Wonderings

My Struggle with God and Gender Inclusive Language

Seven years ago I went through a an interview with the the Board of Ordained Ministry pictogram-884043_960_720for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Though it was a cakewalk compared to ordination or commissioning interviews (this was for licensure), it was the hardest interview of my life. I walked away uncertain as ever as to what was happening, and the church to which the Bishop intended to appoint me as Associate Pastor depended on a positive outcome. About a week later my District Superintendent Called me to let me know that I had been approved and all was well to move forward with the appointment. Except for one important note. He said that it would be important for me to make an aggressive and intentional effort at using “Inclusive Language”.

There was one problem: I didn’t know what exactly that meant. I thought it meant not preaching “turn or burn in eternal hell-fire”  kinds of theology, so I thought I was good. I asked if he could clarify for me, and he said, “Well, you speak and write about God as a male exclusively. You’ll want to learn to be more inclusive with your language.”

“Ohhhhh. Well, that makes more sense.”

Side note: There are a whole host of people entering into ministry who have never even heard the phrase “inclusive language”. There are many well intended people getting dinged in board of ordained ministry and district committee interviews for not being inclusive, while they are simply have never had anyone even introduce the idea. Often they need to be taught, not shamed. But that’s not what I want to get to here.

What I want to get to is the wild, spinning, uncertain, clunky, hard, wonderful, and beautiful journey I entered as I began to embrace this. You see, though my language did indeed describe God as exclusively male (104 male pronouns for God in a three page paper- yeah, I went back and counted), in no way did I actually believe that God is exclusively male. But you wouldn’t know it from my language. So I began this journey of having to learn a new language. It was difficult. Physically difficult. I had to restructure the way I formed sentences, I found myself using the passive voice a lot (which I didn’t like), and public speaking (something which had always been easy for me) became much more labored.

But something beautiful also happened. God got bigger. A lot bigger. Now that I was intentional about my language, I was also growing intentional about my imagination. I began to imagine God not only as Father, but also as Mother. I had no idea what I had been missing. God and the world began to break wide open for me, as did gender. I grew more intentional about finding women and girls to lead in various contexts, my views of sexuality both broadened and sharpened, my views on maleness and male privilege birthed, and even the scriptures began to become more alive for me. Within about a year (maybe less) I became not only a practitioner, but an advocate of inclusive language.

Except there’s one problem. Seven years later I find myself in a deep internal struggle with how inclusive language has been practiced (both by me and many in my context) and pushed. I believe what we call “gender inclusive language” is not we practice. What we’ve actually been practicing is gender exclusive language. We are not actually including gender when talking about God, but we are stripping gender from away God. The common theological sentiment is that “God has no gender”. While there is a way in which this is true, there is also a way in which this is false, and what I’ve come to realize is that the ramifications of this stripping away of gender are not merely theological and academic; they are also spiritual. I’ve begun to lose something deeply important in my spirituality- in the way I relate to God.

I had a minor crises of faith over the last week realizing that I’ve lost a sense of intimacy with God over the last seven years. A huge part of that has little to nothing to do with “inclusive language”, but there is also a big part of it that is directly connected to adopting what I will from here on out call “gender exclusive language”. God has indeed gotten bigger for me, and that is a good and beautiful thing, but as God has gotten bigger, God has also gotten unsmaller (yeah, spellcheck doesn’t like that one but I do). God has become distant, amorphous, intangible, even to a certain degree scary- not scary like “Imma squash you like a bug” scary, but scary like “first day of college with an intimidating prof” scary. There is a real sense of intimacy I’ve lost in my relationship with God.

Before I continue, let me clear about two things: When God was functionally and linguistically exclusively male for me, though I did have a certain intimacy, there was an deeper intimacy I was missing, by never imagining the feminine face of God. In no way do I want to go back to that. Not at all. Also, let me also recognize this: As a man who has never had any real physical, sexual, or emotional issues with a man- specifically a father- I hear why male imagery, and especially the father image, are ones to which some simply cannot move. I want to be sensitive to those cases, and confess that it’s something about which I simply know little to nothing.

But I do think we need to find a way to be truly gender inclusive. First of all, for those of us who have been actually practicing gender exclusive language, I think we need to think more seriously about releasing the gender-less God, and begin embracing what I once heard a pastor describe as a gender-full God. And this is a pretty simple theological move, really. Genesis 1:27 tells us that the very image of God is male and female: “God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them; male and female [God] created them.” The first and direct description that we get in the Bible of the image of God- of God’s likeness- is gendered. And for many this has been easy for centuries: “God has gender, so God’s a dude.” No. It says “male and female” not “male or female” (more on this in a minute). So let’s embrace the gender-full God.

Next we need to begin to get more active and bold about recognizing and naming the feminine face of God. This can’t be merely theological. It needs to be practical. Long before there is ever an image of God as father in the Scriptures there is one of a mother. I would argue that this image comes as early as in the Bible’s second verse: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). It is out of the waters of God’s womb
 that the universe is birthed. Later in the Scriptures (much later) Jesus is talking with a religious leader called Nicodemus and talks about the need for us to be “born from above” (or “born again”, if you like) and “born of the Spirit”. Beloved, God gives birth to things. I think it’s okay for us to call her our Mother. Let’s do this. Let’s do it a lot. God our Mother is far too buried in the depths of our linguistic practices. Let’s get her out.

