Real Life

Fathers, Sons, and Mother Hens (Pt. 1 of 2)

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We believe in one God,
the Father…

A long, long time ago (before my finals… and midterms, for that matter…  I know, I know, a hiatus this long is simply unacceptable), I discussed the problems (and benefits) of the image of God as Father for those with various experiences with their parents.  But there’s another Father issue that may trip up some of you: the question of God’s gender.

Many people, when they hear God called “Father,” assume God is male.  For some people, God’s gender is of no consequence, but for others, thinking of God as a man is deeply problematic.  Some of us wonder why if God is good, he is called our Father, rather than our Mother, or even simply our Parent.  After all, men have traditionally been in power in our world, and they have sometimes misused that power.  God has more power than any of them—who’s to say he won’t misuse his power, as well?  And anyway, we want a God we can relate to and who can relate to us.  Can a “Father” really understand the experience of half the population?

If you’ve ever felt this way, I have good news for you today: the idea that God has a gender is a warped view of the Christian God, not based in the Bible or traditional Christian theology.  In contrast with other Ancient Near Eastern religions, the ancient Israelites did not (typically) attribute sexuality to YHWH.  (And I say typically because there were Israelites who worshipped foreign gods and goddesses in addition to YHWH, which may have colored their views of God’s gender… but this practice is condemned as idolatry in the Bible itself and not considered normative within monotheistic Judaism, despite its place in Israel’s story.)  Instead, gender seems to be part of the created order only—a category which God transcends.  That’s why unlike Zeus or Baal or other gods from the ancient world, YHWH needs no female consort.  Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image, and there is no room for considering one of them “closer” to reflecting God’s nature.

Furthermore, there are, in fact, many instances of female imagery for God throughout Scripture.  For example, the Bible contains metaphors in which God gives birth (Deut. 32:18; Is. 42:14; Is. 46:3-4) or a mother nursing (Num. 11:12, Is. 49:14-15).  Other imagery is based on women’s work and other experiences: A seamstress, a midwife, a woman in charge of a servant (Ps. 123:2), woman baking, a woman looking for a lost coin (Neh. 9:21; Ps. 22:9-10, 71:5; Is. 66:9; Mt. 13:33; Lk. 13:20-21; Lk. 15:8-10) all represent God.  Even Jesus, who had biological sex compared himself to a mother hen caring for her chicks (Mt. 25:37; Lk. 13:34).*

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

*For a more extended discussion of these passages and others containing female imagery for God, see Margo G. Houts, “Images of God as Female,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 356-358.

Father Issues

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We believe in one God,
the Father…

The Father.  Everyone has a different reaction to that part.  Some of you have great relationships with your fathers, making it easy to imagine a loving Father God.  Others of you don’t see much of your father but know he loves you—yours is okay, but you wouldn’t mind an additional heavenly Dad.  Or maybe fathers aren’t really the sort of people you want to spend time around.  Perhaps your father has never seemed to “get” you, or maybe he just doesn’t seem to care.  Maybe you don’t get along with him very well.  Some of you have even experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of your fathers.

Complicating matters, you may have multiple fathers—biological vs. adopted vs. step, or even two fathers who are gay partners.  You may live with an additional father figure—a grandfather or uncle, for example.  You might not even know your biological father because he left your family when you were young.  For a few of you, a paternity test has never proven his identity or he was an anonymous donor at a sperm bank.  Some of you feel no loss from not having a father because your mother(s), grandparents, or others have done such a fantastic job raising you.  On the other hand, some of you deeply miss your fathers, especially the few who have endured the untimely death of a dad.

In my own family tree, fatherhood has looked different in every generation.  My maternal grandmother’s biological father left when she was two, so her “Daddy” was her stepfather (and a very good one, thankfully).  My maternal grandfather had an abusive alcoholic for a father, but because he learned from his family’s mistakes, my mom ended up with an involved and loving dad.  My own dad was very emotionally abusive, but I now enjoy the chance to spend time with my father-in-law Mike, who has been a wise and caring father to my husband.

Your story is probably similar.  Dads are sometimes good and sometimes bad and usually a mix.  For some of you God as Father is an easy concept, maybe even desirable.  For others God as Father is confusing, uncomfortable, complicated, or even revolting.  Even when we know God is not supposed to be anything like our human fathers, it can be difficult for some of us to warm up to the “heavenly Father” idea.  If that’s you, I want to encourage you, that God is not upset at you for having difficulty trusting him in a father-ish way.

