(This is the bulk of a sermon I preached at House of Mercy in Asheville, NC on June 12, 2022)
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. - Luke 15:20-24
A couple weeks ago Matt and I went to the Wyeth exhibit at the art museum. It included art from several generations of the Wyeth family. The work of Andrew Wyeth was by far my favorite. It resonated with me in the Average Joe, low brow, slice of life sort of way. Wyeth once explained his work this way, he said, “I paint my life.”
I can’t paint worth a lick, but I like to write. And, in the spirit of Andrew Wyeth, I could say, “I write my life.” It is what I know. And so when I preach, well, I preach my life. It is one thing to know about God by reading and studying theology. It is yet another to experience him.
So this isn’t so much a sermon as a story. It’s my story. It might be your story, in some ways, too.
Before I say any more I want to give a trigger warning here. I am going to be talking about the impact of a painful or nonexistent relationship with a father. For whatever reason some of us tend to feel things more rawly and intensely in a church setting. If this is hard for you, feel free to step outside or get some space. I get it.
Next Sunday is Father’s Day. I always dread Father’s Day.
It seems to me that there isn't a holiday out there that divides up the Haves and the Have Nots like Father's Day. Every year the posts are there. I scroll down my Facebook news feed and they hit me in the face. And punch me in the gut. Tributes and photos of beaming fathers and smiling daughters. Accolades. Special memories. He was, to them, a source of wisdom and strength. A friend. A rock.
With each post, I wince. My heart cries out. Not only for my own pain but also for the pain of so many who will never know that kind of love and care and support and security.
There seem to be so many of us who hurt in this way. Death, divorce, desertion, dysfunction. The entire country is buying cards and giving presents and having cookouts to celebrate a relationship that is beyond the comprehension of so many. A Hallmark spotlight on a gaping hole.
The solution for us, supposedly, is to just think of God as our father.
After all, Psalm 68:5 tells us that God is a father to the fatherless. So if your earthly father was cruel, disinterested, rigid, impossible to please, abusive, or just plain gone, we are told that there’s a quick fix. God will fill the void.
As if it is that simple.
For some people the word “father” is a beautiful word. For others the very word "father" stirs up confusion or frustration, anger or numbness, sadness or terror. Whatever their experience, they view God as a cosmic form of their earthly father.
God as cruel tyrant
God as harsh disciplinarian.
God as demanding perfectionist.
God as detached workaholic.
God as angry drunk.
God as groping rapist.
God as disinterested.
God as powerless.
God as gone.
I had a father.
My father was one of those World War II flyboys. A Navy pilot in the Pacific Theater. A hero to many. Smart and good looking, he liked to win friends and influence people.
I am the youngest of four children. My parents were older when I was born and by the time I came along my father had emotionally checked out of the family. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t afraid of him. Being a former Navy officer ,he had high and strict expectations and did not tolerate mistakes or childish behavior well. We were not a good combination, he with his stern demeanor and me with my overly sensitive, timid nature. More often than not he terrified me. I kept my distance from him best I could.
My parents’ marriage was not a healthy one. My father was a serial adulterer…he really liked the ladies and they liked him back. My mother was not exactly healthy in other ways.
Over the years my father was at home less and less and then one day, shortly after my 14th birthday (and shortly after I had gotten braces, AKA “the grill of shame”), my mother informed me that she and my father were getting a divorce. Over the next week I saw personal items and pieces of furniture piling up in our garage and then on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving I came home from school…the garage was empty and he was gone. I will never forget that day. The image of the garage, empty of all that was his, that image is burned into my brain. My soul. From then on I was on my own. I lost not only my father, but, in many ways, my mother, that day.
After that I saw my father just once a year, even though he lived in the same town. He had moved on in life, marrying his young and perky girlfriend. Every so often he would call me and ask me how old I was. It wasn’t until college that I gathered up the courage and made an effort to connect with him. It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. Eventually, as I grew into adulthood, we found some common interests such as genealogy (he was super proud of being descended from a Lexington Minuteman) and the weather (he stayed in his condo on Pensacola Bay and videoed a hurricane…severe weather makes me positively giddy), but his ability to go further than skin deep was nonexistent. After a while I quit trying. And then, 19 years ago, he died.
I do not tell you this to garner pity (I cannot stomach condescension). I tell you this because I know that the entire idea of God as father can baffle, frustrate, or terrify people.
I want you to understand this is the reality of a lot of people. If this isn’t your reality, you can thank God. If this isn’t your reality, perhaps you can at least understand why others struggle.
If this is your reality, you are not alone. I am here to validate your pain. I get it. I share it.
So often when things are hard we want to rush in with a fix. A quick fix. A spiritual bandaid or theological solution.
The problem is that mere head knowledge doesn’t solve the problem of an opposite lived experience.
