Teaching Time: Our Father: The Mystery of God My new favourite show on Netflix is called “Granite Flats”. Set in a small town in Colorado during the cold war, it is full of mystery, and spies, and nothing is quite as it seems. My favourite character is an English teacher named Professor Hargreaves. He is played by Christopher Lloyd, who also played the mad, time travelling scientist in the Back to the Future movies, and starred in Taxi, as Jim Ignatowski, one of the weirdest cabdrivers. He seems to do well with characters that are a bit out there. Professor Hargreaves character extols the mystical qualities of authors like Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare. In a private tutoring session he asks one of his students if they ever pray. It’s a great question. The student, whose parents are serious scientists, and have raised their daughter to be a secular humanist, says she never has. Hargreaves says, “Prayer is nothing more than the desire to connect with a power that exists beyond your little self.” That is a wonderfully expansive definition of prayer. I hope to explore this basic human activity, while we work with one of the best known prayers. We will look at the Lord’s Prayer one line at a time, over the course of five summer Sundays, beginning today with the first two words, “Our Father”. (We will run out of summer before we finish the prayer, but I am okay with that.) It was a huge step for Jesus’ first students and followers, to call God “Abba”. In Aramaic, the word that we translate as “Father” is actually “Abba’, which in the original carries the closeness and intimacy of “Daddy”. Daddy is different from Father. Daddy is a term of endearment, soaked in the feelings of a relationship. It implies tenderness, and open-heartedness. Father is more formal, points towards the authority of a father-figure, and obligations to the head of the household. In Jesus’ time the patriarch in a very real sense, owned, and commanded the obedience of the children, the servants, the animals, as property of the family. The patriarch ran the family like a little kingdom, or family business. So “Father” was a lot like King, or CEO, or Boss. Daddy has more of the flavour of home, of welcome, of the assurance of love. “Father” is about position, and role. “Daddy” is about the love. Before our worship service began today, Mary was telling us about her experience of being on the naval dock in Halifax, with the crowd of friends and family who were there to welcome home the officers and crew of the HMCS Fredericton. This Canadian Navy frigate had just returned from 7 months of active, and sometimes hazardous duty. She and her husband were there to welcome home their son, who is a navigator on the bridge of that vessel. Mary mentioned a little girl who was quite excited to be there.
Mary, can you tell us more about the little girl on the dock? How old was she?
What about her hair?
It was bunched up in elastics and went in all directions.
What about her eyes?
I think they were blue.
And the shirt? What colour?
White, with the words printed on the front.
Can you tell us again what they said? “
Out of my way, my Daddy’s coming home today.”
That’s powerful. What colour was the printing?
The letters were in all colours, like a rainbow.
Wow. The rainbow. The promise of a new day, after the stormy waters.
The vessel has landed safely, and the flood waters have receded.
I can see the little girl, in the imagination of my heart. She’s on the dock, maybe her hand is in her mom’s. She is bouncing on her little feet, about to burst with impatience, excitement, joy. She’s waiting. Not for her dad. Not for her father. She is waiting for her daddy. I met a lot of rabbis this past week, at the writer’s conference. One night I came back to the apartment I was sharing with four other guys, a couple of them rabbis, and there was this gathering of men, mostly rabbis, and some wine, and some beer, and they were in the common area of the apartment. They were solving, at great volume, the problems of Israel. I think this was the same day, or the day after President Obama announced the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran. The debate, argument, conversation was polarized, and lively. I had planned to go up to bed, but I had ducked hanging with the guys the previous night, and I also figured there would be no sleeping in our apartment for some time. I sat in on the conversation. One of the men is preparing to move back to Israel, and has a son in the Israeli Defense Force- so he was a little louder than the others.
I learned a little over the week about this style of friendly, loving disputation. These guys argued, and got loud, and did not resolve, or compromise, but at the end of the night, thanked each other, and blessed each other for the time.
According to rabbinic tradition, every verse in the Torah can be interpreted in 70 ways. They don’t literally mean 70, but rather, many, many ways. This must encourage reading, and conversation, and interpretation of the text. I love the humility, and the encouragement in this. We don’t know everything, we do not speak for everyone, and there is room to look at things in different ways.
This openness to not knowing the “one answer”, and leaving space for other interpretations is such a contrast with some Christian teachers, who seem to have the single right way to think about things, and are ready to tell you how wrong you are, because you don’t see the thing their way. There is no room for mystery, or questions, just a single right answer.
Life is confusing. Have you noticed? Life is mysterious. There is so much that is beyond us. I love the phrase in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians “Now we see as through a glass darkly”. That’s from the King James Version. In The Message, the paraphrase is, “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us!” That line comes from the famous passage in First Corinthians about love. We often read this passage at weddings, and at funerals. I think part of what Saint Paul is telling us is that in the midst of our earthly lives, there is a lot about life, and about God, that will remain mysterious, so it is a good thing we can place our trust, our faith, our hope in love. “Out of my way, my Daddy’s coming home today.”
When I began my training to be a minister, in the mid-1980’s, students in mainline Protestant seminaries were struggling with a radical suggestion. We did not have to think about God as a grey haired old man who lived in the sky, and looked down on us, literally, and kept track of our mistakes, and mis-steps, and would hold us accountable. I still kind of get that god confused with Santa, and his list of the naughty and nice.
Feminist writers showed us this image of God was not only insufficient, but in a lot of cases, quite damaging to people’s ability, and willingness to approach God as an idea, or as a focus for their hopes and prayers. If we only talked about God as Father, we ran the risk of hurting, or leaving out people whose experience of earthly fathers was not loving, or wholesome, or life-giving. That was part of the rationale behind the movement towards more “inclusive language”.
We can see now, looking back, that a lot of the efforts to replace all the “fathers” in the hymn book with words like “parent” or “mother/father God” were not only bad poetry, but they often also offended by simply trading one limited metaphor for God, for another.
I think a lot of that effort distracted from a deeper consideration, that the whole enterprise of trying to say exactly who God is, was never really the point.
I was at a poetry reading on Friday, offered by a man named Rodger Kamenetz, who describes himself as a JuBu, which is a name sometimes applied used by Jews who are also Buddhist. Rodger is a gifted teacher, and a mystic. He was talking to room full of rabbis, and priests, and pastors, who are all interested in writing- people who work a lot with words. At one point he asked us to remember that as important as words are, words are also symbols that we use, that someone has made up, to point towards what we mean. At an even more basic level than words, there is what we see, and smell, and touch, and what we hear, and what we feel.
“Out of my way, my Daddy’s coming home today.”
When my children were babies, and they were crying, I held them. In the days and weeks and months before they understood language and knew the names for things, they knew what it was to be held, and protected, and fed, and loved. In the time before they had any name they could say out loud, they knew that they were loved. This knowing that they were loved did not depend on getting my name right.
When one of my kids, or my wife, or a close friend, or someone in our church family is hurting, or confused, or feeling lost, or fed up, or angry at themselves, or life, or God, I often have no clue what the right words might be to help them. Probably because words come mostly from the head. Often what people need does not come from the head, but from the tenderness of hearts.
God is the mysterious force who is at work making the universe and giving us life. When Jesus called God, “Daddy”, I believe what he was saying was that we may not have all the answers to the mysteries, we may not know what God looks like, or what is on God’s mind, if God has anything like a mind- but we can trust, and love, and place our hope in God, who was known to Jesus as tender love.