A message based on Isaiah 49:8-16.
Naming God is difficult at best, divisive even in its mildest form, and can be thought of as sacrilegious at its worst. I was confronted squarely with this reality as I entered Divinity School.
I can only begin to tell how excited was was to be accepted into Divinity School at Wake Forest. I had only applied to Princeton, Duke and Wake Forest and quite frankly had low hopes of being accepted into any of them. I still remember the day my acceptance letter arrived at the house. As I opened it standing mid-way up the driveway, I was overwhelmed with joy and relieved to finally be able to persue the thing to which I believed I was suppose to be doing.
My first day of orientation at Wake made me forget about how excited I was when this desire deep in the core of my soul to talk about the God that I love and what that God wants for this world was given parameters.
More specifically, we spent a great deal of time discussing the topic of “gender neutral language.” “Discussing” is a bit of a false misnomer here. What we did was not so much of a discussion as it was that we were told what we were going to do (don’t use words like ‘father,’ ‘he,’ or ‘him’ in referring to God), then we were allowed to vent our frustrations and articulate cogent theological perspectives of the problems with being told how we can talk about God, and then told (once again) what we were going to do (don’t use words like ‘father,’ ‘he,’ or ‘him’ in referring to God).
I hope that what I am writing/talking about here doesn’t feel anything like that to any of you. While I am going to talk about “gender neutral language,” my hope is to present the case for such language in a way that is inviting and in a way that is convincingly shown to be what God would want.
Now let me say, I’ve always questioned the gendering of God. Even before that less than comfortable day when I and all of my new classmates sat listening to the Dean Leonard tell us what was acceptable language for talking about God – to the extent that gendered language in referring to God would not receive a passing grade – I was very comfortable thinking about God more as Spirit than Being (neither male or female as opposed to one or the other). I was, however, much more comfortable calling God “Father” just as Jesus had called God “Abba.”
Jump forward a year. My daughter Kayli was about 7 years old and had received a praying doll as a gift. Each night as I tucked her in bed and she would say her prayers, she would say them with her doll. “Our Father who art in heaven.” It’s the same prayer many churches frequently pray. “Our Father.” Night after night I heard that. At the same time, day after day, I was in school listening to my theology professor, Dr. Frank Tupper, remind those who chose to refer to God as ‘he’ that and I quote, “God does not have a…” Ok, you know what, I’m not going to quote here. Dr. Tupper would remind them that God does not have male parts. At night in the innocence of a young girl’s voice I would hear God called “Father” as her own father tucked her in and during the day a man who dedicated his life to thinking about God would remind me that God does not have… well, God’s not a man.
That’s where I want to enter this conversation about God, that slice of my life, that moment in time when a young girl embraced the image of God as male and an older man refuted the image of God as male. Today’s texts provide an opposite image of God as male. It presents a feminine image of God – God is equated to a mother who will not forget her nursing child or a woman who shows compassion for the child in her womb. Admittedly, some would argue that what we have isn’t an equating of God to those images, but rather a placing of God above them, but that sells short the larger work of Isaiah where in a few chapters he says (Isaiah 66:13), “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you…”. Clearly Isaiah wishes to equate with the name of God, mother.
Before we go further, let’s consider the importance of naming and names in the Bible. While in modern times names sometimes are meant to say something about a person (my son Hunter’s middle name is “Grant” meaning gift), they typically are not thought of as something that identifies a person’s character. The opposite is true with biblical names. They were descriptive. They tell us something about the person. Or as we are told in 1 Samuel 25:25, “As his name is, so is he.” Adam’s name is from the root adamah – or earth\dirt – the very stuff from which humanity was made. Jacob, meaning “heel grabber,” came out of the womb holding his brother’s heel and would later wrestle with an angel of God and change his name to Israel, meaning “One who has struggled with God.”
Biblically, names are important. So much so that knowing a person’s name gave you knowledge of them and could even suggest that from that knowledge you had a certain control over them. In the story where Jacob changes his name to Israel, he attempts to gain more than a physical advantage over the angel by asking for the angel’s name, but the angel (who was willing to give in on the physical battle) does not relent on that mental battle. Moses tried to gain similar knowledge of God as God spoke to him through a burning bush. Asking for God’s name, God replies with a mysterious (almost like the cartoon character Popeye), “I am what I am.”
All of this is to point out how important naming is biblically. Specifically, I am talking about the naming of God. When speaking to Moses, God said, “My name is “I am what I am.” Well, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that’s not even a name. The texts actually say God gave the response of Y-H-W-H (Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh) which is where we get the names, Jehovah, Yahweh and Adonai. But in essence they aren’t so much a name as lack of a name.
