Paul writes of crying out, ‘Abba! Father!’ This – ‘Father!’ – is the cry of my own heart. When I pray, when I go to God begging, when I fall on my knees pleading for mercy or for a miracle, it is a kind and gentle Father I come before. When I struggle, when I struggle against what is vain and unsatisfying and foolish and yet charms me so, when I struggle to resist temptation, when I struggle to live with faithfulness and integrity, it is my Father above I am striving to please, my Father above I would honor. When I sing, when I sing the old hymns, sing them for the pleasure of it, sing them to stir myself to a praiseful mood, sing them for the beauty of their melodies and for the comfort of their familiarity and for the assurance of their promises, when I sing, when I cannot keep from singing, it is of and it is for my Heavenly Father. ‘Father!’ is the cry of my heart, and the heart, it is said, has its reasons, which Reason knows nothing of. So, while I am mindful of our need for language expansive enough to honor the vastness and the mystery of God, language that reflects the truth of God’s being beyond gender, language that invites women and those who identity as trans or queer to see themselves in God and God in themselves, I want to, for a moment, step slightly aside from these concerns of mine – all of which are worthy of robust consideration and indeed do receive it in the regular course of our teaching and preaching ministries. I want step slightly aside from these concerns of mine and stand in my own experience of God as Father and share with you what this metaphor has meant for my life of faith. I want to ‘descend with the mind to the heart’ as it were, and feel out what this language of Father, this language which is for me and for many of us, for Paul and for Jesus, too, the first language of piety – I want to feel out what importance and what loveliness there may be to it.
The language of Father is language of intimacy and of nurture. Whatever speaking of a Supreme Being or of an Unmoved Mover or of a Higher Power or, as the voguishly clever and philosophical sounding do today, of an energy suffusing all that is – whatever speaking this way has to commend to it, when your world shakes, when your heart shatters, when you are holding on for dear life, what good is an energy? How do you hold on to that? When we fall to the floor and pray holes in the rug, the faith of the Church and the witness of the scriptures and the promise of the gospel give us to believe not, not that we are howling plaintively to the sky, not, not that we are weeping, are bleating to the Universe – to that beautiful and mysterious but deaf and indifferent beyond, not, not that we are beating our chests before some ultimate vagueness; no. We are given to believe that when our bones are crushed and we can but crawl to God crying why? or don’t let them die, or please, please, help me, or I’ll do anything, when we are facedown beside our beds, when we are sitting at the dinner table choking back sobs, when we are crumpled in a chair in the corner of a hospital room and cannot remember when last we ate or slept – we are given to believe that wherever it is we are, that it shades off into the throne room of heaven and that we have laid tight grasp to the very knees of the Father, who will lift us into an embrace so palpably and surely felt as to send a knowing prickle down the spine. We are given to believe that from an eternity away, the Father wipes the tears from the faces of we who are trembling in his arms, that the Father bids us to look up into eyes that have seen the birth of stars and the passing of suns and the flowering and the withering of a thousand thousand worlds – eyes that are yet glistening and red with grief for our sake. We are bidden to look up into the eyes of God the Father and see, but not see, but see our desperation and pain hid in their unsearchable depths, and to hear, but not hear, but yes, hear a whisper – ‘Do not be afraid.’
The language of Father is language of intimacy and of nurture; it invites us to see our realities as enfolded within a relationship of care. And in this, Father is specially and uniquely evocative among the language of scripture. ‘Creator’ speaks not to who God is, but something God does; it is a job description, not a name to be cried out in the night. ‘Holy One’, ‘the Almighty’, ‘Ancient of Days’, even just ‘God’ – this language gestures toward the power and the everlastingness of a Being so perfectly unlike us as to reduce us to awe. Scripture is indeed concerned to shape a wonder and a humility within us, and to that end, does speak of God in ways that are distancing and are protective of One who is majestically unknowable. But scripture is also concerned to shape a confidence and a love within us, a confidence to come boldly to the throne of grace, a confidence to stand before One upon whom the angels dare not cast their sight, a confidence to pour out our souls in trust that we shall receive immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. And scripture is concerned to shape a love within us: a love for Someone we can be said to know – for there is no possibility of loving without knowing. Scripture is concerned to shape a love within us for Someone, a great, mysterious Other before whom we are small and quaking, yes, but for Someone whom we are given to experience as tender, good, and kind. Scripture is concerned to shape a love within us for Someone who confronts us in our self-deception and who lifts us in our despair and who calms us in our disquiet and who heals in our indignity, for Someone who weeps with us and who rejoices with us, for Someone who makes promises to us and demands of us. To that end, scripture names the Unknowable – Father. In capturing the warmth and the fullness of the life we are to share with God, only language of intimacy and of nurture will do.
But this is not only about language. If ‘Mother’ is more spiritually resonant for you than ‘Father’ – by all means, call upon God, call upon Her by that name. This is not only about language – but about the piety (which is to say: about the deeply meaningful, challenging, energized, and honestly fun personal faith life) a certain language makes possible. Speaking of God in the language of intimacy and of nurture gives shape to a life with God where there will be intimacy and nurture. And a life with God where there is intimacy and nurture – unlike the feelingless religious drudgery that sometimes passes for what church is about – a life with God where there is intimacy and nurture, a life shared with God, a life shot through with a sense of the constant nearness of a Father who so, so longed to love you, who watched over you in your sleep, who wished that all the innocence and the joy of childhood would be yours, would ever be yours, who sought to protect you from the world and from yourself, who grieved in sharing the pain of your choices, who always expected impossibly more from you than you felt you were capable of, and who will someday beam with pride to look on when you become an astonishment to yourself – well, may such a life, such a life with God be yours.