Sermons

Image, Rev. Dee Ledger; May 9, 2021

The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) includes just over one thousand congregations across the United States and Canada. About 75 percent of the churches are in the United States; 25 percent are in Canada.[1]  The Christian Reformed Church has established the following as it’s governing policy regarding the use of feminine language for God:

“The endorsement or use of contemporary inclusive language for God (both gender-egalitarian and gender-neutral) is unacceptable to the CRC. Its guidelines for the use of gendered language for God are based on the norm of Scripture and on the principle that Christians ought to speak of God in the way that Scripture speaks of God…(https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/position-statements/language-god)

Needless to say, this is very different from the way in which the United Church of Christ has approached the language of God, despite our reformed and evangelical roots.

Nevertheless, the way we collectively image God is important and worth revisiting from time to time—whether that is through our words, our art, our imagination, or our songs.  In the United Church of Christ, we recognize that the image of God transcends both male and female—God is beyond gender, beyond the masculine and feminine binary.  Though we must use language in symbolic fashion to refer to God, we should not be limited by our language.

I, like many others, was never exposed regularly to images of God in the bible that were decidedly feminine or expressed a maternal side of God.  This made it particularly hard to relate to God, especially since –at that time–it seemed that this male God was one-sided, rather than multi-faceted.

It wasn’t until seminary that I learned that God was imaged in the bible as a mother eagle, a mother hen, a woman looking for a lost coin, a female bear, a woman in labor, a nursing mother, a comforting mother, and as a wisdom Spirit (Sophia) that was feminine.  When God creates, the metaphor of a womb is used.  Amy Marga notes, “The sea leaps out of God’s womb (Job 38:8), and the ice is brought forth from God’s womb (Job 38:28-29). Creation thus is not just a spoken event, but a birthing event that comes from the whole being of God.”[2]

Soon my classmates and I would discover medieval images that depicted a lactating Christ on the cross, ancient nomenclature for God that literally meant “God with breasts” (El Shaddai) and descriptions of God that did not evade or diminish the experience of women throughout time.  We discovered Julian of Norwich, a medieval English mystic, who described God as both Father and Mother: “God rejoices that he is our Father, and God rejoices that he is our Mother.”

We were exposed to interpretations of scripture by women scholars who knew their Greek and Hebrew and could offer a fuller perspective on what was overlooked or purposely evaded in the study of scripture.  Ultimately, all these images of God were inadequate, but they presented a God who had more depth than our historically paltry definitions and depictions.

Yet, at my first church, I was chastised by more than one male congregant who was felt the male metaphor was THE metaphor decided upon for all time by God, Himself, given that Jesus prayed to his daddy and given that God elected to enter the body of a first century Jewish male.  Even to explain the way in which the Bible did not limit God to these images was to challenge deeply held perceptions that had become foundational to the faith and power of these men (and, to some extent, the church). At one particular new member meeting, I was taken to task to explain why I had used the phrase, “Mothering God…”  from someone who wanted to know if I would purposely use that phrase again.  No matter that it was Mother’s Day; one use of Mothering God and his faith was undermined!

Even if you are not a woman or a man who can relate to the maternal aspects of God, limiting God to one kind of image can be idolatrous—whether male, female, gender-neutral, or restricted to “what Jesus said.”  It abruptly and unfairly discounts the experience of those who understand God by more than one overarching metaphor, in ways beyond the traditional masculine language, a language that frequently stresses patriarchy and a particular kind of dominating power.  The scholar, Kristina LaCelle-Peterson writes, “God’s nature is too immense to be captured by one image and our disparate life situations too varied to be tapped by one metaphor.”[3]

Too often, in the church, it feels like the feminine has been discarded or made to submit to the masculine.  When that happens, we should not be surprised to see human relationships between male and female become out of kilter and follow suit.

In his 1998 song, Psalm 23, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, images God as a woman.  He sings:

The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need,
She makes me lie down in green meadows.
Beside the still waters, She will lead.
She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs,
She leads me in the path of good things,
She fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me, I’m in her hand.
She sets a table before me in the presence of my foes,
She anoints my head with oil,
and my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me
all the days of my life,
And I will live in Her house,
forever, forever and ever.
Glory be to our Mother and Daughter
and to the Holy of Holies.
As it was in the beginning,
is now and ever shall be
world without end. Amen.[4]

In an interview with Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Bobby McFerrin was specifically asked about his use of feminine imagery which had been seen by the public as both challenging but also refreshing.  He responded:

