When you pray, say, Our Father in heaven

And Jesus said to them, when you praysayOur Father in heaven,

May I speak….

I can just remember when fathers were scratchy and mothers were soft.  My father wore a hard suit, his skin was prickly, his pockets were full of wallets and pens and keys which stuck into you, and he always squeezed my hand too hard.  Mum, on the other hand, wore soft woolly pullovers, her skin was smooth and she always smelled nice.  Today’s fathers – like God  – are soft and kind, caring, compassionate, gentle, loving and sharing – just like today’s mothers.

But I can also remember when God was quite scratchy as well – and to be feared.  But now that old argument that we all God our father because God is strong and is our protector – as if mothers are not strong and don’t protect, needs to be dealt with as sexist nonsense.  God in a suit, smoking a pipe and wearing a trilby is about as unattractive as God in a cashmere pullover and smelling of Miss Dior.

And yet, Jesus said to them, when you pray, say our Father in heaven…

So let’s say a few obvious things about God the Father.

God is called Father – but God is not paternalistic or patriarchal.  Europeans were paternalistic and patriarchal when they colonised the world. The Churches were paternalistic and patriarchal as men told the people of the First Nations how they had to behave, and dress and talk.  And as we mark the close of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s five year work, paternalism and patriarchy get a bad press.   Although many of us have wonderful memories of our own fathers, some people do not – for some the image is filled with personal stuff, and it’s bad.

But there can be positive thoughts about God our Father as well – and here are three of them.

First of all:  For Christians God our Father is only part of our story, just as our fathers are only part of our stories.   Unlike Judaism or Islam – whenever Christians say the word ‘God’ we don’t just mean God our Father, we mean God our:  ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ – it’s confusing – yes – it’s meant to be.  It’s a peculiar Christian teaching – and I believe a very good one – that one human idea on its own – Just Father, just Son, or just Holy Spirit – is simply not big enough to contain all of God.

But we don’t make it any easier for ourselves with our sloppy language.  When the priest says:  “The Lord be with you” – Does it mean ‘God be with you’ or ‘Jesus be with you?’   When people say ‘The Word of the Lord’ after the readings, do they mean ‘The word of God’ or ‘the Word of Jesus?’   When they say ‘Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer” do they mean – ‘Father in your mercy?’ or ‘Jesus in your mercy’? When Psalm 23 says: ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ – is it Jesus who is my shepherd or is it the Father who is my shepherd?  When the Bible says: Yahweh – is that the name of just the Father only, – as if the God of the Old Testament is just the Father, and the Son and the Spirit were on holiday for a time – or is it the name of God: Father, Son, Spirit –   confusing and confused…

Secondly ‘Father’ is a relationship and not a gender.  You can be a man or a woman all on your own, and God can be God on God’s own – but you can’t be a father or a mother on your own – you need a child, and God cannot be Father on God’s own either – God also needs a child.    ‘Father’ is not what God is, nobody knows what God is –   Father and Son, are what God does together.   Why Father – you might ask – why not Mother, daughter and Holy Spirit?  Why not creator, redeemer and sanctifier – in our formal statements. For God is all these things too.  Now I don’t want to say anything crass about the differences between men and women and children.  But there are differences between fathers and mothers.  Mothers carry children in their wombs for nine months – fathers do not. That’s pretty significant.  Fathers conceive external to themselves and then remain separate from the child growing – mothers conceive internal to themselves and are a very part of the child growing – inseparable at first, connected, dependent.  So the word Father – if as an analogy it is trying to point us in any direction at all – might not be saying that God is a man – for God is not a man – but, using our own human language might be trying to say to us that God is always external to us, always separate from us, always different to us – unknowable, transcendent, other.  God conceived us, but then remained absolutely not a part of us.

But Father is not enough – it’s not the whole story – any more than fathers are the whole story about human conception:  God is also Son and Spirit.

And the word ‘Son’ – means that God is in other people too.  We see God in the saints, – men and women – and in the holy people we know, men and women – we see God in creation, and people definitely saw God in Jesus in a unique and different way.

God who is invisible, unknowable, and totally other is also visible and knowable and can totally be seen in and through people and places.  God’s Word is always incarnate.

But even that’s not enough.  God is Spirit – Ha ruach in Hebrew – a feminine noun – God like the maternal womb which surrounds the growing child and whose blood and health flows into the child – the giver of life. God is that too everywhere, around us and within us, sustaining us, nurturing us, feeding us. God is the being in whom we live, and move and have our being – as a child’s mother is the being in whom a child lives and moves and has her being.

You see one word – one concept – is just not big enough to contain our God.

And that is why we do not baptise in the name of God alone  – or even in the name of Jesus alone, which might be more biblical – but we baptise in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The God we do not know, the God we see in others, and the God we know intimately in our hearts.

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