God: a Woman in Labor
Miriam Therese Winters wrote:
In traditional Christian piety, in theology and liturgy, God is depicted as male. In Christian spirituality, we address God as our Father. But God is neither male nor female. God transcends all categories, although both feminine and masculine qualities shape what we know of God. To enumerate is to fall into the trap of gender-related stereotypes. Let it suffice to say: The God of history, the God of the Bible, is One who carries us in Her arms after carrying us in Her womb, breastfeeds us, nurtures us, teaches us how to walk, teaches us how to soar upward just as the eagle teaches its young to stretch their wings and fly…
The God of scripture, the living God is One who feeds the hungry, heals the brokenhearted, binds up all their wounds, comforts as a mother comforts, gathers Her brood protectively to Her safe and sheltering wing. God-with-us is the Word-made-flesh, steadfast love, mother-love, love incarnate, the love one has for a child in the womb, on whom we depend like a child in the womb, in whom we live and move and have our being, the Holy and the wholly Other. So why shouldn’t we as the Spirit moves sometimes call God Mother?
It is delving into such imagery that makes me quake! I can hear the critiques. “Oh, what is it with you feminists who want to change the way we look at God?” “We know that God is male! The Bible attests to that!”
We’re going to get into some of the Biblical imagery that contradicts that assertion, inviting us to have a broader image of who it is that God is. But, it was also interesting to find, this week, some very strong indications that this tradition of seeing God as male has not always been a part of Christianity. The early church “fathers”, that is leaders and teachers, rejected any notion of God as male. They understood that God transcended the sexes. So, they wrote of God as Mother and one of the powerful images they used was that of nursing. They used a common image of “milk” as the food which God provided. Ireneaus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote in ways that combined the imagery of mother with the language of father.
For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection], being as yet an infant. … and therefore it was that He, who was the perfect bread of the Father, offered Himself to us as milk, [because we were] as infants. He did this when He appeared as a man, that we, being nourished, as it were, from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk-nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father.
Even Augustine (whom I don’t consider to be particularly female friendly) wrote: “Let us then understand the Father saying unto the Son, ‘From my womb before the morning star I have brought thee forth.’”
Winner looks to Isaiah 42 for strong imagery about God as “a laboring woman.” “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.” This, Winner says, is one of three images using childbirth that Isaiah draws on to picture God. Isaiah uses, as well, the image of the midwife and the image of a nursing mother. Winner notes that these images would have meant little to men for centuries – maybe one of the reasons that this imagery was lost to the church – visible because it is in the scriptures, but not lifted up, not noticed because it spoke of aspects of life that were not connected to leaders’ experiences. Today’s world is different, however. Many men are present for the birth of their children.
Winner suggests this is a difficult image because it presents God in a much more emotional and even vulnerable way. We need to consider the real stories of women in labor to begin to experience the breadth and the power of this image of God. “Isaiah focuses on God’s breathing and the sound of that breathing: in this one verse [Isaiah 42:14], Isaiah uses three verbs that pertain to breath. Each verb means something slightly different, and none of them is merely a synonym for ‘breathing.’” The NRSV says, for the first, “cry out.” The Hebrew is pa’ah. It is the only time that word occurs in the Bible. Winner suggests a better translation would be “bellow” or perhaps, “groan.” She thinks of the way women describe making animal type noises while in labor. “Deep guttural, almost animal-noises came from within me. Loud noises. Noises I had no control over.”
The next words again stress that God is not at ease. God “gasps” and “pants.” The God who breathed life into human beings is portrayed as struggling to breathe life, new life, into the people who are in exile and the people who are living with despair. Winner says, “God’s breath is again the agent of life.” For us, we remember that when the Church speaks of God’s Spirit we connect with breath imagery – Spirit – Breath – Life – they all connect. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he speaks of the Spirit praying for us with “sighs” (maybe groans) too deep for words.
Winner speaks of the “breathing of childbearing” as a way of managing the pain. I remember in child birth classes being taught particular ways of breathing that included making noises. “The groans of labor signal the woman’s active participation in the birthing process, a participation that does not fight the pain…Isaiah gives us this groaning woman as a picture of the sovereign God, the God who is in control of redemption: God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting. God chooses a participation that does not fight the pain, but that works from inside the pain.”
