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Pronouns: Or, why I still use masculine pronouns for God

Pronouns - or, Why I Use Masculine Pronouns for God

Occasionally, fellow feminists or egalitarians will get in touch to critique my use the masculine pronouns for God when I write or speak publicly. Critique is often hard to hear, of course, but it has often made me a better writer and sometimes even a better follower of Jesus. And in this case, I think that’s a fair critique and question, worthy of a thoughtful response. This is my attempt.

It’s not because I believe God is a man or exclusively masculine. Far from it, in fact.

And it’s not because I believe that’s the best or right or “most biblical” thing to do. In truth, I always feel elated when another writer or preacher avoids gender-specific pronouns or employs both male and female pronouns interchangeably when speaking of God (or, in the case of Anne Lamott, her way of getting around it is to occasionally call God “Howard” which delights me).

I think we limit our understanding of God by only referring to God as “he” or even “she.”

After all, both male and female are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Calling God “Mother” or ascribing to God characteristics that we have traditionally considered more feminine is not only scriptural, but completely within line of our Church history. God is described in scripture as a midwife, as a mother, as a nurse. God is referred to by Jesus as “Father” or “Abba” (a tender word for father, similar to our “Daddy”) and yet the Holy Spirit is often described using a feminine noun in Hebrew. The Apostle Paul himself often employed feminine metaphors or experiences to explain the work of the Spirit – pregnancy, labour, birth, and breastfeeding.

As my dear friend, Rachel Held Evans wrote on the topic back in May:

Finally, the self-naming of God in Scripture is “I AM WHO I AM”—a name without gender. I suspect that’s because, though God is a person, God is not a human being like us. The people of Israel received a strong warning from God about this in Deuteronomy 4:15-17: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…”

There’s no good scriptural or theological or even church-historical argument for exclusively requiring or using male pronouns for God. God is neither male nor female.

I’ve used both male and female pronouns for God occasionally in my work. You wouldn’t have too look very far into my book or my blog to find those metaphors or phrases or pronouns, not at all. But it is true: I often default to male pronouns. 

When I hear from people who are hurt or surprised by my use of pronouns in preaching or prayer, I think it’s a legit critique. But I don’t use those masculine pronouns or call God “Father” in prayer without purpose. Some might find my reasoning flawed. (I think that’s fair, too.) To me, this is simply a matter of personal conviction. There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, not really.

So here’s my big secret reason: I want to serve the Church in love. This is my small way of trying to build bridges and create pipelines for people to move towards freedom and justice. This is me walking a few steps into their familiar territory instead of waiting for everyone to line up where I think we should line up before the conversation even begins.

And for some of our brothers and sisters, those who have not yet experienced freedom in this area, any other pronoun or name only distracts or offends.

I choose to use familiar pronouns in order to reach even more with the message of Christ’s freedom and love.

People and publishers don’t require it of me. Not all. In fact, if someone did, I’d probably be much more prone to take a big stand against such restrictions to the freedom that Christ has given us and become a bit more militant about it.

I do this only out of care and love for the ones who haven’t received this revelation yet.

I do it to create a pathway for those coming after us.

It’s not an easy choice but given the nature of my work and witness and audience, it is where I have felt lead to submit.

I want to build bridges. This is a concession that I make as an effort to build bridges and reach out to those who are still new to the idea that both men and women are made in the image of God.

For so many who read Jesus Feminist, it was a huge leap of bravery to read something with the “f-word” in the title. I honour their bravery. So my heart was, and continues to want to, make space for their legacy and experiences with my public language about God. I want to meet our brothers and sisters halfway with my hand outstretched.

Of course, I don’t believe God is exclusively or primarily male. And to be honest, in my personal journalling and prayer life, I either avoid pronouns or employ both in equal measure. Much like Anne Lamott’s “Howard,” these days, I find myself calling God “Love” as if it’s their name. But I don’t do so publicly because I don’t want that to serve as a distraction.

If I used female pronouns only to “prove a point” or to deliberately distract or anger or offend my brothers and sisters in Christ, then I think my reasons for doing so would be selfish and suspect, perhaps even filled with pride at the ways that I am “enlightened” compared to others. I appreciate those who feel called to blow these assumptions up and push back here with consistency – I don’t think that my way is the only right way, I’m simply sharing my convictions right now.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul warns us about how we walk in the freedom we enjoy in Christ: “But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. For if others see you—with your “superior knowledge”… won’t they be encouraged to violate their conscience… So because of your superior knowledge, a weak believer for whom Christ died will be destroyed. And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ. So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble.”

