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July  5, 2014 - Our Loving Heavenly Father



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Lesson 1   05 July, 2014
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Our Loving Heavenly Father

Relavent Verses: Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2

Leading Question: What qualifies Jesus to tell us about the love of a heavenly Father?

For this first lesson in the new quarter, the author of the official study guide has carefully crafted a title with distinct elements: Our – Loving – Heavenly – Father. And we’ll look at all four of those. Now the overall theme for the quarter is “The Teachings of Jesus,” and next week’s lesson focuses on “The Son.” So why should we need a Son to tell us about the Father? Wouldn’t a more direct revelation of the Father be superior? Why should the Son come to tell us about the Father?

1. Father. The Old Testament occasionally uses the term Father with reference to God, but the dominant mode for referring to God in the Old Testament is Yahweh. When Jesus and the writers of the New Testament teach us about the Father, they have not only stepped away from the unspeakable name “Yahweh,” but have come all the way down to something like “Daddy.” The Aramaic abba is probably best translated as “Daddy? So what are the gains and losses in the use of the term “Father”?

Note: This brief narrative from Carl Burke suggests why the word “Father” can be problematic when addressing God. He is describing a conversation he had with a ghetto youngster at a summer camp:

“Mister,” came the query, “what’s God like?”

The question came during a summer camp as the two of them made their way to the evening campfire circle. Burke notes that his own response came “without the slightest hesitation, and with the authority of a theological education, plus several years’ experience as a pastor, and above all, with the confidence that was expected of an ‘adult leader.’”

“God,” was Burke’s answer, “is like a father.”

The boy’s response came slowly and with much venom: “Hah,” he said, “if he’s like my father I sure would hate him” (God is for Real, Man, New York: Association Press, 1966, p. 10).

2. Heavenly. What is the point of emphasizing a “heavenly” father when we are in fact on earth and struggle to understand heavenly things?

Additional question: What is likely to go missing in our understanding of God if he is only abba, “Daddy,” and not our “heavenly” Father?

3. Loving. When we describe our “heavenly Father” as “loving,” what would that love look like and feel like?

Note: In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes four different kinds of love, noted in English on the cover of my paperback edition as eros, affection, friendship, and charity. While the Bible never formally discusses the first two under the heading of their Greek labels, it does know about erotic love and affection or family love. But the more familiar New Testament terms philia and agape are much better known. Brotherly love (philia as in philadelphia) generally would be seen as the warmer kind of love; charity or agape love would move more toward principled love that responds as an act of the will, not as an emotional response to something or someone who is attractive to us. So the question remains: what do we mean when we describe our heavenly Father as “loving”?

4. Our. What do we mean when we describe the “loving heavenly Father” as “ours”? Is that simply in the sense of possession?

Note: In connection with a discussion of chastity, C. S. Lewis, includes comments on our use of the “possessive” pronoun “my,” which would have some parallel connections with the plural “our.” The discussion is found in C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters [1942] (Screwtape to Wormwood) [21:3-5]:

The man can neither make nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels.” [21:3]

Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they “own” their bodies – those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! [21:4]

We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun – the finally graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog,” “my servant,” “my wife,” “my father,” “my master,” and “my country,” to “my God.’ They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots,’ the “my” of ownership. [21:5]

The article which follows from The Signs of the Times is dated (July, 1988), published when my father was still alive. But the point is still clear.

“Father”
Signs of the Times, July 1988
By Alden Thompson

Our Father which art in heaven . . . (Matt. 6:9, KJV)

Father . . . (Luke 11:2, RSV, NIV)

“We want to learn to pray,” said one of Jesus’ disciples. “Can you help us – like John helped his disciples?”

“Sure!” responded Jesus. “When you pray, start like this: ‘Dear Dad.’”

I can already hear the editors’ pained sighs and see their heads shaking in disbelief – maybe even hands thrown high in despair. Such language would fill the mail bag with a rich harvest of anger and indignity. “Dear Dad”? Never.

