Romans 8: 15-16
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
“Abba” is an Aramaic term of endearment for “father” that appears only in the New Testament and, there, only in three places…and always alongside the Greek word for “father.” It is how Jesus, whose childhood language was probably Aramaic, addressed God when he prayed. (And all this time you thought it was just the name of a Swedish rock band from the 70’s :) It is thought by scholars that the pairing of these two words for “father” was intended to hold together both the unique intimacy and the formal reverence associated with fathers and their children, and by implication, indicative of the relationship we have with God.
I just finished a book on fathers and sons, If You Build It…, by Dwier Brown. Brown played the young John Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams. He only appears in the last 5 minutes. If you have seen the movie, you know those five minutes. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth it for those last 5 minutes. John Kinsella walks from beyond the grave onto a baseball field in the middle of Iowa that his son, Ray, has unknowingly built for him. It’s a long story as all stories of sons and their fathers are. It was not uncommon when the movie ended and the lights came up to have a theatre full of fathers and sons too emotional to move from their seats. I remember that happening to me. The movie touched something deep.
In the book, Dwier Brown tells the story of his complicated relationship with his own father along with some of the many encounters he has had with strangers over the years who stoped him on the street when they recognized him from the movie. Unbidden, they would proceed to recount heart-wrenching stories of how the movie changed their lives—redeeming their own relationships with their fathers or, as fathers, with their sons.
If we can manage to peal away all the manifold layers of patriarchal and sexist implications, oppression, suppression that have played out over the centuries of church history when the naming of God as “father” justified identifying God as male (and, by implication, male as God)—and I don’t for a second minimize the significance and necessity of that task—I think we can perceive a redemptive nerve being touched.
In its original intent, the language makes a direct connection between the relationship of a child to a parent and the relationship we have to God. A relationship we do not create, an identity that does not disappear with age or maturity—neither does it remain unchanged. Naming and knowing God as “Abba, Father,” does not rest on the assumption of the goodness of the parent/child relationship as much as its reality. It sets our relationship with God in the context the primal, unique, intimate relationship of a parent to a child no less than it sets those relationships in a context that makes possible the healing and redemption of those relationships..
It’s complicated. The bond between parent and child is uniquely profound in all our lives…in time, we all come to realize its profundity in our lives, a realization inevitably amplified if we become parents. I often wonder if all the bonds of love we forge in this life are formed out of the love we first learned as children or, conversely, if all our bonds of love come from a longing to heal from the brokenness born in us from those relationships. Perhaps, for all of us, it is a mixture of both.
As significant as our relationships as sons and daughters are with our mothers and fathers, they are not more significant than our relationship with God. And that is good news for mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.
Prayer: Gracious God, may the love I have known from my childhood become a sign of your love for me. May any failure of love I have known from my childhood be healed and redeemed by the knowledge that I am your child. Amen.