What Happens When God Can be Mother Too?

You Don’t Have to Be a Pantheist to Call God Mother

A Christian Feminist Scholar Says No To Mother

Last week, I talked about two major arguments against calling God Mother, from Old Testament scholar Dr. Elizabeth Achtemeier. She made a big impact on the Christian world in the 1990s. As a respected Biblical scholar, woman, and an egalitarian, she told the church what it (mostly) wanted to hear, that God is masculine/male.

Her ideas pop up even now when someone wants to say it is wrong or unBiblical to call God “Mother.” These God-is-male/masculine articles are shooting out of the blog-o-sphere as we speak, due to the movie, The Shack.

Does Feminist Theology Equal Pantheism?

I addressed Achtemeier’s arguments about the title of “father” being revelation and not just a metaphor, and that God is a father but only like a mother, in last week’s post. This week, I want to take on her idea that calling God Mother always leads to a pantheistic theology (the belief that God and creation are the same).

Achtemeier writes in The Hermeneutical Quest, “If a female deity gives birth to the universe…it follows that all things participate in the life or in the substance and divinity of that deity–in short, that the creator is indissolubly bound up with the creation [italics hers]. And this is exactly what we find in feminist theologies.”

A God who is Mother must give birth to her own substance, goes her argument, and so the world and God become one, in such a theology. A woman is then, also, divine.

Straw Women

It’s true that a self-described pagan feminist like Starhawk writes, “The Goddess is also earth–Mother Earth, who sustains all growing things, who is the body, our bones, our cells….” Yet, Starhawk is not trying to describe a Christian theology; Starhawk rejects Christianity.

Dr. Achtemeier’s straw women are the feminists who have left Christianity altogether. She quotes Carol Christ as saying that the Goddess follower “‘…will no longer look to men or male figures as saviors.'” This, of course, implies that Jesus is on the outs. But He doesn’t have to be.

Mother Doesn’t Go There

So, what happens when we keep the mother metaphor within Christianity, as the OT writers and prophets and Jesus and the early church fathers did? Do we still end up with God and the earth as one? Achtemeier writes as though the metaphor of mother must nosedive into a literal belief that God is physically mother of, and one substance with, the world.

But the mother/child metaphors fail to build such a case. Every mother knows that her child is not the same as her. That’s only more true with the months and years that pass. Each are unique gene sharers bound together by love. So there is no need for the mother metaphor itself to lead to pantheism, even if we take the metaphor of mother extremely literally.

Misrepresenting Biblical Feminism

Yet, some of the Biblical feminists who Achtemeier quotes she also misrepresents as pantheists. For example, when Virginia Ramey Mollenkott says that Naomi “incarnated” God for Ruth, Achtemeier calls this pantheism. Yet, having read Mollenkott’s book, I know that she is not saying that Naomi is divine on her own, as Achtemeier suggests. Ruth did not know Yahweh because she was a Moabite. She would have worshipped gods and goddesses. The closest Ruth came to the invisible God of love was this visible, flawed-yet-loving woman, Noami.

And Ruth devotes herself to Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16) only on the basis of Naomi herself, as far as we know from the text. (Ruth’s husband and brother-in-law are not mentioned). Mollenkott writes, “Naomi with all her limitations remained for Ruth the image-bearer of the undivided One God who births and breast-feeds the universe.”

It’s very clear that Mollenkott is not advocating pantheism, but simply that God lives within believers. Believers sometimes remind others of God. That includes women, and mothers, who reflect God’s image.

Mother God is Not Her Creation

To call God Mother does not require us to believe the earth or all humans are divine. We don’t have to leave Jesus behind to call God Mother, either. Mother is a metaphor, not reality. Even if we take the mother metaphor quite literally, it puts up an easy, natural divide between the Creator and creation due to the obvious difference between mothers and children.

Perhaps if Dr. Achtemeier were living today, she would see the Biblical alternatives to masculine language for God. Perhaps she would understand the importance to Jesus-followers to joyfully use feminine language for God. In any case, it’s important to think carefully about the arguments against God as mother that she left us with. They are cropping up again like weeds in the evangelical landscape.

 

 

Mother is Simile to a Metaphor: A New Look at an Old Argument

There’s a lot of talk now among Christians about the movie, The Shack, and whether it’s all right for Christians to even see it. Some are asking, “Is it okay that God is portrayed as a woman?” and even “Is it okay to call God Mother?” These are good questions at any time.

The usual answer is “No, it is not okay. Father is how God revealed Himself in the Bible. God might be like a mother, but is not a mother.” Let’s look more closely at both axioms.

Only a Masculine God

I remember in 1993 reading OT scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier’s article in Christianity Today, “Why God is Not a Mother.” I was integrating my new-found feminism with my old Christianity, and eager to read anything about the topic. Achtemeier’s thesis was that we should not use feminine language for God because He revealed Himself only in masculine terms.

And, she said we know this because metaphors are stronger than similes. God is a father, but only like a mother. You’ve probably heard the same argument. She writes:

The few instances of feminine imagery for God in the Bible all take the form of simile, not metaphor, as literary critic Roland Frye has amply demonstrated. That distinction is instructive. A simile compares one aspect of something to another. For example, in Isaiah 42:14, God will ‘cry out like a woman in travail,’ but only his crying out is being referred to; he is not being identified as a whole with the figure of a woman in childbirth. In metaphors, on the other hand, the whole of one thing is compared to the whole of another. God is Father or Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Thus the metaphor, as Frye writes, ‘carries a word or phrase far beyond its ordinary lexical meaning so as to provide a fuller and more direct understanding of the subject.’ Language is stretched to its limit, beyond ordinary usage, to provide new understanding.”