A friend shared her experience with me. She has a wonderful father, but the man she married was another story altogether and was abusive to both her and her children. And then he left. She contrasts her own experience with that of her children:
“Personally, the concept of God as a Father is easy to grasp. My father is a wonderful father so the idea of God the Father is like a warm embrace. It's comforting and not difficult for me to trust. However! My children? They struggle mightily with that. Both have significant trust issues. My son struggles with abandonment issues and the idea that he is "good" enough to love unconditionally. My daughter has never dated (she's 24) because she's fearful and that translates into her relationship with God - she views Him as a punitive figure, just waiting for her to screw up so He can punish her. Or worse, He intentionally sets her up to fail so He can punish her like her earthly father did.”
Both my friend and her children had the exact same TEACHING about God. But teaching and even seeing sometimes aren’t enough. She adds:
“I also find it interesting to note that, at least in my family, seeing that excellent example of fatherhood in my father and even in my brother makes no difference. They are able to recognize that both men are good, godly loving fathers but that does not translate to their lives even though they are both very close to my dad and brother.”
And I will say from my own experience of watching my husband love and care for our children so well, it still did not translate into my life either. Sure, Matt can love our children but there is no way God could possibly love me.
And therein lies the problem. Just learning about God as father doesn’t change the lived experience that has so seared the negative image of God in our hearts.
A common understanding with trauma is that if trauma comes through relationship, then healing should come through relationship as well.
I love that idea. But how do you get there?
I grew up in a matriarchy of sorts. In reality, there were almost no men in my life. My father was gone. My brother disengaged from the family. I had no grandfathers in my life. No uncles (both parents were only children). No close family friends. No “father figure” at all. I went to an all girls’ high school. Studied in a field in college dominated by women.
Moving into adulthood, the primary place that I encountered men was in…the church. (Facepalm.) Y’all can imagine how well that has gone.
A few years ago I told my husband that the vast majority of men in my life have either ignored me or sought to correct me. And then he watched it happen. Over and over again. And I have since realized that that dynamic is only a continuation of the one with my father. Ignore or correct. Either I don’t matter or I’m doing it wrong. Rather than reversing the dynamic with my father, the church compounded it.
How we in the church treat people matters.
And even further exacerbating the problem is the common teaching regarding fatherhood itself, especially in the more traditional, conservative circles and certainly in the circles we were in when raising our children. This is a world that believes that the duty of fathers is first and foremost to enforce obedience and discipline in their children. Think about it. Dad is the one who brings the hammer down. Who hasn’t heard, or said, “Just wait til your father gets home.”
So the idea of father ends up bringing with it a sense of dread. Hard lines, strict rules, high expectations. Get. with. the. program.
Is that a father?
Is that God?
Back in 2019, a full 38 years after “getting saved” or “turning my life over to the Lord” or whatever you want to call the spiritual experience I had the summer of 1981, well by that fall of 2019 I was ready to toss God and everything associated with him out the window. I was so disillusioned by what I had seen and experienced by people and institutions claiming to represent God that I just couldn’t hack it any more. I couldn’t read the Bible without a pounding heart and a wave of nausea. God, his word, his law, his authority, had been used to beat me up and pummel me into submission. Who would want to have anything to do with a God like that? I felt like I was falling off the cliff of belief. It was my Dark Night of the Soul.
But for some reason I started reading Jesus. And I took note. What he did. What he said. What he didn’t do. What he didn’t say. I was scared at first because I was terrified that Jesus would turn out to be just like those who had been in spiritual authority over me but who only ignored me or corrected me or told me I was never good enough and I wasn’t doing it, whatever “it” was, right. I braced myself.
What I found was Someone entirely different.
In Luke 6: I read a story about Jesus and his disciples walking through a field on the Sabbath and his hungry disciples picked the grain and ate. It made the religious guys mad. I read how a man with a withered hand showed up at the temple and Jesus healed his hand, again on the Sabbath. It made the religious guys madder. I read how Jesus responded, as so often he does, with a question: “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” I saw that this Jesus wasn’t seeing rules. He was seeing people. It was the people with their needs that were so important to him.
In Matthew 23-I read about Jesus taking the religious elite to town.
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” He goes on and on, verse after verse, taking down the religious performance of the Pharisees and the horrific impact it can have on others. “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” This Jesus knew a thing or two about religious elitism and abuse and it made him very, very angry. This Jesus gets it.
In Matthew 19: I read how the people brought their children to Jesus and he welcomed them without chastising them, lecturing them, catechizing them, training them, correcting them, making them chore charts, or shaming them. When his disciples wanted to chase them away, Jesus said, NO! "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." I saw that this Jesus valued children who could do nothing for him. He valued them as they were in all their developmental immaturity and messiness.
In Luke 10: I read about a man who was robbed and beat up and left on the side of the road. And the “good and holy and right” men were the ones who left this wounded man in the dust (some of y’all know what THAT’S like) and it was the foreigner, the one who was less than, the one who was seen as dirty and unworthy, who shows his heart and his care for others. He is the hero of the story. This Jesus cared less about status and knowledge than empathy and compassion.