She notes that, historically, theologians sought to distance God from human pain. That’s evident when the pain of childbirth is connected only to the story of the fall. This pain was identified as a mark of God’s punishment of the woman. The pain was deserved. I read, years ago, that such an interpretation had an impact on medical approaches to childbirth. There was a hesitancy to do anything to help a woman struggling through the pain because it was “her punishment from God.” Winner suggests, instead, that this passage from Isaiah (and others like it) indicate that God so identifies with human beings that God is willing to take on the “very punishment” that God had assigned to us.
Today, there is a recognition that this groaning in labor actually helps bring about new life. It helps the body relax. It can also indicate the need for help. Women don’t (usually) go through childbirth alone. The baby has an active part. And there is a support team. That support team can take many forms. Maybe there is a midwife, or a medical team, (or both!), and a partner, a friend, or relative who serves as a birthing partner or coach.
At some point during the birthing process that team becomes vitally important. There often comes a moment when the woman thinks she can’t go on. “I cannot do this anymore.” Author Stina Kielseier-Cook reflects that we can see such a point in Jesus’ life. Before the crucifixion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Please, Lord, take this cup from me.” Stina says “Jesus is the mother in labor saying, ‘I cannot do this anymore.’ Jesus knew that new life would be born out of His suffering on the cross, yet He still asked God to take away the cup.” Stina notes that what is said to a woman in labor at such a point matters – and is remembered by the mother. Winner wonders what Jesus heard from God that gave him the courage to go forward.
Stina also reflected on “unproductive labor.” This is where “you’ve been doing your job...and it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing anything.” And she wondered if “this is what God feels, looking around our world; at our wars; at our heedless destruction of the environment; at the violence behind closed doors in every one of our neighborhoods… Does God wonder if the labor is working?”
Winner writes of our assumption that redemption is easy work for God. But, this image of God as the laboring woman challenges that assumption. We meet God who labors to bring new life into the world, to redeem the creation.
There is a vulnerability in this birthing of new life. That, perhaps, is the greatest source of discomfort with this image for God. We’re used to the image of God, the all powerful – not God who struggles, who groans, who can be hurt in the process of creating something new. Yet, is that not the story of Jesus? Winner says, “Strength is not about being in charge, or being independent, or being dignified. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, then strength entails enduring, receiving help and support, being open to pain and risk. If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, strength entails entrusting yourself (to medicine, or to the wisdom of your own body, or to the guidance of someone who is there in the room with you). Strength even entails giving yourself over to the possibility of death.”
Winner connects this portion of Isaiah 42 with the first part that I used today – the part that speaks of singing a new song. She talked about the way that music is increasingly recognized for its power to help in many medical procedures – and in birth. Midwives suggest finding music that a woman loves that can be played during labor. So, perhaps, our tradition of hymn singing can be seen as a way of supporting God in the delivery of new life. We are the musicians who provide support to the birthing of the new creation.
We are the musicians. We are the midwives. We are the medical staff. We are the partners, relatives and friends who are invited to be present in God’s work of giving birth, of bringing forth the new creation.
I know I’m in trouble when even coming up with a title for the sermon seems like an impossible task! God who smells just didn’t seem right! Even Smelling God or the Smelling God didn’t work. Lauren Winner’s chapter title in Wearing God is simply “Smell.” How do we develop “smell” as an image for God? The word image seems to lead toward something that can be seen – and perhaps touched. But, smell?
It is elusive. As Winner says, “Smells are hard to describe. How do you describe the smell of an orange (without reference to something very similar, like the smell of a tangerine)?”
Perhaps, because smells are so hard to describe, the sense of smell has been denigrated. Smell is considered as a lesser sense. Aristotle lifted up the intellective senses of sight and hearing above the others of smell, taste and touch. Smell ranked somewhere in the middle. With the Enlightenment, there was even less of an emphasis on smell as people became interested in what data the senses gave that could be interpreted. How does one interpret a smell?
