by Hannah J. Hawkinson—

“Celebrate Father’s Day with a beer in one hand—and a beer in the other hand!”

“Happy Father’s Day to the king of the castle, the master of all you survey!”

“Dad, I love you as much as you love the remote. Happy Father’s Day!”

Those were just three of the greeting cards I saw displayed for Father’s Day while wandering through the pharmacy last year. “Happy Father’s Day from your favorite financial burden!” anothercard proclaimed. One more held a drawing of two  golf clubs: “The only iron Dad knows how to use. Happy Father’s Day!”

I admit that some of these made me smile. But the novelty wore off quickly as I considered this greeting card portrait of fatherhood more thoughtfully.

While these cards are meant to gently chide and poke fun, they can resonate more deeply than we care to admit. For many, the domineering, apathetic father of greeting card lore isn’t fictional. For many, Father’s Day, underneath its veneer of celebration, laughter and joy, can be painful or even traumatic—a jarring recapitulation of relationships marred by abuse, abandonment and broken trust. For others, it’s an annual reminder of the fathers they never knew. Or it’s a day of mourning for the fathers they’ve lost.

As someone lucky enough to have a lifelong, loving relationship with my dad, these realities can be blind spots if I’m not careful. And I suspect that I’m not alone.

After all, the life of the church has been deeply formed by language of God as a loving, present and compassionate Father, from our hymns—“Children of the heavenly Father safely in his bosom gather; nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e’er was given”—to our creeds—“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”

And this language didn’t come out of nowhere. Scripture has an abundance of imagery and metaphors presenting God as a good Father. “As a father has compassion for his children,” the psalmist writes, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13). Likewise, the prophet Isaiah proclaims: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). So too the Apostle John encourages the early church with these words: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).

Jesus uses the image of God as a father when he responds to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus offers three parables, the last of which is the parable of the prodigal son. “There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus tells us. “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me’” (Luke 15:11-12). The younger son’s demand is far more shocking than we modern readers may realize. By claiming his inheritance while his father still lives, the younger son is essentially telling his father that he wishes he was dead. Clearly, this was a strained father-child relationship—and now, after this conversation, it’s nonexistent. There’s no turning back.

The younger son travels to a far-off land and squanders his inheritance, eventually finding himself employed as a farmhand during a famine. Desperate for food—and maybe even for reconciliation—the younger son plots his travel home, practicing his speech along the way: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands” (Luke 15:18-19).

Even for those who know the story well, the conclusion of the prodigal son’s sojourn can be surprising: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

Who wouldn’t want to be this father’s child? Who wouldn’t want to run into the open arms of this loving God who gently shapes us as a potter molds clay, whose defining characteristic is not anger (even when it’s completely deserved), but compassion?

When I encounter passages like these, my heart swells as I think of my own relationship with my dad. I can so easily see glimmers of God’s love there. And it’s so easy to forget that this isn’t the case for everyone.

Because even this beautifully tender image of divine fatherhood, one of the most vivid and inviting in all of Scripture, cannot erase pain personally experienced. For many, to address or even imagine God as Father, even a Father as gracious and loving as the prodigal son’s, is impossible because of their experiences—the broken or nonexistent relationships, the trauma, the pain.

So, what then are we to do? Should we continue to hold fast to our language of God as Father, in keeping with its prevalence throughout Scripture and our tradition? Should we do the complete opposite, rejecting altogether any and all images of divine fatherhood?

I wonder if the answer lies somewhere in the middle. After all, while fatherhood language is indeed central to Scripture’s witness, it’s far from exclusive. God is also presented in Scripture as a mother (Isaiah 66:13, Matthew 23:37), a good shepherd (Psalm 23, John 10:11-18), the rock (1 Samuel 2:2, Matthew 7:24-27), a healer (Jeremiah 30:17, 1 Peter 2:24), fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29), as Vine (John 15:1-17), a gardener (Isaiah 5:7)—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Such a wide variety of metaphors is overwhelming. But these are anything but an accident. As pastor and author Lauren Winner writes in Wearing God, “the Bible gives us these images because each image holds a different way (maybe many different ways) into our life with God.”

No one metaphor—not even that of Father—can fully encapsulate God. And that means that no one person, no one role, no one story, has a monopoly on God either.

Hannah J. Hawkinson is a former intern for Gather magazine, and an M. Div. candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

This article is excerpted from the June 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather..

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