Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Spiritual Mothers and Fathers

Dear Friends,

Many years ago, when we had first started the Wednesday ministry at the assisted living home, a woman came up to me and addressed me as “Father.” As an Evangelical Protestant pastor, I was uncomfortable with that title and asked her to call me “Pastor John.” She looked at me, hesitated a moment and said, “Okay Father.” I soon gave up trying to correct those who attended the church services and all of the residents and staff called me “Father” or “Padre.” (Padre is from the Latin word “pater” and literally means “father priest.”) Most of the residents were decades older than me and their own fathers had passed on a long time ago. But as they were journeying through this last season of life, they were reaching out to a spiritual father to hold their hand and help them through it. It was humbling and more than a little disconcerting when I realized that God had given me to them to fill that role. It seems like no matter where we are in our life, we need a father.

My birthday was last week and while I’m normally too engaged with the present to concern myself with the past, my birthdays always seem to bring me to a place of nostalgic remembrances of my life to date. Faces, names and episodes that had been buried in my memory and long forgotten about are vividly recalled. Then last Sunday was Father’s Day and, because I never fathered a child, I’ve been uncomfortable when people wished me a “happy father’s day.” As when people at church called me “Father,” it’s always felt like an undeserved title. Was I really a father? really. 

But then during a birthday week a few years ago, God showed me something through the personal “documentary” of my life that had been the focus of my thoughts. He was showing me that, from when I was a young man, He had called me to be in the role of “spiritual father” to many of those He had brought into my life.  When I became a pastor, my mother had told me that she was not surprised because I’d spent so much of my life helping others by being their listener, counselor and mentor long before I was ordained. 

I didn’t have to be ordained to be a spiritual mentor. Neither do you. I’ve known men who had been the spiritual father to many and known women who were the spiritual mother to many. Some were also biological parents to children and some were not. But they were the “father” that their friends sought out for help when life got tough. They were the “mother” that a co-worker turned to for advice. They were the one who offered love, support, empathy, encouragement and sometimes loving correction. In this day when we are told that we must be strong and self-sufficient in all things and at all times, we will still sometimes need that spiritual father or spiritual mother to help and guide us through the circumstances of our lives Proverbs 19:20 and help us to build our faith and grow in the Lord.

I read about a Baptist pastor who had a friend that was an Episcopal priest. The Baptist envied his friend because those in his Episcopal church called him “Father” and saw him as their spiritual father. In the Baptist pastor’s church they called him by his first name and saw him as a casual friend. The Baptist pastor was struggling because he saw the need of many in his church for a “father” figure, but in most Protestant congregations, the pastor is just the one who has been hired to manage the church, lead the service and preach a sermon. The Baptist pastor was wistfully longing for all male clergy to once again be called “Father” and to be the spiritual parent that the church so desperately needs today. For most of us, the word “father” brings a feeling of love, trust and security, but for some, that same word may elicit feelings of shame or fear. Pastors hear father stories of neglect, indifference, abuse and abandonment that some psychologists call the “father wound.” 

Psychology Today says “Fatherhood turns out to be a complex and unique phenomenon with huge consequences for the emotional and intellectual growth of children.” When we grow up with a father who abandoned or abused us, we will unconsciously seek a Godly father to fill that void in our life and heal that “father wound.” People come to church to seek God and to find healing and wholeness for their lives. In too many churches we attempt to accomplish that by using uninspiring lectures (sermons) that simply tell people how they should live their life. Sometimes that works, but contrast that with the ancient church where, through the grace of God, seekers found spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers who gave them wisdom, advice, empathy and encouragement and who took them by the hand to lead them to their Heavenly Father.

If you feel called by God to be a spiritual parent to another, a caveat here: If we have an unresolved father or mother wound, we cannot be a spiritual parent to others until we have been healed by God and made whole again. In our current relationships, we tend to replicate our childhood family dynamic that we experienced in our family of origin. Proverbs 22:6 NIV For example, if our father was kind, loving, compassionate, we tend to treat others as he did. If we were abandoned by our father, we tend to have difficulties connecting and committing to another person. If a parent was abusive, we have a tendency to replicate that characteristic as well. Before we can be a spiritual parent, any soul wounds of our own must be fully understood by us and be healed by God in order to prevent us from passing on the hurts we suffered as a child to those who we mentor. 

Are you called to be a spiritual father or a spiritual mother? The need is great. Your church is filled with those who need a spiritual parent. They need the love of Jesus radiating through you. May God guide you and give you wisdom.

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