But smells are powerful. They connect us with our emotions, perhaps like no other of our senses. How many times have you heard someone speak of the smell of a loved one’s clothing – particularly after that loved one had died? I remembered, not clothing, but the smell of my grandfather’s car. The garage was in the basement of his house. The mustiness of that basement permeated the car. My grandmother gave me that car, about 20 years after granddaddy died. I owned the car for almost 20 years – and it still smelled of their basement when I sold it. Even though the mustiness wasn’t a pleasant smell, I hoped, when I owned the car and had it stored in other places, that odor would not fade away – because I thought of both of them every time I got into that car.
One of the possible sermon titles I had for today was Aromatherapy God. We may be children of the enlightenment, but somehow, in recent years, there has been a growing, renewed interest in the power of “smell.” Aroma is big business. You can buy scented candles, or plug in scent dispensers, or aerosol sprays. I admit to loving the chocolate scented candle my daughter bought me a few years ago. I also liked the “cinnamon bun” candle that even looked like the treat. There are candle scents to make you happy or ones to help you relax. Even baby products are marketed with an eye to particular smells as comforting. We are reclaiming a sense that was often overlooked – or even disparaged. I heard a news anchor speak of when she was a child who feared separation from her mother. “I kept her picture, sprayed with her perfume, with me,” she said. Winner tells of a nurse in Minnesota who developed a shirt that could be turned into a blanket. The mom would wear the shirt for a few days. Then the “blanket” was given to the child to ease separation anxiety.
Winner chose this image of God because the Biblical writers paid attention to the God who smells – in both senses of the term! God both emits a fragrance and God “inhales aromas and perceives scent.” We are probably familiar with the concept of sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Bible speaks of God perceiving those sacrifices by smelling them. After the story of the flood we’re told that Noah “offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”
The Hebrew testament also speaks of incense. One reference to the burning of the incense speaks of it as a “soothing odor.” The incense had an effect on God. Some scholars refer to it as aromatherapy for God. The scent would “calm God and change God’s mood,” Deborah Green says. The purpose of burning incense was to please God. Human beings and God could enjoy the scent together. Winner says, “It is in fact a ritual shorthand for God’s intimate and close connection with us.” It is a reminder that God, who created us, created us as sensory beings. And one of those senses is the sense of smell.
In the New Testament, we get another reference to the aroma that pleases God in the letter to the church in Ephesus. Paul writes of Jesus’ death as pleasing to God. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” I find that a difficult statement because we focus on the “sacrificial gore” that seems to be implied. But, we could also hear it as Jesus’ willingness to “imitate God” by following God’s ways even to death. Maybe it was his steadfast faithfulness that was the sweet aroma that pleased God.
It always strikes me as a failure of the church when someone says, “I can’t come because I’m afraid I will get too emotional!” All I can think is, “This is the place where you should be. Your tears, your pain are ours to share with you so that we may minister to you. We are the body of Christ. As Paul said, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
In recent years, protestant religious leaders have been looking back at the Reformation and started a critique of the protest movement that rejected so much of the wealth of tradition. In some ways, they say, we “threw the baby out with the bathwater!” Much of the Protestant tradition was focused on knowledge – what could be known, professed – and, maybe, even explained. So, gone were the rituals that invited a deeper contemplation of mystery. And gone were some of the traditions that connected more fully with our emotional selves.
Winner shared a story from, I’m guessing, an Episcopal priest.
A student of mine called me late one evening after worship. He was really excited on the other end and I had to ask him to slow down. So, he says, “Mother Kim, this strange thing happened to me today. After worship tonight, I was riding the train back to my apartment, when this woman sat down next to me. I had my earbuds in, so I wasn’t really paying her any attention, but she tapped me to get my attention. She said, ‘Son, you smell like church. You smell like church.’”
Now the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians that those who know Christ have a particular smell. When we come to know God – come to trust and believe in the power of God’s love, there’s an aroma, a fragrance that lingers in the room even after we leave. To borrow from the words of the woman on the train, when we encounter God, we begin to “smell like church.” Or to borrow from Paul, “We smell like Christ.”
That evening on the phone with my student, I asked him what happened next. He said, “She started to cry. And she looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you. I haven’t been to church in a long time.’”
This Protestant tradition has no incense. Yet, there are smells that may connect us powerfully to faith. For me, the smell of candles just extinguished reminds me of Christmas candlelight services – and maybe Maundy Thursday services as well. They are the incense for me.
