As was the case last month with Mothers Day, this Sunday is Fathers Day and preachers throughout the United States and its territories (and anyplace Hallmark holds dominion) will be expected to honor fathers.
Not that there is anything canonical about Fathers Day or Mothers Day. Both are merely confections of a greeting card company’s profiteering. The bible tells us to honor our father and our mother but says nothing about sending them three-dimensional talking cards or taking them out to expensive restaurants or making one of those annual, guilt-assuaging phone calls.
Sometimes the Revised Common offers vaguely connected scripture that can be twisted to honor old Dad. This week (Matthew 9:35-10:8,9-23) the Gospel describes Jesus’ quest for male apostles, who he commands to cast out demons, cure the sick, and endure to the end. This has Father’s Day possibilities. Other lectionary years offer more benign passages, such as Jesus’ parable about the scattering of seed in Mark 4:26-34. Seed scattering, of course is the very definition of fathering. We progeny can bask in the notion that we and our mighty works sprang from the microscopic but frisky seed of Dad’s dutiful disseminating. Hail to thee, Old Man. Way to go. End of sermon.
This would probably be a good place to stop, but fatherhood is too complicated a subject to dismiss so abruptly.
This Sunday, millions of us will be remembering our fathers with fondness and respect. But many of us will also remember our adolescent rebellions against our father’s arbitrary rules, the constant father-son combat that Garrison Keillor compared to two elks locking antlers on perpetual fields of conflict.
Most of us will eventually admit that our youthful insurgency hurt us more than it hurt Pop. My Dad was a typing teacher and I rebelled against his authority by refusing to learn to type. As a journalist I pounded out reams of copy with only two fingers, so the joke was on me. Even jokier, as I grew older, I found I was evolving into my father’s personality type and adopting some of his less healthy habits. Toward the end of his life, Dad and I sat at a table in his nursing home, packing Captain Black into our briar pipes and contentedly fading into a haze of blue smoke. I never felt closer to him.
Sadly, however, not everyone achieves a happy relationship with their Dad. If you believe Freud, that would include most of us. In Freud’s controversial but not universally discounted view, we are born with a subconscious desire to murder our fathers.
Freud called it the Oedipal Complex, based on the protagonist of classic Greek drama. In tales spun by Aeschylus, Euripides, Pindar and Sophocles, Oedipus was a king who was adopted but never told that the king and queen of Corinth were not his real parents. To make a long story short – and it is a story spread over several plays and epic poems – Oedipus traveled to Thebes where he was confronted by King Laius. The two fought over a right of way and Oedipus killed Laius. As Oedipus approached Thebes, he freed the city from the influence of an evil Sphinx and the grateful citizens proclaimed him king and gave him the hand of the recently widowed Queen Jocasta in marriage. It was years before Oedipus realized Laius and Jocasta were his birth-parents. He had killed his father and married his mother. But that’s the beginning of another very, very long story.
Freud believed the reason we resonate to the Oedipus story is that we share it on many subconscious levels. Boys, Freud insisted, are born with an inner desire to be intimate with their mothers and kill their fathers. Other shrinks cast doubt on the theory and some suggest it merely describes Freud’s own emotional baggage. But the story is a reminder that father-son relationships are complicated.
So, too, are mother-daughter relationships; and so are father-daughter relationships. Some of the worst stories I covered as a newspaper reporter were about the physical and sexual abuse of children, girls and boys, by their father or stepfather. To these children, Father was a terrifying creature who caused physical and emotional pain and threatened to harm or kill them if they told anyone “Daddy’s secret”.
Obviously, the relationship you have with your father determines how you feel about the whole idea of our Father who art in heaven. This Fathers Day, many will struggle with that image, and many may have difficulty understanding Jesus’ relationship with God.
On a Monday-after-Fathers-Day about 30 years ago, I was brewing coffee in a kitchen in the Holy Doughnut when my friend Ray Jennings wandered in with an empty cup. The Holy Doughnut, as many know, is the circular mission center of American Baptist Churches USA in Valley Forge. In a bygone era, Ray and I were colleagues in the denomination’s communication offices, and we often began our Mondays watching the Mr. Coffee machine drip streams of bitter caffeine into a stained carafe.
