Happy Father’s day. We have a bit of a special service planned for today. Which being a father myself, I appreciate.
But, as Vince already touched on, Father’s day can be a day full of mixed emotions. Positive ones for sure, but also plenty of more challenging emotions.
Historically, men have just had less accountability when it comes to being fathers than women have when it comes to being mothers. For sure there are plenty of examples of people having challenging relationships with their mothers, but men are just more able escape their responsibilities as father’s than mother’s are. Whether it was absence physically or emotionally, or hurtful things that happened growing up. If we are to have a disappointing parental relationship, it is just more likely to be with our father.
And I think this is one reason why I have so appreciated the image of God as father in my life.
It’s not an uncomplicated image, because of the unique challenges that so many have in their relationships with their dads, looking at God as father can sometimes give people an image of God is cold, distant, unreliable. That certainly makes sense to me, but I personally have also found great solace in thinking of God as the Father we all deserve, but didn’t all get.
I think of what Jesus said in Luke 11 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil (or actually my favorite translation of this - “if you the, with all your human frailty”), know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
I love this, because, it describes what a good image of father could be, what it would offer, That like a good father, God is reliable, caring, and what we see in that statement about the Holy Spirit, we can trust that he is with us always. But, I also appreciate how this passage acknowledges that human fathers are not always reliable images. That they have some good, but also are full of Human Frailty.
With that said, I think our own father’s really do have a profound impact on our earliest understandings of what God might be like. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
And so I reached out to several men in this BLV community and asked them how fatherhood, either their relationship with their father or their experience of being a father played into how they understood or connected with God.
And as I think about that question for myself, and I think about my own father who, of course, is not a perfect man, but there is one thing that really does seem to stand out, something about my father that I have always thought was also true of God, which is that he has an incredibly soft heart.
My father is a man who cries and not infrequently, particularly for a man of his generation.
I have more memories that I could attempt to retell of my father crying in front of me. I can remember him crying as he retold stories about our family I can remember him crying as he learned about some injustice happening in the world. My father was always one who cared deeply about how the most marginalized, the most overlooked person was treated with care and dignity.
There is a way that the shear number or magnitude of injustice in our world can overwhelm you and thus kinda numb you and not really hit your heart.
That was never my memory of my father, whether it was reading about some injustice that happened to a black person 50 years ago in the Jim Crow south Or it was him hearing a story about the desperate conditions that so many refugees are facing today. He was not afraid to be affected and let himself cry. I can also remember seeing him cry watching some random TV show like Parenthood. And my father, being a pastor, will frequently cry as he is moved by something when he preaches. So much so, that someone from his church once had a softball team that he wanted to name the Bill Hanawalt Criers. But, at the same time, my father was always down to have fun. My dad loves to travel, he loves go out, he loves to have a good time. And he always held, having fun, relaxing, as something to be considered as just as important as work and responsibility. When I was in 7th grade, I got in trouble a lot, so I was not terribly surprised one day when I heard over the intercom. “Kyle Hanawalt, please report to the office.” I just start running through my head all the things I could have gotten in trouble for. And as I am still trying to figure out which thing I had gotten caught for, I walk into the main office and my Dad is standing right there. And I am deeply confused. He looks at me with a kinda smirk on his face, and tells me that he is pulling me out of school for something very important. So, he signs me out and as we walk outside, with such joy on his face, he tells me that we’re going to the Cubs game. And he pulls my cubs hat out of his backpack.
That was my father, school was of course important, but we can’t forget to stop and enjoy a cubs game every once and in a while. All of this, the crying, the knowing how to have fun. This on a very base level impacted how I understood God growing up.
He was not harsh, he was not distant, he was soft hearted, he cried over injustice, let himself be moved. He also let himself rejoice and enjoy the world he created.
And this on a fundamental level still impacts how I approach faith today.