But maybe I need to pay closer attention to the smells around me – and see what they tell me about God’s presence with me, with us. Winner speaks of the smell of wine and wafer in her communion services. But she also has noticed the smell of a particular congregant’s hand lotion or another’s leather jacket and another’s perfume.
Even more importantly than the way worship or our worship space smells the question rises before us, are we living as a sweet offering to God? Are we, God’s people, an aroma in this world that points to the ways of God?
And that doesn’t mean perfuming our lives or the world in ways that block out the stench – the stench of despair, the stench of hopelessness, the stench of poverty, the stench of abuse. Winner, as she moved into this chapter on smell, spoke of the way that smell is used to separate people. Sociologists Gale Larson and Rod Watson said, “Odors, whether real or alleged, are often used as the basis for conferring a moral identity upon an individual or a group.” She wrote of a homeless man who was barred from using a public library because others found his odor offensive. “Perhaps if smelling is to be part of my relationship with God,” Winner writes, “I might start here: trying to unlearn whatever I have been taught about the relationship of smell to virtue, trying to notice how I let smell become a barrier between me and people who might be my friends.” Perhaps, the underside of our obsession with scents, odors and aromas in our society is that we use them to judge others when they don’t smell as we think they should. What God perceives to be sweet smelling may not be sweet to us. Winner says, “The possibility of my being a sweet-scented offering may turn precisely on my remembering that Jesus, the Fragrance of Life, was a sometimes homeless man whose body was not always perfumed by women bearing nard. He surely sometimes stank.”
We may not have a tradition of incense. But, I invite you, today, to bring this sense of smelling into your worship. I hope you smell that delightful baking aroma of chocolate chip cookies. I have a few containers with spices and coffee. I invite you to sniff them – and reflect. Offer a prayer to God, a prayer that arises from a particular smell. During the offertory you may come forward for anointing. I have some scented oils (and a plain oil.)
Smell God. Smell God in the myriad odors of our world – those that are sweet and those that point to the world’s brokenness. And let us strive to live as God’s aromatic people, offering ourselves in ways that please God as we strive to imitate Christ.
Michael Williams asks, “Have you ever felt a fig leaf? It’s kind of like sandpaper.” So, Adam and Eve, in this familiar story, chose to clothe themselves with something that didn’t really work. Williams suggests that when this story was told around the fires at night, the community would have been laughing at the idea of being clothed with fig leaves. It may have worked to cover nakedness, but it didn’t really make it in the comfort realm.
It’s the first Biblical story about clothing. As the story of disobedience unfolds, God tells them that they will have to leave the garden. Then “the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”
It’s amazing how present the idea of clothing is in the Bible. And, how involved God is in the “clothing” of God’s people. Here, in the very beginning, we have the story of God making garments of skin for the man and the woman.
I was fascinated by Lauren Winner’s reflections on this story. She said that when she was younger she assumed that when it said “the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife” that it meant God gave them skin. They hadn’t needed skin in the garden. She said she didn’t know what they would have looked like before, but she thought this meant God gave them the skin they needed to survive outside of the garden. She was surprised when she heard other interpretations – that God provided them with the skins of other animals – replacing the fig leaves!
Winner’s interpretation isn’t totally bizarre. Many rabbis have had similar reflections. They look upon this “enfleshing” of the man and woman as the completion of the creation of human beings. They, in essence, became fully human when they were sent out of the garden. She quotes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner:
The expulsion was indeed the finishing touch to the creation of human beings…What Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden was…. supposed to happen. Indeed, it has happened in every generation since. Children disobey their parents and, in so doing, complete their own creation. Adam and eve are duped, not by the snake, but by God. They were lovingly tricked into committing the primal act of disobedience that alone could ensure their separation from God, the individuation, and their expulsion from [childhood’s] garden. Yet just because such is the way of the world does not mean there is no psychic damage…For our own good we have been tricked into leaving our parents’ home, into separating from God…The necessary price for becoming an autonomous adult is the unending pain of separation.
Wow! Isn’t that a different way of hearing this story? As I was looking at the idea of clothing and being clothed by God throughout the scriptures, I came across another passage that might add weight to this interpretation. Hear these words from one of Job’s laments. “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.”