The earliest name for God in the Bible is Elohim. Interestingly enough, this is not a masculine name – it is grammatically feminine. Another frequently used name for God in the Old Testament is El Shaddai which is popularly translated as God of the Mountains, but because “shad” the root of the word “shaddai” actually means “breast,” it has recently (and possibly more appropriately) been interpreted as “God with Breast,” and considering the image of God presented in today’s texts, that seems perfectly reasonable.
Historically, God is presented in churches by masculine dominated language in spite of the fact, which we have just begun to see, that we have a list of biblical images of God as female. In Genesis men AND women are created in God’s image. In Hosea (11:3-4,13:8) God is described as a mother and a mother bear. In Proverbs as Lady Wisdom. In Deuteronomy (32:18) God gives birth. As we just heard in Isaiah God is compared to a nursing mother and a pregnant woman. Isaiah also speaks of God as a pregnant woman crying out in pain (49:15). Jeremiah (44:25) – Queen of Heaven. Matthew (23:37) – a Mother Hen. Luke (15:8-10) – a woman looking for her lost coin. And possibly one of the most endearing images of God captured in the song “On Eagles Wings,” Deuteronomy (32:11-12) says, God will care for us just as a mother eagle “stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young as it spreads its wings, takes them up and bears them aloft on its pinions.” And all of those are just to name a few of the Bible’s female imaging of God.
Now, even in the face of this abundance of references, there are those who will point to Jesus in an effort to hold on to a dominantly masculine imagining of God. Specifically, they point to his use of calling God, “Abba.” There was a time I would answer this concern by helping contextualize the language. Pointing to the family structure of the day. Recognizing that Jesus understands God to be the head of the human household and needed to use language that reflected that understanding. In that day and age, given the social and familial position of a mother, “abba” was the only choice since “ama” (Aramaic for mother) would have carried no understanding of head of the household – he might just as well had used sister as mother in those days. I would have concluded by saying, if Jesus were with us today, given our modern contexts, he just as likely would use mother as much as father. To take it a step further, considering the much higher percentage of women who attend church as compared to men, on a spiritual note he may have chosen mother over father.
While I still hold that perspective as a good response, I also recognize that they are just my feeble attempts at understanding God. We would do better to turn to the words of Jesus the one who chose the word “Abba” to refer to God. In Matthew (23:9) Jesus tells us, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘Father’ for you have only one ‘Father,’ who is in heaven.” Jesus, whose mother tongue was in all likelihood Aramaic used the word ‘abba’ for father and here he is saying the word should only be used to refer to God. He seems to be saying, “when I use the word ‘Abba’ it has nothing to do with the word ‘father’ used on earth to describe a male parent.”
As a male parent myself, as a father, ‘abba’ in the Aramaic, I stood over Kayli’s bed as she said her bedtime prayers. “Our Father,” she said. That night I sat up thinking about what she was saying. About how the language of the church, of her prayers and language in sermons, worship, music, seem to be teaching her that God is male or at least more like a man than a woman; that God is more fittingly addressed as male than female – effectively subordinating women and devaluing the understanding of women as being created equally in the image of God, a God who clearly can be understood as well (and in some cases better) through a female image.
I checked back in on Kayli before going to bed. As I looked at my daughter resting, I was struck with a deep need for the church to begin reprogramming itself to have a fuller understanding of God – one that subordinates no one because everyone is created equally in God’s image.
I also checked on my son, Hunter, before I went to bed. He was about 3 and a half at the time. I thought about him growing up in a church that allowed him to believe that on some level he is made more in the image of God than his sister – than any woman for that matter. I decided to teach him and Kayli both, to paraphrase Dr. Tupper, God has no male parts.
It is time for a paradigm shift in the Christian church not only in how we present God in terms of gender but more importantly in the beliefs that support masculine dominated language.
Believe it or not, if you’ve ever heard/read anything from me before, you’ve already begun. I never refer to God as ‘he,’ ‘him’ or ‘Father’ (Dean Leonard and Dr. Tupper would be proud).
The next morning, after tucking the kids in thinking about the paternal imaging of God, Kayli and I had a talked about who God is. We talked about God in the Bible, what God did, who God was, who God is. We talked about what moms and dads do for us and mean to us. We talked about how she felt about calling God “Father.” Every night following that, when I listen to Kayli pray the Lord’s Prayer, I have to say I am hopeful for the future of the church. I can’t help but smile just a little and give thanks to God as she prays the words she herself chose to pray, “Our Creator who art in heaven…”.