You Can’t Call God “Father,” and Treat God’s Children Like This

A God who is Our Father would never sanction the punitive traumatizing of children, by separating them from their parents at a national border.

As a parent, it is unthinkable. To my 3- and 7-year-old daughters, my presence is everything. From the moment they wake up, to the moment they fall asleep, and if they happen to wake up distressed in the middle of the night too, they want me there. We do not live in the cross-fire of gang conflicts and are not scraping by with money for one meal at a time, but I’d be willing to bet that even if that were the case, me being with them would still be the most important thing in their lives. Of course a parent who loves their children would try to escape with them to a better life, and may God go with them. But woe unto those who seek to re-traumatize God’s beloved children.

Our immigration system is broken; all sides acknowledge that. But breaking the closest bond between human beings is not solving anything. So much brokenness and latent trauma haunts American society from taking African-American children from their parents during slavery, or removing Native American children from their families to be assimilated via boarding schools. Have we learned nothing from our collective sins against parents and children? Can we utter “Father God” or “Our Father who art in heaven” with any integrity, while perpetuating such violence to the family? Separating immigrating or asylum-seeking mothers or fathers from their children is never in the interest of the child, nor is it in the interest of our communities.

When we call God Our Parent (as Jesus did) we are claiming that God experiences the depth of the parent-child relationship at the core of human families, and God loves us like a parent does a child. This is part of what our God declares in Genesis by “making humankind in our image” (Gen 1:26); being in relationship is at the core of who God is, and we are. A Father or Mother God would never endorse ripping apart parents and children to make a political point or even to deter immigration. Can American Christians consent to this way of enforcing immigration restrictions by our government?

For what is a mother or father to their children, or a Father or Mother God to us? Our Mother is protection from all who would do us harm. Our Father is our fiercest advocate up against anyone who would oppress us. The way she repeatedly tells us how much we are loved is the foundation of our own self-worth. The way He coaches us to keep becoming who he knows we can be ingrains perseverance and resiliency in our personalities. The only people on earth I trust to have “no greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life”(John 15:13) for me, are my parents. Children deprived of their parents have no dependable protection for their physical, emotional or spiritual well-being in our cruel world. Is God to fill in those roles with no people to help?

A child being separated from your mother or father with no hope of reunification is traumatic for everyone involved. It should grieve to the point of protest, those who even hear of it. If you are the parent, a part of you dies with that separation. This is part of the self-traumatizing sacrifice of birth parents who make an adoption plan for children they are unable to parent. If you are the child, you bear what is referred to in adoption circles, based on the work of Nancy Verrier, as a “primal wound” from the separation from your first parents. Birth parents, children and adoptive parents move on, but trauma can effect the rest of our lives: our relationships, our resiliency, our participation in civil society. Families crossing into the United States have left their home countries because of trauma. Separating parents and children at the border is heaping trauma upon trauma for both parents and children.

We could mitigate our guilty feelings by quibbling over which parent God resembles and how. Some churches endorse strict gender roles in parenting, so define fathers and a Father God as ones who guide their children, discipline them, and are to be obeyed, while those in the motherly role take care of emotional nurture and comfort. Yet even such a father would never willingly traumatize children by forceful separation. Jesus challenges his hearers: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Mt. 7:9)

Although Jesus himself used the word Abba (“Daddy”) to speak with the intimacy of a child to God, God’s actions reveal a mothering character as well. God has “numbered every hair on our heads” (Mt. 10:30) like a mother who knows when any little thing is amiss and “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Ps. 121) while watching over us. Jesus nurtures and raises his disciples through not just teaching, but endless days of just being with them, making sure the crowds are fed, aligning his heart with grief-stricken mothers at the death of a child, or tenacious mothers begging for their child’s healing. God has lived in the space between parents and children many times. God Our Parent will not condone destroying this sacred bond.

If you want to admit that separating children from their parents at the border is a political issue to you and nothing else, you have other images of God you can twist and wield as you wish: God as Judge, God Who Decrees Commandments, or God Who Seeks (Your Interpretation of) Justice. But the God as Parent metaphor is no longer available to you.


