Prayer #5: Praying to Our Father in Heaven

Yet Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we all are the work of your hands.
Lord, do not be terribly angry
or remember our iniquity forever.
Please look—all of us are your people!

Isaiah 64:8-9

In the Bible, God is called Father. Jesus teaches his disciples about God the Father, including how to pray to God the Father. And some of us are so used to this that maybe we don’t give it a second thought. But, you know, having to call God Father could be difficult for some because of the relationship they had with their father. In his book, God Distorted: How Your Earthly Father Affects Your Perception of God and Why It Matters, John Bishop writes this:

The ways your father behaved toward you—what he said to you, how he treated you, everything he did and didn’t do—had an impact on you in some way. Depending on how you were treated, mistreated, or just plain ignored, you have come up with your own ideas of what a father is like. Because of this, I am quite certain that how you see and perceive your heavenly Father, God, has also been impacted—distorted even—by your relationship with your earthly dad.

John Bishop, God Distorted: How Your Earthly Father Affects Your Perception of God and Why It Matters

And because of this, thinking of God as Father—especially praying to God as Father—means looking at what the Bible says about God as Father. When the Bible calls God Father, what does it mean? And how does this matter when it comes to prayer?

A while back I bought the boys some modeling clay. They used their imagination to make some pretty cool things. I made something sort of cool myself. Knowing God as our Father means saying with Isaiah: We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. In Psalm 139:13 we read this: For it was you who created my inward parts;you knit me together in my mother’s womb. In other words, having God as our Father means having him as the source of our life. You could say that he is where we come from. He knows us perfectly because he made us. He designed us.

We all know how much it helps sometimes to talk to someone who knows us very well. It’s easy to share with them. And sometimes this person can almost finish our sentences. Or it’s like we don’t even have to use words. Simply being in their presence makes us feel understood. Because God formed us, he knows us. Again, in Psalm 139:4 it says: Before a word is on my tongue, you know all about it, Lord. Makes you think, “Why pray at all if he already knows what I’m thinking and feeling?”

Here’s the thing: We don’t come to God our Father in prayer to give him information. We come because of the relationship we have with him. We come because we know that in his presence we are known and loved. When my kids come to me, it’s often because they just want a hug, to have that simple, tangible reminder that I know them, accept them, and love them. With God our Father, we can have that same assurance. Prayer is, in part, coming to God for the same reason a child comes to a parent.

Who in your life knows you really well? What about being known also helps you know you are loved?Do you feel known and loved by God? Why or why not?Is it easier or harder to pray knowing that God is called Father?

Several years ago, when our daughter Ella was probably not much older than a toddler, she took a pen and made some “editorial” changes to one of my pocket Bibles. Alisha told her she would have to show me and apologize to me. And I remember quite vividly lying on the couch and Ella coming over to me all apologetic and sad about what she’d done. In that moment I was more concerned with making sure she knew I loved her and forgave her than I was with the condition of the Bible in question. Ella was really worried about telling me what she had done, but because I am her father she trusted that I would respond with patience and love.

Our passage in Isaiah says: Lord, do not be terribly angry or remember our iniquity forever. Sometimes we act in ways that go against our heavenly Father’s purposes and desires for us. Maybe sometimes at a psychological level we can feel uncertainty or fear in our relationship with God. But look at what it says in Psalm 103:11—13: For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his faithful love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. Look at some of the language used here to describe God and his attitude to those who trust him: So great is his faithful love. The Lord has compassion on those who fear him. These are the sorts of characteristics that assure us about coming to God even when we know we’ve done wrong. Our Father in heaven seeks to bring healing and restoration. He looks to welcome us back into his presence. He just wants us back.

Think of the father in the story of the prodigal son. This story gives us an image of God the Father’s heart. When the son who wasted all his inheritance was on his way home, this is what it says about the father: But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. So when Psalm 103 says the Lord has compassion on those who fear him, we shouldn’t think of this as being afraid of God. But it does mean reverence and respect. Praying to God as Father means taking him seriously as a holy, loving God who we can trust—even with our deepest, most profound mistakes.

What comes to your mind when you think of God as Father?Have you ever felt unacceptable to God or too afraid to approach him in prayer?How would you describe God as Father based on our passages?

