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It's All Relative

The reader at worship on a recent Sunday offered his rendering of Matthew 6, as in the box below this paragraph.  He followed the New Revised Standard Version... mostly.  I have indicated where he diverged from the text the several times the translators used the phrase "your Father in heaven," which to my understanding is an exact translation of the Aramaic (Jesus' spoken language) behind the Greek of the New Testament.

I do know and am not entirely unsympathetic to the rationale behind this interpretation of the interpretation.  In the last forty years mainline Protestant seminaries have promulgated non-gender language when referring to the deity.  Language powerfully shapes our understandings of just about everything, and God is not an exception to that rule.  We no longer laugh when someone delivers the wisecrack about the person who came back from the dead, was asked, "What does God look like?", and replied, "She's black."  Nonetheless it is jarring to be following the lection in the pew rack Bible and hearing substitutes for red letter words.  I couldn't and didn't do it for fifty years leading worship. But, then, I am a used-up shepherd, no longer tending the flock: what do I know!?

The shepherdess who attends me lo these nearly sixty years suggests that a better reason for abandoning the father routine for God is the failure of so many fathers to live up to their billing as the wise, forgiving, and understanding dad who greeted the returning prodigal.  She's onto something.  Easter morning in another century a young woman greeted me at the door, where clergy expect compliments, with a rueful comment on my sermon for Resurrection morning, likening heaven to home.  Dear Evelyn said to me, "Pastor, I hope you're wrong; my home is more like hell."  That indictment hit both mom and dad in one shot, suggesting Evelyn might not be appeased with the contemporary benediction invoking the motherhood and the fatherhood of God.

I suppose one response to this dilemma of human analogies for the deity might lead us to abandon all anthropomorphisms, like, one of my favorites, "the everlasting arms."  I wasn't there but I've been led to believe theology in the early Middle Ages had a fondness for Latinate words to describe God, like omniscience, ineluctability, and (my favorite) aseity. The legend persists that if St. Patrick didn't really rid Ireland of snakes, he did save the Christian faith from a certain Latinate intellectual death.  And he did it by expressing the Gospel in language redolent with natural imagery ordinary folk grasped and by which their souls were inspired with faith.  That is, the green, green saint followed the strategy of the greatest preacher who ever lived, the fellow whose characteristic name for God was "Abba," father.

Jesus likened God to a vineyard owner, to a king, to a judge, and to a bridegroom. But when he taught us how to pray with a prayer now repeated billions of times every day he addresses God as you know who, "our Father.'  I can live and believe with that. 

You've heard the riffs on the way a child misunderstands the Lord's Prayer.  My favorite misnomer goes, "Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name."  Harold E. Howard was my dad.  He was no saint.  Every time he misplaced his car and house keys he blamed my mother. He nursed a paranoid certainty about the clerks at the supermarket, that they were deliberately increasing the stated prices. He repeated the bigotries rife in my Connecticut hometown in the first half of the twentieth century.  My Dad... and I could do no wrong in his eyes. He loved me and supported me and watched over me; and I could sing the song about him, that "He's got my whole world in his hands."  At five years of age, I threw a stone across the street at a teasing cousin.  A passing car got in the way and a side window was shattered. The owner made her way to my house and threatened to take me to the police station.  My father - I can still hear the outrage in his voice - told her in no uncertain terms that Bobby would be taken to the police station only over his dead body.  Yeah, our Father in heaven, has incarnations on earth.  That carpenter Joseph of Nazareth was surely some guy!

Or the night Harold finally gathered sufficient anger over Bobby's transgressions to carry through on a threat he often made, a quite graphic threat, to slap my bum with the backside of a hair brush.  He draped me across his knees, raised the brush in his hand, and cried.  Now you know why it has never been hard for me to take seriously that age-old quasi-heresy of patripassianism (that God can suffer on our behalf).  

Nor do I take any exception to the thought of the motherhood of God, because my own Mom was the clearest of windows through which to behold the mercy of God. And I have fifty or more Mother's Day sermons to offer as evidence.

Where I come out in all of this linguistic fuss about the Bible and faith is to borrow a phrase from Mao, to let a hundred anthropomorphisms flower.  I have St. Patrick and Jesus on my side. Sure there's always the danger that childhood images may persist into adulthood and those who should know better still picture her as an old man with a long beard.  God is, for openers, mother, father, brother, sister, sun, moon, stars, master chess player, and eagle.  Always couched in words of relationship.  If we are made in God's image and likeness, male and female, then heaven surely will forgive us for thinking of God in human terms.  The little bichon frise reclining in the recliner behind me at this moment probably imagines me as the Big Dog, from whose hands flow a cornucopia of edibles throughout her day and her life.  Poor, time-limited, foolish creature I am, treated at every moment to the goodness of life, I too suspect that Whoever has privileged me with these moments is the Big Guy.  Right, "Our Father in heaven" is a far more felicitous metaphor.

Or as they should say about God, it's all relative.


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