“So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God's Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, "Abba, Father." Romans 8:15
It’s something you remember, seeing your father cry. We had just left his office to go on a mail run. I had haphazardly agreed to be the receptionist at his law office one summer before going to college, and I welcomed any invite to leave the desk. (Later I would elevate this position to “Director of Telecommunication Services” on my first resume.)
Looking back on that job, I was less excited about answering phones and more interested in running in the same circle as my dad for once. My other siblings always seemed to have a different kind of access to our father than I did, almost by coincidence, since they had more in common with him. My brothers, with all their athleticism, could always find him in the stands, arriving early to set up his chair. My older sister was the first to follow in his footsteps as an attorney. She worked closely with him, getting her name added next to his on the door to the office. Looking back, I think I took that job as receptionist to have something in common with my dad, to be near him.
Don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t the buttoned-up, hard-to-talk-to type of dad at all. Yet, there was this energy about him that kept him pulsating just out of reach. He had (and has) a lot of hobbies, friends, and interests. He dislikes talking on the phone. I always knew he was proud of me, but being proud of me is different than having things in common with him. I always longed to be close to him like that.
That day on the mail run, we drove the few miles towards the post office and listened to his favorite classic rock station. I can’t remember what we chit-chatted about, but it was sunny, and we were both upbeat. He jumped down from the car to go into the post office and after a while, I remember wondering what was taking so long. When he came back out, I saw that his eyes were red and he was crying.
I think my father loved being a father because he loved being fathered by his own dad so much. My grandpa, who we called “Daddy Rabbit,” was a legend in our small southern town. The high school football stadium was named after him. He was football coach and elementary school principal, and just like my dad, Daddy Rabbit had that magnetic and frenetic energy about him that people gravitated towards. There were stories of him being a gruff and strict coach and teacher, and stories of him being a tender, caring, and fiercely loyal friend, principal, and father. He cared deeply about justice. He refused to let the district send a child who had recovered from polio to another school, and he carried the boy up and down the stairs every day himself. He spoke out on behalf of people of color during the difficult days of integration in South Carolina.
Daddy Rabbit died of a stroke, after years of suffering with minimal use of one side of his body. I was only seven when he died, so these stories and his legacy loom larger than concrete memories of his actual presence for me. My dad has never said as much, but I think losing him was the biggest tragedy in his life. Dad was only thirty-eight when his father died.
In the post office my dad had run into a veteran in a wheel chair. My dad didn’t know him, so he was surprised when the man had called him over. He told my father that he had played football for Daddy Rabbit, that after high school he had been to Korea and lost his legs. He struggled mightily when he returned with PTSD and depression. He told my father that one day he had a gun in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger and end it all. Before he did, he saw Daddy Rabbit in his mind’s eye, talking to him like he used to back in high school, with his aggressive tone, saying, “Only cowards give up, and you are no coward, son.” (Disclaimer: suicide is not cowardly.) He decided not to kill himself that day, and it was the memory of my grandfather yelling at him on the football sidelines that saved him.
Even though I’ve only known the love of a stable, caring, and inspiring earthly father, I sometimes find the image of God as Father troubling. I can imagine for those whose fathers were abusive, absent, or worse, that this image could be triggering. Yet the fact remains, Jesus calls God father. (“Abba,” actually, which means something closer to “Dad.”) There are lots of images of God as mother in the Bible too, but why does Jesus call God father and not mother so boldly throughout the Gospels?
This image troubles me most because of all the horrible examples of earthly fathers out there. The patriarchy has hurt so many. The #metoo movement has uncovered only some of the damage that this toxic masculinity has caused. I do not believe this was ever God’s goal for men or fathers, but why would God have to be called something that comes with such baggage for so many people?
To see the beauty of this name for God, I’m finding it helpful to remember that God is not male or female. It does seem strange to parcel out gender from a name like father, but it’s helpful for me in this case.
What if God is trying to redeem fatherhood with this title? What if I tried looking to the Bible for who God is first, letting that enlighten my view of fathers, instead of looking at fathers first to enlighten my view of God.
When we look at fathers this way, we can see glimpses of God’s character in good fathering. That day in the post office with the veteran, my father got such a glimpse.
I see God in Daddy Rabbit as father as he spoke into the depths of that man’s soul when he needed it, reminding him of his value and ultimately saving his life. Maybe all the fathering the wounded veteran could handle was an image of his coach yelling at him. Aren’t we all longing for that kind of coaching? Fiercely loving, confident, truth, spoken deeply into our souls... by someone who loves us and wants the best for us? That’s what God as father can do.
The quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that we are adopted into God’s family through Christ, and so even if our earthly fathers fail us, through Jesus, regardless of our gender, we stand to inherit God’s great wealth. Yet, God wants nothing more than to spend time with us, to have things in common with us, to know us intimately, to speak truth about who we are and whose we are and will do so as many times and as long as it takes for us to believe it.
Daddy Rabbit was this type of adoptive father to many. He continues to father me through his legacy that he passed down to his own son, my dad.
In the end, we are not God’s slaves, employees, or tenants—we are God’s children. We can be so bold as to call God “Abba, Father.” To see the sweetness of this name for God, to allow it to melt and heal my heart, to show me the ways in which God is at work in all things, that’s what I long for.
In our faith tradition, we believe in a God that takes our distress seriously, a God who mourns when we mourn. That day as we left the post office, I saw my father cry because he missed his dad. And since we know that God weeps with us, I think that means that all good fathers cry.
My dad and me on my wedding day.