We live in a radically individualistic culture. We tend to view life almost exclusively through the lens of “me.” And this is true of our spiritual lives too. Our relationship with God is almost entirely privatized. We think in terms of God as my Father, Jesus as my Savior. But notice all throughout the passage we read from Isaiah that the pronouns are plural: You, Lord, are our Father. We are all the work of your hand. Do not remember our sins forever. This meanspraying to God our Father is always about being part of a larger spiritual family. Even if we take the words from Isaiah and make them a part of our private prayers, we’re immediately reminded that we are not alone. Psalm 68, which also refers to God as a father, says: God sets the lonely in families.

And Jesus teaches us this too. Think about how the Lord’s Prayer begins: Our Father . . . And he taught this prayer to his disciples, not to a disciple. In other words, even when we sit down to pray by ourselves, we can and should be encouraged to know that others are also praying. I think it also reminds us that we are called to gather together to pray.  There’s real power at work when God’s people get together to pray.

Acts 4:31 gives us one example of this: When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God boldly. That God is our Father also reminds us that he is the one who not only created the church, but our church, this church. God is the one who is responsible for the ongoing existence of our church family.

And only God can form us into the community we’re called to be. We are all the work of your hand. I think we need to keep praying for our church, that God would continually be at work in our midst, reminding us of our need for his power and presence. The notion that we pray to our Father as a community—as members of the church—also connects to the idea of seeking God’s forgiveness that we talked about already.

Once, when I was still on Facebook, I posted these comments about church: “Confession and repentance are basic to Christian discipleship. But so often we construe them almost exclusively in individual terms, especially in evangelical churches. However, is there not a need and a call from God to the church as a community to repentance? Are there not ways we fall into disobedience and sin as congregations and as the people of Christ?”

In other words, there will be times when a congregation as a whole will have to repent and ask God to bring restoration and renewal—maybe more often than we realize. Like it says in our passage: Do not remember our sins forever. And in Psalm 103:13: As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. Having God as our Father means we can and should come to him as his children and as brothers and sisters.

Does knowing God is our Father make you think differently about prayer? What’s the difference between praying by yourself and praying with other people? If God is our Father, what do you think he wants for us as his people, as the church?

So let me close by saying this: God is not like earthly fathers. Earthly fathers should be more like God the Father. He is the ideal, the model, the example, that all earthly fathers ought to follow.

On a more personal note, let me say this. I know what it’s like to be abandoned by an earthly father. I know what that can do to your sense of self. I understand what that can do to your relationship with God. I also know that coming to see God as Father can bring healing and restoration. My heavenly Father is nothing at all like my earthly father.

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, theologian Dieterich Bonhoeffer wrote this: “The child asks of the Father whom he knows. Thus, the essence of Christian prayer is not general adoration, but definite, concrete petition. The right way to approach God is to stretch out our hands and ask of One who we know has the heart of a Father.”

I want to invite you to see God the Father as your Father, as a God you can trust, who knows you perfectly because he made you, who loves you beyond measure, and who you can trust with your deepest wounds. I don’t know where you heart is this morning. But he does. And wherever you are in life, whatever is going on, you can come to him. You can trust him. And indeed, whether you believe it or not, accept it or not, you need him. He is there for you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.

I invite to pray a simple prayer to God the Father. Let us pray: “Father God, I come into your presence so aware of my human frailty and yet overwhelmed by your love for me. I thank you that there is no human experience that I might walk through where your love cannot reach me. If I climb the highest mountain you are there and yet if I find myself in the darkest valley of my life, you are there. Teach me today to love you more. Help me to rest in that love that asks nothing more than the simple trusting heart of a child. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Three More Lessons from Shovelling!

The start of our shovelling job
The end of our shovelling job

Yes, it snowed again. A lot. Not only that, but since the forecast was also calling for ice pellets and rain, we needed to shovel before the snow in the driveway became ice!

So out went Eli and I again.

To honour the occasion, here are three more lessons from shovelling!

First, if there’s something you need to do but don’t want to do, putting it off might only make it harder to do. If we hadn’t gotten out when we did, the ice pellets and change of temperature would have made the snow a lot harder to shovel.

Second, doing something you didn’t really want to do in the first place gives you satisfaction at a job well done. I actually debated between shovelling and waiting for the person who often plows for us. Of course, I didn’t want to make that trudge to the end of the driveway, but I’m really glad I did.