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Cruel interpretations

It’s not just those people who work at the border who are enforcing this. It is me too, if I do not act to put a stop to it.

I am afraid I might identify with the Pharisees. We all could.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus does not reject the sabbath, the 3rd commandment, the law itself.

He does not reject Judaism, a religion and identity centered on a covenant to be God’s people.

Jesus rejects the way these Pharisees are interpreting the law, and that would make anyone defensive.

The interpretation of the Law they were forcing on others, was hurting real people. To forbid healing, eating, or traveling to bring the good news to more people on the sabbath is a perversion of God’s Law. But no doubt the Pharisees who were enforcing these practices didn’t jump to those outcomes on day 1. For who would hear Moses reading from the tablets and immediately declare: Those who are in need of some kind of restoration to wholeness in body or in relationships, can’t seek that one day a week? Or those who are hungry but didn’t have the means to prepare ahead should not eat that day? Everyone would see the inhumanity in that.

But there is this slow creep of apathy, of gradually letting go of things that are intensely important, core to our faith, and our knowledge of God’s love for humankind, that happens to all of us. Because, well, we weren’t holding on, keeping it at the core of who we are, or we simply weren’t paying attention and it was taken away. One day we look up and we are not who we set out to be. We let go of some principles when we’re holding too tightly to being right or being the authority or just trying to keep things they way they are. It happens to all of us. Jesus summarized the entire Law in just 2 statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yet we loosen our grip on these commitments, and how much effort and intentionality they take, and we let their interpretation slip into the hands of those who want to control, manipulate, or frame them for their own benefit. Sometimes those people are even ourselves.

Take for example, the ways children are being separated from their parents when crossing this country’s border as immigrants or asylum-seekers. Those who present themselves to a checkpoint to seek asylum through the approved process, fleeing violence in Central America, have their children as young as 18 months taken from them, with no time-line for reunification. I cannot even fathom the cruelty. Most of us didn’t even know this was the practice of this current administration to “deter immigration” until it was in the news earlier this week. But it has been going on for months, as the political conversation about immigrants has turned from talking about them as refugees from violence and poverty – neighbors to love – to criminals who are trying to “enter our home illegally.” There is no excuse for destroying the only security these parents and children have left – each other. Oh, it feels shameful to be called out on this. My attention was diverted elsewhere. I thought we were past the worst when the Muslim travel bans were mostly struck down in the courts.

But now I have to recognize: this is who we are, or who we’ve allowed ourselves to become. Desensitized to what I know is the most cruel form of punishment for already traumatized people, ripping apart parents and children. And I have to admit that it’s not just those people who work at the border who are enforcing this. It is me too, if I do not act to put a stop to it. When Jesus asks if we know what is right or wrong and we stand mute, like the Pharisees in our Gospel reading, we are complicit. So how do I respond, when I realize that instead of insulting these Pharisees, I might actually be like them in some ways?

Do I plot to discredit or do away with those who call me out on my sins of commission or omission? I wonder if there was even one of those Pharisees who was convicted by meeting Jesus, stopped in his tracks and realized, “He’s right. I love the Law of Moses and God, and we’ve twisted it.” What does he do? It takes tremendous courage to put your self on the line for strangers who are being harmed by your peers, the group you are a part of. Maybe he doesn’t fully agree, but there’s too much at stake personally, or for his family, supporting these people has gotten him where he is, and they could take it all away. So he says nothing. We don’t want to reckon with the powers that have put us where we are; we are beholden to them. We don’t want to admit that our principles are not what got us where we are, but our complicity with letting them go.

To confess that we are doing wrong in the present can also dredge up past sins, for example, that separating parents and children of color is part of the fabric of this country: first slave children from their parents, and all the way into the 1970s, separating Native American children from their families to be assimilated in boarding schools. This cruelty is not new, just a new form. It is so much to reckon with, of course we become defensive.

