Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Like a Mother

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Isaiah 49:8-16a:

Today we continue in our series on prayer by looking at our images and metaphors for God.  If I were to ask you to tell me or to me draw me a picture of what God looks like, I can probably guess that most of us would describe the image we see all the time.  God is an older man, white of course, with a long white beard, maybe, like Michelangelo’s famous portrayal in the Sistine chapel of the creation, he is incredibly buff, but he’s floating in the clouds looking powerful and maybe all knowing.  If you do a Google image search this is the first image that comes up, and we would all shake our heads and say, “yep, that’s what God looks.”  But is that really what God looks like or who God is?

The scriptures give plenty of metaphors for who God is and most of them are male, not necessarily of someone who spends all their time in the gym as Michelangelo would have us believe, but male nonetheless.  Now, some of the male imagery used for God is not very flattering.  The prophets Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all picture God as an abusive husband, but it’s okay because his wife, who is Israel or Jerusalem depending on the prophecy, “Hey, she was asking for it.”  How we think about God and the metaphors we use for God matters.  Is the image of an abusive husband the image of God we want to hold onto and someone we want to pray to?  If we were to always conceive of God as an abusive husband, our practice of Christianity would be very different, and I strongly suspect that many of us would not be sitting here.  We would not want to follow or worship a God who was like an abusive husband.

Jesus, of course gives us the masculine identity of God as father.  But, the word translated as father, abba, might be better translated in most cases as daddy.  It’s not a title as it is a deeply personal relationship.  So when we pray to God as father, do you conceive of that as someone who is an authoritarian figure, who is sort of around but not intimately involved in our lives, who is more there as protector or provider or disciplinarian, or do you conceive of God, as daddy, someone carrying you on his shoulders, teaching you how to throw a ball or slide into a base, or sitting down and having a tea party with you?  These are two radically different images of God from the same metaphor, and depending on how we use them will impact how we pray.

Now some people have trouble using masculine imagery, especially as father, as it relates to God.  If you notice when I pray, except when I am using Trinitarian language, I don’t tend to use lots of masculine imagery, and that’s because my conception of God is not really gendered, and I also know that there are others of you for whom father language is hurtful.  If your father abused you, or was absent, physically or emotionally, then father language might not work either because our conception of who father is is so impacted by our conception of father, that we need God to be different from that.  For others in the same space, because their fathers were so not father, that they need God to be father for them.  Every situation is different and what we need God for and to be for us is different.

In addition, in the 1960’s and 70’s feminist theologians began to question what we meant when we said that God was masculine.  Did that mean that God had more testosterone than estrogen? did it mean that God had a masculine brain structure?  did it mean that God built muscle mass like a  man does, rather than like a woman does?  What do we mean when we say that God is a man or at least male?  Now some went too far, but there questions are still very important for us.  And even in the church we have struggled with this.  We say that God is creator, but do men create or do women create?  Well it depends on what we’re talking about, but if it’s about giving life, then it’s women.  To become a Christian we are called to be reborn.  Who gives birth men or women?  Obviously women, and the early church would often call baptismal fonts the womb of God, but if God is only masculine how does that work?  As it turns out the church, and scripture, have used feminine imagery for God, we just haven’t really paid attention because we are so used to God being thought of as masculine.

In today’s scripture passage from Isaiah, we have God conceived of not as father, but instead as mother and this is not at all unusual for the writer of this portion of Isaiah.  Chapters 40-66 are thought not to have been written by the main the prophet Isaiah, but instead by writers who are referred to as deutero-Isaiah and trito- Isaiah, meaning second and third Isaiah.  I won’t go into all the reasons, but beginning at chapter 44, there is a change from proclamation about the coming destruction of Israel to the post-exiling existence of the Jewish people, and there is also a change in the style of the writing, including the metaphors for God used.  In fact, female images for God occur more frequently chapters 40-66 in Isaiah then they do in any other book in the Bible.  And like today’s passage, most of these metaphors refer to God as being a mother.

Perhaps that is appropriate since the author of these passages is seeking to let the people know that God has not abandoned them, that God is faithful and still cares for them and will always continue to care for them.  And that makes perfect sense, because let’s be honest, when we are in pain, when we are in trouble and hurting, do we cry out for daddy or do we cry out for mommy?   “Can a woman forget her nursing her child,” God says, “or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”  And then God says, even though earthly mothers may forget that God will not, that God will always remain faithful to her children, that God will be a more faithful of a mother than we can ever possibly conceive.  This is a very different image than what we are probably used to hearing about God, and because we are so used to hearing God using only male imagery I would guess that many of us probably did not even notice it when female imagery was used.  Nor is this the only time.  As I said there are several instances throughout scripture were female imagery is used.  Perhaps one of the most famous image comes from Jesus saying that he wants to gather the children of Jerusalem together like a hen gathers her brood under her wings.  I love that image.