Winner suggests that both hearings of this passage are helpful. The more traditional interpretation reminds us that as the Biblical story unfolds we will encounter again and again the God who expresses a “deep, abiding interest in working with and for human beings.” Winner says, “I find myself picturing…: God bent over, stitching fur garments for Adam and Eve. I imagine that God is sad while stitching, and I imagine God’s gift as one of utter tenderness: I know you have to leave, but here is one last thing I can do for you before you go.”
I thought of that wonderful Dolly Parton song, “Coat of many colors.” She sang of her mother making a winter coat from the rags that had been given to them. “Momma sewed the rags together, sewing every piece with love. Although we had no money I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors that my momma made for me.”
Who has clothed you with something special, with a garment that was infused with care and love? That may be harder for us to answer in today’s world where clothes are so easily found – and easily or readily discarded. Most clothing is made by those who are so far removed from us – in foreign lands. How can we reclaim that image of God’s care for us in what we wear?
The book Practicing Our Faith has a chapter on Honoring the Body. The chapter looks at the ways in which our clothing is sometimes a distraction. It’s an issue that Winner acknowledges as well. Winner spoke of the class she taught in a women’s prison – with women seminarians present. They are divided by their clothing. Those incarcerated wear green uniforms. There is a head count during each class. One day, one of the seminarians had happened to wear a top with a similar color. It confused the officers. They weren’t looking at people. Only for bodies in a particular color.
We’re more accustomed to the other ways in which our clothing marks us. Oftentimes, the particular clothes we wear says something about our economic status. I worked at a church wear most of the young people wore expensive
clothing. One girl, the beloved adopted child of a couple with limited means, wore the simple cotton dresses her parents could afford. She was marked as unworthy – not only by the young people, but by some of the staff.
What does our clothing say about us? Some faith traditions present themselves as members of a particular group by the clothes that they wear. And, we know, that can invite distrust, anger, judgment – and even violence. Mark and I were at Animal Kingdom earlier this week. We saw a Muslim woman, completely covered. She was even wearing a cloth that covered her mouth. First, I couldn’t imagine how hot she was! Secondly, I had to recognize my own judgment of her situation. It was easy to assume that this had been forced upon her.
Yet, I’m not bothered by Mennonite or Amish women in their simple dresses and head coverings. I’m not bothered by nuns in habits (although you don’t see too many these days!) Some years ago, NPR had an interview with a young Muslim woman who spoke of her choice to wear the hajib – the head covering. For her, it was a faith driven decision. Her sister, equally as faithful, had chosen the opposite.
In Honoring the Body, Stephanie Paulsell wrote of the practice of adorning the body for worship. She lifted up a practice some families have developed to “dress for church.” Instead of having Sunday finery, children are encouraged to wear a piece of jewelry—maybe made by a friend – or an outfit that lifts that child’s sense of worth.
Winner suggests that the most important image of God clothing us is found in Galatians 3. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We are “clothed” with God’s self, clothed in God! Winner suggests imagining God as a warm winter coat. A handmade suit. A treasured sweater. God is as close as our very skin, wrapped lovingly around us.
It is an image original to Paul scholars suggest. “Putting on virtues” imagery was common. It is woven into the Biblical witness. Such imagery was used in much of the ancient world. But, this idea that we are clothed with God is different. It’s more intimate.
A nineteenth century Baptist minister, Alexander MacLaren, wrote, “It takes a lifetime to fathom Jesus; it takes a lifetime to appropriate Jesus, it takes a lifetime to be clothed with Jesus. And the question comes to each of us, have we ‘put off the [old man] with his deeds?’ Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?”
Paul’s words about having been clothed with Christ are followed by that powerful declaration, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Winner writes:
To understand Christ as clothing is to understand a certain holy gender-bending. I do not think it is a coincidence that Paul’s declaration that we, the baptized, have been clothed in Christ comes right before Paul’s equally famous insistence that ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Christ is the clothing that has the power to say no male and female. In fact, all three of the distinctions that Paul explicitly names as undone by Jesus – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – are distinctions that, at various points in history, have been created in part through clothing….Jesus is not the kind of
clothing that creates social divisions, but the kind of clothing that undoes them.
Winner asks how it is we “wear” Christ. Do we see that “clothing” as loving, empowering – calling forth the best of who we are? Is that clothing leading toward the breaking down of all the divisions that continue to plague our world?