The Pharisees immediately begin conspiring with the Herodians to have Jesus killed. They aligned themselves with others who would shut him up, so he would have to stop calling them out on their sins. Yet there is a choice, even from the middle of a crowd of angry Pharisees, of how to respond when Jesus shows us the truth about how far our lives have strayed from the Law of God. We fight this, or we fight Jesus.

Now owning this sin and try desperately to repair it sounds exhausting, for people who weren’t trying to hurt anybody, but just, you know, were carried along by the momentum of being comfortably in the midst of this crowd. Yet confession and restitution are like sabbath for our souls, a gift from God. A sabbath of grace. God loves us unconditionally, without us following any rules or making anybody else follow any rules, without our defenses up and our positions protected. Just loving and being loved. But to do that, we have to recognize the truth. Resting in God’s pre-emptive love, we can step out of our position embedded among the Pharisees, and follow Jesus, who knows the truth about us. He will take us, even as we are, but he will not leave us there. Give us courage, O God, to step out of the crowd and follow you.

Summer Goal: Family Playdates

We technically live near each other. Why is it so hard to get together?

Both my spouse and I yearn to talk to adults unrelated to our work lives, but the best of intentions don’t seem to pan out often. Our daughters see friends even in the summer at tee-ball, vacation Bible school, swim lessons, and playgrounds. But when do my husband and I get to catch up with friends our own age, other than on social media? We need play dates, maybe more than our kids do!

We used to try to have friends over to dinner about once a month, with varying degrees of success. Everyone needs to eat, right? But between the time my husband gets home from work and the kids go to sleep, we have about an hour, give or take a bit on weeknights. Because of our house’s floor plan, we have to kick them out for the kids to go to sleep. Plus, if the friends have kids too, mealtimes can be fraught with challenges. With our 3-year-old, sometimes even staying at the table is a challenge. Then, there’s the theoretical obligation to clean. Even with making a commitment to “scruffy hospitality” though, it may take some effort to bring the house up to the standards of “it is OK that people live here.”

Since my spouse and I both bring work home with us and there are always dishes, laundry and yard work to be done, “down time” at home is never that. We often have to leave the premises to play.

So I am making a goal, writing it down and sharing it publicly with the hope that I’ll stick to it: We will have a family play date at a park or festival, at least once a month from May to September.

I coach myself, “Don’t argue, this is the easiest possible solution to our adult friendship isolation.” My motivational strategy includes the following:

  • Finding a babysitter is irrelevant to making these plans.
  • Festivals have specific days and times, so unlike a nebulous commitment to “get together sometime,” we have an actual time to put on the calendar. Some festivals we go to every year are part of how I curate our family memories. They will probably be even better with friends.
  • Each family brings their own food to a picnic in the park, obviously. If one or the other family cannot show up for some reason, we are still somewhere fun (and I haven’t expended the effort of making a big dinner, ordering too much food, or even of finding a restaurant that meets all of our dietary requirements).
  • It is an excuse to explore different parts of our city. I am highly motivated by ice cream, so if certain friends live near a park not that far from an ice cream shop, I am making it happen. Friends we hardly see because they live in a different part of the metro area will be part of a destination play date.
  • There’s no excuse of a home or yard in utter disarray, for any of us to avoid making such a play date. Likewise, there’s no coordinating food preferences, and no dishes to wash afterward.

The payoff for a little planning is significant: conversation with adults reminds us that we are not just our jobs, even if that job is exclusively being a parent. That’s a payoff worth the effort!

Non-milestone anniversaries

“How did you two end up meeting? I can’t remember.”

My husband and I have been married for eleven years; I bet no one has asked me that in at least 5. For very good reason though: we’ve been parents for the past 5 years. While our two daughters are among the most wonderful parts of our marriage, they seem to have overtaken our outward identity as a couple (as a “family”) and even how we relate to one another most of the time. Becoming parents to each child was indeed an adventure that we braved together, but it was so little about “us” because it has to be all about the child for quite awhile in the beginning. So it was a genuinely surprising pleasure to visit the town where we were married, stay with a friend from that time of our lives, and (after the kids were asleep) to have her ask that question, “What’s the story of how you two got together, again?”

