Happy Father’s Day to you if you are a father, have had a father, or have loved someone who is a father! I read some interesting research this week that showed that being a good dad really does make a difference—a lasting difference—in your children’s lives. Of course we all just know this inherently, if we had dads that loved us and supported us and helped us feel secure in the world. Kids with dads who are involved in their lives do better in school, can create successful long-term relationships, engage in fewer risky behaviors, are less likely to be bullied or become bullies themselves, and overall are happier and less anxious or depressed throughout their lives.
And being a dad has its own set of benefits too. Not only do you get great Father’s Day gifts and homemade cards—and maybe breakfast in bed—but research shows us that dads feel more fulfilled in life, feel more connected to others, and even become better people because they’re dads. They leave old and risky behaviors behind because they want to set a good example; they take better care of themselves; they think about their choices. Now they are an example, a model. Now what they do isn’t for them alone, but for the children who look up to them, too.
Being a good dad makes the way easier for faith, too. Kids who grow up with an example of a man who believes in something, who has integrity, who practices peace and a connection to a higher power find it easier to explore those ideas for themselves too, if they are left with the freedom to decide. Oh, there’s likely to be a phase when you get told your ideas are outdated and maybe wishful thinking and every good thing you tried to model seems to fall short. We call that adolescence. Thankfully, most of our kids grow out of it, and when they get old enough to begin their own families, chances are good they will care about modeling the good and loving values they grew up with at home.
It’s not something we often think about, but the roles our dads played in our lives—and the type of dads they were—often have some connection to our earliest thoughts about God. If dad was a strict disciplinarian, we might picture God as a deity who expects us to follow the rules—or else. And if we break one, we’d be in big trouble. If dad was relaxed and playful, encouraging and reassuring to help us learn from bad choices, we might find it easier to think of God as softer and caring, forgiving and compassionate when we mess up. If Dad was absent or aloof, maybe working all the time or just not in the picture—which was the case with my own dad until later in my life—it might be hard to grasp that there is truly a God who is close, who loves us tenderly and above all else wants to be involved in our lives. Luckily all of those ideas are malleable—they can be changed and do change—as our faith grows.
This week I have been reading a book called Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed, by theologian John Cobb. Cobb has an interesting story. He was born in Japan to Methodist missionary parents, and moved to the U.S. for the first time at age 15, when his parents resettled in Georgia. After a peaceful upbringing in an excellent school in Japan, Cobb went through culture shock in Georgia as he experienced racism for the first time. He couldn’t understand the attitudes he found in the teens around him, especially attitudes that showed hatred for the Japanese people, who he’d lived with all his life and experienced as gentle and peaceful and caring. Cobb learned in a dramatic way how peoples’ perceptions of truths varied widely and passionately, and sometimes led to dangerous ends.
Cobb’s path in adulthood led him first to the U.S. Army and then to college, where he all but lost his faith. In one essay he wrote that during those years, “my prayers bounced back from the ceiling unheard.” But the path continued to lead forward, and Cobb followed his undergraduate work by enrolling in the University of Chicago Divinity School. There he was introduced to Alfred North Whitehead, the great philosopher who is known as the father of process philosophy. And process theology, which is related, turned out to the area where Cobb would make his greatest contributions.
Theology, as I’m sure you know, is the study of the nature of God. In one of my classes in seminary, the professor introduced the topic by saying, “Theology isn’t just for religious academics—we’re all doing it, all the time.” And I’ve found that to be so true through the years. We each have our own ideas, our own experiences, that tell us who God is, what God’s like, how God is involved in our lives. That’s theology. Our own personal theology. I feel blessed that I am able to reflect on and write about what I see and think and feel about the nature of God and our relation to that each week with you.
Process theology, where Cobb found his calling, is study that explores the nature of God in the process of unfolding, in the continual changing nature of everything within and around us. Here’s how a one description explains process theology (from Wikipedia):
“…process theologians see God as the one who persuades the universe to love and peace, is supremely affected by even the tiniest of joys and the smallest of sorrows, and is able to love all beings despite the most heinous acts they may commit. God is, as Whitehead says, “the fellow sufferer who understands.”
We Quakers have beliefs that make us good process theologians, too, because we are much more comfortable with the idea that God continues to reveal truth to us day by day than we are with the belief that God spoke the world into being long ago and nothing has changed since. Some of the dearest ideas to Friends involve the continual, deepening, ever-closer relationship we have with the Light of God, which comes each moment—each moment—to teach his children—you, me, every being on the planet—himself.