That following Jesus should make me into a softer person. Someone who cries easier, someone who is able to appreciate the moment, and enjoy life. Someone who is always looking to understand the other, not to judge them, but because they might have something that will move me, move me to tears, or toward joy.
SLIDE Another man here at BLV actually shares a poem that he wrote for his father "When I learned of Christ, I learned through my father- Not through his words or mind but through his body. I remember my eyes widen in wonder as they crossed over bloodied hands, callouses torn off, splinters injected and muscles tortured through long hours and how this magically brought food to the table and a tv in the living room- along with clothes and shoes. It was only a single step to replace splinters with nails and understand how love may require bleeding. My unripened mind so easily understood how to see a Carpenter in a carpenter that would sacrifice his body every day for love."
SLIDE Another man shares The term god means something different for everyone I think. To me, god is something we create in our minds to try to explain things we don't know or find meaning or motivation: to feel connected to something bigger than us. Being a father has heightened my sense of connection with what's bigger than me. Paradoxically, I'm just one small species on one planet in one galaxy of this vast universe and still yet, my actions will help shape an entire existence for my two kids. There's a sense of responsibility and connection to something much larger than me, and not just the vast, big stuff but the small, personal stuff too. It's a pretty rad thing.
SLIDE As I mentioned thinking of our fathers can be painful thing for many of us and another man shares something to that end
When this email hit my inbox I experienced the spectrum of grief. Mostly because my father never wanted to be a father and he succeeded. His lack of emotional connection and his treating his children like employees made for a tough upbringing. It's odd feeling like an orphan when both of your parents are alive and in the other room. They just valued work over relationship and when they were physically present they were drunk or otherwise uninterested in my life.
To save myself from this cold reality I mostly withdrew and determined that we're all alone and that the world is unsafe. When I came to know Jesus in high school it gave me hope but deep down my view was that God was just as uncaring as my father.
I've lived long enough to see loving fathers in action and it's given me a determination and a tenderness to love people well.
Despite my resisting, I've found healing through contemplative memory practices. Specifically through the image of a persistent and loving Jesus pursuing me in my loneliness.
I reluctantly yield to the overwhelming love of a caring papa.
YET Another guy, a father himself shares
As a father, I feel like I finally have a better grasp of what unconditional love is. While I might not always be pleased with what my son does, nothing could ever make me stop loving him or give up on him. As I think about what I believe God would be like, I like to think that he's something like that. He loves us unconditionally and while he may not always like what we do, he's always there for us trying to guide us towards the right path.
Then another writes one of the things that I admire/d about my dad was his commitment to staying with my mom (and vice versa), perhaps mostly for our sake (the kids'). the marriage was really difficult for both of them. I think my dad was pushed beyond the breaking point a few times. If I'd been in his situation I might have bailed. But I believe that, because he loved us so much, he was willing to forego divorce so that we'd have both our parents. (FYI his parents were divorced, as were many of his siblings that had gotten married.) So I guess some qualities would be: commitment, sacrifice, perseverance, longsuffering. Those are also qualities that I want/ed to believe about God.
And lastly, I actually reached out to my own father, and asked him this same question. I asked him how his father helped him understand God.
And he wrote
Of the many ways that my relationship with my father helped me better understand who God is, two stand out.
My father set around me clear, firm boundary rules of behavior and attitude that were neither arbitrary nor unreasonably burdensome. I knew that he was disciplining me for my good with the goal that I would become my best self. His boundary rules actually made me feel more safe and secure. As Hebrews 12:11 promises, my father’s discipline “produced a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” I have a much stronger self-image and I live with less anxiety because my father disciplined me as he thought best. It is through this lens that I now experience God’s discipline and training as well.
The way I saw my father pray also helped me to see God as real and approachable. My father’s prayers were simple, real, raw, unvarnished and unpretentious. They were even occasionally light-hearted to the point of being viewed as slightly irreverent . This model helped me to approach God honestly and casually and not feel that I needed to take on some pseudo-spiritual language and attitude in order to talk to God.
