Response: July/August 2017 Issue

Our One Great Big Beautiful Biblical God

Expanding concepts of our names for God is an important step toward bringing us closer to one another and to God.

Our One Great Big Beautiful Biblical God
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

It was a beautiful spring day—crocuses and tulips were finally breaking their way through the icy ground cover, buds were popping out along the branches of forsythias that lay dormant all winter long, melting snow formed a large puddle at the back door of the church. That was where a lone parishioner stood after worship, waiting to speak to his pastor. The building was almost empty when I finally made my way down the winding steps and saw him. “Pastor,” he began. “I want to talk to you.”

Experience causes many clergy to cringe when these words are uttered. While the message that follows might be complimentary, more frequently it is not. There was good reason for me to expect the worst. I was leading my church through a change in worship that was peculiar and felt very uncomfortable to many. We were introducing expansive language for God in our worship service. It meant modifying familiar liturgy and hymns, alterations to language for God in sermons, and even introducing a new version of the Bible in worship. It was not an endeavor for the weak of heart!

These changes were not haphazard. As anyone knows, the slightest changes can create disharmony among the most flexible of congregations. Colleagues have shared stories of spending an entire summer moving a baby grand piano from one side of the chancel to another in six-inch increments. So, it was only after several months of churchwide theological study, including the free resource “God of the Bible” offered by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, that the community acknowledged that it limited language for God and voted to begin to use expansive language for the nature of God.

Expansive language for God

For those unfamiliar with expansive language for God, it is language that explores less frequently cited references to God in the scripture. For example, God is referred to as a rock over 50 times in scripture. The term “midwife” refers to God in Isaiah 66:6-9 and Psalm 22:9-10. Isaiah 5:1-7 and John 15:1-6 tell us God is a vine-grower. Isaiah 49:15 refers to God as a mother, while Deuteronomy 32:6 uses the more familiar image of God as father. Throughout Proverbs, God is “Wisdom,” a feminine attribute of God, and the pronoun “she” is used to refer to the Divine.

Scripture uses all of these images and hundreds more to help us understand our one great big beautiful biblical God. We discover that God cannot be limited to any of our categories, including gender or form. The Divine is characterized as an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11-13, Exodus 19: 3-4), a lion, a leopard, a bear, and a lioness (Hosea 13: 4-8). Beyond that, light (Psalm 27:1-3, Isaiah 60: 19-20) and fountain (Jeremiah 2:11-13).

Discovering that our language for God might move past images of lord, king and father and that our conception of the same God might be embraced by a pronoun other than he, him, and his, was revolutionary for me as a seminary student. Exploring other images and adjusting my language to a God who might also be “rock,” “vine” and “bread of life” was a growing edge. Moving beyond that to “divine mystery,” “source of all being,” and “hope of the world” took my breath away. However, expunging exclusively male, oppressive images of God in my language required a bit more adjustment. They were all so familiar and embedded in my speech and thoughts about the Divine. Yet, over time, lord became love, king became kin, father became parent. Most significantly, God was neither he, him and his or she, her, hers exclusively but a revelation that embraced the qualities of both genders equally and magnanimously.

Words have power

Our language influences us and the world in which we move and grow. We regularly eat “the body and blood” of Christ, ignoring the literal meaning and insisting on a more theological anamnesis. What might happen when we change those words to “the love and life” of Christ? How might we understand the sacrament in a freer, more holistic way? We speak of God as lord, master and king, presuming everyone shares our understanding of a deity we yearn to serve, ignoring the glimpses of intimidation and historical oppression those words carry. We ignore the pain words like father or mother may carry as they make God an anathema to a worshipper who has experienced abuse by a parent. There is no doubt that our words carry great power.

This should come as no surprise as we consider the power of God’s words calling the creation into being in Genesis: “And God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.” Why would we doubt that our own words carry influence and importance? Our words matter, and our words for God have even more significance.

This significance is a good reason to consider the secular context from which many visitors to our congregations come and reexamining our “church talk.” Is God really “he?” What does that say about women? If God is irrevocably male, women will never have the same status and role as men in the church or in the world. A male God makes one gender inherently superior to the other. As a church and as a society, how can we hope to eradicate sexism if we continue to believe that God is a guy in the sky?

Yet battling that image is difficult. With the many struggles and opportunities each church faces, challenging the conception of an exclusively male God—an image held by Christians for centuries—may seem like a less important use of time or resources compared to other ministries. It is a long, sensitive and careful journey to a more expansive vocabulary for God, and one that questions many long-held beliefs. But it is a journey worth taking. The promise of expansive language for the Divine is freedom from old conceptions and the opportunity to entertain an even more intimate relationship with God that liberates and stretches us. As a clergyperson, I had the opportunity to offer this same opportunity to my faith community.

All of it leading to this moment of reckoning.

I saw him as my foot landed on the bottom of the staircase.

“Pastor, I want to talk to you.”

“Sure,” I responded, smiling broadly to hide my inner trepidation.

“Thank you for expanding my understanding of God. Worship feels liberating. You’ve helped me see my faith differently. Talking about God in new ways has been so refreshing.”

I smiled with relief, and told him how glad I was to introduce him to our one great big beautiful biblical God.

If using language for God differently can help a person take one more step in her or his spiritual journey, it is worth all the angst the process can hold. If changing language can make us more accepting of one another, then we are on our way to making disciples for the transformation of the world.

The Rev. Leigh Goodrich is pastor at Lexington United Methodist Church in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Posted or updated: 6/30/2017 12:00:00 AM

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