Fifty years ago, as a kid, I grew up in churches that left me with the impression God was a judgmental, sour and distant fellow — a divine scorekeeper.
I can't tell you with 100 percent certainty what made me think that. Other people in those congregations might not have come away with the same impression at all.
For me, though, the very language adults used when they addressed God made me think he wasn't the kind of person I'd want to spend much time with.
A typical public prayer in church by a deacon might start this way: "O almighty heavenly father, we thank thee this day that thou has seen fit to hear our petitions ..."
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Now, I had an earthly father, and I enjoyed his attention. We played ball and went fishing and discussed my problems at school. The way I talked to him sounded like this: "Hey, Dad, thanks for listening to me ..."
But when we talked to God, we shifted into archaic King James English, to make sure we didn't somehow offend the Lord by acting too familiar, or modern, with him.
I remember trying to rehearse in my mind the old-style pronouns, especially if I feared I might be called on to pray aloud in, say, Sunday school.
I wanted to make sure I didn't say "thee" when it was supposed to be "thy." Or "thou"? It was so confusing I found it easier not to talk to God much, if I could help it.
I also absorbed by implication and osmosis the idea that pretty much anything fun almost certainly was, by definition, trivial or even loathsome to the almighty. I don't believe I would have dreamed of telling him about my favorite TV Western or my latest sandlot baseball game. God had bigger cosmic fish to fry than that.
Not surprisingly, as I moved into adolescence and early adulthood, I drifted ever farther away from this stern, disinterested patriarch.
I preferred spending time with my less holy, fully carnal buddies.
But after I eventually returned to faith, I changed churches and started reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament, for myself — in contemporary translations.
On all fronts, in private, in church and in the Scripture, I encountered a God much different from the one I'd heard about as a child.
This God was more to my taste — and my understanding. He was still omnipotent and all. But also he was approachable and a lot of fun.
St. Paul said he was our Abba, the word in Paul's day for daddy.
This God loved us unconditionally. He had created us largely for our company; we gave him pleasure just by being who we were. He sent his son to become our older brother. We were all a family.
He wasn't looking for reasons to smash us with a hammer. He was searching for excuses to bless us.
This God lived within us and we lived in him. He somehow was able to be with each of us simultaneously, yet personally.
And we could just talk straight to him, because he cared. Besides, he wasn't impressed with or fooled by our lofty language or prideful pretensions.
I learned a whole different approach to God, which has stuck with me now for 30-some years. I still practice it today.
Yes, I realize it sounds flaky. I realize it causes some religious people's inner Pharisee to twist every which direction with horror and disgust. I realize it causes some skeptical rationalists' mouths to involuntarily draw into dismissive sneers.
You talk to the O almighty monarch in King James English, if that suits you.
But I'll talk to Daddy.
You figure out all of life's myriad mysteries with your mile-high IQ.
But I'll just kick back and trust the Lord.
I like his presence, for its own sake. He rides along when I go get coffee every morning at my friend Gary's shop.
It's great not to feel as if you're on trial every waking minute. It's great not having to sort out the thees and thous. It's great just to relax with your heavenly Daddy and know that, always, he's got your back.
We even watched the Kentucky-Florida football game last Saturday. He thought the clock had run out on Florida in that first overtime, too. He thought we got gypped. I'm pretty sure that's what he said.