Mothers Day, May 8, 2016
It is a practice in almost all mainline Protestant denominations to use what is called “inclusive language” in our hymns, prayers, liturgies and sermons. What do I mean by inclusive language? Namely, that when we use language to talk about our faith in our churches that both females and males are included and affirmed. This happens in two ways: how we talk about God and how we speak about one another.
The exclusion of women when we talk about our relationship to one another in the body of Christ is seen all the time, particularly in our hymns. We sing about the “Faith of our fathers,” (what about our mothers?). We exhort “Stand up O men of God,” (what about the women?). In “Be thou my vision” we declare, “Thou my great Father, I thy true son,” (what about the daughters?). “In Christ there is no east or west in him no north or south”” which is a wonderful hymn that celebrates the universal oneness and inclusivity of the church. Yet in the third verse we sing, “Join hands then brothers of the faith, whate’er your race may be! Who serves my Father as a son is surely kin to me.”
So this universal church that cuts across races doesn’t clear the gender hurdle, at least not in this hymn. Clearly, this should not be in the church of Jesus Christ where there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28).
When we apply inclusive language to God, however, the issue becomes a lot thornier. The argument for changing our language about God goes something like this: when we speak about God as our Father, and Christ as his son, we are using masculine language that excludes women. To always refer to God as “he” is to the neglect of women who are also created in the divine image. Words like “Lord” and “Kingdom” are freighted with dominant male imagery and are therefore to be jettisoned. More inclusive words like “Holy One” or “Sovereign” are to be used. The kingdom of God is better described to modern people as God’s “sphere,” “commonwealth,” or “realm.”
Now before you pooh-pooh this stuff as so much liberal theological tripe, let me remind you that how we speak about God can determine how we think about God. If you only speak of God as Judge, King, or Master you can perceive of God as distant, other, and over you, but not necessarily beside you. On the other hand, if you only speak of God as Friend, Shepherd, and Guide you do so to the neglect of God’s majesty and holiness, God’s otherness, and God becomes your buddy or old man. If God is spoken of only in masculine terms, then what of the feminine in God? Many women have exited Christianity because they thought it no longer held a place for them.
Jesus revealed God as “Father” and spoke of God as such some 140 times. To be sure, this God was not like any human father–neither indulgent nor domineering–but tender and strong. The Council of Toldeo, an ancient Church council, spoke of the universe as coming from “the womb of the Father.” So, clearly this is not any ordinary father. Jesus further expressed his relationship to God as a unique, filial one; he was God’s only son. The impact of this language is not to affirm the “maleness” of God, but to teach that God is father-like or parental. It also underscores the familial relationship of the triune God. They are in a mutual, indwelling relationship to one another. Clearly, the Fatherhood of God is part of the Biblical revelation.
Nevertheless, feminist theologians are onto something and I think it is this: our conceptions of God are too narrow. Most theology up until recently has been written by white, North American or European males. Inevitably, theology will pass through that masculine filter and some important accents in the Bible will be missed. One of those important aspects is the motherhood or femaleness of God. So instead of throwing out “Father God” and “Christ the son,” I prefer to return to the Bible and see how we can capture a broader, fuller, more accurate understanding of the God revealed in its pages. Rather than discard traditional, time-tested understandings of God, I would rather bring fresh insights to how we perceive God. Instead of calling it “inclusive” language, I would rather call it “generous” language.
Let’s begin our survey with a prophecy in Jeremiah 31: 15: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” These are the tears of the mothers whose children were carried off into exile. God tries to comfort Rachel: “Dry your tears–I will bring them back,” God says, but Rachel’s tears are inconsolable. Yahweh becomes so moved by the depth of the compassion that Rachel has for her little ones that God takes on the role of Rachel weeping. “I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning,” says Yahweh. Ephraim was a prominent and powerful tribe in Israel and symbolizes the lost, exiled nation. Ephraim cries out for help, “You disciplined me like an unruly calf…restore me, and I will return, because you are the lord my God.” Now Yahweh, who has become Ephraim’s mother says, “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him” (v.20).
One commentator notes that the word “compassion” comes from the Hebrew root which literally means “trembling womb.” Thus she translates the passage, “For the more I speak of (Ephraim), the more I do remember him. Therefore my womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion upon him.”
This image shows us the God who is vulnerable to our pains and losses, who is susceptible to tears. In fact, it anticipates the anguish God will feel when Christ, the “only begotten Son,” dies at Calvary.
There are many other passages in the Old Testament which affirm the maternal nature of God. Hosea 11 unmistakably depicts God as a mother caring for a very difficult child. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.”