Ray, who died in 2006, was one of the most peripatetic Baptists I have known. Born in St. Louis and tutored by the legendary pastor C. Oscar Johnson at Third Baptist Church, Ray earned a masters and a doctorate in theology and began his ministry as a missionary in post-war Japan. At the crest of the sixties he was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Berkeley and he poured soothing oils on student unrest by modeling to undergraduates how Jesus would have handled violence and injustice. He wrote a book and hundreds of articles and was so enamored by wordsmithing that his email handle was “WriterRay.” When I offered him a position as a reporter in the American Baptist communication office, he jumped at it. I think Ray was happy writing Baptist news stories and magazine articles, though he often said a bureaucrat’s 40-hour week was a vacation compared to the 24-7 duties of busy pastors.
Ray was a strong advocate of women in ministry, though it didn’t come easy. Having come of age in the Midwest in the forties, his vocabulary suffered a slight cultural lag and he occasionally raised hackles by referring to women colleagues as “gals.” But he was committed to equal treatment and equal pay for women pastors – two goals that have yet to be fully realized in most American Baptist congregations.
On that Fathers Day Monday 30 years ago, I asked Ray about his Sunday. He had joined a staunchly liberal congregation that matched his open-minded theology and progressive social views, and he generally approved of everything they did.
But not this Sunday. He shook his head in rueful dismay.
“They re-wrote the Lord’s Prayer,” he said.
“They re-wrote the Lord’s Prayer.”
I wondered why Ray thought that was a big deal. He and I had often discussed the Jesus Seminar, a group of Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars who use critical standards to measure the authenticity of various statements attributed to Jesus. Ray, a church historian, was intrigued by the scholars’ assertions that certain lines of the prayer, namely, “hallowed be thy name,” “thy kingdom come,” “give us this day our daily bread,” and “forgive us our debts,” were likely to have been paraphrases of earlier statements and that it was unlikely Jesus ever strung these lines together in a single prayer. Ray didn’t necessarily agree with that, but he enjoyed the intellectual energy behind the discussion. He did agree with the seminar that the one phrase in the prayer most likely to be authentic was, “Our Father,” and Jesus probably used the word “Abba.”
“How did your congregation re-write it?” I asked.
“They took out the ‘Our Father,’” he said. “They thought it was sexist and patriarchal. They changed it to ‘Our Mother.’”
He paused to let the irony sink in.
“The one word in the prayer everyone agrees Jesus used!” he said. “They took it out!”
I think about that conversation almost every Fathers Day.
As the Jesus Seminar rightly concluded, Jesus’ relationship with God his Father was remarkably close. He called him, “Abba,” and the closest English translation we have is, “Daddy.”
Henri Nouwen writes:
Calling God “Abba, Father” is different from giving God a familiar name. Calling God “Abba” is entering into the same intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship with God that Jesus had. That relationship is called Spirit, and that Spirit is given to us by Jesus and enables us to cry out with him, “Abba, Father.”Calling God “Abba, Father” … is a cry of the heart, a prayer welling up from our innermost beings [Nouwen writes]. It has nothing do with naming God but everything to do with claiming God as the source of who we are. This claim does not come from any sudden insight or acquired conviction; it is the claim that the Spirit of Jesus makes in communion with our spirits. It is the claim of love.When the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published in 1989, it retained the gender language that scholars believe was originally used. If it is clear the text intended to refer women as well as men or to daughters as well as sons, the translation is gender inclusive. If it is clear the text intended a reference only to males, the original intent is preserved. In the NRSV, Jesus prays to God the Father, and the God-Father image is retained throughout. Of course no one is claiming God has a male body, but “Abba, Father” is one way we can relate to God with the same “intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship” we had with our earthly fathers.
But what if we weren’t lucky enough to have that kind of relationship with our Dads?
This Fathers Day, we are reminded that not everyone’s heart is strangely warmed by the thought that God relates to us as Father. For some, sadly, the metaphor has been damaged.
But all of us can embrace the idea of the Father God as Jesus understood it: a strong, protective, enveloping entity who loves us unconditionally.
The parable of the sower helps us understand how rich and powerful that love is.
Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)The love of God the Father may languor in our hearts as a remote and, to some, even toxic allegory, a metaphor made bearable only by its smallness.
But God’s infinite love transcends and perfects all notions of paternity until it grows and we experience it as the greatest love of all.
Abba. Who Art in Heaven. Holy is your name.