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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 One Thing All Kids Need to Hear

The One Thing All Kids Need to Hear

I was in fifth grade the year I discovered that girls were supposed to be squeamish. This was a painful and puzzling thing to find out. Up until then, girls and boys mostly played together. The cool girls were the ones who could keep up with the boys. They were athletic and daring. They rode horses and chased cows, had beat up jeans and practical t-shirts. The rules of our universe were that everyone competed to be bravest and toughest.

                Until one day, all the rules changed.

                It happened like this:

                After school, we were all waiting for our respective school buses when one of the boys found a garter snake. A garter snake! We’d all been catching garter snakes for years—and really, they’d sort of lost their appeal in the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. But this was a whole year later and when one of the boys advanced on the girls, holding the snake out at arm’s length, the rest of the girls knew to squeal and run, acting for all the world like the snake was a dangerous weapon instead of 5 inches of harmlessness.

                I didn’t know the new rules so I failed to squeal and run, a social mistake that it took me weeks to recover from. I was left out while all of the others repeated versions of this game—brave boys finding overrated items in nature and torturing frightened girls, only to be rewarded with giggles once the threat had passed.  Eventually, though, I learned to shriek and run along with all of the others, convincing myself that I was so grossed out by grasshoppers and spiders that I’d lost my senses.

                The message was reinforced in subtle but life-altering ways over the next few years. Girls began to list “shopping” as one of their hobbies. We giggled about how hard math is , asked boys to help us in science and dreamt about when we’d be allowed to wear make-up.

                 Middle school passed in a haze of uncertainty. It was impossible to pin down my identity when the rules kept changing so quickly. Being smart wasn’t cool. Being athletic was—but only if you were daintily athletic, and never quite as good as the boys. The lines we had to walk were more like tripwires, always shifting just as we began to figure them out.

                I probably would have stayed adrift well into high school except for a speech given to us by an 8th grade teacher. On the last day of school he gave the entire class a lecture about the importance of staying true to ourselves in high school. It was pretty standard stuff—remember your values, don’t get too caught up in the search for popularity, stay away from alcohol—except that he added a crucial element, just for the girls.

                “Ladies, do not dumb yourselves down just to fit some stereotype. I have seen the most amazing, talented 8th grade women go off to high school and when I see them later, they’ve become empty-brained giggling idiots. Do not do this. It’s not worth it. That’s what you think people want from you but it’s not true. The people who matter want you to be your best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.”

                In that moment, something clicked. All of a sudden, I understand what had been happening. For the past 3 years, we’d all been participating in the gender-ification of our brains and interests. Not only did I understand but my puzzlement and frustration suddenly made sense. Someone had named what I didn’t have the wisdom to recognize. I was being pushed to embody someone else’s idea of who I should be.

Gender roles are complex precisely because they develop in this way. They are insidious, seeping into our identities at a time when we’re most vulnerable. Like racial biases, gender biases need to be called out. As researcher Marianne Cooper says, “We have different expectations for boys and girls, and for men and women, and those different expectations lead us to think that different goals are appropriate for them.”

But as one wise teacher pointed out, the people who really matter want kids to be their best selves, not some dumbed-down stereo-type.

                This is what kids today need, as much as they needed it 10, 20, 60 years ago. They need more people to name for them the truths that they can’t yet name for themselves. They need wiser, braver, kinder adults to point out that gender stereotypes are still shaping lives, for men and women. Because sometimes, simply naming the game is enough to kick start a change.