Sunday, June 20, 2010

Earthly Fathers and the Idea of a Heavenly Father

I've always wondered about the church experiences of those people who grew up without a father, or worse, with deeply flawed fathers. Perhaps my generation is the only one to experience the loss of a father as widely. Now, fathers seem to be more present, even after divorce, at least in the middle class circles where I travel.

I think back to my childhood friends in the 70's, who all had fathers in the home and still do. By the time I got to high school in the early 80's, in a different Southern town, only a few of my high school friends had fathers around.

If your earthly father is a huge disappointment, can you relate to all the Heavenly Father language in modern churches? My high school friends said no, but I've since met people who find the idea comforting, especially in the absence of an earthly father.

In my younger, angrier days, I rejected all of these parenting metaphors for God, but now I see their usefulness. I still wish we could open up our metaphorical toolbox and offer more maternal images of God, but I'm beginning to think that may not happen in my lifetime, in my Lutheran church. In the meantime, I'm grateful for small and giant leaps forward: the fact that women can be ordained, the fact that homosexuals called to ministry no longer have to decide between their lifelong commitments and their ordinations.

Today is a day when many of us will think about parenting, and the radio program Speaking of Faith had an interesting show, as is often the case. The rabbi who was being interviewed recounts many couples wanting to bring their children to her so that they could discuss theological issues. She says, "Your children don't want to know what I think--they want to know what you think." She talks about the modern need for silence, which she built in to a book of children's prayers that she wrote.

The website has a great list of books, both for adults who want to nurture the faith of children and books for children that will nourish that faith.

We're lucky to live in a time when younger men who are fathers feel free to do things, like changing diapers, that older generations of men never would have thought of doing. We're lucky to live in a time when more men are in touch with their emotions, so that fewer of us grow up damaged by the lack of fatherly love.

Or are we? If we look at the statistics, there are still segments of the population where absent fathers are the norm, not the exception, like the African-American population. And there are still other statistics, like the soldiers who return from war with brain damage of all kinds, that point towards a possible grimmer future. There's still a role for churches to play, to help heal that gaping wound. The good news of a Heavenly Father who loves us might help populations with no earthly fathers to love them.


PrSBlake1 said...

Thanks for your thoughtful article. I think earthly fathers will always be somewhat flawed - just like mothers - because we are all human. I wish I could say that I was the perfect father - but, I think that was not the case. I made mistakes, but we struggle and move forward asking our children and God for forgiveness.

Kristin said...

Thanks for responding. It's good to remember that we learn how to forgive by forgiving our family members--another skill we learn early, hopefully, and hopefully use often.