One of the most potent memories I have of my father is in a canoe. Our family tended to go on wild, educational, death defying vacations, usually initiated by my father. For many years we canoed in the Boundary Waters, an enormous area of upper Minnesota and Canada with thousands upon thousands of lakes and no electricity or running water. We’d set off in two canoes, packed with supplies, and head off to nowhere land, my father in the back of one boat with a waterproof map spread out across his knees and his bright red compass tied around his neck. He would dip his paddle silently and evenly into the water, pull it back out, feather it perfectly, and then back in to let it pause in the water as a tiller, readjusting the bow of the canoe.
He would keep his chin up as he looked at the horizon and I remember thinking that his face was aristocratic looking with its straight nose and deep set eyes, not particularly suited for the wild white water and pine trees of Minnesota’s thousands of lakes. His shoulders weren’t broad, any virility he was missing on the athletic field he made up for in technical knowledge – how to sharpen a knife in the woods, how to rope a pack of food high in the trees away from bears, the best way to make coffee over an open fire. When he talked to my brothers and me, it was usually to instruct us on flipping a canoe on our shoulder for portage, or to explain, once again, the ice age to us – how ice a mile thick had slipped down from the top of the world and melted into the legion of puddles we were so faithfully dipping our paddles into. Later on in my childhood he purchased a series of larger and larger sailboats. He loved the way a sailboat was dependant on his understanding of the natural world. Navigation: the sun, the moon, the stars. Power: the wind and the sails. I pictured him at night with a sextant at his face - a metal hook of a thing - pressing it towards the black dome of infinity like a surgeon at an incision. But I remember him mostly in the canoe with the map and his compass. He would pause, laying his paddle across the canoe, and focus again on the map - aligning his compass, looking up at the horizon, ready to guide our family to the next portage or campsite for the night. He would navigate us through thunderstorms and slice bug-eyed walleye into fillets for dinner. Once, he performed a rudimentary operation on my brother when a fish hook became embedded in the muscle of his hand.
At home, in between vacations, he read. History mostly. Big books with titles like Churchill , or The Napoleonic Age . Or the New York Times . If I asked him a question he might utter a yea or a nay from behind the noisy, crumpling newsprint, not bothering to look up.
My father never told me he loved me. He never lifted me up on his knee to talk, or on his shoulders to look at a parade. But I always knew there would be food on the table, that if the powers of the age we lived in were to turn against us, we’d be okay. I always knew we would get where we needed to go. Flash forward. I went to college and through a series of what I can only describe as divine interventions, I began to understand that God loved me and had a design for my life – that he cared about my infinitesimally small and insignificant soul, and had every intention, if I would let Him, to draw me close to himself. I committed my life to him, felt the massive, copious love of a God who forgives, and began to spend time each morning in prayer and reading the Bible. It felt as though I was a newlywed. I loved God and he loved me. Nothing, it seemed, could pollute this precious new life that I had found with Him.
After a few years, however, I began to experience a vague distance in my walk with God. It was as though ever so slowly God was turning his back on me. He seemed more interested in other things, like the tilt of the universe and black holes and exploding nebula - that sort of thing. I continued to do what I was supposed to do – praying, reading the Bible, asking for forgiveness, but it felt dry. I felt, quite honestly, like I bored him, like I was bothering God. On my best days, I felt I was doing pretty well if I got a glance above the New York Times .
In case you haven’t made the connection, I’ll make it for you. Our earthly fathers, whether affectionate and loving, unpredictable and violent, absent or even nonexistent, affect in almost an intrinsic way, how we perceive our Father in Heaven and his feelings towards us. Because of growing up with a father who always provided for me, kept me from physical harm, and understood sometimes complicated things about this world, It is very easy for me to believe that God will always provide food for the table and get me out of sticky situations if necessary. I haven’t, however, found it easy to experience the love and affection that the Bible is so clear God has ‘lavished’ on me. It has taken a long time for me to understand, at a heart level, that God desires for me to be close to him. I’ve had to put some work into understanding and really believing that my Father in Heaven actually loves me, and is not just taking care of me out of duty – that he is a father who wants me to climb up on his lap and tell him about my day, about my fears, my desires, my hopes.