Whether God as father is just an awkward and confusing thought or a sharp sting demanding a journey of deeper healing, I believe God can handle your issues with his desire to be your Father.  I believe Jesus invites us into relationship with his Father, but with that invitation God offers his patience.  He knows your background and will be with you all the way as you open yourself up to him more and more, gradually learning to trust that he will be the good Father he promises.

On the other hand, those of you who feel great about God as Father—whether because of the merits or deficiencies of your experiences with other dads—have an opportunity to share his love with others.  When you care for those around you, including your own children one day (if you have them), remember how meaningful it is to be loved well.  Whether an adoptive or biological parent, a “spiritual” parent, an “auntie” or “uncle” to others in your community, an advocate for social justice, or just a true friend in times of need, we all have the power to communicate the God’s concern for others.  The way we share the love we have been shown may be just what someone else needs to hope that there really is a heavenly Father who cares for them, too.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

We believe; I believe.

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Πιστεύομεν…
We believe…

So starts the Nicene Creed.  Or at least the version from the Council of Nicaea.  Some ancient liturgical versions instead began in the first-person singular: “I believe.”  Modern recitations of the creed vary, not only by denomination, but even by specific prayer book edition.  And I think I like that.

I like it because I believe emphasizing the we and the I both matter to the Christian faith.  John’s Gospel recounts Jesus praying that we would all be one, just as he is one with the God the Father.  Together we are called the body of Christ, reconciled through the cross not only to God but to each other, built up into a new temple for God.

At the same time, each individual part of the body is considered significant for what it brings to the whole.   Jesus also emphasized, like John the Baptist before him, that merely being born into a Jewish family and following Jewish law was not enough.  Instead, one’s own personal repentance from sin and humility before God was what counted, and on this basis, Gentiles, too, could be included in the community of God.

Today I think we tend to err on one side or the other.  Sometimes we over-emphasize the we.  We rest of the knowledge that we are decent people who grew up going to church rather than owning our faith for ourselves and committing our lives to God.  We consider ourselves part of the Christian group without experiencing the spiritual growth that leads to a meaningful, active faith.  We forget that we are held accountable for our actions and neglect to include Christian teaching as a meaningful part of our decision-making processes.  It is easy sometimes to take our identity as Christians for granted because of the people around us—to resist becoming true followers of Jesus because it’s easier to stand on the fringes of the flock, hoping that will be enough.

On the other hand, we sometimes over-emphasize the I.  We think it possible to remain independent Christians apart from the community of the church.  We surrender to the individualism of Western (esp. American) culture, deciding that your problems have little to do with me and that my life is none of your business.  At best, our privatized religion makes us feel an obligation to people close by, such as our family and friends.  But to see ourselves as part of the larger church or society?  That’s difficult.  Without this sense of connection, we don’t love our neighbors so well, don’t value commitments to others, and don’t appreciate the legacy of church history.  We also miss out on a powerful sense of unity that comes from worshiping in a truly “together” way—rather than worshipping alone, even when surrounded by others.

I like saying the creed as an “I,” and I like saying it as a “we.”  I think we need both—our own faith commitment and a meaningful faith community.  With only one or the other, I think we’re missing out on a crucial part of Christianity.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

“To be hip or not to be hip?”

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In many ways, this is the church’s perennial question: Just how much like the culture should we be?

Why be like the surrounding culture to begin with?  One reason, of course, is to help contextualize the gospel in a way that makes sense to other people.  While historically many Western Christian missionaries imposed their culture on others, today many missionary training programs emphasize the importance of “incarnational ministry,” in which the missionaries themselves change many of their cultural practices and live among the people they’re working with as friends rather than outsiders.  The idea of incarnational ministry stems from the belief that we, like Jesus, should become more like “the other” and go to them, rather than expecting them to come to us and become like us.  When we do ministry incarnationally, there is a value placed on the host culture and an assumption that the Christianity that arises in that place will keep its original cultural flavor.

All of this, of course, assumes that various cultures bring unique beauty and insight into the larger body of Christ.  Our cultures reflect God’s image in a special way, highlighting specific aspects of God’s character and particular values of God’s kingdom.  But every culture also has its blind spots.  As people convert to Christianity from any culture background, they become aware of not only their cultures’ blessings but also their cultures’ incompatibilities with the gospel.  A culture might highly value communal life, a value that contributes positively to the church and jives well with Christian theology; however, the same culture might need to rethink its approach to social hierarchies—just one example.