In my 20s, this argument floored me. And angered me. But I didn’t have a good answer to it. So for years, I resisted calling God Mother to stay true to what I thought was traditional, orthodox Christianity.

I’d like to discuss Dr. Achtemeier’s points from my perspective in 2017, after an M.Div. and two years of The Mother God Experiment.

Leaping from the Limits of Language

Achtemeier argues first that there is something special about “Father” that goes beyond metaphor itself. She says in the Christianity Today article, “‘Father’ is not a metaphor imported by humanity onto the screen of eternity; it is a name and filial term of address revealed by God himself in the person of his Son.” Well, actually, Father is a metaphor that Jesus used to describe His relationship with God, as a human male in a patriarchal culture, and as God’s unique “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).

There are many other titles for God, besides Father, but they, too, are simply attempts to use language to describe the ineffable, beyond-language God. No single for-all-time title for God gets everything about God.

And that’s because not a single word of the Bible can escape culture and language. That’s why scholars spend half their lives working on exegesis and hermeneutics, chipping away at the true meaning of the text via what the text meant to certain people at a certain time and place, and from that point, what it means to us today.

To say that Jesus revealed a title for God that is set apart from its social context, eternally true and “correlative” about God in the term “Father” is just inaccurate. And flirting with heresy. Does God have genitals? Does God have a wife who bore Jesus? Does God have testosterone flowing through his veins? Does God need to eat meat three times a week and have sex every night? (Just kidding. Plenty of men don’t fit that description, but “Father” conveys many physical realities if taken literally).

As OT scholar Tim Bulkeley and Rev. Paul R. Smith both write, “Father” says something not true about God as well as something true in terms of Jesus’ relationship with God as God’s Son. Just like “Warrior” or “Shepherd” or “Rock” or the antiquated but well-loved term “Lord”.

In other words, Father is a metaphor and can be nothing else. It is not “revelation.” And in fact, the early church avoided using Father, as far as recorded prayers go. They preferred Lord and God in prayer, according to Paul Smith’s New Testament research.

And the early church fathers and medieval theologians reached out of their patriarchal cultures to draw from the Old Testament and Paul in using mother and breast-feeding imagery to describe God’s love. They would not have done this so consistently if Father was a sacrosanct, solitary way to think about God that precludes calling God Mother, too.

Changing up the Debate

Elizabeth Achtemeier’s second point still needs an answer, however. Does a metaphor about God convey a stronger, truer truth than a simile?

Whatever we conclude about the emotional, meaning-strength of a metaphor over a simile, the debate assumes that the Old Testament writers only used similes to talk about God as mother. However, a review of the texts reveals that they often used mother as a metaphor for God.

Sometimes the Biblical writer goes to the metaphor with a motherly action of God. Other times, God takes the first person voice through the prophet writing, and speaks as a mother. Yes, She takes on the entire persona of a woman to describe something about Her, in the first person.

The Evidence

Let’s look now for ourselves at the verses for the strength of the comparison between God and being a mother (or a woman). I put in bold the parts where either the writer-in-third-person or God’s own voice identifies God with the woman’s actions or voice:

“As an 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, the Lord alone guided him; no foreign god was with him. He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field; he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock…”–Deuteronomy 32:11-13

This passage starts out with a simile and end with a metaphor. The pronouns are masculine. Anything else would be wildly out-of-place in a patriarchal religion and culture. However, the clear mother metaphors are so unexpected in such a culture that we should pay attention to them. See the next example for, again, a complete identification with “mother,” just a few verses away from the last example:

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”–Deuteronomy 32:18

There is no simile here at all. There are no masculine pronouns. God is the God who gives birth. That makes God a mother, metaphorically speaking. And here’s more:

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band. Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?”–Job 38:8-9, 28-29

Again, God is completely identifying with a woman, with a womb, who gives birth. That is a metaphor, not a simile. Let’s keep going:

“I [Wisdom] was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no oceans, I was given birth [by God], when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth.”–Proverbs 8:23-25

In this example, the voice is Wisdom’s, the offspring of God, the Mother, an implied metaphor.

Next, in Isaiah, the prophet gives God the first person voice as a mother who is promising to always be a mother:

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb, even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, I will bear; I will carry and will save.”–Isaiah 46:3-4

And in the next passage, God again speaks in the first person, as both a mother and like a mother:

“When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me….Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them….My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”–Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9

Other verses do use only similes, such as the following, but the comparison with a mother is a strong complement to the above metaphors:

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul within me is like a weaned child.”–Psalm 131:2

“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

“For thus says the Lord:…As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”–Isaiah 66:12-13

New Testament Mother Metaphors for God

We have heard the phrase “born again” so often that we forget the Mother who is needed for the metaphor to work. Jesus clearly describes God the Spirit as a spiritual mother. There is no simile.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.'”–John 3:5, 6

And in the next example, the simile is for us, who are like God’s babies, but the metaphor is for God and God’s milk:

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation–if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”–I Peter 2:2-3

What’s a Meta Phor?

I hope this will help those of you who, like me, get taken by arguments that seem to make perfect sense but actually have inaccurate assumptions based on false evidence. The Old and New Testament have all the metaphors you will ever need to show that God identifies Herself as a mother, and not only a father.

As Professor Bulkeley says, it is the god Baal who is male, not Yaweh, the invisible God in whose image She made both men and women. He writes, “Paradoxically, if Achtemeier and [C. S.] Lewis, great defenders of orthodox Christian belief, win this battle, and we accept that God is in some sense male-not-female, then Baal wins the battle lost on Mt. Carmel in about 850 BC! Those who defend the notion that talk of God as mother should be similar to talk of God as father are not the dangerous heretics. They are rather, like Elijah, defenders of the true God against human idolatry. The idolaters are those who would make God male or father alone!”

