Tuesday, October 25, 2011


For many people, referring to God as “father” carries connotations that are difficult, if not impossible to overlook. Perhaps “father” was someone who was constantly critical, someone for whom your work was never good enough. You would never measure up no matter how hard you tried.

Maybe “father” was the person who disciplined when you did something wrong. And maybe that discipline was harsh or even abusive. Maybe “father” was someone you had to hide from so you wouldn’t have to hide the bruises he gave you from your friends.

It might be that “father” was drunk, loud, and mean. You didn’t dare bring your friends home because you never knew what sort of mood he would be in. He might be overly friendly to your female friends, or overly aggressive with you male friends. Either way, when your friends left you would feel ashamed.

Maybe “father” was a step-father who made it clear he didn’t want you around. You came as a package deal with the woman he married but you were only barely tolerable. Maybe you even suffered sexual abuse at his hands.

These are not minor issues. They not only leave permanent scars but they hamper identifying with the God who comes to his people as Father.

Perhaps one way to begin to retrieve a proper notion of God as Father is via the Aramaic word “abba.” This little word carries with it the idea of deep intimacy and love. I was reminded of this in a sermon a week ago. The pastor said that “abba” is usually left untranslated because no English word really captures the full meaning of this richly significant concept. While sometimes it is considered the equivalent of “daddy,” the word a young child might use, that does not sum up the full meaning.

The pastor told this story. He told of a young couple whose son was born prematurely. He was taken to the neonatal intensive care unit at a nearby hospital and carefully tended to by the staff. But the father and grandfather also stopped by frequently, bending over the isolet, touching his little hands, stroking his little body as if to encourage him to continue to live and to flourish. The pastor telling this story later revealed that he was the grandfather of this little one who was now a teenager.

I could relate to this story. Our second child, a son, was also born prematurely. My husband also regularly went to the neonatal intensive care unit, bent over the isolet, talked to our son, rubbing his back and holding his tiny hand, encouraging him to continue to live and flourish. When I was able, I went too. I know the gut-wrenching feeling that comes with wishing you could give your very own life and breath to that little baby; the feeling of willing him to live.

The pastor said that God is a father like that. He bends down to us, tenderly watches over us, willing us to live, offering us life through his own Son, the sort of life we were intended to have. A life of flourishing in his presence. Perhaps a picture like this can offer those whose human fathers have fallen far short of God’s intention, a glimpse of who God is, our ultimate Abba.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Psalm 92:12 “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree.”

My daughter is a student at Hope College, a Christian liberal arts college not too far from where we live. She is the baby of our family so every time we experience something with her we are keenly aware that this is our last time not just with this child, but with all of our children. I think that makes us pay somewhat more attention. I know that is true for me.

Two years ago when she started at Hope, we did what every good parent does. We brought her to school, helped her move in, helped her arrange her room and her stuff, and then went to all the parent orientation activities. We didn’t expect anything new. We had already been through this at two different colleges with our two sons. What do parents really need to know about all this after all?

But surprisingly, I did hear something new. In chapel.

The chaplain at Hope, Trygve Johnson, preached a sermon on Psalm 1, a psalm whose theme reverberates throughout the Psalter and is reflected in the quote from Psalm 92 above.

He told us about the “soil of Hope.” Soil that is rich in its Christian heritage. He talked about Hope College as a place where our children could sink their roots deep and soak up the nutrients necessary to nourish their faith. He said that every day he prays with Psalm 1, “Lord, make me like a tree.”

Funny prayer, isn’t it?

Make me like a tree.

But Psalm 1 says that the righteous person is “like a tree, planted by a river, that bears its fruit in season” whose “leaves do not wither.” The tree in Psalm 1 is a picture of the flourishing God intends for his people.

And then Dr. Trygve Johnson told this place full of many first-time Hope College parents that he not only prays that prayer for himself, he prays it for the students of Hope College.

That was my “ah-hah” moment. That would be my prayer for my precious daughter. “Lord, make her like a tree.” Shape her into that righteous person who flourishes like a tree. Make her like that tree. And I decided to pray that prayer for myself as well.

She just began her junior year. We are half-way done with this journey of college. Her freshman year I wondered if she would ever flourish. Last year, I saw glimmers of hope. This year, I am beginning to see fruit. But I won’t stop praying – ever.

Lord, make her (and me, and my boys, and my husband, and all these students….) like a tree.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Receiving Grace

I recently read Marilyn Robinson’s  novel, Home. A central character is a man who, after a rebellious and troubled childhood, left home. After twenty years of questionable living he returns to the family home in Gilead, Iowa. His father and sister offer the prodigal grace and do their best to make him feel at ease. But no matter how hard they try, Jack still feels like he does not belong in his own home, like he does not deserve to be there. Likewise, he feels like he does not belong in their faith. He is portrayed as incapable of receiving grace, as a man who desperately wants to find a home, but cannot.

I know people like Jack. They are not hostile to Christianity. Some of them even wish they could embrace the Christian faith. But they feel they are not good enough, will never measure up to the perceived standards. At the end of the day, they cannot accept grace.

Sometimes even Christians feel this way. Despite our talk of salvation by grace, we really don’t believe it. We think that if we don’t say yes to teaching Sunday School, sit on at least 5 committees, walk in the Right to Life walk, and feed the homeless once a week, we really don’t deserve a place at the table.

So what is the answer to all of this?

Jack and people like Jack are partially right. Apart from Christ, we do not deserve to be in a relationship with God. We deserve the alienation that we caused by our sin.

But that is not the end of the story.

In Christ, we do deserve a place at the table with the Triune God. All we need do is accept the gift God has given to us in Christ. In other words, the feeling that we really don’t measure up is right. We don’t. Recognizing that about ourselves is good.

But we shouldn’t wallow in that feeling. We need to move on to the recognition that we have been invited to the table by God himself. All we need do is accept the invitation with gratitude.

Extended focus on our unworthiness will throw a roadblock of despair on the highway of grace,
impeding any forward progress in our relationship with God, and maybe blocking that relationship altogether. The good news is that in Christ we are worthy. The response to that news, is a life of gratitude. In other words, we live not in order to receive grace, but out of gratitude for the grace already received.