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Let me tell you about another recent pandemic moment. Our adult daughter has mostly been out of our home the past nine months. She has come back home for the summer, and the other day she looked at me the other day and said “Dad, you seem old now.”
Part of me was offended, of course.
But part of me was like: dang straight, I am. This year has aged me. And here our daughter is, with a little time away, seeing her parent as he is. As I am.
Dad, you seem old now.
I used to teach literature to teenagers, and we often read coming of age books together – stories about adolescents growing up. One of the features of these stories are the moments when kids see adults, and their parents in particular, for who they are, not just who the kid in them always wanted them to be.
I vividly remember the time I first saw my dad cry – not just crying a tear of sadness, but stooped over, distressed, helpless. I only knew part of the reason that was happening. I learned more later. But I never saw my dad the same way again. He was smaller, more fragile than I’d imagined.
Sometimes it goes the other way. I know just a little bit about this fabulously wealthy business executive from the Middle East. One time he was telling me about what happened upon the occasion of his father’s funeral. He always knew his father was an influential, generous man. But upon his father’s death, he was given access to the stories and records of the communities and causes and people that his father supported. And the scope and the impact were larger than he’d ever dreamed, by many magnitudes.
This discovery gave him his life’s mission, to carry on this family legacy of service, generosity, and impact. To be a son his father would be proud of. His father was larger, more wonderful than he’d ever imagined.
As we grow as people of faith, we have these same kinds of experiences with God. We realize things we thought were true of God are likely not true. Or it goes in the other direction – we have ideas or experiences that make us wonder if God is better or more beautiful than we’d previously imagined God to be.
Regardless, as we go through life, if we think about God at all, our thoughts aren’t going to be static, unchanging. We’re going to keep wondering: What is God like? What is the main thing that is true about God?
What is God like as a parent? What does it mean that God does or doesn’t have power? That God is a creator?
Today we’re going to engage these very questions. What is most true of God? And what kind of parenthood, power, and creativity does God have?
When I preach this summer, I’m going to be walking us through one of the very oldest Christian creeds called The Apostles Creed – interpreting and reinterpreting it for the times we live in, with the questions and experiences we have today.
In the first four centuries of the Christian tradition, the Bible was compiled. Pastors and bishops and councils also tried to write a few short summaries of the core content of the Christian faith, and ever since, most Christians have believed what’s said in these creeds. But they weren’t ever perfect; the writers of these creeds had their own political and spiritual agendas and issues they were working out as they wrote. And Christians, even as they’ve believed these creeds, have been continually reinterpreting just what they mean as well.
All faith, including Christian faith, is like this. It evolves and adapts along with humanity. From my perspective, God’s totally cool with this as well. God is ultimately the author of life, and all of life – including religion and faith – is always changing. That’s just how it works.
So here I am this summer, enjoying the chance to share with you how I engage with this creed and what it says about my faith and hopefully helping you do the same.
The first line of the creed is:
I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
Let’s listen to how Jesus talks about God. From where Jesus’ students asked him to teach them how to pray:
Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:
Father. Jesus said more words than this, of course. He taught them a short prayer to say, but not just one word: Father. But he did start with that word.
Jesus called God “Father” over and over and over, while talking to God in prayer, while talking about God. Now Jesus didn’t speak English, so he didn’t actually call God “Father”. He called God “Abba,” the Aramaic word that meant both Dad and Father – intimate and personal but also kinda formal.
Jesus mostly called God “Abba.”
Let’s talk for a minute about the good and the bad of what’s come to us in Jesus calling God Abba.
First, the good.
Even though Jesus couldn’t see God, just like us, Jesus considered God accessible and close, like a parent. And Jesus liked to teach what kind of parent, what kind of Abba God is, the most loving and generous parent you can imagine, even if that’s not what your parents were like.
Jesus also taught that God creates all things and that God has vision for who and what God created, that God has particular kinds of hopes and goals for us. Jesus taught that God has some power to help us get there too. Jesus’ Abba gives gifts and welcomes people into relationship and community and guides people toward safer, healthier lives, and encourages, even demands really, most just and more kind ways of living.
In the Christian tradition, these things Jesus taught about Abba God have often been expressed by words like there are in this creed –
“Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”
But let’s talk for a minute about where this has gone off the rails entirely, about the bad in what’s come to us through these words.
First and most obviously, it’s led people to imagine that God has a penis. I mean, maybe not literally, but for centuries, the Christian imagination has conceived of God as the most powerful man on earth, but more.
And so Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth has led us to picture the most powerful of powerful men.
This hasn’t gone well. It turned God in our minds into an aloof, controlling, sometimes violent monarch. Not emotional, able to get and do whatever he wants, violently punishing the wicked and rewarding the just. God as a cosmic king or warlord.
And then men raised in this faith are shaped in this image, as emotionally distant, controlling, sometimes violent husbands and fathers. And then that image of aloof, controlling human fatherhood further shapes our image of God.
This fantasy of God as aloof but mighty monarch is behind so much of what has been bad in our faith. It has justified the actions of bad human powers and basically created the problem of Evil, which has driven so many people from the faith.
Is that what God is like? Is that the God Jesus called Abba? Is that the God we’re required to worship and follow today?
We’ve often talked about how God is neither male nor female, and how speaking of God, and praying to God, and singing to God as both Father and Mother can enrich our relationship with God. But let’s also talk about that word “Almighty” for a moment.