Now, granted, Paul was specifically talking about how some believers felt free to eat food that was sacrificed to idols while others were horrified at the idea. But the underlying truth of his words serves as a universal guide for us today – we live our lives not only for ourselves but for those with whom we are in community. And, yes, I do see myself as “in community” with those who read my work or come to hear me preach. I care deeply about their histories and legacies, about the bravery it often requires to step out in faith to their new convictions and the price they often pay.

It was for this same reason that my husband and I chose to have a “dry” wedding without any alcohol all those years ago – we did as a sign of respect for those among us who had strong feelings or experiences around alcohol, particularly our parents. Even though we personally feel okay with drinking wine, we don’t do so in front of those whom it would offend or if it would cause others to stumble. We make those choices, not out of shame, but out of love and respect.

So as an act of love and respect, I have chosen to submit myself to the preferences of others.

People can get so tripped up with a pronoun that they miss the truth that we preach about the Kingdom of God, about freedom, about our value, about calling and vocation, even about marriage. It’s not perfect, but it’s reality.

In some contexts, it would be the equivalent of setting up a road block to freedom for some of our brothers and sisters. And I won’t do that. I won’t set up that stumbling block.

Should it be a stumbling block? Absolutely not. Of course not. But do we make our decisions in our interactions with one another based on “what should be” or based on the reality of the situation? Perhaps I’m simply too much of a realist.

In a weird sort of way, it’s the same with cursing. I very rarely curse in my writing – and even when I do, it’s of a rather mild variety. Even though the situation may call for it, I know that there are a lot of people who will simply shut down and check out the second they see a curse word or an offensive word. They’ll miss the truth of what I’m writing because I’ve distracted them. It’s not the same thing at all, but it sort of is related to my mind.

Paul wrote often about the freedom we enjoy in Christ but he also wrote about our obligation to one another, particularly to those who are either weaker or not yet free; he exhorted us to choose the slavery of loving them over the freedom of our own expressions. He himself wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.

I have submitted myself to the familiar language of many in order to bring as many people along with me as possible.

So rather than derail the conversation or perhaps the work that the Holy Spirit is up to with the distraction of pronouns, sure, I’ll call God “Father” and I will use the word “he” while I pray to build bridges. Absolutely.

I will use the common pronouns of our church language in order to reach even more with the greater truth behind the pronouns. I figure we’ll get there on pronouns eventually and in the meantime, the bridge is open, the path is clear, and I’ll stand with arms wide open to welcome as many as possible to freedom.

I’ve made this imperfect choice out of love.

 

Continue Reading · faith, Jesus Feminist, Uncategorized · 63

Tables in the Wilderness :: a giveaway and guest post from Preston Yancey

I’m so thrilled to introduce you to my friend, Preston Yancey. Preston and I have known each other for years now, initially writing alongside of one another at A Deeper Story, but then developing a true friendship. He’s like a younger brother to me in some ways. When we finally met in person a year or so ago – along with his then-fiancé-now-wife Hilary – it only solidified what we suspected: we were friends and would do life alongside of each other even from far away.

I finished an early version in a dingy filthy airport motel preparing to fly to Haiti in a few hours. I read it on the flight from Dallas to Miami, absolutely devoured it and gulped it down. Preston did good good work. It’s just so honest. He didn’t shy away from his own pride or even arrogance, but he deals so tenderly with his old self, too. It’s like a whole world I can’t even fathom because I didn’t get to go to school like him and his world is so different from mine, and yet I saw myself in his words. So much richness and goodness. Preston is never the hero of the story, the Spirit and the Church is, and I love that he had the guts to do that.

I loved this conflicted, honest, and beautifully written book. In some ways, it’s a glimpse of a foreign world for us non-academics and yet it’s a universal story of heartbreak, growing up, community, pride, friendship, and the disruptions and pursuits of a not-safe-but-good God. If you’ve tucked your version of God or Church or love into a stale airless room with three point manifestos, prepare for the free wind of the Spirit to sweep in and open up the doors. There’s a whole world outside.

 

grunge image of a field

Preston: When Sarah offered me the chance to talk a bit about my book with her readers, it took some time to figure out exactly what I wanted to say. I considered a Q&A, an original post, something that was an excurses on the themes in the book. Each fell short, each did not quite feel right.

In the acknowledgements of my book, I mention Sarah as my first spiritual director. A fleshed-out explanation of that would be that her blog was the first one I read that I can say formed my faith, reformed my faith, and made me lean hard into Jesus. So while I jump at the chance to share something in her space, I can’t imagine doing so without in some way paying tribute to the significance she has been in my life and I imagine yours as well. So I have chosen here an excerpt from Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again that is in no small way inspired by Sarah.