It is god with a small “g” who can only be Father, only be King, only be Lord or any other exclusively masculine metaphor. A movie like The Shack is a prophetic push for more balance in our word pictures for God, whether intended or not.

In summary, calling or praying to God as Mother makes you more Biblical than using Father only. And you have the metaphors to prove it.

Experiment: If you’re used to listening to God’s voice, ask Her what She thinks about being called Mother. Or ask Him what He thinks about being called Mother, whatever you’re now comfortable with. Listen for God’s answer. And if you hear that God takes offense at being called Mother, ask God why.

No Word Picture Is an Island

“Bridle of untamed colts, Wing of unwandering birds,

Ship’s sure helm, Shepherd of royal lambs…

Christ Jesus, heavenly milk

from the sweet breasts of the bride of grace,

squeezed from your wisdom.

The childlike, with tender mouths,

are cherished, filled with the dewy spirit

of the Word’s breasts, sing together simple praises,

true hymns to Christ the King….”

–“Hymn to the Tutor (Christ)”, 2nd century

Trying to Picture God

Clement of Alexandria, an early church father (c. 150-230 A.D.), often used mother and breast-feeding imagery to talk about God. Above, he uses many word pictures, several of his own making, in this hymn to attempt to describe the Christ he loves so much. Clement compares and contrasts aspects of God whose varying characteristics stand out to us according to our need.

The Bible, too, has blessed us with word pictures for God. However, as Old Testament scholar Tim Bulkeley says, no one picture can stand on its own; they need each other.

John Chrysostom, a fourth century Greek church father, speaks of God as mother at times, here using some Biblical and extra-Biblical (e.g. sister) word pictures together to begin to create an adequate sense of God: “Father, brother, bridegroom, dwelling place, food, raiment, root, foundation…sister, mother.” Bulkeley notes that this list starts with “father” and ends with “mother.” Chrysostom mines the Bible, and his own imagination, for feminine references to God to create the fullest picture of God, even in the fourth century.

God is Not Exactly a Rock

We need many ways to image God to even begin to fathom the ineffable. For example, if God were only Rock, we would misrepresent God’s nature. Is God a thing? Is God hard? Is God unmoved with compassion? No. Rock is inadequate to portray God fully. It tells of God’s power to give refuge and stability–only.

So, we have another word picture, Shepherd. Oh…now we see God clearly. God cares about us like sheep, right? She’ll search for one of us if we are lost, She knows our names, and we know Her voice. But is that all God is? Someone who protects and feeds? No. Shepherd is inadequate to portray God fully, as well. It tells of God’s care for us–only.

As pastor Paul R. Smith writes, “To say ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29) is no more literally true than saying ‘God is our Father.’ Both analogies reveal some authentic truth about God, but both also say some things that are not true.”

God is Not Only a Father

And so, to speak of God as Father only will lead us to an inadequate portrayal of God. It will lead us down the path of idolatry, which the Hebrews were careful to avoid. As Bulkeley says in Not Only a Father, “While idols must be either male or female, neither male nor female alone can portray God.” This is why the Old Testament writers felt free to use mother language for God overlaid on the masculine language. It was Baal who was a male god, not Yahweh.

Yahweh was neither male nor female, surpassing sexuality, and could encompass both sets of (stereotyped) characteristics, similes and metaphors.

Jesus Is Not a Man’s Man (Or, Now, Even a Man)

Likewise, in the New Testament, masculinity is never an essential characteristic of Jesus. His human maleness is a given, but stereotyped masculinity is almost rejected by Jesus in the gospels. He exhibits balanced gender characteristics while he repeatedly confronts sexism and any exclusion of women as equal image-bearers and ministers.

And, we can be sure the second person of the Trinity does not currently possess male genitals. Jesus is Spirit, too.

A More Balanced Way to Picture God

To avoid the implication that God is a male god, and to avoid the idolatry of the male itself, using both masculine and feminine metaphors for God leads us to the fullest picture of God.

That’s why I keep referring to God as “She.” Believers are stuck in our word pictures, unbalanced toward a masculine-only God. The only way to even begin to bring balance is to over-use “She” and “Her” and “Mother” for a while, until those feminine pronouns and metaphors start to feel good and not feel so uncomfortable.

Then we can go back and forth like many of the early church fathers, using either gender according to the need, to picture the God who is both personal and a Spirit, entirely encompassing both genders, but who is without bodily sexuality.

In summary, God is Spirit (John 4:24), but we too often use only one human gender, the male one, to picture God. This is unbalanced and dangerous to a true understanding of God and a complete understanding of the worth of women.

To more fully see God, and not the male god of our own making, we need the feminine word pictures, too.

How are you doing in your journey of expanding word images for God to include the feminine? Is it still difficult and even impossible? Or is it opening up your understanding of God?

My next blog post: tackling the metaphor vs. simile debate.

 

 

 

Learning to Trust God

God and Happiness: Not an Oxymoron

The best part of learning to call God “Mother” has been that I now believe God wants me to be happy. Somehow I got that wrong a long time ago, believing God the Father always had some personal agenda (His glory, the salvation of every one around me, and when I was a teen, to marry some guy I didn’t like who’d save the world with me) that would overlook my happiness.

Now, God’s will and my own fulfillment are intertwined. She cares about me like a Mother and so is not looking out only for Herself.

