Heavenly Father is the name I have used the most to address God in prayer, based on the pattern of prayer I was taught as a child. But my relationship with this name has had it’s ups and downs. Life’s experiences have toyed with my identities. Sometimes, I have felt very strongly about a particular word or title because of it’s impact in my life. Other times, I’ve used words carelessly and thoughtlessly. Still other times, I’ve allowed my words to reflect my own biases and prejudices. Such is the nature of human language, and our name for God is not exempt.
The first time I hesitated when opening a prayer with “Heavenly Father” was after a struggle with the historical views of a wrathful God found in scripture. I’ve since come to understand scripture as wisdom literature describing our human condition touched by the grace of God, and not as the black and white window into heaven’s objectivity I was taught it to be. After deciding I was going to believe in God (I wrote about that experience in Starting from Scratch – It is Accepted), my heart was set on reimagining the God of the Bible to be far more present and universally incarnate than the name “Heavenly” would allow for. I needed a break from a distant God. I needed him close.
Then, I had an abrupt experience with the maleness of God’s power, again because of the way I had been taught (I’ve recorded the details of that experience in Priesthood – The Power to Bless and Heal). I doubted that God is a father who would purposefully discriminate and withhold as a reflection of his own cosmic order. Something about the nature of God spoke of a divine feminine. If there is a Father, then there must also be a Mother. But, what if there is neither Father or Mother? Or, what if God is bigger than those constructs while also including the beautiful qualities of both? Kind of like how God is both One and Three? Now, I not only needed God close, but I needed God to be bigger than the cultural perspectives of humanity. I didn’t need a “Father in Heaven”. I needed a great big God who is absolutely everywhere and intimately connected to me as a woman.
My prayers evolved, and often I didn’t open my prayer with a name at all. I just started talking. God didn’t seem to mind. I did this for months. Then, one day, I just wanted to open with a name. I wanted something to call God. I tried on all sorts of non-heavenly non-male names, and none of them clicked. I don’t think it’s because any of those names were wrong… they just didn’t really embody what I was feeling at the time. “Dear God” felt a little like writing a letter to the editor of a children’s magazine. And “Oh God Who Art The Great I Am” felt a little too honorific and cold. Et cetera.
One day, some questions popped into my mind. My beliefs about God had been evolving, but what about my relationship with God? Was I still praying to the same God that had heard and answered my prayers as a child? I decided I would experiment. Some time around the beginning of my recent adventures with God I had started sitting in the lotus position on a middle-eastern prayer rug while praying. I don’t know, just felt more comfortable to me. Maybe that’s a story for another day. But, I hadn’t prayed kneeling at my bedside with my arms folded as I had been taught in over a year. So, I got on my knees, folded my arms, and began, “Dear Heavenly Father”…
Before I could get out any other words, I heard, “It has always been me.” I didn’t even say the rest of my prayer. I just sat with that for a while. I knew in that moment that it didn’t matter what I called God. I could use any name that felt comfortable, or no name at all, and God would always be present with me. I stopped trying to figure out what to call God, and just started saying whatever was present for me. Even though I mostly went back to just not using any opening to my prayers at all, I weirdly fully embraced the times that I ended up opening with “Heavenly Father”. It was habit, and that’s fine because God answers to that name too. Plus, it reminded me of my inner child, not because I felt I needed to show subordination towards a distant fatherly figure, but because I have very fond memories of the relationship I had with God as a child. With how often I can start swirling in the complexities of my adult brain, I liked that simplicity sometimes.
Until last week. Last week was a little tumultuous for me. I was confronted with parts of society that made me feel frustrated with all sorts of oppressive systems. Racism, nationalism, patriarchy, hierarchy, and even religion. I again felt like I needed that really big always present God. I needed to feel like God was bigger than it all and in the trenches with humanity, and “Heavenly Father” wasn’t cutting it. So, I sat in my car, waiting for my children to be done with their theater class, and found what little comfort I could in meditating on this great big God.
My mind brought me to an image of a great big river of love, similar to the river imagery we find in Isaiah:
Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:19).
This great river was both a peaceful slow-moving river of deep waters and a coursing foaming river of great power. Love is the undercurrent that supports and moves all of human experience. It flows through everything and provides the way by which humanity progresses. It is big enough and pervasive enough to be just what I needed. I felt connected to God and thereby connected to all things around me. And as the old Chinese proverb says, “Don’t push the river, it flows by itself.” I let go of angrily pushing against the systems. My frustrations melted into the river. The river of love which flows all by itself.
I started a prayer, and shocked myself when I opened with, “Great River, hear my prayer.” I immediately stopped talking, and smiled. Great River. I remembered my Native American heritage, and their connection to the earth, and God, and Earth as God. I felt the warm embrace of my ancestors unveiling the magic of their worldview. I opened my eyes and looked around at the trees, the sky, the soil, the leaves blowing in the wind, and I knew that Great River had heard my prayer. Everything was going to be okay.
I still don’t use any one name of God consistently, and I still don’t feel like God minds. I don’t hold one body position as more meaningful than any other, though I still prefer the lotus on my little rug. I know the value of tradition, and also the value of holding it softly in one’s hands. I often don’t know what to say when asked to pray in public, so I default to the language of the group with whom I’m praying. After all, it’s on their behalf that I’m calling upon God’s love and power. It seems like this would make me feel a little bit like a lost sheep sometimes, but it never feels wrong. And I’ve never felt more found.