Triggers and Fathers
It’s really difficult to dialogue about God without triggering some kind of negative emotion in people regarding how one speaks about God. Words are like triggers. For instance, I once boarded an airplane that departed next to the gate that one of the 9/11 departed from at the Newark airport. Sitting in cavernous lobby, in the same chairs the passengers sat patiently on that fateful day, an onslaught of emotions were triggered by the haunted geography. Or consider my friend who returned from Iraq. He once expressed that city life is challenging because every time he hears a car’s backfire, he’s momentarily whisked away to a distant battle in his mind. Places and sounds trigger us. So do words. Words often take us back to painful places or remind us of joyful experiences. Nothing triggers emotions more than how people talk about God. For those who have been abused by men, been raped, have had bad male figures, it is entirely logical why emotions are triggered when someone speaks of God as a male. It makes sense. Similarly, it also makes complete sense to me why people without good mothers hesitate to accept God as a Mother God. Frankly, no matter who it is, it is impossible to talk about God without triggering something in somebody.
Consider the way in which God elects to come to us—God shows up as a Father. And not in some antiquated pre-Jesus sort of way. Quite repetitiously, mind you, Jesus addresses God as “Father” some 107 times. Now that’s downright fascinating, isn’t it? Not only is God’s own self-disclosure itself most illuminating—who God is—but how God chooses not to self-disclose—who God isn’t. God never descends as a bro, a boyfriend, a study buddy, a crazy uncle, a mailman, or even a benevolent boss. Nor does the Bible ever describe God as a grandfather. God self-discloses, quite simply, as a Father. Why would this matter to a people who don’t really have good dads?
I vividly recall watching one of Michael Jordan’s six NBA Championships. During one championship run, Jordan and the Bulls won a national championship three short years following the murder of Jordan’s father who’d been shot repeatedly in his car as he sat, chair reclined, napping, at a humble rest stop in North Carolina. After the game’s final shot, a buzzing herd of reporters followed the players into the locker room to interview the victors in the celebration. There, in the corner of the room, lay Michael Jordan—the greatest basketball player in history—weeping, face-down, overcome, inconsolable, holding an orange basketball in his arms. No one knew quite what to do. Do we talk to him? Do we leave him alone? I suspect everyone knew exactly what was happening though. It was father’s day. So, there, lay a broken champion with everything the world had to offer with no father to grab him by the shoulders and say, “Son, I’m so proud of you.” In the interviews, reporter after reporter asked Jordan what it was like to win everything, have everything, and be loved by everyone. For Jordan, his success, fame, and money didn’t seem to matter; one could see it in his eyes. Because when he gazed around the locker room that day, he found everything he could ever dream of, but he couldn’t find his dad.
There is a little Jordan in all of us. All evidence seems to suggest that a great deal of the depravity and darkness of our human condition is inextricably wrapped up in the single issue of fatherlessness. Not that evil is the sum total of all the deadbeat dads in the world. Not at all. But that there is some palpable wound, some hole, some throbbing thumb, in the human persona surrounding this issues of fatherlessness. I’m sure there is more to it than that, but it seems as though that is a big part of it. Which brings us back to how God elects to come to us. Perhaps that’s precisely the reason God self-discloses as a Father. It makes sense. Given the rather depressing state of fatherhood in our world, God’s repeated grace and comfort to the fatherless in the Bible as a self-disclosed Father make perfect sense. Of anyone, God knows what humanity needs most. And what we need most is a good Father who loves us and challenges us to become mature children who bear the image He placed in us. For this very fundamental reason God does not come as a Grandfather. Grandfathers don’t do that. Grandfathers give ten bucks to go to the store and buy candy. Grandfathers take us fly-fishing. But our hearts aren’t complete when we have Skittles or a stick with fish on it. We need a Father—a loving, present, real presence who can speak love and correction all at the same time.
God Comes the Way We Need (not Want)
God comes to us precisely in the very way that we most need God. God doesn’t come to us in the way we want God, but in the way we need God. I suppose, in one sense, if what we really needed as a people were a good uncle, then God would do the math and incarnate Himself as weird uncle Al who flies in from Sacramento on first class once every five years to have fun for the weekend. But that isn’t what humans need. We need dads. Certainly I may be way off base, but I’ve never, in my entire life, heard anyone say they needed years of counseling because they had an absent uncle.
This Father God never abandons his children.
I once heard that Eugene Peterson had said, “The most spiritual thing to do might be simply changing your wife’s tire.” His point, I believe, was that the big, glossy, front-page, mass-drawing thing to do isn’t always the thing that brings God the most glory. Oftentimes, God’s glory is shown most in the simple thing, mundane things—the changing of a tire. Or, in this case, being a good mother and father.
The endless discourse in Evangelicalism—especially in missional, theological, ecclesiastical circles—is primarily about how we can do what we do to reach the masses. And while unquestionably I believe in the reaching of the masses, I’m not sold on reaching the masses at the cost of our children who sit at home watching us frantically run around ‘doing things for God.’ I, of course, say this hypocritically. As I sit in a coffee shop writing to the masses while my child is at home without his father present, I’m aware that much of ministry requires me to devote good time to what I do. I’m not suggesting by any means that ministry entails me being home 24/7. But, I am suggesting that we are paying the wrong price for ministry: our children.
Idolatry for church leaders and pastors doesn’t predictably come in the form of grotesque worship of Baal or the use of Ashtoreth poles or Ouija boards. Often, pastoral idolatry is a latent, quiet idolatry that lurks underneath the surface and appears as worship.
Often this kind of idolatry is about worshipping the drive to be the conference speaker. Often it’s about worshipping the church that is yet to be or the church that is to be planted. Often its about the book deal we dream of.
And all of these idols demand a sacrifice. Idols always do. And most of the time, we give in. Sadly, for our children, the idols of pastoral ministry demand among anything else a kind child sacrifice. Not child sacrifice in the traditional sense. But child sacrifice in the updated sense—child sacrifice via abandonment. These idols demand we forget our children that we get too busy, do ministry, and get on the circuit. And I’m more and more convinced that these idols too often win.
Parenting: More Missional than Pastoring
Parenting is, in itself, missional. Sometimes being a parent is being more missional than being a pastor. There is nothing more sacred than the mission of loving our children. They are God’s gift to us. And that is why we need to go home. Let’s pray.
Today, Jesus, I pray for my son. I pray for his heart. I pray he would be safe and whole. Also, Jesus, I pray for his dad. I pray he would stop blogging and go home. I pray that this blog post could end and he could pack up his bags, pay the bill, say goodbye to the barista, and leave the coffee shop. I pray that he would have traveling mercies three block walk home. God, I of course pray this for everyone reading this as well. Let it be. In Jesus name, Amen.