God continually reveals to us the way that we should go, a deeper understanding of our world, what our hearts are asking us to contribute. Although there are many, many names of God in the bible—Elohim, Yahweh, Alpha and Omega, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Jehovah, and more—we Friends feel most at home not with a powerful, far-off, in-the-heavenly-realm kind of God, but with a companioning, looking-over-our-shoulder or stirring-our-hearts Friend. We want our Father close and we listen for his next inspiration, his next loving word, directing our paths, affirming our value.
John Cobb wrote his book, Jesus’ Abba, because he felt the modern church was losing touch with something important. As traditions grew more and more polarized, arguing with one another about the law and prophets and expectations of God, he felt people were neglecting the biggest grace of all—the way we are so tenderly loved by a close, ever-present Father.
In his book he encourages readers to look at God through the eyes of Jesus, to see what he saw when he addressed God as Abba. We hear this in Mark 14, when Jesus is weary and burdened and facing the crisis at the end of his ministry. He is discourages and sorrowful and calls out to his Father for love and care and encouragement. “Abba, Father,” he says, “All things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
With this pleading prayer, Jesus struggles with his humanity, perhaps wanting to stay with his friends, certainly to avoid the pain and heartache of the coming days. He acknowledges that God can do anything and at first asks God to change the plan. And then, in the next breath, he realizes he must go through with it—not because he has to obey a vengeful God if he wants eternal life—but because he trusts his Abba, his father, and knows that God’s plan for him—and for us—has always been, will always be perfect, conceived and carried out in love.
Cobb tells us,
“Jesus’ understanding has roots in the scriptures he studied. But nowhere…do we find this intimacy and tenderness the central theme in the understanding of God. This was the revolutionary insight of Jesus: Seeing God as Abba and understanding Abba’s love as infinite and tender. Jesus’ Abba is the God of the prophets qualified as love.” p. 13
Cobb goes on to distinguish between this kind of tender love and care and the role of the pater, or father who was more of disciplinarian, expecting respect and obedience from his children. In that kind of relationship, there is an aspect of power and control—the bigger has power over the smaller, and uses it to keep everyone in line.
And there is certainly a place for teaching and guiding our kids in the way they should go, but that’s not the type of relationship Cobb is talking about here. He wants to look through the eyes of Jesus as Jesus looks at God to understanding something deeply about the nature of their relationship and the quality of the trust. He wants to see God as Jesus does. This is what he finds:
“The love of Jesus’ Abba … leads us to think of the father of a newborn baby. Respect and obedience are irrelevant, as are discipline, rewards, and punishments. Abba’s love is a deep feeling of unconditional commitment. It longs for reciprocal love. Of course it hopes for the future of the child to include virtue, but it is not lessened by misbehavior. Sometimes it seems to deepen when the child goes wrong. Jesus’ story of the prodigal son expresses just this point.”
In our Old Testament reading this morning we heard the inspired words of King David, who also deeply loved and trusted God. The Psalm begins with a joyful song, “Bless the Lord O My Soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” He invites us to remember all the wonderful things God does for us as his children:
- He takes away our iniquities
- Heals our illnesses
- Lifts us out of sorrow and despair
- Crowns us with steadfast love and mercy
- Satisfies us with good things, and
- Renews our strength
So much to be thankful for! Such protection and grace, faithfulness and care.
But David isn’t finished. He lists the qualities he sees in God’s nature—qualities we inherit, made in God’s image. David reminds us that God cares about righteousness and justice for those who are oppressed. He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love. And then David says something surprising: “God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
This is not a wait-til-your-father-gets-home kind of dad that we’re worried about upsetting. The emphasis here is not on obedience or control. This is the father of a newborn soul that he sees as precious and perfect and in need of protection and guidance. We are still those newborns to God. If we are willing—as soon as we are willing–our mistakes and stumbles and bad behaviors are lifted and taken as far away from us as the east is from the west.
Why? Because what our God who loves so perfectly desires more than anything else is a tender, growing relationship with each one of us. He sees, he knows our potential as his children—he planted it there. And nothing else, no matter how short we may fall, can ever tarnish or take away that love.
So for this Father’s Day, perhaps the best gift, the most tender gift, the one that means the most and lasts the longest, is our recognition and gratitude that our preciousness is intact even now, held in the boundless heart of God. That love can move mountains—and does–and will. Today let’s celebrate that, and rest and reflect on all God continues to do with us, in us, and for us, and give thanks.
- OT Psalm 103: 1-13
- NT Mark 14: 33-36
- Cobb, John. Jesus’ Abba. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1506405703