In Matthew 9: I read about a woman who had bled for 12 years and was beyond help. She reached out and touched the garment of Jesus and he turned to her. He didn’t berate her. He didn’t ignore her. He spoke to her and healed her. He even called her “daughter..” Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.”
He saw her. He saw so MANY who needed healing. They were invisible to everyone else. They were dirty to everyone else. They were full of shame, heaped on them by everyone else. But this Jesus saw. And healed.
In Luke 7- I read about a woman who showed up at a dinner uninvited. Not only was she a woman (not exactly one to be valued in his circles or, for that matter, in some of ours either), she wasn’t exactly Miss Pious Polly Perfect either. But she washed his feet with her tears and poured out an entire jar of perfume and the religious guy got all uppity about it and Jesus honored her while the religious elite condemned her. He saw her actions as beautiful and a reflection of her heart. He did not shame her. He did not condemn her. He did not tell her that she needed to “repent” the “right” way and jump through their hoops. This Jesus accepted her, forgave her.
In John 11-I read how Lazarus died and his sisters, Mary and Martha, in their grief and despair, both lob accusations against Jesus. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He didn’t wag his finger at them for having little faith. He didn’t berate them for telling him where he should have been. He didn’t admonish them for their tone of voice, “Watch your tone of voice with me, young lady!” This Jesus wept. He wept. He joined them in their grief…and wept.
In Luke 15-
I read about a son who did everything wrong. And hit rock bottom. And at his rock bottomness decided to return to his father, in hunger and shame, not knowing what to expect. I did NOT read about a father who stood aloof with his arms crossed waiting for his son to prove himself and pay back all that he squandered. I did NOT read about a father who said to him, “You are dead to me.” I did NOT read about a father who gave his son the silent treatment or lashed out in anger. I read about a father who saw his son returning (had he been watching for him? I think maybe he had), had COMPASSION ON HIM, ran…RAN to his son, and embraced him. I read about unconditional love at its finest. I read about a father that is not interested in power and control and authority, but love and compassion and relationship.
And I fell in love with THIS…THIS Jesus.
But even then:
God the Father=scary
But somewhere along the way, a strange thing happened. I heard words in my head. Not an audible voice (don’t y’all worry), but I heard them nonetheless. They were Jesus’s words from John 14:9:
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
Did y’all catch that?
Jesus says ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN ME HAS SEEN THE FATHER.
If you have seen me…the one who has compassion, the one who sees the invisible, the one who heals the sick and restores the sight to the blind regardless of WHETHER OR NOT THEY HAVE EARNED IT. The one who welcomes the small children (without lecturing them on their behavior or asking if they’ve made their beds first and memorized their catechism) and says that the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them. The one who rips into the false piety of the religious elite and then eats with sinners. The one who sees women, welcomes women, entrusts women. The one who cares more about people than the institutions they are part of. Do you see?
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
Whereas your father may have been harsh, Jesus is gentle.
Whereas your father may have been cruel, Jesus is kind.
Whereas your father may have been a tyrant, Jesus is a servant.
Whereas your father may have laid heavy burdens on your back, Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Whereas your father may have ignored you, Jesus sees you, even in a crowd.
Whereas your father may have left, Jesus walked among us, he came to us as Emmanuel, God With Us. And is still here with us by giving us the Holy Spirit.
Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being..”
If we want to know what God the father is like, we need to look no further than Jesus.
Know this: If you have had a bad experience with your father, you are not alone. And you aren’t the problem, even though it may feel like you are. You can grieve and mourn the father you didn’t have and the one you did. You can grieve the hole that was never filled and the scars left from harsh hands or harsh words. God knows it is hard for you. He grieves with you.
Know this: If you had a great relationship with your father, you can embrace this gift and show sensitivity to those who do not and who do not even have a category in their heads for God as a good father. You can understand the impact of this complex relationship and tread tenderly there.
Know this: If you ARE a father, you can be aware of the cultural expectations of fatherhood. Especially the ones that force you to be someone God didn’t create you to be in order to whip your family into shape. Extrabiblical mandates are a burden you and your children were never meant to bear.
And know this: If you are a father and despair at this point that you have failed your children, you can ask God to show you how to make it right, how to bring healing to your children. If that is not possible, through estrangement or death, please know that God is a God of mercy. You can pour out your heart to him and allow him to be YOUR gracious father. He can also do the seemingly impossible.
And for us as a church, we can understand that we can be a place of safety and vessels of healing for people who have known deep pain. We can be for each other what we didn’t have as children. We can give and receive that unconditional, incarnational love that fathers should have given. Healing may not come quickly, but it can come by dropperfuls of grace and mercy.
A few weeks ago in our small group Shawn Stewart was talking about his adult children and I heard these words come out of his mouth: “I think I need to be really tender with my kids right now.” My head exploded. You don’t hear this. You don’t hear fathers talking about being tender. And yet Jesus was so, so tender.
Shawn’s words were a very concrete reminder to me that, like Henri Nouwen said, “fatherhood is not about power and control but about love and compassion.”