Our Father…

Not long ago, I was in a friend’s office, admiring the LEGO collection he had proudly displayed on his desk. I took a picture with my cellphone, saying something about how my son would enjoy seeing it. Someone else overheard, and walked over. “Awww,” she said, with the tone of voice usually reserved for babies, puppies, and kittens. “How old is your son?”

Dad mugI cleared my throat. “Thirty.”

I guess once you’ve begun, you never stop being a dad.

For many, Father’s Day is just another day, perhaps even an unhappy one. Some fathers feel estranged from their children, and are at a loss to understand why. Some know why, but don’t know what to do about it.

Some of us as children have lost our own fathers, or have no happy memories to celebrate. Some are deeply ambivalent about our dads; the few and scattered memories of good times together get buried beneath the bitterness of remembered abuse, neglect, or simple absence.

And then we remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father.” It was an invitation into a gracious and intimate relationship with the Creator of the universe.

It still is.

For some, it can be hard imagining such a relationship. The word “father” has too much baggage trailing behind it. The domineering patriarch. The overly stern disciplinarian. The workaholic. The alcoholic. The one who took the adage “Children should be seen and not heard” literally. The one who taught you to “man up” and not to be such a sissy about your feelings.

I remember attending a memorial service to support a friend who had just lost her father. In the eulogy, the pastor struggled to find nice things to say, and I found myself squirming in my seat. He didn’t say anything disrespectful or uncomplimentary. But warm stories of humor or humanity were conspicuously absent. I glanced over at my friend’s face; it was an emotionless mask.

So what might it mean to call God our Father? Each of us will have to work that out for ourselves. But the place to begin is with the teaching of the Son.

By now, it’s commonplace to hear sermons on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) on Father’s Day. But personally, I will never be done reflecting on the astonishing way Jesus describes the Father in this story, especially when understood properly against the background of its cultural context (cf. the work of New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey).

Put briefly, Jesus portrays the Father as one who gives with unexpected and undeserved generosity to his children. And even though his children, in quite different ways, treat him with profound disrespect, he loves them still, and speaks to them with tender grace. Jesus tells the story in a way that would have made the father’s behavior scandalously inappropriate. The father’s attitude seems to be: I don’t care what other people might think. Whatever my sons have done, I want them with me. I want us to celebrate together!

Following Jesus means believing that this is the character of the heavenly Father to whom you pray.

Our earthly fathers will probably always be a bit larger than life to us. In our stories, they may be heroes or villains. The challenge is to let those life stories be taken up into the story the Bible tells and Jesus preaches. We have a heavenly Father who is inexplicably and immeasurably gracious and loving.

Whether we are children or fathers ourselves, let us lay our regrets at the feet of that Father, and receive his welcoming embrace.

Happy Father’s Day.