I can look back and see how wrong I’ve been to mistrust God throughout decision-making points in my life. She was always speaking through my intuition, to avoid this setting, or go toward that one. But I couldn’t trust that voice.

Healing Through Calling God Mother

I started the Mother God Experiment two years ago. My book of feminine-language psalms lies open on my desk now. Today I read:

“Allelleluia! It is fitting and delightful to sing praise to God.

For El Shaddai builds up Her people, and gathers the outcasts in.

She heals the brokenhearted, gently binding their wounds.

She counts the stars and calls them by name!

How great is God, abundant in powerful love!

Her wisdom is beyond telling.”

–Psalm 147, Swallow’s Nest: A Feminine Reading of the Psalms, Marchienne Vroon Rienstra

I realized today that feminine renderings of verses like these, along with a fuller picture of God as Love and Light through reading about Near-Death Experiences, have healed me. When I think about taking risks that I feel Her directing me to, I feel afraid but willing, like my 11-year-old son who is learning to swim.

Trim Tab and Trust

I like to come up with a word or phrase for each new year. (This was another blogger’s idea, whose name I don’t recall, but the website My One Word has the same idea). My phrase for 2017 is “Trim tab and trust.” To trim tab a boat is to direct a boat with very little actual physical effort. I now see little movements as capable of changing my entire life direction, as big as that seems.

And the trust part is that the little efforts really will change my life. I’m not alone. I have a huge amount of power behind me in Mother God and Jesus, the Life and Light of the Universe. And so do you.

I’m Sailing with the Mother

So, I’m moving forward, with little efforts to follow through on my ideas and intuitions and desires, like starting a Facebook group for my neighborhood to break down walls between people living near each other. And I had a “Love Your Neighbor” Valentine’s Day Party on Sunday for the neighborhood. It wasn’t hugely attended, but all the same, I am trim tabbing, and trusting Mother God that something good will come of it.

Now instead of stalling in harbor, when I see an opportunity, I listen for Her voice, that inner sense of direction. And if all is well, I set sail knowing She is with me.

And, so, what about you? Has calling God Mother been a trim tab leading to bigger changes in your life? I’d love it if you’d take a moment to tell me about what this metaphor means to you and your ability to trust Her.

Parenting Like God

Meet a Motherly God

I’m reading a book called God and the Afterlife: The Groundbreaking New Evidence for God and Near-Death Experience by Jeffrey Long, M.D. I tend to be a believer, since science has not caught up with Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) yet and there is no conclusive materialist evidence for why they happen. The NDEs often change people; that much is undeniable.

And, though the gender of God is variable in people’s NDEs, the most salient characteristics of God seem motherly. In fact, the understanding I’ve gained of God through reading about NDEs can inform my life as a mother, and can help all of us parent better. So, what can we learn from Mother God from the people who have had NDEs, and how does that translate to how we parent?

Mother God Loves

The first thing we can learn is that She is love. When people go to heaven in their NDE, that’s what they often first realize: God loves me unconditionally. One says, “I have never felt loved by someone on this earth the way I felt loved by this being,” and another reports, “I felt someone was carrying me very lovingly–an unconditional love.”

Is this what our children know about us? Do they get that we love them and understand them, and accept them as they are? Is this what my kids feel about me?

When my oldest son was about 5, he reported to us, “You don’t love me like you did when I was first born.” And he was right. As he grew, love became subtly more conditional and based on his behavior, less and less freely given.

The priority of showing love to our children seems obvious, but it counters the popular wisdom about kids. We’re told, and often believe, that the most pressing thing they need from parents is discipline. They need not to be one of those kids that cause the problems.

But it’s acceptance, understanding, love and mentoring that help children grow up well. It’s not time-outs or losing video game time or even feeling cold at school because she forgot her jacket–again.

One NDEer recalls, “I understood the major superior being of love to be God, and I sensed God’s love for me and for all….I sensed that we are all on a path to that love and to God.”

Parents are on the path to learn how to turn our hearts to our own children (Mal. 4:6; Luke 1:17), to see from their perspective, to have empathy, and then to gently help them grow into all they can become. We are not on a path to learn to control their behavior.

She Doesn’t Condemn

The second helpful parenting wisdom I learned from NDEers is that God is fundamentally forgiveness. She doesn’t judge or condemn us. We judge ourselves. Another NDEer says, “The Light also knows everything that I’ve ever done and will do but loves me unconditionally….There is no fear, no judgment, punishment, blame, or shame. No ledger of good and bad deeds. Only warmth, peace, joy, happiness, forgiveness, and love in the Light.”

Most say they do review their lives with God, but God doesn’t stand beside them with condemnation. Instead, others’ perspectives become more obvious than they were, such as how someone we hurt felt when we hurt them.

How painful will it be to feel the exact emotions our kids felt when we punished them or threatened them or sent them to their rooms? And to realize they learned nothing but to mistrust us and to put up barriers between themselves and us? Feeling those feelings now through empathy, and remembering our own most painful moments as children, may help us stop hurtful acts that we normalized as child discipline.

Quantum Energy Requires Respect

The third NDEer-truth we can apply to parenting is that we are all made of the same stuff, all connected in love and sibling-hood. As one NDEer says, “I also had this knowing that the essence or spark of the Highest is in everything–every mineral, vegetable, animal, and human.”

For parents, that means we should see our children as fellow human beings first, with differing needs based on development. But basically deserving all the respect (if not freedom) we would give an adult friend.

We wouldn’t say to our BFF in the typical nasty tone we reserve for our kids, “How many times do I have to tell you, take your shoes off at the door?” No way. We’d have no more BFF.

