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Should We Pray to Mother God?

Should We Pray to Mother God?

Many years ago, I walked into an argument in my Sunday School classroom. It went like this:

“The Bible says “Our Father who art in heaven!”

“Yes, but we know that God isn’t a boy or girl. So I can say ‘Our Mother’ if I want!”

Without knowing it, these two kids were hashing out a battle that was much, much older than they are. The central question: Does it matter what we call God?

Related: Why is God Not Female?

Most Christians affirm that God is neither male nor female: God is God. The challenge is in our language. I speak from the experience of someone who tries hard to refer to God only as “God” and avoid the gender issue altogether.  It gets tedious. “God told God’s people to move into the land God had prepared for them.” It’s fine for a sentence or two, an entire sermon or article that way is a struggle to read and listen to. Quite simply, we need a pronoun.

That’s where things get tricky. In a patriarchal society, like ancient Rome, Medieval England, Renaissance Spain or most other place Christianity has spread, the default pronoun is male. And so while we affirm that God is neither male nor female, we say he/him/his. “It,” as a pronoun for God has never been seriously considered, for good reason

So we press on, calling God “Father,” trusting that we are intellectual people who can appreciate that the maleness of God is simply a matter of language. It is a matter for the head, not the spirit.

The mistake we’ve made in this debate is assuming that our intellectual understanding is really separate from our spiritual understanding. The truth is, what we call God shapes how we think of God, and how we think of God shapes how we connect with God. We can’t divorce our heads from our hearts quite so easily.

We would be better served, I think, if we dropped the emphasis on God’s lack of gender and began emphasizing instead God’s encapsulation of both genders. It is biblical, right from the story of Genesis: male and female, both created in God’s image. 

Where we have tried to teach God’s “nothingness” in gender, many of our spiritual role-models have taken the opposite approach. Julian of Norwich, for example, regularly referred to God as both Mother and Father, using the terms interchangeably as she wrote about her deep experiences of God’s presence. While she frequently used the traditional language for God: Maker, Lord, Father, she also wrote of being nurtured at God’s breast, of Mother God pulling her close and even used feminine imagery in speaking of Christ. “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”

I’ll be the first to admit that gender-bending language like this makes me pause. And yet, it is also a fuller, deeper, richer image of God as One who encompasses all things instead of a remote, heady image of God who encapsulates nothing.

This is why the first question I ask people who are stuck in their spiritual lives is how they address God. I’m not primarily interested in whether they think of God as “man,” most don’t. I’m actually  interested in how they’re addressing God in the intimate moments of prayer: the quiet of their bedtime prayers, or the depth of their souls as they watch the sunrise in the mountains. For many people, the traditional male language for God has become removed and rote; it fails to capture God’s fullness and nearness the way Jesus’ daring language of “Father” or “Dad” once did.

I believe that God continues to reach out to us in ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Click To Tweet

I have come to believe that God continues to reach out to us in the ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Our spiritual journey to “find God,” isn’t about finding God in prayer once but finding God in prayer over and over and over again–and sometimes, this means changing the very way we pray.

 

 

The Simple Prayer That Changed My Life

The Simple Prayer That Changed My Life

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam

Even before we learned the alphabet in my seminary Hebrew class, we learned this. 

We wondered aloud what it meant the same way you might taste your way through a dish at a neighborhood potluck. We rolled the words around in our mouths and picked apart the ingredients. Adonai: Lord, a substitute for the unspoken name for God. Someone pulled this from an Amy Grant song. Melek: king. Someone else pulled this from an obscure hymn they knew.

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe.” Our professor aided our translation until we arrived at the right one.

And because we’d heard it first in a tantalizing foreign tongue, this sentence registered as equally poetic, its rhythm marching a gentle beat across the room as we repeated the words back to her.

This ritual formed the beginning and end of our class together. We learned to complete the prayer in traditional fashion, offering praise for the many delights of our day. I knew I had learned Hebrew when I began dreaming it and I knew it had changed me when this prayer surfaced equally mysteriously throughout the day.

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who makes the sun rise in the East.”

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who sends rain on the just and unjust alike.”

picture of cairn

 

The following summer, I taught the prayer to a group of middle schoolers I took to camp. I printed the Hebrew and English words on large poster board, holding it up in the dewy morning light of our outdoor chapel. It framed our numbered days the same way it had for me a year earlier. I stopped using the prayer after that. This wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that gradually happens, the same way a favorite shirt eventually gets pushed to the back of the closet, loved but largely forgotten.

I was reminded of it recently at a writer’s conference where rabbi and blogger Rebecca Einstein Schorr* mentioned the Jewish practice of saying 100 blessings a day. It’s a practice meant to recognize God’s presence in even the most everyday details.

I haven’t yet worked up to 100 blessings a day. Honestly, I probably average about 3, which I usually squeeze in between waking up and having my first cup of tea, then forget about in the hustle of whatever comes next. I murmur thanks over lunch, if I stop long enough to actually sit. Sometimes I pause when I prepare a lesson for Sunday, or  later when I survey the refrigerator for dinner.

Wednesday, though, I sat at the pool chatting with a friend and watching our kids play and five tumbled out–heartfelt silent thank yous for the sun, for friendship, for healthy kids, for teenage lifeguards, for water that flows abundantly enough that we just play in it.

And just like that, the ordinary suburban life–lugging kids, coolers, swimming suits and sunscreen to the pool became a holy in-breaking of God’s grace.

This, I suppose, is the point. If we parcel out our thank yous, carefully noting them to be sure we’ve reached our quota, we’ll never reach 100. But when we let the the practice guide us, attuning our hearts to the goodness all around, we might just breathe 1000 prayers in one precious, sacred, ordinary moment.

Blessed are you, Oh LORD our God, whose requirements bring light and life.


*A caveat for inconsistent memories: My friend Susan attributes this lesson to Jamie Coats, who is also taught us amazing things and is equally capable of saying it. So many wise, wonderful teachers.