In Hosea’s day it would have been mothers who took care of children and nurtured them. The imagery would not be lost on ancients and it should not be lost on us. God is the mothering God who wipes our noses, keeps us from danger, and teaches us to walk. The image is that of a mother holding her baby’s fingers as she takes her first steps. This passage raises childcare to a dignified and honorable task. Perhaps if the church had lifted up passages like this more often, men would have seen if God will stoop to do the lowly parenting that usually fell to women, then surely it is not beneath them.
Isaiah 46: 3-4 invokes the same imagery. “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain of the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hair I am the one, I am the one who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Here God takes on the role of a nursing mother.
The same promise of maternal comfort is made in Isaiah 66: 13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Mothers often dry the tears of their children. The promise finds its fulfillment in Rev. 21:4 when at the end of time God will “wipe every tear from their eyes.”
God is also depicted as a nursing mother in numerous other places. In Hosea 11:4 God says, “I was like someone who lifts an infant close against her cheek; stooping down to Ephraim I gave him his food.” You can imagine a mother holding her child close to her cheek, bent over her baby, while he nurses. Commentators interpret Ps. 34:9 which reads, “O taste and see that the Lord is good,” as a nursing image. Perhaps the most memorable passage in this regard is Ps. 131: 1-2, where the Psalmist sings, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” God weans us and sends us into the world to be responsible, productive people, but we must also allow ourselves the time to lie in the lap of God “like a weaned child with its mother.”
God is also likened to a mother eagle. Speaking of God’s loving care toward Israel in Deut. 32: 10-11 Moses says, “In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up her nest and hovers over her young that spreads her wings to catch them and carries them on her pinions.” This is an image of God protecting the eaglets, but also of bearing them up, of empowering them to fly, and catching them when they fall.
Jesus likened himself to a mother hen. Matthew records Jesus as lamenting over Jerusalem saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Whereas the mother eagle images speak of being stirred up by or carried upon the wings of God, the hen image speak of the warmth and protection found under God’s wings.
Jesus would not be unfamiliar with this imagery for the Psalms often speak of this aspect of God’s motherhood. Ps. 57, for instance, says: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” Jesus was speaking of God’s deep compassion which characterized his life, teaching, and mission.
St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th cent. Clearly grasped the implications of Jesus’ hen-image when he wrote: “But you, Jesus, good lord, are you not also a mother? Are you not that mother who, like a hen, collects her chickens under her wings? Truly, Master, you are a mother.”
It was not unusual in the Middle Ages to see Christ as a mother. St. John Chrysostom wrote in his baptismal instructions to new converts, “Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continually nurtures with his own blood those whom he has begotten.” And doesn’t this make perfectly good sense, for Christ gave us life, his life, in his incarnation and death. He nourishes us through the word and the sacraments; he makes us grow through his grace adapting himself to each of us in his infinite love. The apostle Paul says that believers are those who are “in Christ”–a womb-like image. Baptism is called a “new birth” and the baptismal waters are likened to amniotic fluid.
I could go on. We have only scratched the surface of some of the feminine or maternal images of God. One thing I want to emphasize, however, is that reclaiming the feminine side of God is not intended to reinforce stereotypes of women as gentle and nurturing and men as strong and emotionally out of touch.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that we should stop using masculine images of God. Nor am I saying that you should stop using Father to refer to God. If you find comfort in those images and it is meaningful for in private prayer and how you image God, then by all means continue to do so.
The point of reclaiming the feminine component of the God of the Bible is to give us a true picture of who God is and to affirm that both the masculine and the feminine are equally present in God. It is to have a fuller, more generous image of God which is always dimmed by our narrow conceptions of the Divine. We are made in the image of God; men and women together reflect that image in unique ways. But it also reminds us that both masculine and the feminine qualities reside in every one of us.
What then are some of the implications of knowing God as mother? First, if God is womanlike and motherlike then you women can take great comfort in the fact that your God knows exactly how you feel and how you think. God understands your maternal longings and the joys and hopes that are uniquely yours as a woman. It means that you are a unique expression of God’s image just as much as men are. And if both men and women are “Godlike,” that is the basis for mutual sharing and deference to one another. We cannot pull rank on one another on the basis of sex. We need each other.
For those of us who had mothers who were present and caring we can thank them that they gave us a glimpse of the God who gave birth to us, who cares for and nourishes us, who bears us up, who disciplines us, weans us, and sends us out into the world.
The last sermon John Robinson preached to the Pilgrims as their pastor before they came to these shores contained this line: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy word.” I believe that’s true. We re-read and reinterpret the Bible anew for every generation. We do so very carefully, with an eye to the great insights of our forebears in the past and with the rest of the church today, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We do not want to be guilty of biblical ventriloquism–making the Bible say what we want it to say.
I am grateful for voices in the church that challenge me to re-read my Bible. And I have received comfort and insight from a mothering God My hope is that you too might experience a God who, as King David said in the Psalms bids us to crawl into her lap “tranquil and quiet…as content as a child that has been weaned.”