It is natural that when we recognize God as the one who clothes us, God as our very clothes, we begin to understand that we have a responsibility to clothe others. And, maybe we begin to see that such a responsibility asks us to see those whom we are to clothe – to see their needs, to see who it is that they are.
When my daughter was very young – kindergarten or 1st grade – I bought a lovely top for her. I can still picture it. It was white and had brightly colored polka-dots all over it. It had an elasticized belt. It would have looked great with a solid color skirt or with blue jeans. It seemed a perfect top for a little girl who loved rainbows.
But she wouldn’t wear it. It hung in her closet. I don’t think she ever tried it on. We fought about it. And I lost! She would not bend. For some reason, it didn’t fit her personality. I finally gave it away. I hope some other little girl enjoyed it. I still think she would have looked cute in it! But, she wouldn’t have felt cute. For her, it was the wrong top. It didn’t let her be herself. (I guess she was doing what Rabbi Kushner wrote about: declaring her individuality over against her parent!)
There are some wonderful clothing ministries around us – ministries that go far beyond passing out clothes that are discarded because they are worn. People take gently worn professional clothing and help those looking for jobs dress appropriately for interviews. Or, there are the “prom” shops for young women who can’t afford to buy new dresses. Probably just as important, or more important than the clothes themselves is the care that is expressed by those who
seek to “clothe” those who have a need. They have “clothed themselves with Christ” as they have ministered to those whom the world frequently overlooks.
Winner says, “[It] is not just to participate in charitable good work. To do those things is to involve yourself in the choreography of divine action. It makes you a mimic of God, -- it MAKES YOU A MIMIC OF GOD -- and it shapes you more and more into God’s image.”
Dwell with this “clothing God” this week – the God who “clothed you with skin,” the God who wraps you in arms of love, and the God who has put Christ on you.
Years ago, I went to Germany with my parents and youngest sister. The trip was
offered by the alumni association for my mother’s college. One day, our tour
guide was sick, so we were left pretty much on our own. The bus driver dropped
us off for several hours in a small Bavarian town. Those hours included time for
lunch. Mom and Dad took the four of us to a small, typically German restaurant
where we had a lovely lunch – a lunch that featured the typical foods of the area.
When we got back to the bus, we found that almost all the others (all but two)
had gone to McDonalds. It was familiar. Going there asked little of them. Now,
they did note a few differences. The McDonalds in Germany had beer on the
menu, which for the alumni from a conservative Christian college was something
In the first chapter of her book Wearing God, Lauren Winner talks about coming
back to the Bible. She says, “I began to realize that my pictures of God were old…
They were old like a seventh-‐grade health textbook from 1963: moderately
interesting for what it might say about culture and science in 1963, but generally
out of date. My pictures of God weren’t of Zeus on a throne, the Sistine Chapel
God. Instead, my pictures were some combination of sage professor and
boyfriend…. It lead me on a search: what pictures, what images and metaphors,
does the Bible give us for who God is, and what ways of being with God might
those pictures invite?”
What pictures of God are prevalent in our own church traditions? What pictures
dominate our own faith life? It is so easy to limit ourselves to a McDonald’s menu
of images for God – images that are familiar, perhaps safe, unchallenging, images
that don’t threaten the careful theologies we’ve crafted, our approaches to faith.
McDonalds, as a sometimes treat, is OK. But, we know that it is not the best
choice for a healthy diet if someone would choose to eat every meal there. So it
is with our limited vocabulary for God. If we limit our images, our metaphors,
even our names for God, we stunt our spiritual growth. And, sometimes, our
vocabulary is even harmful to faith or the ability to have faith.
Winner speaks of the familiarity of certain images having a deadening effect on
our relationship with God. We become insensitive to their meaning because they
aren’t challenged by the myriad of other Biblical images that remind us that all
images of God are incomplete. She writes of the Biblical witness referring to God
as “clothing, fire, comedian, sleeper, water, dog.” And that is not an exhaustive
list! In earlier times, the church lifted up images like drunkard (can you even
imagine that as a Biblical image?), beekeeper, homeless man, and tree.