I found that particularly powerful as I think about how things are passed down to down from one generation to the next
I think it is important to note why exactly the image of God as father would have been so meaningful to the original readers of the Bible
In the Ancient Near Eastern world that the Bible was written in, one’s father was not just one of the people that helped raise them, not just the one who taught them or provided for them. Those things would be powerful images for God in themselves, but the thing that was distinctly given to a child by their father was their sense of identity.
You would not just be known for yourself, you would be known for who your father is. Like, your are not just Thor, You are Odinson -- if your last name ends in “son”, you have a little heritage there of this ancient conception of fathers being the source of one’s identity
In the Ancient Near East, for better or for worse, Your father determined what job you had, what social class you lived in, how much security you had in life. And how outsiders saw you.
There is a lot of places, particularly in the Old Testament of the Bible, where it talks about blessings or curses, or sin or promise, being passed down generation to generation.
This feels a little hard to understand or make good sense of in our current culture of individualism, and internal locus of control (which we talked about last week), where I make my own way in life.
But in the ancient world, those words would speak very true, for one's father, his status, his choices, his successes or failures would dictate so much of one’s life.
And within that worldview, the fact that God is positioning himself as father would have been amazing.
Like my identity is not solely tied to the Father I happened to be born to, but my identity comes from God himself.
And as a child receives the blessings and inheritances of their father, so do I now receive the blessings and inheritances of the God as father.
I think about it today, where our identity and place in life is not quite as tied to our fathers, but I still think what they pass down to us has a major impact.
I recently read a theologian that suggested that how we can best understand generational sin or blessing today is that the places where our parents made good choices and the areas in their lives that were healthy and mature, so often those areas have a direct correlation to the places in our own lives that we feel the most healthy and put together,
But on the other side The places of our parents brokenness, where they fell short, so often leads to the areas of our own brokenness, where we feel longing and struggle today. The areas we most need healing and growth
And that Considering God as father, is a powerful thing on those terms. Because it doesn’t become about his Maleness or anything about gender, but rather it becomes about God offering to us renewal in the broken places of our identity, renewal in the hurts and brokenness that were left there by our own father’s brokenness.
That regardless of the cards we were dealt when we started life, we can find all the belonging, healing, care, dignity, and grace that is our inheritance as children of God.
I love how the psalmist wrote about this very thing in Psalm 68 In which, I think almost better than anything else, describes what is helpful about seeing God as father.
SLIDE For God is 5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. 6 God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing And so, it is worthwhile to give thanks for those here who have father’s they were thankful for, and those who are here that are fathers, you have such a blessed and important role to play. For fathers can often be either be an aide or an obstacle in how we understand who God is.
But, also to those here who see a father as a lacking figure, to those who feel uncared for and unprotected from the world, to those who feel lonely, and those feel a lack of hope.
God is here to say that you are not left on your own - that those hurts, and desires are no small thing. In fact, that is exactly why God is here.
To renew identity, to offer healing, to be what a God father can.
Stand with me
I believe God came for to meet us for just those very reasons.
And so I want to end today praying this part of Psalm 68 over us and letting that lead us into continued prayer...
so we're going to have a team of people.... and music... let me pray...
God you are
5 A father to the fatherless,
(He fills the gaps of our our own family, he brings healing, and renewal to the wounds opened up by our Family of Origin)
a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling.
(Those who are most often failed by society, and feel lost about in their identity)
6 God sets the lonely in families,
(Jesus was called Emmanuel, God with us, he takes loneliness seriously, and offers a belonging that we need. But the world often fails to provide for us. He doesn’t say tough luck on feeling lonely, he says, no that is not fair, and I want you to find belonging with me in my family.
he leads out the prisoners with singing (This is a big picture statement about real oppression, and a real loss of hope. And we can trust that God is on the side the hopeless and the marginalized. I love the picture that in our most desperate moments, God leads us towards freedom with singing.) That song can lead us towards joy.