“The 23rd Psalm is dedicated to my mother. She was the driving force in my religious and spiritual education, and I have so many memories of her singing in church. But I wrote it because I’d been reading the Bible one morning, and I was thinking about God’s unconditional love, about how we crave it but have so much trouble believing we can trust it, and how we can’t fully understand it. And then I left my reading and spent time with my wife and our children. Watching her with them, the way she loved them, I realized one of the ways we’re shown a glimpse of how God loves us is through our mothers. They cherish our spirits, they demand that we become our best selves, and they take care of us.”[5]

Of course, McFerrin’s experience of his mother is not universally appealing—there are some for whom mothering images are not at all positive and for whom maternal images for God are painful.  Yet, the same can be said for fathering images for God.  Some fathers are far from gentle and encouraging; some mothers can be a terrible fright.  Both can hinder an individual’s first approach to understanding God if the relations are fraught.  In any case, this fact alone should prompt us to find multiple ways to imagine God’s goodness, multiple ways to think about the relational aspects of a loving God who ultimately desires our well-being.

But why should any of this matter to you?

Metaphors of God are important because they teach us something about God’s characteristics and they draw us near to God experientially.[6]  This is not to say that male metaphors should be discounted or done away with, no more than maternal metaphors should be avoided.  One aims for balance and diversity which points to the beauty and richness of any language about the Divine.  The goal is to help people to access God through their imagination and through their experiences—relationally, helpfully, and with a kind of probing depth.

When we neglect the maternal and feminine aspects of God, we should not be surprised to find that the maternal and feminine is neglected in society at large.  The theologian, Sallie McFague claims that maternal images of God “giving birth, nursing, comforting, and caring” highlight humanity’s complete reliance on God.  Yet that runs counter to our American cultural expectation of self-reliance, individualism, and the emphasis on “getting ahead,” if that means self-sufficiency at the cost of relationships.

Amy Marga writes that maternal imagery of God must not be used to make women feel inferior to some kind of biblical ideal, nor must it suggest to women that their struggles are somehow signs of failure; rather, “the maternal imagery for God in the Bible must be seen as a way to describe God’s care for humanity within the domestic, micro-narratives of our lives — including care for mothers themselves! In this sense, the motherwork of God is work that can be done by men or women. It is a work of care that preserves and protects all humanity, especially mothers and their children.”[7]

So, by teaching (and preaching) about the way God cares for, protects, nurses, comforts, and births humankind and creation, we human beings can hopefully better care for, protect, comfort, nurse each other and begin to birth the world in which we would want to live.  If one of God’s characteristics is to preserve, save, and feed God’s children, then we, too, ought to do the same.  In Isaiah, the Lord responds to God’s people:  “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you…”  (Isaiah 49:15)  In this world, we do not purposely “forget” one another because God does not forget us.  In this world, one gender or relationship is not seen as being more spiritually sanctioned or valuable, but one in which the diversity of human beings mirrors the multi-faceted Divine Being.

Carol Penner, a Mennonite pastor, wrote the following poem and I shall close with her words:

Maternal God
you conceive us
give birth to us
nurse us
smile at us every day
protect us
feed us
give us words to say
show us how to walk
cheer for us in our successes
wipe our tears when we fail
encourage us
dream big for us
and love us for who we are.

Thank you that you
do not give up on us
when we
don’t call home
forget to visit
disappoint you
neglect what you’ve done for us
and think we did it by ourselves.

Open our eyes
to see those
who need the embrace
of your mothering love
who need
someone to be their champion,
someone to always give
the cup of cold water
and a second mile.
Help us this week
to take your love to heart
and embody it
like Jesus
deeply and tenderly.
Amen.[8]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.crcna.org/welcome

[2] Amy E. Marga, “What Motherly Images for God Are In The Bible?” Enter the Bible, from Luther Seminary, https://Www.Enterthebible.Org/Blog.Aspx?M=3783&Post=3607

[3] “Rediscovering Discarded Images,” in Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics, vol. 33 (Fall 2009).

[4] Bobby McFerrin, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cn2zKKhhF3I

[5] “Sing Your Prayers: An Interview With Bobby McFerrin,” Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, posted to HuffPost, 06/11/2012 06:16pm EDT | Updated December 6, 2017,  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bobby-mcferrin_b_1582043

[6] “Rediscovering Discarded Images,” in Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, Baylor University Center for Christian Ethics, vol. 33 (Fall 2009).

[7] Amy E. Marga, “What Motherly Images for God Are in the Bible?” Enter the Bible, from Luther Seminary, https://Www.Enterthebible.Org/Blog.Aspx?M=3783&Post=3607

[8] Copyright Carol Penner  www.leadinginworship.com.