It was probably about thirty-five years ago, before I had children of my own. I was part of one of those retreats, popular back in the seventies, where people were organized in small groups and each session began with an "icebreaker," a question to get people opening up and sharing.
Icebreaker questions were typically innocuous, involving minimal risk, maybe like an appetizer to stimulate the appetite for more in-depth conversation. So I wasn't expecting the depth of emotion that this question would open for me: what are your three happiest memories from childhood?
When it came my time to share, my responses came easily. First, swimming at a lake in summer when I was eight or so, when my dad would let my little brother and me stand on his shoulders and dive into the water. Second, walking hand-in-hand to a pond near our home when I was probably only four years old, when my dad helped me scoop masses of frog eggs into a jar so we could bring them home and watch them develop from tadpoles into little frogs. And third, body surfing at the ocean with my dad and brother when I was maybe twelve.
Someone in the group noted that there were three common themes in all the stories: water, vitality, and my father. For some reason, the third one surprised me. I had gone through typical teenage tensions with my father -- tensions common during adolescence and especially so during the sixties and seventies. But here I was, on the other side of those tensions, epitomizing childhood happiness in memories of closeness with my dad.
Like most Christians, I address God as "our Father in heaven" as Jesus taught in the Lord's prayer. I'm sure my positive experiences with my dad (86 now and still going strong) make that language and imagery positive and meaningful for me. I don't think of God as the stern parent, dominating and rigid, commanding obedience, threatening punishment, managing rage. I think of God as the one who places me in a bountiful, joyous world of lakes and ponds and crashing seas, one who swims and surfs with me, one who introduces me to a world of wonders.
I've met many people for whom father-imagery evokes little beyond the dread and oppression of patriarchy -- either in their personal experience or our common history. In light of the ongoing impact of patriarchy, I understand why father-imagery is problematic for so many people. That's why (as I describe in the early chapters of my book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words) I'm all for balancing and integrating paternal images with other images for God -- such as God as loving mother (see Isaiah 49:15 and 66:13), God as shepherd (Psalm 23), God as friend (James 2:23), God as gardener (John 15), and so on.
As someone who has grappled for years with how we imagine, name, and relate to God, and as someone who takes the Scriptures seriously even when I'm willing to acknowledge the problems I find there, I have a hunch about the New Testament's emphasis on paternal imagery for God. Just as we are careful to use maternal imagery to balance and soften the potentially negative dimensions of dominant paternal imagery, paternal imagery was used to balance and soften the potentially negative dimensions of dominant kingly imagery in the time of Jesus.
And kingly imagery, similarly, balanced and softened the potentially negative dimensions of the monstrous imagery for God that were dominant earlier in the development of human theological consciousness.
So I must remember that all human imagery and language for God is contingent, that no single term or picture can be allowed to reduce God to an idolatrous cartoon. With that in mind, I can joyfully remember the best things about my dad on father's day, and know that every good thing in creation gives us a window into the mysterious and majestic heart of the Creator -- a mother's faithfulness, a wise king's splendor, a gardener's insight, a friend's companionship, a shepherd's protection ... a fire's wonder, a starry sky's grandeur, a mountain's substance, the wind's invisible power, water's life-giving power ... and a father's delight as he plays with his boys.
What we love most in life bears the signature of God, and in appreciating those things, in remembering and celebrating them, in loving them, I believe we are in fact loving God.