Our kids feel the same way, but they can’t get rid of us. They’re powerless when it comes to enduring disrespect from us. And eventually, they come to feel, deep down, that they are bad. That they deserve our negative voice tones and many corrections throughout the day.

And later, as teens, they realize that we’re the ones at fault and get angry and shut down. We start to lose them, sometimes permanently. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Made in Her Image

When we want to become better parents, we can draw our inspiration from Mother God. She loves us (John 3:16), She doesn’t condemn us (John 3:17), and She sees our value and respects us (Gen. 1:31; John 10:34), no matter our age.

She’s the Mother we always wanted. And, made in Her image, we can become more and more like Her.

 

 

Bathsheba Only Wanted a Bath: Exposing Power-sins in the Church

Bathsheba Wanted It

Bathsheba was a favorite subject for Renaissance painters, because she should obviously be painted naked. She was an adulteress, after all, right? Surely, she knew David was watching her do her monthly ritualistic bath from above. No, Bathsheba was a survivor of power-rape and a woman made a widow by her rapist, King David (Check out 2 Samuel 11 for a reminder of the story).

Why don’t we think of her this way, however? Because many of us, deep down, believe that sexual sins against women by big-name religious men don’t matter that much. We assume Bathsheba was all for it, too. Don’t women automatically fall for powerful men who approach them?

Bathsheba’s Opinions Not Recorded

The Bible doesn’t say what Bathsheba felt or thought. It does say she “mourned” the dead husband that David murdered, whom she had only recently married. What mattered to the author of 2 Samuel was David’s sin against Yaweh, and the prophet Nathan’s view of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, as David’s victim. David had stolen Uriah’s property. And from the author’s way of painting Yaweh, to kill David and Bathsheba’s first child as punishment was only hurting David. Ironically, Bathsheba was hardly seen at all.

King Yoder’s Sins

The same dynamic continues in our culture and time, perhaps unconsciously justified by misreadings of Scripture like this one. This week, I found out that John Howard Yoder, well-known pacifist author of The Politics of Jesus, made a practice of attempting to manipulate Christian women to entertain him sexually. Most of the women resisted him, but were scarred by what he did. The Society of Christian Ethics recently held several sessions in their annual conference to discuss the issues involved when a well-known leader like Yoder harms many people.

Yoder twisted theology to try to convince women that sexual play and even intercourse between them was morally acceptable. He used his personal power in the Mennonite church due to his social justice, pacifist writings. Yes, his social justice theology.

John Howard Yoder died 20 years ago. 20. years. ago. It’s not that no one knew what he was doing back when he was alive. The president of the college where Yoder taught tried to get him to change but ultimately protected him. One theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, even praised him in an aside and in his 2010 memoir, for how he handled the situation. (For the full story, see a 2013 New York Times piece and a recent one by feminist scholar Grace Yia-Hei Kao). Only since 2013 have Mennonite leaders been talking and acknowledging the injustice toward the women who live on, with their memories.

History Redux

An isolated situation, right? I think not. Historically great religious men have gotten away with a lot when it comes to misusing power with women. Ghandi was much like Yoder in aligning his religious beliefs with his abuse of women for his sexual pleasure. Martin Luther King was nothing like Yoder in using bad theology to get women to do what he wanted, but he did mistreat his wife with his affairs, with no accountability.

We all flinch when we hear Ghandi and King’s names linked with sins against women. But this is the exact problem I’m talking about. And it happens on even the domestic level, where no one wants to expose a Christian family man even though he is beating his wife and/or children. This is a big problem no matter how well-known, or not, the male abuser is.

Learning from Nathan

We can learn how to confront injustice toward women by powerful, and not-as-powerful, religious men through the prophet Nathan’s example. When Nathan heard from God to rebuke King David, he didn’t let fear deter him from speaking out what he heard from God. We can also learn from David, who didn’t go to self-defensiveness and pride as Yoder repeatedly did. David admitted that he was wrong.

We have to also start facing squarely the sins of the famous authors that we read, and not toss their personal lives off as an aside, as this particular theologian would like to argue we should. What Yoder did is a fact, not an allegation. It matters. I would feel physically sick to teach his work at all, especially when there are other good theologians who teach pacificism, such as Walter Wink and J. Denney Weaver.

We have to acknowledge and discuss the tendency for great thinkers to separate their minds from their emotions and bodies. That kind of split isn’t the Christian life. Following Jesus is not about having the right answers or ideas, no matter how interesting. Nor is it about keeping a perfect façade. King David understood that following Yaweh meant he would be accountable for sins he committed, even if he thought the only sin was against Uriah.

Though neither David, Nathan nor the author(s) of 2 Samuel 11 understood that David had sinned against Bathsheba, you know that Mother God did. And during all those years no one took seriously that John Howard Yoder was assaulting women, Mother God did.

She wants us to use the next four years to practice speaking out when we see power abused, especially in the church. Now is the time to learn from Nathan.

 

 

 

 

Why Gender-Neutral Language Is Not Enough

Why Not Just Stop Calling God Father?

God is spirit, Jesus told Photina, the woman at the well, in John 4:24. I’ve been reading snippets of Near Death Experiences, and consistently, people agree that God is spirit, electric with light and love. Not human, not male, not female. So why do we need to call God Mother? Why not just do away with Father and all the other masculine language for God, including masculine pronouns, and call God, “God”?

“I Hear The Word ‘God’…as Male”

Lauren Winner, author of the excellent Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, addresses the masculine-God-language problem by mostly avoiding gendered pronouns and nouns. She writes: “About four years ago, I made a conscious decision to try to set aside third-person singular pronouns for God, except when they appeared in prayers and hymns written by someone else or scripture translated by someone else.” That “except” would mean she would not be setting masculine pronouns aside very often.