Of course, we aren’t always aware of the pros and cons of our cultures, especially those of us who live most of our lives in a more isolated cultural context, whether as part of a cultural majority or a more insulated cultural minority.  Without any comparisons, it can become difficult to see our cultures for what they are—both good and bad.  This leads me to the second reason churches might be like the surrounding culture: mere cultural absorption.  Churches often take it for granted that the surrounding culture’s way of doing things is the “normal” or best way, usually without even realizing it.  For as much as some Christians criticize aspects of our culture (e.g., promiscuity, violent movies, racism, etc.), many can’t even grasp how deeply other aspects of the same culture have hold of them.

I was particularly reminded of this through a couple of recent articles from the Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today about the bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral, a megachurch in Orange County, California.  I haven’t been to the Crystal Cathedral myself, but living in L.A. county, it is just south of me, and I hear about it here and there.  Basically, they have an extravagant building and extravagant Christmas pageants and other such things, and they’ve finally run out of money.

There may be multiple reasons for the financial difficulties, but I blame a great part of it on a lack of consideration of the cultural blind spots they’ve inherited.  Majority American culture loves to spend, loves everything “bigger and better,” loves flashy entertainment.  We also aren’t particularly good at caring for the poor with the money we’d rather be spending on ourselves (individually, as families, or even as churches).  I find these aspects of our culture to be harmful and not particularly Christian, but they often just come with being American.

We live in our very commercialized, market-driven culture, which affects how we think we should do church.  Perhaps we’re trying to be “hip” by being like the culture, or perhaps we’re completely unaware of the culture at all.  Either way, it’s easy to forget to think critically about our cultural baggage and to be discerning about what level of cultural accommodation can mesh well with our Christian faith.  I don’t think we all need to be Amish, but maybe using corporate America or suburban values as our guide isn’t the best idea either.

Regardless of your thoughts on the Crystal Cathedral, most of us can probably agree on one thing:  Sifting the good from the bad in our cultures is a challenging task.  I think the church has always struggled, to some extent, to culturally contextualize itself, but it has struggled at least as much (maybe more) with being properly countercultural.   It’s not an easy balance to strike, and it often requires dialogue with someone from outside our culture to help us really see the ways in which that culture holds us back from following Christ—as well how our culture itself can bring glory to God.

You Tell Me: Doubts

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One of the things I’m doing right now is a family studies degree, and one of the things I’ve doing for this degree is a thesis.  My thesis will be based on some data other researchers have already collected, and the data just so happens to be based on surveys of youth group kids as they transitioned to college.  (Obviously, this is totally up my alley!  It’s been a while since I’ve gotten quite this drooly over something for school.)  I’m fascinated by every last ounce of it, but one of the things I’m finding particularly interesting are survey questions relating to doubt.

Some of the things I’m asking right now:

  • Do more spiritual conversations with parents mean fewer doubts?
  • Does perceived parental hypocrisy increase doubt?
  • Do closer relationships with youth leaders or other adults in high school mean fewer doubts in college?
  • Do feelings of social isolation lead to increased doubt?
  • Do gender, high school GPA, level of interest in the intellectual side of college, or parents’ education affect doubt level?

And lots more…  Unfortunately, I haven’t yet gotten to examine all the relationship between various survey question responses.  In the meantime, though, I’m curious to hear from you, whoever you are.  Some of you are high school students, some are college students, some are friends or relatives of mine in their 20s or 50s or 70s who are faithful visitors to my blog.  I’d love to hear about your experiences with doubt throughout your lifetime, but especially when you were in middle school, high school, or college.

What sorts of spiritual or theological questions have you had?  How difficult were they for you to handle?  Who could you turn to?  How did you resolve them (or become comfortable with your level of uncertainty)?

Do you feel that your relationship with your parents, other adults, or peers affected the way you were able to handle the doubts you had?  Did negative relationships with any of these groups actually lead to any of your doubts or questions?

Did you feel others around you had similar doubts and questions?  Did they have a similar level of engagement with their faith, intellectually or emotionally?  Did you ever feel burdened by extra doubts because of your general intelligence, curiosity, or unwillingness to let cheap answers slide?

I’m fascinated to hear your story.

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