By Ryan Phipps


The Lord does not see as people see. People look at the outer appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
— 1 Samuel 16:7

 

PASSING THE BUCK

Many long years ago I was a young minister, cutting my teeth on pastoral issues for the very first time. I was as green as they come, like a kid carrying around a copy of Proust who can't even read yet. 

At the time, there was a man in my church who was gay. He was ethical, moral, heck, I'll even use the word, "holy," ...but he was gay. I'd preached a sermon on how so many matters of theology are grey and that we must follow our conscience as we seek to discern truth. He loved the sermon- so much, in fact that he shared it with a bunch of his gay friends and they, too started coming to the church. 

One of my superiors noticed this influx of "the gays" and insisted that I sit down with this man and tell him the church's stance on same sex relationships or I would be fired. The stance that the church held publicly was not my stance privately, but to be honest, I was so new in ministry that I really didn't have a stance yet. I just knew that God loved people.

So I scheduled the meeting, cringed, passed the buck, and spoke the party lines. There was hurt. There were tears. There was fear. The meeting ended feeling cold and calloused. My superior thanked me for doing as I was told, and I kept my job. Afterwards, he said to me, "When you have children you'll be much less 'grey' on things in your life. Kids will teach you that there is such a thing as right and wrong."

Now at 39 years of age, with 20 years in full time ministry under my belt with two children of my own, I am still waiting on that statement to be true, but I've never witnessed it. 

 

TRANSFERENCE

There's a behavior in psychoanalytic treatment called, "transference," where we take something we've experienced in a prior relationship and "transfer" it onto a present relationship. This is common practice for many of us. We do it without even knowing it, myself included. 

I was walking my 3 year old daughter back from the store last weekend, dreading that moment in the afternoon where she refuses to take a nap and throws a fit, so I resorted to bribery. 

"Elise," I said, "If you promise me that you'll take a nap, I'll buy you a milkshake."

Her eyes lit up and she shouted, "Yay!"

"That's not good enough," I said. "Let me hear you promise."

"I promise!" she said.

"Promise what?" I dug further. 

"I promise to take a nap if you buy me a milkshake!" she responded.

My bribe was accepted. The terms of the deal were clear, and later that day she obliged, napping for two glorious hours.

 

IS GOD YOUR FATHER?

Why do we do things like this with our kids? 

I'll tell you exactly why- because we're human! We have limited amounts of emotional stamina. We get tired. We get angry. We lose our patience. We get what we want from others by incentivizing things.

"Do X for me and then I'll do Y for you."

We do this with our friends, our kids, our jobs- whatever, whoever - you name it. 

While my daughter was enjoying her milkshake, I was just sitting there watching her, enjoying her enjoying the milkshake. I started thinking back over that experience those many years ago, where I passed the buck to my gay friend. Strangely enough, that felt a lot like the "milkshake bribe" I had just exchanged with my daughter. "Do it, or you're in trouble." 

Growing up, I was always taught that God was my Father- that he loved me and would do anything for me. 

Then, I had kids and realized that I had no idea what that really meant. 

We people of faith (especially those of us who are clergy) are guilty of theological transference and it damages people. It damages them so deeply that some of them are light years away from ever being able to envision God as a perfect Father.

Why? Because we take things like milkshake bribes and how we are told to raise our children and we transfer that onto the Fatherhood of God. 

This is poison. This is poor reasoning and downright deplorable exegesis.

In other words, when I experience something with my kids, and it takes a "Do this, or else!" to get what I want, it is misguided and incorrect to follow it by thinking to myself, "I'm a Father and God's a Father, so he must be like that, too."

In moments like these I am searing into my belief system that God is a Father with mere human levels of patience, empathy, care, and understanding for his kids. He's no different than us.

I transfer my image onto God instead of God's image onto me. I cheapen the Divine, Loving Presence by thinking that it is no more loving and patient than I have the capacity to be.  

God is not your Father. 

Let me say that again.

God is not your Father.

God is your heavenly Father.

Meaning that his patience, love, and kindness are so far above and beyond our earthly love that it is utterly destructive to think that his ways of "raising us" are even, in the least bit similar to those moments where our earthly patience runs out and we resort to bribes, or say, "Do this or else!" or, "Pass the buck or you're fired!"

This is not the way of Heaven. This not the way of the Kingdom, and if you claim to embody all the attributes of the Kingdom, perhaps you're just like a kid carrying around a copy of Proust, even though you can't read yet. 

Heavenly Father, trumps earthly Father every single time, and if, when you think of God, you feel things like fear, hurt, coldness, and callousness, that is your very own heart trying to get your attention, shouting at you, "Don't go there! It's not like that! You're swallowing poison! Stop the transference!"

Selah. 


Ryan is the Lead Pastor of Forefront Church in Manhattan, NYC. Forefront is a congregation dedicated to fostering renewal through its core values of humility, diversity, community, and generosity.