I have a lot of feminist friends at seminary. They ask the most amazing questions. Things like, “How important is it that Jesus was incarnated male instead of female?” or “Since God has no gender, why do we downplay the maternal imagery and lift up the paternal imagery of God?” I want to say first off that these are important questions to be asking, and that looking into the dualistic hierarchies we create as a society is a challenging endeavor that has earned no small amount of my respect. As I begin this blog, I hope you all know that it is coming directly from my own experience, my thoughts, reflections, and mystical encounters with God. These experiences have made me appreciate the more traditional view of things, i.e. the Fatherhood of God. It is not my intention here to push the buttons of feminists or use the Bible to oppress women by any means. As a male who grew up with an ever shifting and usually bad person I was encouraged and expected to think of as my father, the word father had a lot of baggage and disappointment associated with it. How this has and is affecting me spiritually is more where I hope this reflection to go.
I grew up having no clue about who my biological father was, aside from knowing his name. Until my mom met and married Virgil when I was 16, father was kind of a dirty word, even a source of alienation from my radically divergent experience compared to people I knew growing up. Unfortunately nowadays my experience has grown increasingly common. As you can see, to this day I still generally refer to my stepdad by his first name. Even though I love the man dearly and for all intents and purposes he has been my father only rarely do I call him Dad. I reserve that for special times of heightened emotion, like Father’s Day or Christmas. Times when his fatherhood and love for me are crystal clear and my reservations are swept away.
Virgil is a great man, but aside from inheriting me and the rest of my siblings, it is not as though I was around much to see how it is done. I was pretty well grown up and the damage was largely already done before he walked on the scene. I also have recently tracked down my biological father and we have Skyped a couple times, and mostly just talk on the phone. I am still processing through how this new relationship helps me understand “father,” but suffice it to say our connection is less like most people’s experience. Most fathers don’t get a letter from a son they have never known completely out of the blue and try to start a relationship over the phone. Even this remote connection though, is far more helpful than looking for third-hand clues in “how to be a man” from TV and total strangers. I count myself very blessed for these times I have shared with Leo, my biological father who lives in San Diego, a mere twenty hour drive from here.
I lived in fear of the day I might become a father, because I had so few good models from which to glean understandings of what it means to be a father. I never felt like I would ever be ready, least of all ready for a daughter instead of a son. My daughter though, is now the very jewel of my life. I admit, it is frightening to think of how things will change when puberty strikes and boys come calling, but I know her life will be a lot less confusing than mine was. She will know deeply and always that two parents love her, and though there is much confusion in life she won’t be spared, the level of satisfaction I have in knowing she will know this simple truth is beyond my comprehension.
Whether mother or father, our parental relationships are one very important lens through which we see God. For many of us this lens is dirty, cracked, or worse. We can see God’s Fatherhood as cold and distant, angry, or wrathful. We can see God as a big “meaney in the sky” who can’t wait for us to screw up so He can spank us mercilessly. We can see God as an abusive parent who makes us do wrong and then punishes and shames us for it. If we aren’t careful, we can re-embody these cycles we inherited and expect nothing from ourselves outside of our own limited, and broken view. We can let being a victim excuse us from victimizing others, and pass blame on genetics or our environment, but the fact is we are responsible for our own choices. We cannot let our parents behavior excuse us from stepping up to the plate on our own, and making our own victories and mistakes.
As I found the Lord the inner category I had for father was slowly stretched and reformed. I was made aware of the love that is the defining force behind real fatherhood, heavenly or otherwise. I could see this motive of love behind God’s hand in every way He pushed me and refused to take no for an answer in our dealings. I could see this motive of love in the excellence He expected of me and the ways He encouraged me, invited me to participate in His nature, and challenged me to stretch and grow. I often hear other people describe their experience with God as this great sense of inner “peace.” To be honest, when I hear this I can’t help but find myself a little suspicious. Thomas Kelly writes in A Testament of Devotion this simple prayer “Open thou my life. Guide my thoughts where I dare not let them go. But thou darest. Thy will be done.” I often find God asking me for obedience, even with two holy thumbs in my back pushing me. I find the opposite of peace, I find the “But Thou darest” part Kelly describes, at my every turn.
This relates to fatherhood in a way I am coming to notice as we raise our daughter. Simply put love dares. Love pushes us, not in a controlling or manipulative way, not to its own ends–but in response to itself. To share in its richness together. As fathers and mothers, we steward our love and are responsible for it and to it. Most of my fears about fatherhood turned out to be unrealistic or flat wrong. Love has dared me to stretch and grow in whatever ways best steward this love I have for my wife and daughter, a love given as a free gift from God. The selfishness I feared would make me an awful father still expresses itself in experiences of missing free time, a lack of personal space, and the isolation that is common to having a two year old. Yet the love of my Heavenly Father now lives in me and guides me as I navigate these challenges. I can pray with Kelly this prayer of obedience in all honesty, not knowing exactly how the challenges of parenthood will lead, but knowing the love my daughter and I share is worth every ounce of risk and pain the journey requires.
God dares us to accept His love as a child, unable to imagine the good and terrible things He has in store for us. But He also dares some of us to share it as a parent, in response to the needs of this present moment, whether that means changing a pair of poopy panties or dying to our own desire for a bathroom door that doesn’t fly open every five minutes. As you and I share this journey of fatherhood, let us define it in the holy ways of obedience, and the model God Himself presents to us. Let us trust His grace will illuminate our pasts and help us see His hand there, help us love fully in the present that we have with our children, and burn in our hearts the very vision of hope God sees the future with, for us and all of His children.