This is my story, but I imagine it rings true of yours too.

A parenthetical.

Walk about Zion, go all around it,

count its towers,

consider well its ramparts;

go through its citadels,

that you may tell the next generation

that this is God,

our God forever and ever.

He will be our guide forever.36

From the Psalms.

I think about this verse often, about the edges of Zion, the city where God’s glory dwells. The command of the psalmist is to walk about it, to go to its edges, to examine all of its facets, its points, the intricacies of its construction. We are to know this city so well that we may pass on to the next generation what we have seen, what they shall go and see for themselves so that they too may pass it on.

I think of the walls of this city, I think of the walls as orthodoxy. The edges of Zion are the minimal foundations of our belief. Our confessions that Christ is Lord or that the resurrection is literal or that in the beginning God created. The side questions, like whether that creation was by six days of literal work or the miracle of theistic evolution, are not the point. The point is that God is creator. The point is that stepping beyond that basic step, that wall, puts us beyond Zion.

My time at The Church of No Windows was spent mostly testing the soundness of the walls that they believed were in place, or perhaps, more accurately, I was walking around the fields of disbelief trying to bring back survivors to edges of the city. And here I stop, because I must admit that what I did most of the time was bring them back to the walls of my own construction. I had built my own small city within Zion, and I was critical of anyone who tested the walls I had made.

Our God is bigger than our walls. God has God’s own, but I’m not sure we’ve found as many of them as we think.

The action of grace in our hearts is secret and silent.

We bring heaven in.

Some of you know that one of the ways I connect most deeply to faith is by baking, so instead of the usual book giveaway, I was hoping to go one step further. Three commenters on this post will be chose to receive a free copy of the book, but one of them will be further chosen to receive my favourite bread book in the world, Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads, which I began to learn from over a decade ago. It’s my most-recommended, most-referenced text in my kitchen and it feels right in Sarah’s space, where we are so often reminded to do the good work in front of us, to share it here.

 

To enter for a chance to receive a copy of Tables in the Wilderness and maybe Bernard Clayton’s collection of bread making genius as well, simply leave a comment on this post answering this question: what is a wall of orthodoxy, of right belief, that you used to have that God has begun to challenge in your life?

 

Comments will close next Saturday. Winners will be contacted by email.

Continue Reading · giveaway, Uncategorized · 59

My last few speaking engagements…

…before Tiny #4 arrives are right here, folks.

I’ve decided to take an indefinite amount of time off from travel and speaking engagements starting in December. The way we like to parent our babies – particularly in the early days – doesn’t really work for a travelling mum. It’s only in the last few months that I’ve felt comfortable leaving even the tinies for a day or two here and there. (Well, I suppose I could get up on stage with a tiny babe in a Moby wrap but we’ll see before making any promises, eh?)

So I’ve got my last few events coming up over these next few weeks and I wanted to let you know about them in case you could pop by and say hello. I’d love to see you at any of these events if you can swing it.

praxis

September 19 (Friday): Edina, Minnesota

Yep, this coming Friday night! I’ll be at the Women Who Inspire event at Christ Presbyterian Church. The event information is here if you’d like to join us.

October 3 and 4th (Friday and Saturday): Winnipeg, Manitoba

I’m excited to be with YWAM Urban Ministries sponsored by their Peace & Justice Internships for a weekend of workshops based on Jesus Feminist. The lectures will take place on the 7:15pm on Friday, October 3rd and all day Saturday, October 4th (9am-4:30pm). All the info is right here.

October 24 and 25 (Friday and Saturday): Bloomington, Indiana

So looking forward to this one – I’ll be participating in the Fringe Christianity conversation at First Presbyterian.We’ll be talking about evangelism, gender issues, vocation and identity, as well as writing and living your story as proclamation. All the info is here. 

November 16: Calgary, Alberta

I haven’t been back to my hometown in nearly 10 years so am looking forward to returning for this conversation with the North Calgary Vineyard community. There isn’t an event page or times available yet but I’ll update my Speaking page with that info when it comes available.

P.S. Thanks to @feelingismutual on Instagram for this pic from Praxis in Tulsa earlier this year. The first and quite possibly last time I’ll wear heels like that for an entire day. Ouchies.

 

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Dear Body

Dear Body,

Hello, lovely.

Isn’t it funny how it’s taken an entire lifetime to call you lovely? And to mean it? And see it? And know it? You’ve always been lovely, strong one. It took me too long to notice.