You see it in the Old Testament in English Bibles in a number of places. For instance, at the start of this famous psalm:
That word Almighty makes it sound like God can do everything – it seems pretty straightforward. God can protect us and make sure nothing ever bad happens to us. But wait, do any of us believe what this psalm seems to promise on those terms? That if we trust God, God will protect us from bad things? This kind of imagination of God’s power has weakened the faith of so many of us and driven lots of others away from the faith entirely.
When I talk to people who have walked away from faith in God, or wonder how much faith they have left, the top two reasons by far I hear are the bad things Christians do and have done, and this problem of evil. If God is so loving and so powerful – if God is Almighty, why do bad things happen to good people?
Let’s revisit that word Almighty again and ask if that’s what it’s really saying – that God can just control whatever God wants, whenever God wants.
You’ll notice in many of your Bibles a little footnote next to that word in the Old Testament. I left it on your last slide. And that footnote is because “Almighty” is translating a Hebrew name of God, El Shaddai.
Here’s another translation of the start of Psalm 91 that keeps it.
Psalm 91:1-2 (Common English Bible)
You who sit down in the High God’s presence,
spend the night in Shaddai’s shadow,
Say this: “God, you’re my refuge.
I trust in you and I’m safe!”
It’s clearer now – this God isn’t a warlord, this God is a home. El Shaddai is left untranslated here, because it’s such an old name. One of its possible literal meanings is God of the mountain refuge: safety, a hiding place, a place and a person to go to when you’re scared and looking for help.
And that gets at the other possible literal meaning. God of the mountain refuge, or possibly, God of the breast. Yeah, a woman’s breast. God of my comfort, God of the nurturing protection of the mother’s bosom.
That’s different, isn’t it? Imagine if the Christian creeds had said:
I believe in God the Father and the Safe Hiding Place, who Makes all Things.
I believe in God the Mother with the Comforting Breast, who Creates all Things.
How different would the history of our faith look?
This is a better picture of the power of God. Not a yet more powerful human king of emperor or warlord or CEO. Not an aloof controlling, violent, ruler. But a nurturing God, a loving one who is always there, and who creates and acts in collaboration, through persuasion, not dominance.
You can find both of these images in the Bible – the violent, controlling God, and the nurturing, safe, persuasive God. The Bible is a long collection of writings, compiled over hundreds of years, with a lot of complexity.
But the follower of Jesus, who centers faith in the God who is known in Christ, needs to ask: what does Jesus show us about God? Who is the God Jesus calls “Abba”?
Let’s turn back to Jesus one more time.
28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith!
29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying.
30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them.
31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.
Jesus invites us to worship and believe in the God Jesus called “Abba” – not exclusively male – that was never the point. But God as a loving parent, a nurturer and creative maker, God whose power is found in loving persuasion and wisdom, not violent control.
I’m reading only the end of this passage in Luke. But if you read the whole thing, you see:
Jesus’ Abba is the God who knows you and loves you, who understands your needs.
Jesus’ Abba is a God who is safe. Unlike the nations and rulers of this earth, you can trust this God.
Jesus’ Abba is God who is creative – who makes beautiful things on this earth.
Jesus’ Abba is God who has vision for our lives and vision for our world – this Kingdom, this kindom, this Beloved Community Jesus is longing for us to see into being together with God.
And Jesus’ Abba is powerful, but not push-people-around, override-wills and get things done with or without us kind of powerful. No, Jesus’ Abba requires our collaboration to act. Jesus’ Abba never has power over anyone, but power with us.
We get this with human parents. The one who gets their way through manipulation, bossiness, control, or force – that’s a violent parent, that’s a loud parent, but that’s a bad parent, and not a very powerful one.
Whereas the parent who can guide children into abundant life through persuasion, with the children acting on their own agency as well, that’s a wise parent, a good parent, and a powerful parent as well.
So it is with God.
How would Christian history be different if Christians had believed in, loved and worshipped a Mother/Father, creative God, whose power is through loving persuasion? Not an aloof monarch, whose power is through violent force?
How would your life be different if you believed in, worshipped, and loved a Mother/Father, creative God, whose power is through loving persuasion? Not an aloof monarch, whose power is through violent force?
We would know this God loves you, is safe, and only wants your welfare, and the welfare of all of creation for that matter. And you could call this God God and Father, and Dad and Mom, and anything else that helps you envision one who knows and loves and nurtures you.
We would know this God as a nurturing Maker, who loves everything God has made, who engages tenderly with all of creation, co-creating beauty and love and justice with all or creation. And we would welcome our role as co-creators and co-preservers with God, treasuring God’s sacred presence in creation, and treating it all with care.
And we would know that God has wisdom and vision for us all but isn’t going to steer anyone of us, not the whole family, nor the earth toward God’s good against our will. God is luring and persuading us toward the good, but not controlling us. And we’d ask how we in our little lives can cooperate with God’s beautiful vision for us all.
It’s fun to keep finding out what God is really like. Letting go of childish, incomplete, inadequate ideas, and replacing them with better, truer, more beautiful conceptions of God. It can be hard to learn and change, but it can be really good too. In your life, may you continue toward faith in a truer, more beautiful God.
And God, give us eyes to see and hearts and minds to know what it means that you are a loving parent, uncontrolling power, and endlessly creative Maker God. Amen.