What images of God are prevalent in our world? How many think of God as the
angry old white man who is judging us? Judge! That’s a prominent image. A
woman struggling with her divorce told her pastor that she pictured God as the
angry judge who saw the sin of her broken marriage. Many speak on behalf of
Christianity in our own society and declare God’s anger, God’s judgment. You
would think that God is the Supreme Court.
I pulled the book Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God off the shelf. One page
asks, “Is God a prosecuting attorney or a defense attorney?” The book invites us
to see God as something more than the judge –that is,to see God as the one who
wants the best for us.
“How do our images of God draw us into worship, reverence, adoration of God?”
Winner asks. “How do our images of God help us great one another as bearers of
the image of God?” The very wise pastor of that woman going through a divorce
said, “You need to change your image of God!” She needed to expand her
vocabulary of who God is—and meet the God who wept with her.
Winner, an Episcopalian professor at a seminary, was raised in the Jewish
tradition. She spoke of a sermon preached by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig who,
on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, spoke of God as “your grandmother who
yearns for you to visit her.” Years later, Winner discovered that much of her
imagery was taken from the Bible. She didn’t make up the idea of God as
grandmother. It has strong, strong Biblical roots.
This morning’s passage from Deuteronomy gives us a glimpse into the variety of
images there are for God in the Bible. Janet Martin Soskice noted that
Deuteronomy 32 identifies God as father “who created you,” and Rock that bore
you…the God who gave you birth.” “Both paternal maternal imagery are given in
quick succession,” she says, “effectively ruling out literalism, as does the equally
astonishing image of God as a rock giving birth.”
Winner reminds us that the Bible is full of these varied images because each one
tells us something about who God is. Carolyn Jan Bohler wrote: Every meaningful
metaphor implies some differences between the thing and that to which it points.
When a metaphor suggest something quite the opposite of what we think, it can
evoke a negative reaction that might actually help us clarify the objects under
consideration….To be useful, a metaphor for God needs to evoke [two] reactions
at the same time: “Oh, yes, God is like that,” and, “Well, no, God is not quite like
Language is always limiting. And each language has its own limitations. I was
astounded, when I started seminary, that I was expected to refer to God without
gender specific pronouns. I couldn’t write, “God Himself” and not get red marks
on the paper! I was introduced to what seemed to be difficult and awkward
language. God, Himself, became God’s self. Then, one day, when I was writing a
paper, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of God as something far more
than an anthropomorphized being. The language – uncomfortable at first –
invited me to contemplate the mystery of God.
Winner wrote of a similar journey. And she noted how bereft we are of images
beyond Father, Lord – male. I wondered if she went through the language battles
we did when I was in seminary – asking the community to use more inclusive
words, partly because it forced the community to look at whether it was being
inclusive. A friend spoke of sitting in worship at her home church – hearing the
pastor speak to “you men” over and over again. She said, “I kept translating that
in my mind, saying that he means men and women. But, suddenly, he said – ‘oh,
and this is for you women.’ I realized that his language had not included me.”
Why expand our vocabulary for God? Winner speaks of God’s desire for us to be
God’s friends – and friends spend time knowing each other. If we see God only in
one way, our relationship with God is like many of those we have in our lives – we
recognize someone, in a particular context. I know the checker at the grocery
store. I know the mail carrier. I know my doctor. But, they’re not my friends. I
only know that one part of who they are.
How are you known? Are you not known differently by the different people in
your life? We have different roles. Shopper, mail recipient, patient, parent,
spouse, child, co-‐worker, boss, neighbor, friend. We cannot be summed up by
one image, by one title. Something is lost when we become one-‐dimensional.
And so it is with God.
So, over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore some different images and
metaphors for God. Some may resonate with you! Some may be difficult. I
would encourage you to face what’s difficult and ask why. Ask God why it’s a
difficult image for you. See where that questioning leads you. By no means will
we exhaust the images for God. We could probably spend years lifting up a
different image each Sunday. Maybe we would be well-‐nourished by such a feast
of images! Challenge me. Challenge me to expand the images that we use in
I hope this will be an exciting exploration. Please feel free to reflect with me –
after church or contact me during the week. Let us feast on the rich imagery
given to us in the Biblical witness and encounter the God who seeks our
friendship, who desires to be known – as father and mother, as young man and
old woman, as tree and spirit, as fire and water, as the one who clothes us, as the
laboring woman, as bread and wine, as healing laughter.