However, she says this small act of curbing her own speech heightened her awareness of how her “community’s prayers, hymns, and sermons are saturated with masculine language.” She also noticed that “I tend to hear the word ‘God’ not as somehow beyond gender or as betokening the diversity of divine life; rather, I hear it as male.”

Winner almost thinks out loud in her book, as she suggests that the “antidote to this formation is…to sometimes use feminine pronouns and sometimes masculine pronouns.” It’s uncomfortable for her, she admits, but she tries it out now and again in her book, because she believes “the uncomforting is holy and blessed.” Good for her! Enduring the discomfort is the first step in changing the male God image to become female, too.

Like Winner’s gradual and subtle conclusion to her “Short Note on Gender and Language for God,” I, too, think there are good reasons for why we humans can’t keep God unbound by gender, despite the fact that She is a spirit.

The Personhood of the Trinity

First, God is a person. For example, Sunday School theology tells us not to call the Spirit an It, but rather a He, though it’s tempting because the Spirit seems neuter. And the basic reason we use a personal pronoun is that God is a person not a thing. And persons have a sexual distinction.

We don’t have a way to relate to a person who is a Spirit without also referring to that person with a gendered pronoun. Even if we manage to say God and Godself several times in a row instead of saying He or Him, the echo of the masculine pronouns we have always used speaks of an ancient man behind the scenes, like the Wizard of Oz behind the big voice and curtain.

We Reflect God

Secondly, sexed people reflect God. (And I am differentiating here between having a sex, which is the mechanics of being a woman or man that lead to differences, and having gender, which is all the societal stuff we take on making all girls like pink and fluffy stuff and all boys prefer blue and mud.) The author of Genesis (1:27) tells us that men and women alike are made in God’s image. God didn’t have to create a man and a woman. She could have found another way. The two sexes inform us of Her very being.

Bringing Down a False God

Third, we’ve already made God thoroughly male (and white, but that’s another post). It’s simply too late to neutralize the word, God. Thousands of years, and most religions, give God a basic masculine identity. It’s time to chip away at that false image, that false God. We have simply got it wrong about God. Jesus’ appearance on the scene was, in part, supposed to enlighten us to the feminine within God, but we didn’t get it.

It’s only taking the uncomfortable, unpopular stand that God can be a She, God can be Mother, or any number of feminine metaphors, that will begin to pull down our false male God and put up the True One before us, the one who is represented well by both female and male.

What the Mother Metaphor Reveals about God

Why call God Mother?

Mother God bugs people. She rocks the church-boat. She downright infuriates some. So, how can calling God Mother help us?

The loving, safe associations we often have with Mother change our inner image of God, or feelings and attitude toward God, sometimes dramatically. The mother metaphor helps us form a truer picture of God than using only the father metaphor. I’d like to explore three ways it does this.

With You Always

The first is immanence, which refers to the nearness of God, as opposed to God’s transcendence, or greatness in comparison with creation. Jesus showed us that He is Emmanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). He said He would always be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). In the Old Testament, God first named Herself as I AM, conveying presence with the Israelites and Moses (Exodus 3:14). Jesus identified Himself with the Present God when He said, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am.” (John 8:58).

But most of us have a Jesus/Father God split, at least to some extent. Jesus is the good guy, interceding for us, and Father God is the distant, enthroned one. He is the final authority with the power to punish.

Jesus came to undo that thinking, because He and God are one (John 10:30), but it persists for most of us. Calling God Mother allows us to finally understand that Jesus really did come to show us who God is, that God is near, God is present, God is tender and loving toward us. (Of course, God is “other” too. God is still transcendent, but most of us have that deeply embedded in our psyche already and it trips us up as we try to relate to God.)

Embodied

The second reason has to do with the first. God is near, and God came to meet us in human flesh. Calling God “Mother” reminds us that God came in a body. Being a Mother can never be ethereal; it is always an enfleshed experience.

And it’s crucial we see God through the lens of the Incarnation, that God came to feel and experience many of the things we do, and that God came to relieve our physical pain. Jesus healed, Jesus delivered from spiritual oppression.

Jesus didn’t just show up and say I’m God, worship me. He lovingly cared for our bodies, like a mother.

The Image of Woman

Thirdly, calling God Mother reminds us that God made women in Her image (Gen. 1:27). This means that within the Trinity, there is the image of woman. Birth, nurture, love-poured-out, and whatever else is commonly thought of as feminine, is within God. The Bible depicts this, though we tend not to see its importance due to our belittlement of women within the church and in society.

The word pictures usually depict the motherliness of God, because that was the common reference point for women at that time, but the image of God is in all women and girls, not only mothers. Even the Bible includes comparisons between God and non-mothers. God as midwife and God as “mistress” (see verses below) depict a woman who was usually unmarried. The writer of Proverbs describes Wisdom as being birthed by God, putting Wisdom in the role of divine daughter.

The Biblical images below powerfully claim that God made women, too, in Her image. And so does calling God Mother.

The God Who Gave You Birth

“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Deuteronomy 32:18

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band. Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” Job 38:8-9, 28-29

“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.” [God as midwife]. Psalm 22:9

“As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God.” [God as mistress]. Psalm 123:2

“I [Wisdom] was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no oceans, I was given birth [by God], when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth.” Proverbs 8:23-25

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb, even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, I will bear; I will carry and will save.” Isaiah 46:3-4

“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” Isaiah 42:14

“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

“For thus says the Lord:…As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Isaiah 66:12-13

May we all come to know God, who is our Mother as well as our Father, more closely.