THE GRAVITY OF FATHERHOOD
Earthly men, I’m afraid, are the ones who demonstrate fatherhood for us. God has packed the scriptures full of earthly metaphors to help us understand the mysteries of the spiritual world. Rocky soil represents a heart that is reluctant to grow, a vine represents a life that with pruning and care, will grow, flourish, and produce more fruit. Earthly fathers, in their deep and persistent love for their daughters, represent the lavish and joyful love that our Father in Heaven has for us as his children.
Metaphors, more often than not however, fall apart. Our earthly fathers will always fail us in one way or another. Understanding God as our Father in Heaven by understanding the father/daughter relationship here on earth, is a lot like explaining a three dimensional character by two dimensional means. John Singer Sargent, arguably the best portrait artist the world has ever known, painted Teddy Roosevelt in a way that captures not only his physical features, but hints at the very soul beneath astute and vested chest. None of us, however, if we were to meet the living, breathing Roosevelt pressing his round wire rimmed glasses higher on his nose as he shifted his weight from one leg to the other, would argue that Sargent showed us Roosevelt in a way that made actually meeting the real Roosevelt obsolete.
In fact, God makes a point of telling us that the metaphor falls short, that the fathers we have here on earth are ultimately a pretty limited representation of His own love and care for us. Matthew 7:9-10 says, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Focus here on the how much more. God, your father, wants you to understand that his gifts are far more complete and full and lavish and sincere than even the best father’s are here on earth.
The need for a loving, responsible, guiding father here on earth is a valid one. There is a real loss that’s experienced when this need is not met. If your father was the type who would dangle candy in front of your face and then snatch it away at the last minute, chuckling under his breath as you went to grab at the air, well, that pretty much rots. And it should. You’ve been wronged, and it’ll take some work to believe God when he says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer 29:11)
There are so many ways that our earthly fathers can warp our perspective of God. If you never had your father’s approval or affection, it can lead to a tendency to look for that missing approval and affection in men and unhealthy relationships. An abusive father can lead to a mistrust of men and God. An emotionally absent father can lead, as it did in my case, to seeing God as disinterested and bothered by you. A father who shows up every now and then with gifts and then apparently vanishes, can lead to difficulty in connecting with God. We all have these sort of visceral images that we attach to God whether we mean to or not, and it affects the way that we respond to him. It affects how we view certain passages of scripture and how even the quality of our prayer times.
A REAL DADDY
It is important, as you begin to understand the ways that your earthly father has influenced the way that you view God, to take the time and do your homework. Without a true understanding of who God is as your father, it will be tempting to try to meet those needs that God himself put in your heart, in unhealthy ways. It will be tempting to go to men, or working for people’s approval, or mint chocolate chip ice cream to meet those natural needs you have for love and approval. Take the time to work on realigning your perspective of God with what is really true of him. If your earthly father was verbally abusive, for example, think of some words that express the opposite of abuse – love, gentleness, kindness, goodness - and look them up in scripture. Look up love in a concordance - there’s like a bazillion entries. Psalm 136 says, His love endures forever, I don’t know, like 26 times. Picture God saying this to you, looking you in the eye and saying, “My love endures forever.” He wants you to know him as the perfect father.
Jesus in the flesh, in his living, breathing, personality of love, came to earth with the express purpose of showing God as Father to us. As Christians we often forget, in our gratefulness to Christ for His sacrifice for us, that he came to show us the Father. He is God in the flesh. When you see a pastel picture hanging on a Sunday school wall of Jesus surrounded by little children, perhaps cupping the face of a particular little girl and looking into her eyes, you are seeing God your Father.