But here, now, let me just say it and then, like a prophet, let me believe it, and live into the truth of it every day: I’m thankful for you.

I’m thankful for the freckles scattered, for how they speak of my summer days at a cold prairie lake, and my redheaded dad. I’m thankful for the bend in the bridge of my small nose, bent on a bunk bed frame. I’m thankful for the grey hair stubbornly reappearing, and that very decided line to the left corner of my mouth, I’ve always started to smile a bit crooked, and now it shows, bless you. Thank you for the small scar on my wrist, from that time when it was scratched…well,  you remember that time, oh, yes, making out with that boy in high school, and then there are the chicken pox scars on my left hand. Thank you for crow’s feet born from laughter.

Thank you for the ease of my skin and the stretch marks, thank you for these too-big-for-fashion breasts, they have satisfied the ones I love best. Thank you for my arched eyebrows, I’ll give you a high-five and a good-on-ya because we’ve never had to pluck an eyebrow and that’s all on you. And thank you for this small pointed and saucy chin, and thank you for my hands, they are starting to look like Mum-hands, and I rejoice in their hard worn strength.

Thank you for my legs, for my thighs, for my heart still pumping the blood of pioneers longing for a bigger sky. And thank you for my knees, how they bend easily, at last, to Creator, and thank you for these eyes that see beauty in the strangest places, for the mother-blue of them, and thank you for the very physical and very real self of it all, thank you for helping me to worship and see and know beyond my brain and my heart, and reminding me that this, the created self is good.

These days we’re growing with new life again. You are changing all over again. And it’s different now in this season than it was the first time we did this eight years ago. That’s as it should be. I know that fashion says teeny-tiny baby bumps are “so cute” and we’ve never been “cute.” We tend to have people asking us if we’re having twins very early in pregnancy. But you know what? I dig it. I love how our muscles relax at just the news of another new baby and I love to rest my hands on my growing bump. This is a gift I didn’t know that I would ever enjoy: look at us, just a regular sort of mama, and I still think we’re beautiful.

And thank you for good hard work like birth, because otherwise, I might not have ever known how capable and strong and life-giving you are, and I look at these babies you’ve carried, and I remember the smell and heft of them on my chest, on my soft belly, the very second that they emerged from my own body, gulping air, blinking in surprise at life, and I remember how I knew that they were good, good, good, and this thing that I had done, this was good, too. And we were all restored to joy, again and again, because I couldn’t stop laughing, every time I gave birth, when it was over, I laughed and laughed in relief and wonder, like an ancient Sarah joining with God in laughter here at promises fulfilled.

I’ve learned at last to be gentle with you, Body. Gentle with my words, gentle with my thoughts, gentle even with my hands, but sometimes I know, I am still learning how to speak kindly about you.

I’m sure now that this is the body I have and this is the body I will have and this is the body I always had, and this is how I am going through life, with you, and we forever putting one foot in front of another, lungs filling with the glorious miracle of dust breathing.

I like you better now, I admit it, than I did when you were lithe and younger, with a concave stomach of a pop star. In those days, I only saw your imperfections and I hid you, ashamed of my very physical self, very real, undignified self. Now, I laugh, an understanding and tender sort of chuckle. I wish I had worn more bikinis in those days, sure, but now I wear my bathing suit at the pool, in front of God and everybody, and I get my hair wet. I put red stain on my lips and a tight-shirts over my growing belly. I’m quick to kiss, to turn over and say yes in the night.

So here, let’s settle on down slowly let’s be young and strong a bit longer, let’s run, let’s walk, let’s breathe a bit longer. Then let’s grow old peacefully together. Let the heft of the baby on your hip be enough, let the moment of holding a sleepy sun-drained babe with tired eyes to your breast, the moment when you are feeding her body and soul, be enough. Let your hands lightly scratch the backs of your tinies until they arch into you like small cats purring with delight. I’ll show these girls how to love their own bodies by loving you.

Undress with the lights on and send saucy glances over your left shoulder at the man you taught how to unhook a bra. Put lotion on your thighs and bless them, eat food that makes you roll your eyes back in your head with a groan of delight, hug, touch, wonder at your own muscles and sinews, welcome the tears, let them fall the way that they have needed to fall, and laugh laugh laugh, now we know, you taught me, didn’t you?

A big and wild love is the most gorgeous thing we could ever put on.

Love and gratitude,

S.

 

This post was part of an inspired SheLoves Magazine synchroblog. Write your own love letter to your own body and then link it up. It would do you good. Edited from the archives.

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