I had forgotten just a little bit the pace of our falling in love (not in my long-term memory, but you know, in my short-term memory and daily interactions). How we were such a good fit, and not only did we both know it so quickly, but others recognized it too. Our friend’s follow-up comments named that in ways we haven’t named to each other in awhile. “It sounds like you were really lucky to find the one person who…” she said. She’s right. But we haven’t thought about that luckiness lately.

There seems to be this horizonless middleness – maybe it is middle age? – where we aren’t peering into the exciting unknown with exhilaration, making the person whose hand we are gripping key to jumping off that cliff… because the present stretches on without much change in topography as far as the eye can see. The daily routine of taking care of and providing for kids (whom we love!) is part of the flat surface of the foreseeable future, but so is working without striving for a diploma or residency to complete.

Remembering who we were to each other at the beginning, prodded by someone who has had pretty limited experience of us in person since then, was just what we needed for one of these insignificant, non-milestone anniversary years. With a simple inquiry, she helped me to recover some gratefulness, and actual awe at what we have in each other.

Hand-me-down Church

This year, the hand-me-downs are downright thought-provoking.

Last fall they made me sentimental, because it was the first time my younger daughter fit into clothes that used to be her older sister’s, whom we adopted as a (tall) 2-year-old. Now as our pre-schooler tries on warm weather clothes from her older sister, it’s not just about misty-eyed remembrances for me. I’ve been “bridging” (read: filling in during a holding pattern) for a congregation that is awaiting a pastor re-developer. They are at that point in decline. The “hand-me-down” church they wished to pass on to the next generation does not fit, and in fact, even their direct descendents refuse to show up in it except for funerals.

Some of my daughter’s hand-me-downs have stains that have only come to light after years of being packed in boxes in the basement. Did I notice them when I first packed the clothes away? I can’t recall. Or maybe some of them, (like I learned baby spit-up stains can do) show up yellow after awhile of being out of laundry circulation, since they haven’t been in use for awhile. Church wounds can be like that too. Maybe we had no idea someone was still clinging onto something alienating a pastor or church member said to them years ago, but if it has been packed away and never dealt with, the stain may actually have taken hold deeper than it looked originally. And that’s why they are not here, but we will never know.

Also, my two daughters have bodies of different proportions and personalities. Our eldest grows out of the length of clothes long before anything becomes tight around the waist. For our youngest this is not the trajectory. Also, our first rarely has opinions about what she wants to wear or not, but our second throws over items if she struggles the slightest bit the first time she tries it on, or decides a half hour later it is intolerable and WILL NEVER BE WORN AGAIN. So I am glad they were hand-me-downs anyway. The same clothes look differently on them, or may be judged as “not right” for various and sundry reasons. Showing up for church dressed comfortably for yourself, with children behaving how they naturally behave, could lead to stares. Going to church to simply listen, when younger generations are accustomed to the pace and participation of social media, may seem to some like a waste of an hour or a silencing of their voices. They may not have a ready opinion until they try it on, but then feel like it just doesn’t fit them.

Most of our hand-me-downs are not precious. If they were mine as a child, saved by my mother, I don’t give them away. But the vast majority could be interchangeable with other clothing that fits within my parameters, whether it shows up in photos of my older daughter at this age or not. That’s the least sentimental way I feel about buildings or congregations with a long history. If there are congregations in a few mile radius or even closer to your home than this one, I acknowledge they are not the church of your long-standing memories, but they could become the congregation of your new ones. Memories are not a reason to keep setting out clothes no one will wear.

In a way, I am very much pro-hand-me-downs. It means less shopping (which I loathe) and less expense. It seems like good use of our resources, and the world’s resources, to reuse instead of buying new. But I don’t know that I feel the same about congregations. There may still be enough money and a building – resources that should indeed be used for good – but are the established culture, the tight-knit group that perceives belonging, and the history of that congregation ever going to fit a new generation? Is there a point of decline past which it is better to put the hand-me-downs out with the recycling instead of putting them on another child? I do that with clothes when I am too embarrassed to pass them on in the state they are in, to our friend’s daughter one year younger than my youngest. How do we determine that point for a congregation?