So… for those of you who, like me, have had God as “he” and “father” engrained into you and in it you find great intimacy and connection to God (I get that, I really do), stop freaking out when we paraphrase Genesis 1 with things like “Male and female she created them” (more on this in a minute… wait for it.). And stop freaking out if I decide to shift the doxology to “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ Praise God all creatures here below/ Praise God above ye heavenly host/ Praise Mother, Son and Holy Ghost”. Open up your mind, open up your heart, and open up your ears to a God who is not like a mother, but God is our Mother. She gave birth to the universe, in her you were born from above, and it is from her breast that we are nursed to life and strength and vitality and a whole lot more.

But here’s the thing. Though we need to be sensitive to the ways in which intimacy with a male is a justifiably terrifying image for many, we need to find a way to also embrace the maleness of God. This is where it gets less theological and more personal for me, and where this all ties in to my minor crisis this week. There were a lot problems with my initial conversion to Christianity, but there was also a lot of beauty in it, not the least of which is that it was real and it stuck. Something real happened to me that I’ve tried throwing away and I can’t. A big part of my initial intimacy with this crazy God in whom I believe and have given my life and livelihood is the image of God as “Father”.

At my church we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount, and this week we started chapter six. This is the part where three times in an 18 verse span Jesus says “your father who sees in secret” (Mathew 6:4, 6 & 18). These verses haunted me this week. There is a lot at work here, but part of it is that these verses took me back to my early Christian days when God’s presence in my life was as close, as intimate, and as clear as the air I breathe. Maybe some of it was having a literal father who lived 1,000+ away most of life, but my birthing years as a Christian (though very motherly in that sense and many more) were also of me spending deeply intimate moment with the Father.

Oh sure, it’s all very “Field of Dreams”, but there’s a reason so many of us cry at that movie. Since I’ve practiced gender exclusive language I feel today like I walked away from my Father. I didn’t realize it until this week, but as these verses from the wanna-have-a-catch1Sermon on the Mount haunted me, I realized that part of the lack of intimacy with God in my life these days (can a pastor say that?) is due to stepping away from the image of God as Father. And, quite honestly, more than anything right now, I just wanna have a catch. I miss it. While there is a part of me that has grown in beautiful ways in my relationship with God since become more aware of the ways I gender God, there is also a vital piece of my spirituality that is dying because of the practice that has come out of this awareness.

In all of this I realized that while we need to be careful and sensitive with gendered images for God, we also need to be careful not to abandon them all together, and, perhaps more importantly, not demand that others do. God is, in a very real way, gendered, and when we strip God of gender, I think we take something essential from God. There is a way in which God surpasses gender- that God is something wholly other- but there is also a way in which God is right here giving us birth, nurturing us, feeding us, and having a catch with us. And in this God functions with us in whatever tangible, intimate, and human ways give each of us life. To lose this is to lose a necessary intimacy with God that gives our faith a certain and essential honesty.

The problem I find we run into is this issue with those darn pronouns, isn’t it? Our English pronouns are limited to be either specifically gendered or gender neutral. So the tendency to be inclusive is to go neutral (which we can only do in the plural), but this brings us right back to functionally (if not intentionally) stripping us of a gender-full God.

I want to offer two solutions. One, why can’t we just mix up the pronouns? Let’s not go maniacal and start doing word counts on our sermon manuscripts to make sure there’s perfect equity, but let’s mix it up. I’ll be honest, after sever years of avoiding pronouns, I’m starving for one; not just because it offers more linguistic opportunity, but I find pronouns (though admittedly limiting) are more intimate than saying “God” 18 million times and using terms I’ve never been able to embrace like “Godself” (I know it works for some, but I’ve tried it on and it just doesn’t fit for me). But we have to actually mix it up. We must embrace a gender-full, and not a gender-specific nor genderless God.

My other solution I’ve only come to since my views on sexuality and gender identity have broadened. God is gender-full, and I am beginning to wonder if God is in this sense  genderqueer. “Female and male” God created us to reflect the likeness and image of God. God is not exclusively male, nor is God exclusively female. God is gender-full perhaps in the most full and beautiful way possible. We are born out her womb and also nestle up into his breast (John 1:18). What if we embraced a genderqueer God? That is, a God who is not genderless but truly full of gender? This is, after all, a bigger and broader God than one entirely stripped of Gender.

And what if the pronoun is, as many genderqueer people prefer, “they”. What does Genesis even say but “let US make humankind in OUR image”. Why, then didn’t the writers of Genesis follow this with “So God created humankind in their image, in the image of God they created them; male and female they created them.” Yes, it may sound polytheistic, but it does so no more than “let us make humankind in our image” and I haven’t seen anyone challenge that. “They” is admittedly gender neutral in some senses, but in a genderqueer context, it seems to me that it is more gender-full than neutral.

