Father. A familiar word for us. Yet not without it’s baggage. When I come to the word “father” in the Lord’s Prayer, I am immediately reminded of the ambiguity of that word. I know that for some (maybe most) of us, including myself, the word Father is attached to intimate memories of a person who was dedicated to the well-being of his child. I am convinced that my father, however imperfect, remains devoted to supporting me, loving me, and maintaining a relationship with me. Naturally, my picture of God as Father flows from that experience of my dad. I take comfort and find rest in a Father God who is supremely dedicated to the well being of His Children. I am encouraged and uplifted by a Father God unwavering in His devotion to loving me and reaching out to me in a relationship I struggle to live into. I am enlivened by the sense of a Fatherly reality preceding me and my efforts, giving me life and securing its rich promises.
Despite the comfort of the word “Father” for me personally, I am acutely aware of those who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by their fathers. A picture of God issuing from that experience is likely filled with pain, resentment, and confusion. To utter “Our Father” is anything but easy when we’ve failed to encounter a loving human father. The very image of God as Father might lead to a rejection of God.
In addition, the historic paternalism and gender inequality of the Christian tradition is not lost on me either. I know there are great gaps in the way God is pictured in our words, creeds, and beliefs; too often ignoring aspects and dimensions of God that are associated with femininity. Feminist theologians have been instrumental–and I applaud their efforts–in reminding us that our pictures of God are always partial and fraught with the ambiguities of human experience. We need to be careful with the word pictures of God we tote around, aware of the ways those pictures might marginalize whole people groups when used to support certain activities and policies.
Still, there are those who are sympathetic to resisting paternalism (I count myself as one) and who are sensitive to the baggage the word “father” brings with it (I trust I fit in here, too) and yet do not wish to refrain from using the word “father.” I believe abandoning “Father” for the sake of gender neutrality misses the mark and, what is worse, prevents us from tapping into the power and possibility of our heritage.
I’m reminded of an experience with a person who had a troubled relationship with her father. Rather than reject her Christian faith in God and rather than resisting the traditional picture of God, she clung all the more to God the Father. Her faith in God as Father was central to the way she made sense of her experience with her earthly father. For what was God but the loving parent she missed in her relationship with her dad? For what was God but the way a true, loving father should be? When she prayed “Our Father” she was opening herself to the gracious presence of a reality that was bigger, deeper, and richer than her troubled earthly relationships. The very picture of God as Father was healing and hope-filled for her. She strongly resisted down-playing the picture of God as Father, and she opened my eyes to the complexities of gendered language.
So while I believe we should not confuse our partial, incomplete metaphors for the fullness of God (God is not just Father; God is also Mother–consider the image of God’s love in Jesus as that of a Mother Hen, Matthew 23:37-9), I am equally committed to reimagining and redeploying the rich language we have of God as Father. And so I feel bold to pray “Our Father” because of what that word means when it flows from the will and way of God in Jesus Christ. It need not mean the supremacy of maleness or the under-writing of male power in the home or in the church–even while we acknowledge that God the Father has tragically been used in such unfaithful ways.
Rather, “Father” can mean safety, bottomless love, dependability, hope, intimate belonging, gracious acceptance, eternal promise. That is a word we can all cling to, however imperfect our fathers are and however incomplete our theological repertoire remains.