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out of date.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.
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