Third, doing what might otherwise be a toilsome job can be a chance to spend time with someone you care about. In my case, shovelling was an opportunity to do something with one of my sons. Eli told me that today was a good day. And when I asked why, he said because we got all that shovelling done. Then I commented that most of the time people wouldn’t say shovelling snow made their day better. But then he replied, “I got to hang out with you.” Cue happy Dad moment.

I should also reiterate that my other son Henry shovelled the end of the driveway later in the day after the plow did our street. The snow was much more densely packed and harder to shovel. When it seemed to be proving something of a challenge, I grabbed my gloves and jacket and went out again. Together, we got it done.

And as far as the above lessons go, I’m sure you can easily find ways to apply them to your own life—with or without a shovel.

My Story Part 17: Fatherhood

Sometimes even if I can’t recall all the details of a dream, I can remember the way the dream made me feel. And years ago I had a dream in which I had a little boy, a son–I was a father! I don’t remember much else, whether in the dream I was also married or even whether I had adopted him or was his biological dad. But I woke up that day with a deep sense of joy and longing. Like I had experienced something wonderful but that was now slipping away.

When I had that dream, I was single. I could only imagine experiencing fatherhood. It felt a world away. But it was only a few years later when I was standing in a delivery room as my wife was giving birth to our firstborn, our daughter. That moment is etched in my memory. It was October 7, 2004, 11:42pm. Our little girl emerged into the world eyes wide open, curious and beautiful, changing our lives forever.

That was more than 16 years ago now. Less than 5 years after her arrival, our twin sons came along; and ever since our family life has been filled with ups, downs, unexpected twists and turns, tears and laughter.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What’s truly amazing is how different our kids are from one another. Each has their own beautiful uniqueness that has stamped itself on our hearts. Watching them grow, learn, deal with life, and learning as parents how to navigate it with them, is indeed the highest calling I have ever had. Not that I always do this well or am a fount of wisdom in every moment. Even they have seen me make mistakes. But what a joy and privilege it continues to be to have these young souls in my life.

Yet, even though I am their father, their Dad, Papa, Daddy, I can’t control them or determine how their lives will go in the years ahead. Not that I want to do this. But don’t all parents want to help their kids avoid pitfalls and struggles, to ensure their greatest possible happiness in this life? Yet, they will have to make choices, sometimes hard ones. Our kids will make poor choices. And we will have to watch. They will have to take what we’ve been able to give them as parents and figure out how to navigate the waters they find themselves sailing.

No wonder parenting is a bittersweet joy, one tinged with sadness and unfulfilled longing. Because even now I can look back and wish some things had been different for them. I wish my daughter never had to deal with mental health issues. I wish all of them still had both of their grandmothers around. I wish that one of our sons and our daughter didn’t have some of the difficulties they do in getting along more consistently. I wish they didn’t have to experience disappointment, rejection, fear, and pain.

Of course, now is the time when I ponder the parallels between me being a Dad and what it must be like for our heavenly Father. He sees our individual uniqueness and beauty. He sees our failings and brokenness. Seeing all of this, his love for us exceeds every conceivable boundary. And he longs for us to know this love, to rest in this love, to find in his love peace, solace, comfort, and joy. When we fall short, he remains there. His love for us is undeterred by our straying hearts and lives. He waits to embrace us once again. We are always welcome home.

I want to be this kind of father for my children.

Not having had a father growing up, not having known father love during my most formative years, I repeatedly, frequently, insistently, and annoyingly tell each of my kids I love them. All. The. Time. I want my love for them to be bedrock in a world where there’s so little upon which they can rely. And I want, more than anything, for my love to point them, to open their hearts and lives up, to the love of their heavenly Father. Where I fail them, he will not. When I cannot protect them, he can be their refuge and strength. And when I am no longer a part of their lives because I have gone on to my eternal rest, he will still be with them. There’s nothing I want more for them than to know this love, to receive it, and to live and die being held by it.

Much like in that dream years ago, being a father brings me great joy. There are moments when I almost can’t believe how blessed I am. I look at my kids and I feel wonder. Indeed, what strange, wondrous creatures they are! Surely, this is an imperfect joy, one which includes its measure of sadness and longing, but for all that fills me with a gladness I thought I would never know.

Except perhaps in a dream.