Someone unlike us, to guide us

Pick the one of those things that makes you most uncomfortable, then let’s find someone who meets the description to talk about the Bible with!

I’ve been pondering all week some questions from our forum on “Millennials in the Church or Not” last Sunday. One of you asked, “How are they going to receive the sacraments if they aren’t in church?” and another, “How do they expect to grow in faith if they don’t go to Bible Study or hear sermons?” This is where it happens for you, and has always happened for you. Yet not for everyone. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, for this reading from Acts today.

Philip got the message to go to a wilderness road, and in that empty, abandoned setting, to approach the other lone soul, a eunuch from Ethiopia.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks him.

“How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

We could make the case here, if we wanted, that people have to go to church to hear a preacher who has been to seminary, or to be surrounded by people with “mature” faith. How will we understand unless someone guides us? But, ummm… Philip hadn’t been to seminary, nor had he believed in or been proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus for very long. Yet, when asked what he thought the Scripture meant, he was willing to try. After all, Scripture is best understood in community. I’d go so far as to say that the Word of God comes alive, breathes in the space between us, when we wonder about it together. And that can be done in the most predictable of places, or where some of us would find the least likely places.

Notice what doesn’t happen, what isn’t recorded in this story. There’s no explicit answer to the theological question asked by the eunuch. Perhaps the author of Acts knew how we tend to mine the Scriptures for answers. It was a pretty clear question: Is the prophet talking about himself, or someone else? Philip could have answered with one word. Instead Philip starts with the verse the man is stuck on, then goes on to share the good new of Jesus as he understood it. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” So they did. Engagement with the Scripture, and a baptism, in the middle of nowhere.

There is permission here, to loosen up on our definitions of what it means to “do church.” Perhaps even to get back to the roots of Christianity, before the Church. If this makes you uncomfortable, you are in good company. Did anybody notice that verse 37 is missing? Somebody added into later manuscripts, “Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” That’s not originally part of the story. It goes straight from “What prevents me from being baptized?” to “so they did.” But somebody – I’m guessing after the Church was solidifying into more of an institution – thought “No, no, no, there has to be a requirement, a confession of faith, a commitment, for an adult to get baptized. That’s what we teach. I’m sure this should be in there.” So it was added. It doesn’t appear in the version we generally rely on here because it is not in the original Greek manuscripts, which the NRSV is translated from. It’s in the Latin ones, which are not original. But truly, they were doing church right out there on the wilderness road. Not like in here. But church nonetheless.

Besides permission to make our definitions of being faithful more flexible, there’s a promise in this story: You will be changed, by listening to God’s call to come up alongside people and being willing to wrestle with the meaning of God’s words and actions with them. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, the person himself, his existence, proclaims a new dimension to the Gospel we probably wouldn’t get in church. Philip didn’t sidle up to a nondescript person just like himself. If we can speak in generalities, in Israel this person was (1) a foreigner, (2) a sexual minority, and (3) quite literally the servant of a foreign power. Pick the one of those things that makes you most uncomfortable, then let’s find someone who meets the description to talk about the Bible with! I believe we would hear some new and different interpretations. That encounter would not just “change” them, bring them to faith, or whatever we think we’re doing. But it would change you and me, certainly.

Hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments in a homogenous community be very insulating. We only see or hear from people who resemble ourselves, so we can only conceive of the Church being like how we do it. The Gospel becomes not really a radical encounter with God’s boundless mercy, but a standard of behaviors that uphold traditions. But here’s the good news of Jesus Christ: God lives out in the world, certainly as much as in here, which makes walking alongside or talking to people who have no reason to come in here, actually doing church, being faithful. Scripture is best read and interpreted in community, with others to guide us, but that does not mean we have to all gather round and listen to the expert in the pulpit. We need to listen to each other. And sometimes the interpretation we need, to really grasp what God is up to amongst us, is the presence of the person who makes us most uncomfortable: an Ethiopian eunuch. How shall we understand without someone unlike us, to guide us? Thankfully, God provides.

