I was fresh out of seminary and determined to spread the gospel of inclusive language. This meant that referring to God solely as the Father was out. God the Creator was in.
Words like Redeemer and Sustainer were preferable. The Bible was filled with names for God that were not gender specific. Rock. Ancient of Days. Cornerstone. Vine. Rose of Sharon. The goal was to take God out of the box of male identity and open the possibilities for God as male and female. When I discovered that medieval mystic Julian of Norwich had spoken of God as Mother, my way was clear.
On my first Sunday as a pastor of three small mountain churches, I felt the call to share my own wisdom around God’s new and improved identity. I was sensitive enough not to make a big proclamation. Instead, by example and repetition, I would help the people of God embrace an alternative to God the Father.
Then, I met Ethel. Ethel was the lay leader of the largest of the three churches. She was a bookkeeper for a local factory. She was also an excellent seamstress. On the first Sunday, Ethel led us in prayer. She began, “Heavenly Father ...”
Ethel prayed with such genuine faith and joy. She prayed with intimacy and spirit. It was clear to me that Ethel knew the deep love of God in her praying and in her life. She was a child of God who lovingly, trustingly knew God as Father.
A few weeks later, Forrest prayed. Father God. He prayed with confidence and trust. I learned that Forrest had gone to war as a 17 year-old, leaving the county in which he was born for the first time. He ended up in a bunker in France, and prayed that God would bring him home. He promised to serve and be faithful to his Father for the rest of his life.
Forrest kept that promise. He was at church every Sunday. When Forrest read the Bible, he read it in the King James version, even if the Sunday School book was in the Revised Standard version. Forrest knew the Scriptures by heart. Father God.
It didn’t take me long to abandon my plans to evangelize the Table Rock community with the good news of inclusive language. Instead, I used my opportunities to pray to share some of my favorite alternative images, and after a while, I added Father back in my rotation.
I pray The Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, and I begin, “Our Father.” Sometimes under my breath, I add, “and Mother.” Most of the time, Father suffices, and I think of the faithful children of the Father who reminded me of the beauty of that relationship and name.
As we celebrate Father’s Day, God our Father may be your language for prayer. Or it may be helpful to have some alternative images. Whatever our relationships with our earthly fathers — and they are often complicated (as are our relationships with our mothers) — knowing that there is a heavenly Father who loves us fully and unconditionally may provide some comfort and hope.
Or if you find that you need a different way to image God, there are many ways to name and speak of the Divine. I learned from Ethel and Forrest that my work as their pastor was to honor their prayers with my own faithful prayers. We each find our heart language; our way of praying with intimacy and trust.
We honor and glorify God when we listen to all our prayers and appreciate the different ways we speak of and to God.
Last Friday, as our family gathered around our daughter and new son-in-law to bless their first meal as a married couple, I felt moved to pray: “Our heavenly Father ...” It just seemed right for the moment with our two families gathered around the tables to celebrate the love that now made us one.
Still, I know that in Christ there is neither male nor female, only Love. Dame Julian said that “love was [God’s] meaning. Pray with the name that deepens Love.