See these and more feminine Biblical images here:

Feminine Images of God in the Bible

 

Four Ways to Get Closer to Lady Wisdom This Year

A Voice that Resembles the Lord’s

“Listen closely, for what I say is worth hearing, and I will tell you what is right…” (Prov. 8:6).

Wisdom shows up as a woman in Proverbs 1-9 and other wisdom literature. In the Hebrew, she is Chochma. Scholar Roland E. Murphy writes of this unusual personification: “Justice and peace may kiss, and alcohol may be a rowdy, but only wisdom is given a voice that resembles the Lord’s (Prov. 8:35, ‘whoever finds me finds life’)” (italics mine).

I briefly explore the mystery of her female identity in this other blog post. (Though, since reading Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s chapter on “Dame Wisdom” I have changed my mind about who Wisdom is. I now believe Biblical writers equate her with God, as Jesus did, which you’ll see below.)

But now I want to talk about having a relationship with Wisdom. How do we get to know her? I’m going to center in Proverbs 8 and draw on other sources as well, focusing on four ways to have a relationship with Wisdom.

1. Show Up and Listen. Proverbs 8:1 talks about the omnipresence and ubiquitous voice of Wisdom: “Does not wisdom call, and understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, on the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out….” It’s easy to find Wisdom. One only has to stop ignoring her.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes that despite the personification of Wisdom, she is not someone we can objectify and know that way. We know her through doing what she says, and this is why Wisdom is not often enough sought out. She requires our time, our internal hospitality, to hear what she is telling us to do. Come on over Wisdom, and let’s have tea and cranberry scones. Let me listen to you a while. (Wisdom offers bread and wine in Proverbs 9:5, which sounds good too).

We can make an internal silence in our hearts daily or repeatedly through the day, as we pause to read Scripture, quiet ourselves after speaking or writing our heart to Mother God, or ponder after seeing a pointed quote on Facebook. Then we go toward that nudge and don’t reconsider. It’s easy to talk ourselves out of Wisdom’s ways.

In fact, I’m going to stop and listen now. I’m going to stop writing and pause to hear the Wisdom that was with Mother God at the birth of creation (Prov. 8:22).

2. Value People over Performance.  

“I was…rejoicing in the whole world and delighting in humankind” (Prov. 8:30b, 31).

Is Wisdom the Creator Herself? you might be asking yourself by now. Yes, Wisdom is Mother God as she is at work in our world, illuminating and re-creating it. Wisdom is, as Jesus said, vindicated by all her children, her actions in and for the world. Wisdom is the feminine image of God.

But that’s for another post. This one is about how to get closer to Wisdom.

After I took time to listen today, as I was preparing to write again, my husband came up the stairs to my desk, carrying our two-year-old son who wants to see me about every ten minutes. That was Wisdom calling, again, to get me to see people as more important than the finish line and the deadline and the line of the written word.

Beyond just people, children head the list of valuable people in Jesus’ eyes. There is no following Christ or Wisdom without respecting and loving kids. So, I stopped that urgent, there-is-no-time feeling within me and played with my son. (Not that it’s always easy; I also turn on my son’s favorite DVDs sometimes).

It may have been the supposed lack of time that caused the two religious people to pass by the wounded man, before the good Samaritan stopped to help. Or why we, too often, pass up the email telling us about Syrians and Haitians who need our help more than we need the next month’s worth of lattes.

That feeling of “I won’t have enough” “I will never get this done” “I will never be successful” “I will never live my Best Life” is an obstacle to Wisdom, who is always going to make time for people and the rest of creation.

3. Focus on Facts Not Fear. In the new age of Trump, it is easy to stop delighting in humankind and take up lip biting. What I heard from Wisdom was: make life decisions based on facts, not fear. It’s like a parenting mantra I use, “What you focus on, you get more of” (Becky Baily).

Proverbs 2:10 agrees with this message: “When Wisdom enters your heart and knowledge delights you, good judgment will protect you, and understanding will guard you.” Knowledge, good judgment and understanding protect, not fear.

Rabbi Shapiro writes, “The Way of Wisdom is study, observation, and clear perception…She is the way of God manifest in the world….” She will not tell you the whys of life, he writes, only the whats.

And we obtain knowledge through the study of Scripture by what Rabbi Shapiro says is the Jewish notion of “open mind” (mochin d’gadlut)  vs. “narrow mind” (mochin d’katnut). We read the Bible through the lens of open mind where people and their needs come first, not our own need to be right.

It is “narrow mind” that causes us to distort Scripture into a set of rules. This was Jesus’ point in the gospels when he spoke against the pinching mindset of the religious leaders that resulted in injustice to the poor. And “open mind” is how we will continue to see clearly, if our laws and our society start to crumble over the next four years.

4. Play and Create. We’ll need to keep our joy and wonder, too, which is also Wisdom’s way. Her work is play, resulting in the beauty and diversity in nature. “When the foundation of the earth was laid out, I was the skilled artisan standing next to the Almighty.” (Prov. 8:30). Job, another wisdom book, goes on for three chapters (Job 39-41) about the wonders in each wild animal, from crocodile to hippopotamus. The wild is Wisdom’s work, who has birthed all of nature (Job 38:8).

Humans can’t create a hummingbird on the first go, however. We have to allow ourselves to make mistakes in the messy work of growing up into the self that has found its most joyful task in life. Child development educator, Joseph Chilton Pearce, said, “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Ridding ourselves of fear means we will leave our narrow mindset of perfectionism and move into the spacious place where love and creativity go hand in hand.