Now this imagery may work for you or it may not work for you, but don’t reject it simply because you don’t think that this is who God is.  The problem with many of the metaphors given about God in the scriptures is that we often forget that they are metaphors and instead we treat them as if they are saying this is who God actually is in God’s character.  That is not what metaphors do or their purpose.  Metaphors relate one thing to another, but they are not saying that the two things are the same.  When I say that on our wedding day Linda was as beautiful as a rose, I am not saying that she is actually a rose or even that “roseness” is somehow part of her make-up.  Instead it is to compare her to something else so that we can see a better picture of her. 
Metaphors, when properly constructed, must show similarities and differences, so that we can say “yes, God is like that,” and also at the same time say “God is not like that.”  When we say that God is a rock, it does not mean that God is an actual rock who has no thought, no movement, no growth, etc.  Instead it implies some characteristics that we associate with rocks, like steadfastness or strength or perhaps immovability, so that we can say God is like a rock while at the same time understanding that God is not like a rock.  Metaphors make comparisons so that things which might otherwise be incomprehensible, like God, become more comprehensible.

At the same time, our imagery of God needs to match our understanding of God.  If you believe that God has given us total free will and allows us to do whatever we want and to be whatever we want without interference from God, then our metaphor for God needs to match that understanding.  We cannot hold that belief and simultaneously imagine God as a potter, because if God is potter then we are the clay being formed and molded by God which would imply that God is doing most of the work and God is therefore interfering with the life of the clay.  The potter does not allow the clay to do whatever the clay wants to do.  And so that metaphor of God as potter does not work with a conception of God in which we have total freedom. If you find that your prayer life is not working, or if you find you once had a wonderful prayer life and it has suddenly stopped working perhaps it is because your metaphor for God is no longer applicable.

Rev. Carolyn Jane Bohler, author of God the What? What our Metaphors for God Reveal about Our Beliefs in God which has greatly helped me greatly expand my metaphors for God, says that after the birth of her first child, she found herself exhausted, physically, emotionally and spiritually, which I think every parent in her can identify with, and she found her prayer life not working for her at the time she most needed to be sustained by it.  And then she came to use the metaphor, like today’s scripture, of God who was a nursing mother who would feed her and give her sustenance at the time when she felt her weakest and was most vulnerable and dependent, just like her infant.  As Dr. Jane Vennard tells us you will find that what you pray for and how you pray will be impacted by the metaphor of God that you pray to, and so to help illustrate this, we are going to try a little experiment and be a little interactive this morning.

In your bulletin, you will find a two sided insert with a series of metaphors for God followed by lines after.  Please take that out now, and then we are going to do some praying.  What I am going to do is to read one of the metaphors for God and then you are going to write whatever comes into your mind as a pray that matches that metaphor.  All we are doing is writing just one line.  So here’s an example.  If I say, God the physician, which is not on your sheet, I might write, may your healing hands calm and sooth my troubled soul.  Or I might say, write a prescription that will heal me of my doubts.  Do you get the idea?

There is no right or wrong way to do this.  There are no right or wrong prayers, and you don’t have to share them with anyone else unless you want to.  Listen to each metaphor and respond as you feel called.  Listen to what the metaphor says to you and write that down, if you think about it too hard you’ll find it harder that it should be, just let the spirit move you, I will give you time to write your prayer down.  We’re only going to do a few of them.  Everyone clear on what you are supposed to be doing?  Here we go:
God the father, my daddy….
God the nursing mother….
Weaver, spinner God
God of the stillness….
God the baker…

If the Spirit has moved you the way it normally does on this exercise you found that your prayers were very different for each one, that praying to God as father is very different then praying to God as nursing mother, which was very different from God as baker or stillness.  I’m sure that you also found that some of the prayers came very easily and some others were hard, which would indicate that some of the metaphors work for you today and others don’t.  However, just because a metaphor works for you today does not mean that it will work for you tomorrow, and what does not work today may work for you next year.  Our metaphors must change to the realities of our lives, but make the metaphor your own, find what works for you

If you are using only one metaphor for God, you are too limited.  Find new ways to address God and I guarantee you you will find new ways to pray and new things to pray for.  If you are getting stuck coming up with new metaphors to try, there are a number of recommendations on the insert which can be used or expanded upon, or do a search on the internet where you will find thousands of recommendations, and when all else fails go to the Bible where you will find lots of metaphors for God.  You might also just answer the simple question, what do I need for God to be for me right now, it could be nursing mother, it could be strong father, or it could be, as one six-year-old-girl said, God as bright night light.  If you need God to be the one who keeps the monsters in the closet at bay, then pray to God as bright night light.

If you are looking for something to take on during Lent, I might suggest that you take on a new metaphor for God each day and work with that image in your prayers.  But don’t take on the ones that are most meaningful for you.  Take on the ones that are hard or challenge you as well.  Maybe imaging God as feminine might be difficult because you’ve never conceived of that as a possibility before so work on that, or maybe you have trouble with God in the masculine or maybe it’s even conceiving of God as non-gendered.  If you are used to working with a very personal, knowable God, pray to the unknown, mysterious or unknowable God, and vice versa by praying to a God who is personified and personalized for you.  Praying to Jesus as bread of life will be very different then praying to Jesus as Alpha and Omega, which will be very different from praying to Jesus as brother.

Our metaphors for God matter and make a difference in our lives, they guide us and lead us, they shape us and form us.  It is impossible to think about God without metaphors, and sometimes the things that are most helpful in showing us who God is for us is by working through who God is not.  Rev. Bohler writes “If we settle for only one metaphor for God, we limit our potential experience of God.  I believe the converse is also true: if we expand our metaphors of God, we expand our experience of God.”  May it be so in our lives.  Amen.

These metaphors for God come from God the What? and from a seminar on prayer led by Dr. Jane Vennard.

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