God the Father and Father’s Day…it’s complicated.

Father’s Day is this week, which for many will mean cookouts and fun gifts for the dad in their life. Others will celebrate father figures and surrogate fathers by calling them or Facetiming or Zooming. There will be some shared stories and laughter and perhaps a hearty dose of nostalgia.
But for others it can be complicated. Not everyone was blessed with a great biological father and others miss fathers who have died. There are dads out there whose children have died before them or whose kids might be estranged. It’s not a perfect observance and it needs to be named that it’s not joy filled for all. In fact, probably for most it includes some level of mixed emotions.

The most common criticism for using “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in reference to the Trinity is that it is overly male-centric and fails to recognize the sacred feminine, which does have a rich (if somewhat obscured) tradition in Christianity. Given that I’m a female priest, it’s a safe assumption that I get that objection and do think we need to redeem the sacred feminine. I think of God as “Father” and “Mother,” generally preferring “Mother” when reflecting on the creative nature of God.

But there is another challenge for people in calling God “Father” and it shares the same complications as Father’s Day. There are more fellow believers out there than we would care to admit who had fathers who were less than loving towards them. Physical, emotional, and mental abuse at the hands of the head male of a household understandably would make it difficult for someone to connect to God the Father.

For these reasons, when I was early in my seminary studies I began to prefer other language for the Trinity such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.” Such alternatives sidestep the complications of referring to God in only male terms and seem to fix a number of problems. I still like this language and use it some in my prayer life and spiritual reflections.

However, I appreciate the argument made by one of my theology professors in favor of maintaining the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” monikers. He pointed out that while replacements like “creator, sustainer, redeemer,” do solve some issues and have a purpose, so does the traditional language.

Jesus gifted us the title of “Father” for God with a purpose: it speaks to the nature of the relationship we are meant to share with God. It is an intimate, caring relationship. He was taking the God known as YHWH by the Jews and bringing that God closer. This isn’t a distant God. This isn’t a manager or a supervisor. This isn’t a God who likes to sit from far away simply observing what happens with apathy.

The use of “Father” is meant to show us God’s proper place as someone who is very near, who loves us – unconditionally in the case of this particular Father – and who wants to be a mentor, an aid, an advisor, and a teacher for us. We are limited in our language. Only by referencing a role someone plays in our lives could Jesus come close to describing the nature of the relationship God wishes to have with us.

With all language, Father has its limits and is imperfect. We don’t have the right word for what we really mean when we say God, certainly not this kind of God. Whenever we speak of God, we must use metaphor, as is so clearly the case with the Holy Spirit. But it’s the closest we have, though I encourage you to use “Mother” some alongside of it.

Find the language that is most comfortable for you and try it on. Think of a relationship that had all of these elements: unconditional love, mentorship, advising, teaching, encouraging, challenging, and forgiving. Draw a line from that relationship to God and use whatever language best suits it. Perhaps it’s “Father” or “Mother.” Or perhaps it’s “Teacher” or “Grandparent” or even the name of a particular person.

I am grateful we have a God who wants to be in such a close relationship with us and loves us so clearly. I am frustrated by the limits of our language but I’m also frustrated by the limits of our humanity! Alas, that’s our lot in this life and in some ways is meant to be. We can never fully comprehend the complexities and immensity of God, so we’ll putter along with our analogies and descriptions, titles and names the best we can. I hope you’ll try many in your spiritual life to deepen your own connection with this incredible God.

To all of you struggling with the term “Father,” I hope you find something to do this Sunday that brings you healing and restoration.

To all of you who are celebrating fathers this weekend, I wish you blessings and joy as you gather in person or virtually with the ones you love.

To all of you who have shown others what a father should be, whether it has been to your own children or the many children you have accepted into your lives, I thank you.

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