on the first day back in the office after Sunday’s service. My son likes to leave behind an (often quite entertaining) trail of evidence of his presence at my desk for me to discover the following week. This time it was an elastic band around my book stand. This was, evidently, one of his more optimistic moments.
But I’ve hung on to that elastic band. Sometimes for dear life. 🙂