“Fathering” is a word rarely used and in fact before a Father’s Day letter from my children, I can’t remember seeing it before. “Mothering” is not unusual and in some liturgical traditions there are “Mothering Sundays” (during Advent and Lent in which the color is pink). So when I read the word “fathering,” used by one of my children to describe my piece of our parenting, it sent a wave of emotion through me.
“Father” sounds formal and has the added weight of the God relationship, with a terrible history of Patriarchy and misogyny. “Dad” has a baseball cap involved with it. “Pops” comes with an “I Like Ike” t-shirt and Keds Hi Top Sneakers. “Daddy” evokes intrinsic dependency on the one hand with a certain knowing intimacy on the other.
“Fathering,” probably because of the word “mothering,” has a soft kindness to it that is also filled with masculine nurture.
I mention it because what we call God in the privacy of our own head also forms our relationship with God. Each of my children has more than one word or phrase for me as their parent – including all of the above and then some. I have numerous words for them as well, all additional names of affection. Each name we use for one another conveys a feeling, a unique relationship, a certain timbre of the moment. With the use of one word a great deal is spoken and more is evoked.
What we call God matters. The name we give to God probably says a great deal about our relationship with the holy, as well as what our relationship may need in order to be more robust or intimate. It is worth our time and effort to invigorate more than one name with authenticity and verve so that our conversations with God hold the diversity of emotion and character that we carry within us.
It won’t happen by accident since we have been trained by institution, tradition, and culture to only use certain words or names. We have to experiment. Think of it as dating, in which the more connected we become the more names are evoked and the more complicated and nuanced the qualities with which those names are intoned.
On a corporate level, our Liturgical language for God is just as profoundly influential. If the only name we have for God is “Father” then we are condemned to a distance, formal, Oz-like relationship. “Father” can indeed be a positive term even though it carries much negative baggage these days, but if it is the only one we use then we’re in big trouble.
Our communal language for worship needs to include the same wide variance as our personal and family vocabulary. We need soft and intimate titles, action-oriented words of endearment, as well as the more formal and traditional. “Beloved,” “Mother,” “Whisperer” all come to mind as does “Gracious Father” and “Abba,” and “Sophia.”
Personally and corporately our language with the holy needs to be as fluid and veritable as the names we have for one another. If not, it suggests a lack of emotional dimension and texture that we would find as disturbing in any other meaningful relationship.