And they would be right, of course – quite aside from the publishing dictum that “Editors are always right.” I would have to agree that “Dear Dad” is going too far – at least, I would agree in my heart. And, in practice, I don’t think I could ever pray, “Dear Dad.”

My earthly father and I are on good terms. I called him “Daddy” when I was a youngster, then switched to “Dad” somewhere along the line. That's still the way it is. He has taught me a great deal about God by word and example. We share similar values. I think he’s pleased about that. 

Not that we never disagree. We do – often. And when it comes to prayer, he is more formal than I, even though neither of us would feel comfortable with “Dear Dad.” Last I heard, he was still using "Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine" when he prayed. I’ve made the switch to “You and Yours” – after being half and half for a while.

But the fact that I call him “Dad” and feel reasonably comfortable in disagreeing with him, even to his face, is a shift from older patterns of family authority. And the trend continues – I can’t imagine an old-time authoritarian putting up with the good-natured indignities which my daughters toss my direction. I like to think that I still have some “authority.” But let’s face it, I seldom use it convincingly. I would rather negotiate, persuade, and convince rather than command. Dangerous? I don't think so, but it may be too early to tell.

Nevertheless, I must admit that the easy-going spirit of freedom which dominates our age (and is reflected in my own home in a modified form) makes it easier to flaunt authority of any kind. The undertow catches even those with staunch religious ties. Religious practice is affected. Conversation drowns out memorization. Prayer becomes more spontaneous and chatty, worship less formal, less awe-inspiring. Cathedrals melt down into ordinary churches. Everything is less dignified, more earthy.

All that is a mixed blessing. We may be able to talk to God now. But where is the overwhelming sense of awe and grandeur that worshipers used to feel in the presence of their Maker?

I firmly believe we need to recover that sense of awe and grandeur. At the same time, however, Scripture has forced me to conclude that Jesus taught his disciples to address the Sovereign Master of the universe in very personal terms.

It would seem brazen – possibly even blasphemous – to open the Prayer by addressing God as “Dad” or “Daddy.” Yet either of those words probably come the closest to capturing the flavor of the Aramaic “Abba,” the word for “father” which Jesus undoubtedly used in his Palestinian homeland. It’s a warm, personal term, one used when family members feel good about each other.

But who would dare begin the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Dear Dad up there in heaven”? Modern translators haven’t chanced it. I wouldn’t risk it myself – even if I were out in the desert all alone. The force of training and tradition is just too powerful.

Yet even the more traditional word “Father” presents a dilemma: human parents often bear only a faint resemblance of the Father in heaven. Carl Burke captures the essence of the problem when he describes a conversation he had with a ghetto youngster:

“Mister,” came the query, “what’s God like?”

The question came during a summer camp as the two of them made their way to the evening campfire circle. Burke notes that his own response came “without the slightest hesitation, and with the authority of a theological education, plus several years’ experience as a pastor, and above all, with the confidence that was expected of an ‘adult leader.’”

“God,” was Burke’s answer, “is like a father.”

The boy’s response came slowly and with much venom: “Hah,” he said, “if he’s like my father I sure would hate him” (God is for Real, Man, New York: Association Press, 1966, p. 10).

The gulf between heaven and earth makes it difficult enough to be personal with God and call him “Dad.” On top of that, all the dads on earth complicate the picture through their erratic and thoughtless behavior. Is that why some in our modern world would prefer to pray to “Mother?” We can’t discuss that complexity here, except to say that earthly mothers can be just as erratic as earthly fathers.

Jesus obviously faced a monumental challenge when he came to teach us the truth about his Father in heaven. And even though he used the Aramaic equivalent of “Dad,” given the Prayer’s remarkable blending of the earthy and the sublime, most of us probably will stay with the traditional “Father.” It fits.

But even if we blurt out a word that doesn't fit so well, the Lord will understand. He has a good vocabulary. And good ears.

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