DEEP BLUE SOMETHING
God desires that you see Him this way. He himself created in you a deep desire and need for Himself as your Father. Any longing that you have for a father, any desires that you feel for a powerful, loving, intimate relationship, were put there by God, himself. He created the need and then whistles for your attention. Romans 8: 15 says, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Abba is Aramaic for Daddy, or Papa, or dear Father. It speaks of intimacy, tenderness, and a complete absence of fear or anxiety. The God of the universe wants you to call him Daddy. The God of the universe wants to take your face in his hands, look into your eyes, and tell you he loves you.
Sometimes I picture what it would have been like to have a perfect father. In my mind I keep some of the fuzzy background memories I have of my real father – I keep the bookshelves with the history books, the Churchill, and Napoleonic Age, and I remember his big leather chair he used to sit in and I think back to some of the conversations we had in different locations about how things were made. I remember standing in a cavernous cathedral, St. John the Divine, and feeling like I was in the belly of a whale as he pointed up to the elongated windows, describing to me in detail how buttresses were designed. I keep some of the good stuff. But then I focus on scripture and what I know intellectually is true of my Father in Heaven to take the place of the ways that my own father let me down. I think about the ways that Christ showed us the father – telling the disciples he wanted the children to come to him, and I think about what a father who is everything good and excellent looks like. It’s not a pipe dream. Our Father in Heaven is this for us. Not only that, but he wants us to understand this more and more as we grow in him. He is approving and affectionate, he is faithful and gentle and loving, he is present – always – and never leaves us. He is emotionally interested in us. Work on getting to know him as he really is.
I recently went through a Bible study on relating to God as Father. In the study there was a section that had a line that was a continuum of blue color— a deep blue at one end to a pale, almost white at the other. There was a sentence in bold type above the line that read something like, place an X on the line to express how well you feel you know God as your Heavenly Father. At the dark blue end of the line, it read, not very well, and at the light blue end of the line, it read, very well. I remember thinking that they had the colors wrong, that someone had messed up – they’d gotten the colors backwards. Intuitively, the deep blue, it seemed to me, should represent very well, and the light, almost white color should represent, not very well. When I have felt the closest to my Father in Heaven, when I have felt the kinship of being his daughter and the privilege of inheriting a life full of his very being, it can be described as nothing less than full and deep and rich – in a word, “colorful.” It has been during the dry times, when I have had difficulty grasping those things that he so wants me to grasp – when I see Him with his face behind the paper – that I have felt weak and pale and almost overwhelmed with the insignificance of who I am.
J.I. Packer writes, “To know God as our father— as our almighty, loving Father – is the highest, richest, and most rewarding aspect of our whole relationship with him.”
JUST ONE DROP
My father was great with a canoe. Every dip of his paddle into the cool lake water was purposeful and precise. I remember sitting in the front of the canoe with my own paddle, trying to feather it perfectly like he did, looking at the expanse of rippling lake water and the horizon of pine trees, wondering where we’d end up for the night. I’ve since learned to see God, not only as the sure navigator, but also as loving and kind and interested in me.
This morning I got a letter from my dad in the mail. It was an article from a page of the New York Times , folded into small squares with a post-it note stuck to it on which he had written, “Something to think about - Dad.” I never got to crawl up on his lap and tell him about my day when I was a kid, but I can appreciate his love of knowledge. My dad, in all of his earthly, faultiness is one drop in an ocean of true things about God and I’ve learned over the years to take that one drop, that element of truth, and through the Holy Spirit’s work in my life, through discipline and an increasing understanding of scripture, discover more and more the completeness, the perfectly sufficient Father that I have in Heaven.
Chapter excerpt taken from “Fantasy” (CruPress).
KATIE JAMES has been on staff with Cru for 22 years. Katie has a Masters Degree in creative writing from Columbia University. She and her husband, Rick, and three children live in West Chester, PA.
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