Setting the Agenda for Faith Therapy

Churches won’t provide the therapy necessary for children of God to pursue healthy, healing relationships with God the Parent – unless we are ready to engage in confession ourselves.

Parents have a great power: setting the agenda for their children’s future therapy. This may include, but is of course not limited to:

  • What they did that hurt
  • What they didn’t do, but we needed them to do
  • What we still do because of what they did or didn’t do
  • They didn’t understand my generation/situation
  • Or did they understand but didn’t care or were powerless to affect the change I needed?

No surprise here, that these are some of the same questions we ask about God, whom we (with Jesus) think of as our Heavenly Parent. What if church is not a habit, or place we go because “that’s how we were raised,” but we are actually there for group therapy, of sorts? We can sort through together our perceptions of what our Parent has done/not done and how that affects us. Our lead therapist can call us out when we are being obtuse, and redirect in healthy directions. We might help each other realize that deeply complicated relationship is affected by many layers of interpretation (ours and others’) about perceived supportive or toxic divine parenting. We can grieve together what we don’t understand, or bewail that the precedent or guidance we have from Our Parent seems not to address the nuances of our generation. We may even delve into difficult theological questions such as: Is Our Divine Parent all-loving or all-powerful?

Even those raised in healthy, well-adjusted households need the ability to reflect on: What of who I am and how I act comes from my family of origin? How can I choose to keep or leave elements behind? So it needs to be said: There’s no shame in going to therapy, or in this case, church.

Some of what we need to talk out might be the damaging interpretations of churches or individual Christians in our past.
Your Divine Parent is angry angry angry!
You better not risk the wrath of your Parent!
God hates this, that, and the other. (But what if one of those categories describes me, yet I cannot be someone else?)

Churches could recognize part of our calling as helping those whose relationships with their Divine Parent or brother Jesus have been damaged by previous churches, bad theology in the media, the culture or from Great-Aunt Gertrude at a time of crisis. So we start a “Theology Pub” or coffeehouse, a way to have initial conversations without the atmosphere of that previously threatening situation. We can talk about spiritual damage and how to address it from the pulpit. We must be vehemently public about no tolerance for physical/sexual/emotional abuse associated with the church, but then more subtly, we need to be self-aware about when group faith talk reveals a need for the services of trained therapists for certain individuals.

But here’s the rub, and perhaps the reason we are hesitant to embrace the role of congregations in running group therapy for our relationship with God our Parent. It’s this word I learned in Psych 101: “transference.” For many of use who recognize our relationship with God as that of parent and child, the Church is in the middle of that relationship. To criticize God is to criticize the Church, and vice versa. Who seeks out their own negative feedback? Not us. What do you want to leave behind from that relationship? Ummm… can we even talk about that or will there be a mass exodus from the church? Most of our baggage with God is in fact baggage from “God’s people” acting or speaking while bearing God’s name. Churches won’t provide the therapy necessary for children of God to pursue healthy, healing relationships with God the Parent – unless we are ready to engage in confession ourselves. We must risk self-reflection when it could very well lead to begging for forgiveness. But if we don’t we’ll never get past the baggage in the doorway.

There are alternative therapies, of course, to unpacking our issues with God in a congregation. Asking deep questions with friends can be much more effective than half-listening to a sermon or responding to questions from a hat with near-strangers. Following a blog or twitter feed or reading books by people who have worked through similar issues could be therapeutic. But then we need to get our own thoughts and feelings down on paper or the keypad, and communicating on the internet is far less likely to be therapeutic than talking to someone trustworthy in person. I remember a professor of Bible saying about the different translations/versions: “Well, a Bible you are reading is better than one you’re not reading.” So I say, “faith talk therapy you’re participating in is better than one you’re not.” However we do it, we have to get past secondhand experiences to get to the core issues in our relationship with God our Parent:

  • When do you feel closest to God, and why do you think that is?
  • How open are you to other interpretations of how God acts?
  • For what do you blame God, or yourself in your relationship?
  • What are you going to do about it?

We all want to develop a healthy relationship with our Parent. Faith talk therapy could really help.