I’d heard in college that for a lot of people, a relationship with a heavenly father was naturally influenced by a relationship with an earthly one. Thankfully, I reasoned, I’d dodged that wily bullet. After all, I was much too savvy to allow my admittedly bumpy family history to interfere with what I knew to be true about Jesus’ father.
The week I arrived at Princeton Theological seminary to prepare for a career in Christian ministry, I would have told you in a heartbeat that God was a good and trustworthy father. I’d have meant it, too. I could have quoted supporting scriptures and shared stories, both biblical and personal, of God’s faithfulness to others and to me. Although mine wouldn’t be one of those “she lost her faith in grad school” stories, the kind I’d heard about from well-meaning evangelical friends, I did need to learn a few new strokes to swim in new waters.
The collision of faith and reason that had begun to transpire in my heart couldn’t be blamed on any godforsaken professors. It couldn’t be pinned on a cynical agnostic roommate. Rather, the buried conflict which was about to erupt was one I’d carried in my heart since my birth.
By my early twenties, my body already held a deep knowing about fathers’ reliability — earthly ones and a heavenly One — to which my heart and mind were not yet privy. Long before I’d cracked open a Bible or taken a graduate level course on the New Testament, I’d learned, in my bones, what fathers are like. I’d learned it in a hospital nursery when no father appeared to coo at me and make silly faces. I learned it when I was whisked away by a social worker from a foster home at three weeks, after I’d begun to bond to my caregivers. I learned it in my adoptive home when the daddy I loved drank too much and hurt my mom. I learned it when he left me and moved across the country. I learned about fathers when the next one, who also drank too much, moved into our home. What I already knew about fathers was confirmed when he, too, left. My experience had taught me that fathers fail. They fail to nurture. They fail to protect. Eventually, they fail to stick around.
The season in which I entered grad school was a hard one. As I entered fully into adulthood, the trustworthy shell with which I’d protected my hurting heart for so long had begun to fail. The previous year my roommate, single, had become pregnant. Crack. When I’d held her precious son in my arms, I’d begun to wonder about my own beginnings. Crack, crack, crack. As a result, I’d found my birthmother and birthfather that year. Crack. My birthfather did not want to be in a relationship with me. Crack, crack. This was the crumbling condition in which I’d arrived at Princeton Seminary.
As someone who was still stinging with the recent rejection of an earthly father, I found myself in quite a spiritual pickle. During the season when I most needed to turn to a gracious heavenly Father, that very expression of God’s nature had been called into question.
I found at Princeton the place where gender, theology and language intersected was right at the F word. That’s right: Father. I even feel a little nervous writing it now. If YHWH had been the unspeakable name of God to the ancient Hebrews, FTHR was the modern counterpart on my campus. Traditional “father” language for God carried with it, for many, the residue of centuries of patriarchy in the church and in society. To have used it in a public service of worship, such as in the seminary chapel, would have offended and excluded many from worshipping freely. Maybe most. The few who dared to use it included the seminary president, most international students, and a handful of foolhardy conservatives. Not me.
The father of Jesus, for some, was nothing more than a good-for-nothing man who subjected his child to bloody abuse. Add to that the centuries of subjugation of women and children, and I could begin to see why some people were not all that jazzed about “father” language.
I, though, still hungered for a Father who was good. As I turned my face toward God’s for comfort, I longed to be seen, known and loved by a Father who would look at me and accept me as I was. No one expressly forbade me to relate to God as Father in the quiet of my heart. Looking back, it would have been great if I could have found strength and comfort from a gracious Father God in my private devotions. I didn’t.
In the months and years which followed, I would battle depression as I reluctantly faced the emotional pain of the losses I’d endured.
Even at the time, I knew how I would have handled the situation professionally. As a pastor, I would have encouraged a struggling parishioner, in my painful position, to ask hard questions of God. I’d have given her permission to raise her fist to the heavens in anger. “God can take it,” I’d have assured them.
Though God could handle it, apparently I couldn’t. Seasoned in conflict avoidance, the truth was that I hadn’t allowed myself to become angry with God for the losses I’d suffered. Though I’d never meant to, over the years I’d grown accustomed to protecting God. The fact was, though, that I was protecting myself from the emotional pain of facing those early losses. Convenient, that.
As a result — having ultimately done neither God nor myself any favors — I was, in my deepest places, still unconvinced that Jesus’ father was any different than the fathers and the men I’d known. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom, splattered against the floor of life’s proverbial pit, that I finally dared to question God. Finally, raising my own clenched fist to heaven, I would demand, “Are you like all these men I’ve known—the ones who hurt, the ones who drank, the ones who left — or are you different from human fathers?!”
After years of hurt, I’d finally gotten to the root of it. The seed of my early experience had, like a flower forcing its way through a crack in an urban sidewalk, burst through my heart’s hard shell. There, at the very rupture I’d avoided for so long, was the place where new life would spring forth.
That life was made real to me in the faces and voices of God’s chosen agents. My early human experience had caused me to believe a lie about my identity and it would also be human faces that would, finally, convince me of God’s truth. Over the course of a number of years friends and family members, pastors and other professionals, made real the truth of who I was. Their faces reflected for me the countenance of a gracious Father and their voices at last convinced me that I was God’s own beloved.
Though I wouldn’t have chosen it, I’ve become convinced that the life-giving Way often does feel like death. In fact, I’ve been persuaded that this sort of costly redemption is God’s whole business. The kind of transformation which leads to life is what a gracious Father is always about. God’s deepest longing was for me to know — really know in my bones — his goodness, so that I might live life that really is life. Apparently, the way to Life is through death.
I’d been sure about God’s love in my head, of course, and even knew it in my heart, but by God’s grace I’ve come to know it in my bones.