Happy Plowing in 2017. I leave you with this quote from Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach 6:18-19:

“Come to her as a farmer comes to the soil: Plow and sow and wait for Her to arise. Do not try too hard, for there is a naturalness to Her coming and you will eat of Her fruit at the right time.”

Enjoy.

 

 

The Christmas Story Vs. Evil, Part 2

After Goodness Saves Jesus

The other night I walked into my mom’s apartment in the back of our house and the news was on. I never watch the news. We don’t even have cable. For good reason. What I saw was flashing lights from ambulances, in Berlin, Germany, due to a Christmas market attack.

Reading Matthew 2:16-18 is like walking into a news story you never wanted to see. In fact, it’s so horrific that usually I gloss over it as I read. Last year, for the first time, I lingered on what happened after goodness saves Jesus from Herod.

“Then when Herod saw he had been tricked by the magi, he was very angry, and gave orders to kill all the male children in Bethlehem and all the surrounding countryside who were two years old and younger, according to the exact time which he had learned from the magi. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

A voice was heard in Ramah,

lamentation, weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she wouldn’t be comforted,

because they are no more.”

It’s probably one of the most painful, evil acts in history, still remembered yearly by the Catholic and Orthodox churches at the end of December. Herod acted in a wild rampage of destructive power. There was no reason to murder the younger babies, too, since killing two-year-old Jesus was Herod’s aim. He knew the exact time of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:7).

Herod also believed the prophecy was true about the coming of the Messiah (Matt. 2:4). He was a man of faith who had turned his back on it and embraced his own reign, instead. He sought to kill the awaited Jewish Messiah of God.

So, he sent his reluctant soldiers to take these crying children from their stunned, sobbing mom’s and dad’s arms, as their sisters and brothers watched.

Getting Close to the Story

I can’t feel this story without my temples throbbing. I can’t go face-to-face with the emotions of these parents, these mamas, these sisters and brothers, and yes, the men ordered to commit the deed. This was not a one-time event for them. They lived with it for the rest of their lives, and it remained a backdrop to Jesus’ growing up years, something he likely heard about again and again.

Mother God was looking out for Jesus, but what about these families?

And underneath is the question we live with still: why people suffer from others’ evil actions. Our impulse is to blame Mother God (and in such circumstances the metaphor of Mother works only too well).

Or we want to explain the suffering away, soothe it away with reasonable words like Job’s friends. Yet, there are no words to bring comfort, like the prophecy foretold.

Even so, I found three things that I imagine Jesus learned from hearing the story of his father’s dreams, and from the stories of the massacre of the Bethlehem children. We can learn these things, too.

1. To Listen

We don’t know if Mother God or the angel of the Lady warned all the parents in some way. I do know how hard it is to give the Mother any authority to speak.

Joseph and Mary had mastered that one. Three times in Matthew 2, Mother God sends a dream or an angel in a dream to give a warning to Joseph (2:13, 2:19, 2:22). Every time, the he listens, and avoids tragedy. Jesus likely learned from the stories his parents told, to take time away to listen to God for encouragement, direction and warnings (e.g. Mark 1:35).

Likewise, I believe that we as Jesus’ followers can learn to listen to Mother God’s voice through dreams, visions, prophecies, and our own inner knowings. We can learn to defeat evil by strategic listening, like the wise men and Joseph did.

2. To Value Children

Did these empty families of Bethlehem teach Jesus to value each child, to welcome each baby like she was the last on earth (Mark 10:13-16)? Maybe their stories inspired Him to reflect more deeply on the core of repentance which is about “turning the hearts of the parents to their children.” (Malachi 4:6; Luke 1:17).

And I wonder if He thought of Herod when He said, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

We can see Jesus’ heart toward children better through the lens of what he personally suffered through hearing the stories from the families of the murdered babies. And we are called to follow Jesus in his welcoming heart and deep respect for children.

3. To Confront And Forgive Evildoers

And maybe Jesus thought of Himself, and the evil He would someday face. It too would fulfill a prophecy. He would have to prepare to forgive those who hated him, as the parents and siblings of Bethlehem may have struggled to forgive Herod and his men, all their lives. Jesus never backed down on the need to forgive and love our enemies (e.g. Matt. 5:43-48).

But He also told the truth. He took every opportunity to expose evil, whether from well-meaning Peter or from duplicitous Judas, but especially from the scholars and religious leaders.

The final word was “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) But before that, he tried hard to show them what they were doing. Some listened, most didn’t.

We, too, need to learn to speak truth to power that perpetuates evil, and when our enemies hurt us, to (eventually) forgive them. We will need this lesson more than ever, perhaps, in the next four years, if Trump remains president.

Final Word

There is no way around the pain of evil but through it, with “lamentation, weeping, and great mourning” when we or someone else has lost someone or something to its destruction. But we must also remember the truth of Leanne Payne’s practical words in her book, Listening Prayer, that evil “has an illusory nature. It attempts to win through bluff–through puffing itself up to horrendous size.” As with physical pain, evil magnifies itself through fear. One of the first ways to defeat evil is to repeatedly shift our focus away from it and from fear, to Jesus.

Jesus’ birth is the beginning of the story that permanently defeats evil. We have a long way to go, but every year, we learn again that no news story, no matter how painful, can stop the hope of resurrection and the new reign of God.

“The baby will play next to the den of the cobra, and the toddler will dance over the viper’s nest. There will be no harm, no destruction anywhere in my holy mountain; for as water fills the sea, so the land will be filled with knowledge of YHWH.” Isaiah 11:8,9 The Inclusive Bible

Come, Lord Jesus.