I will resist the urge to recap the arguments so far. They are here, after all, to find and read in the first four parts. In this section I want to speak of why this topic is important in the first place. Nothing like waiting until the end to do that, is there? Ultimately, what I have to say on this will be based on two central beliefs.
(i) As long as it falls short of idolatry, the image that each of us has of God can serve be valuable for our faith lives. It is one thing to say, “I find an affinity with a male or female image of God that informs my personal spiritual journey,” and a whole different thing to say, “God is male – to say otherwise is blashemy, a sin or whatever.” We have a right to envision God in the way that is most comfortable to us, as long as we remain cognizant of the fact that it is just an image.
(ii) When it comes to public worship or study, however, our personal image of God needs to be left at the door. In this situation, we may be responsible not just for our own spirituality, but that of others as well. To formalize or otherwise restrict public worship and theology to that of our own is to reach the point of idolizing our own rationality, or irrationality as the case may be.
I’ll begin with a little of my own story, followed by those of others who I have known, simply because it may help illustrate the reasoning behind my opinions.
As a victim of abuse at the hands of my father, reconciling God with the image of Father proved to much for me to bear until I was in my late thirties. I made several attempts at re-entering the fold between the time I left the church at 15 and the ripe old age of 38, but each time I was confronted with the ubiquitous image of God the Father, which translated for me as God the Punisher, Abuser, Drunk and Heartless. Hardly an image upon which to build a healthy faith life or theology. Now, rationally, I knew that God was none of these things, but faith is only one part reason and multiple parts heart – any my heart was shattered and hardened. I had sclerosis of my theological arteries, and God the Father could not pass through them.
I have known many others, primarily women but not exclusively, who have had different situations with similar results. There was B, who had been repeatedly raped by her father since the tender young age of 10. And S, a sensitive young man, but one who suffered sexual and physical abuse by his father and church elders to “toughen him up” and “drive the woman out of him”. Then there was G who, during her childhood, was trained by her father to show or receive any emotion – no touch, no smile, no laughter and no tears. When her father caught her being hugged by the nanny, he fired the one person – a woman – who showed her compassion and love. The list could go on ad infinitum. There a lot of us out there. These are just a few of the people I have known personally.
Rather than ask how you would respond to me and these other folks if we came looking for some way to reconcile a smoldering faith with horrendous images, I am going to approach it differently. How do you think God would and did approach us?
Think about it. God reaches out to those who are hurting and, I believe, especially to those who have hurt in God’s name. Would God approach as the very image of those who have committed the cruel and violent acts that have shattered the faiths and lives of innocents?
Each of us are sinners – none of us are untouched by sin – but, some of the sin we are touched with is the sin of others. When an infant is abused in its innocence, it becomes touched and infected by the sin of another. Innocence is lost, and with it faith can be destroyed. Knowing this, I believe God approaches in the most gentle way possible using the obedience and faith of others to touch and comfort the hurting. In the cases cited above, each and every time the angel sent was a woman – a faithful, loving woman who reflected the love of God and compassion of Christ in her mothering eyes and comforting busom. This woman – common to each of us that I described above – was the image of God that turned our lives towards God.
Babs (arbitrary name to maintain her anonymity) was a music director at a church that, in my case, my wife attended. The minister and elders (all male) of the church wanted my wife to “bring me into the fold,” as we were “unequally yoked”. (Now that will be the subject of another post sometime.) I later found out that they were far more interested in my worldly skills, and the substantial income that they generated, than they were in the circumstances of my faith. I declined to be drawn in.
Anyway, I was fast reaching a crisis point in my life and I had nothing but a distorted faith to fall back on. I was lost. I was alone. And I was desperate to come to terms with my life to that point, the greedy and self-serving things I did to be wealthy and the gnawing “small voice” that said I was better than all that. I decided to commit suicide, and I thought I did. After returning from church and finding me curled into a ball, unconscious and with my sharpest carving knife in my right hand held against my left wrist, my wife called the minister. He couldn’t come – he had a book signing to attend – his own of course. Likewise, she called two other elders who had reasons they could not come over.
My wife finally called Babs, a busy mother who supplemented her meager church salary as an itinerant minstral in whatever venue was available. Babs dropped two gigs that day to come and sit by my side – to listen and comfort where she could, all the time pointing to a God that cares and loves and comforts those who are hurting and conflicted. For twelve hours Babs was the face of God to a lost and lonely soul in dire need of a Savior. It took three years of searching to find a church that reflected the same compassion and caring, and that didn’t use the exclusive image of God the Father that instantaneously brought flashes of my childhood. I heard about the God who fathers AND the God who mothers – the very God that Babs showed me in her actions and life. I found a way to return to faith.
Now, 16 years later, I am comfortable with the image of God the Father – I can say the “Our Father” and mean it – but I know that God is also a mother and a daughter and a son and a spirit of compassion and caring. I also know that using just the feminine image of God – exclusively referring to God the Mother – could be as damaging to someone else as God the Father was for me. Either way, it is idolatry. It is the exclusive use of gender images and roles that is damaging and limits Gods ability to communicate to the lost, hurting and lonely through us. At the very least, it inhibits the effectiveness of evangelizing. At it’s very worst, it hurts the very children that Jesus warned us against hurting – remember the millstone.
Consider this – during a time of healing, which image is more comforting and more descriptive of God’s love – God Almighty or God with Breasts. And, when God is the One who created, nurtures and nurses the afflicted back to spiritual health, why would we get in God’s way by using the idol of a god with a phallus?
Worship is a corporate act of reverence to God, not a private one. Even though each of us may have a preferred and comforting image of God that is integral to our own devotions and disciplines, is it not idolatry and potentially damaging to some of God’s children to use it exclusively in a venue that is meant to bring in rather than shove out? The scriptures are clear – God is Father; He is Lord; He is Judge. But they also clear on the fact that God nurtures, holds people to Her busom, birthed creation out of Her womb and gathers and protects each of Her chicks as a mother hen. God is no more a man than God is a hen. These are our images through which we find a relationship with God. To project them back and insist that they are accurate and the sole images of God may be potentially damaging to others’ souls – not to mention our own.
Authored by Revs Jenna Zirbel and Andy Little, with a lot of help from a long line of theologians. Written by Andy Little.
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