If you’ve listened to fairy tales, or if you’ve watched early classic Disney cartoons, one thing becomes clear: a lot of “poor little” princes and princesses shared a common family tragedy. In an overwhelming number of these stories the mothers were gone, dying long before the child in question could be influenced by them or even remember them. The single dads in these tales almost always had dreadful taste in women the second time around — bringing a whole host of evil stepmothers onto the fairy tale scene.
Sadly, until later in the twentieth century, the chances of children losing their mothers and being raised by stepmothers was common. The overwhelming threat to a woman’s life was childbirth, especially if any sort of infection set in after delivery. For example, John Milton’s first 2 wives, Mary Powell and Katherine Woodcock, both died in childbirth.
Among upper middle class in 17th century London, one mother died for every 40 births. By the early decades of the 20th century, things hadn’t changed much. In 1929, the wife of the Prime Minister of England, Lucy Baldwin, pointed out that pregnant women were as likely to die as soldiers had been in the trenches in the 1914-1918 war. When a woman gave birth, she said, it was just like “going into battle – she never knows . . . whether she will come out of it alive or not.” (As quoted in A. Susan Williams, Ladies of Influence: Women of the Elite in Interwar Britain [Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2001]).
The single father raising motherless children was an all-to-common occurrence.
Single parent households are even more prevalent today, but for different reasons. Most single parents raising children on their own today are women. Medical advances have made childbirth safer, and have raised women’s life expectancy above that of men. But good hygiene and antibiotics haven’t helped keep families together. In any given American classroom a conservative estimate finds at least one-third of those kids living in a home without a father.
Whether by death or divorce, choice or chance, more and more children are growing up in a home that has no consistently present father figure.
Along with the abuse of sheer absence, which is bad enough, there is the worse abuse of presence. Although child abuse is not confined to one gender, an abusive father figure has a huge affect on children. And a father who is “occasional” as well as “abusive” magnifies all the negatives of his influence.
Why is the lack of positive father figures such a critical issue for the Church?
Consider this: the prayer Jesus gave to his disciples, the prayer we are all taught as children, begins with the audaciously familiar “Our Father.” What happens to our images of God when our images of “our fathers” are so tattered and torn?
Ideally the Christian community, the presence of Christ on Earth, should be able to provide all the images, all the examples, all the experiences of God “The Father” that would bring the children of God together in prayer and praise. So why are there so many growing, thriving churches who market God as nothing more than an abusive or absentee parent?
These are churches that elevate rules and regulations over compassion and relationships. These are communities that only develop portraits of God as judge, God as punisher, God as angry, disappointed, wrathful and vengeful. If simple human parents know that in every childhood argument and altercation there are shades of grey, why do so many churches insist that God the Father can only see in black and white?
What kind of God image does Jesus hold up to his disciples when they beg him to teach them how to pray? Jesus does not instruct his disciples to prostrate themselves and confess their worm-wooded-ness and wickedness. Jesus does not caution his disciples about approaching an exalted, all-powerful, omnipotent Being. Jesus invites those who follow him in hope and faith to pray, even as he himself prays, to “Father,” to “Abba,” immediately putting Deity and disciple into an intimate, mutual relationship.
There are, of course, human requirements for this relationship to work.
The first line of Jesus’ prayer recognizes the greatness, the otherness, of God — “hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” Acknowledging God is “large and in charge” is part of establishing this relationship.
But immediately Jesus invites his disciples to make demands on this hallowed, kingdom-building God: “Give us each day our daily bread.” God the Father rules the Kingdom, but God the Father also cares for our physical comfort. As any loving parent knows physical needs must also be met with love — nourishing meals, clean clothes, cuddling session, teaching times, laughing breaks, sleeping hours. A child needs all of these — they are all part of the “daily bread” we require.
Not tending to the basic needs, the physical, emotional basics of our children, is letting “the enemy,” the powers of evil, gain a foothold in our families. In Luke 10:19 Jesus reminded his disciples that he had given them “authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy.” Now he contrasts the goodness of a loving father with one who “if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” (11:12).
Are you teaching your children that God is the distributor of snakes and scorpions? Or are we teaching our children that God is the provider of daily bread, love, forgiveness, and mercy?
In her study of the images of God grown men and women harbor, mental health nurse Juanita Ryan has found fearful, primal pictures populating people’s minds.
“God is waiting around the next corner with a club to punish me.”
“God has a mean face. I don’t like to think of him looking at me.”
“God is big, he is angry for some unknown reason.”
“God is demanding and sadistic”
“You can never be sure if you’ve pleased him.”
“He carries a club or a two-by-four that he intends to use.”
Hello!?! Where do we get these images of God? What has happened to our biblical images of a God who “tends his flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11)? Where is the God who has been revealed as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding love” (Psalm 103:8)? Paul wondered at “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18), the one who was sent by the Father.
In Jesus’ prayer, “The Lord’s Prayer,” we are reminded of God’s greatness, God’s graciousness, and God’s goodness. God’s name is unutterable by the Jews. But Jesus directs his disciples to call the one whose name is “hallowed” and “exalted,” “Father,” “Abba” (a diminutive not unlike “daddy”). God is bringing in the Kingdom, directing all creation. Yet “our Father” cares for each one of us and will provide us our “daily bread.” God is all-powerful, righteous, and just. Yet the most God-like act we can practice is to “forgive everyone indebted to us,” even as God forgives our sins.
Let’s stop creating God in the image of our brokenness, in the image of families where parents are absent, or abuse is common. Let us accept the image of God Jesus gave to us with his message, his mission, his prayers.
How can a God who suffered the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross be a God who seeks out pain and suffering for a new generation?
Jesus’ final promise in today’s text is that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, the Paraclete or Defender, the giver of every good and perfect gift. And as John Calvin warned, “in despising the gift, we insult the giver.” (Institutes, 2/2/15)
That is the gift of the Father who loves all his children. And in the words of St. Augustine, “God’s goodness towards us is such that God wants His gift to be our merits.”
What a Father!