All of this is to say this: Let’s not rob ourselves of a certain kind of intimacy with God by stripping Them of gender. Let’s also be graceful and generous with one another in our language about God, but also let’s allow ourselves to push each other by broadening and stretching, not restricting, our language about, to, and with God. Let’s break the mold wide open and give this wild, crazy, beautiful God the kind of intimate moments that we have with one another: Moments of laughter, and tears, and anger, and fear, and comfort, and struggle, and love, and peace, and home.

I love God my Father. And I love God my Mother. And I want them both. I need them both. As someone who grew up in a home where mom and dad did not get along and could no longer stay together, I guess maybe I need a God where male and female are inseparably held together in a beautifully queer and life-giving way.

Help me out with this one. I think we need to talk about it more. I think we all need some pushing and stretching in this. Let’s not lock ourselves in. Let’s ride the crazy ride of exploring this endless, beautiful God.

Peace, friends.

Something is Wrong.

justice-387213_960_720Last night I turned on the “news” to get caught up on happenings in the world and in particular the Alton Sterling story (I put “news” quotes because that’s where what’s on the TV belongs these days). My heart sank as I watched reports on yet another black man shot and killed by law enforcement. It was only moments later when I began to see reports about the Philando Castile shooting in Falcon Heights. Grief, sorrow and quite honestly depression sank in. I woke up this morning and it did feel like a new day. The sorrow continues. I don’t know what to do anymore. Something is wrong in our culture and we seem to be utterly unwilling to address it.

I, myself, have been pretty quiet about it, because I think this is really complicated stuff. I will continue to hold that being a law enforcement officer is a difficult, dangerous, and frightening job. We can’t ignore that, and I think very few actually are ignoring it. But what else is true, and which we seem to be unable to confess, is that being a black male in this culture is just as, if not more, difficult, dangerous, and scary. For some reason we are unable and unwilling to admit this.

Story after story after story of black men being killed by police officers have come our way, and every time we find a reason to defend to the killing, all the while the stats continue to prove that something is out of balance. The image we use for justice is a scale, and we do so, because these scales speak to balance. If justice is out of balance, there is no justice. The reality that we must let in (and by “we” I mean primarily suburban white America) is that something is out of balance, and if we truly want justice, something will have to change to tip the scales.

Like I said, I don’t know what to do anymore. All I know to do is write and speak, but I just don’t think that’s enough anymore. This problem is bigger than story and rhetoric. We have a problem in our judicial and law enforcement systems, and we will not get anywhere until we come to grips with that. This does not mean that our judicial and law enforcement systems are entirely and wholly bad or evil, but it does mean that there is a problem. And it’s not a new problem. It goes way back. My first awakening to it was the Rodney King case, but it goes even further back than that. It’s been buried for a long time, but suddenly these things called smart phones are exposing it, and yet we still turn away and blindly defend the establishment.

For the third time, I don’t know what to do. But one cry I have heard from the black community is a plea for people in the white community to speak up. So this is me, a white guy, asking all of us to step back, take a look at the numbers and simply confess that something is out of balance and that we need to do something about it. We have to stop this “yeah, but…” response, and we have to start to listen to the cries. We have to stop picking apart the details of every story and begin to look at the big picture of out of balance scales of justice. We have to stop using an out of balance judicial system to tell us what justice is. That’s like using a broken speedometer to prove I’m not speeding. Something is wrong, and we have to look at it.

Truthfully, I think the embedded racism in our culture that we want to deny is exposed in our refusal to admit that there’s a problem, that the scales of justice are out of balance. I implore all of us to wonder and reflect on why we are so unwilling to admit this. Try to put down the defenses and simply wonder, reflect, and if you are of the praying persuasion, pray about it.

Something is wrong. It just is. So let’s stop denying and let’s start listening. Just start with that, and see where it takes you. We must listen to and hear the cries.

The Untold Story of CHS Field

If you know me at all, you know I love baseball. And it’s quite possible that I may love a good ballpark more than the sport they host. So when the St. Paul Saints announced that a new ballpark was in the works for them in downtown St. Paul, I was excited. Midway Stadium was fine, I guess, but it was pretty blah. The only thing truly charming about it was the train. “Train.” Beyond that, the Saints have always done a bang up job of creating a light hearted fun vibe for their fans- the kind of vibe “town ball” should have. But a quaint park downtown? Now we’re talkin’.

One thing I’m learning in my life, however, is that there are usually two sides to every story. As ballpark fans like me celebrate the likes of CHS field, we are often blind to the other story. A friend and colleague of mine told that story, and I’m glad she did. DeAnne Parks is an artist whose work I love and whose character I love even more. She is passionate, honest, wildly imaginative, and full of grace and love for all of God’s creation. She wrote these words about her view of CHS Field. I’ll still enjoy the ballpark, but I will never forget that it came at a cost- as everything does. And go check out DeAnne’s work here and check her out at the St. Paul Art Crawl  April 22, 23 and 24!

Here’s her story:

10Flightof_Imagination

An Artist’s View of Lowertown

When I moved my studio into the Jax Building in March of 2000, Lowertown was a little sketchy. Artists and homeless people were the only ones that wandered in this forgotten corner of St Paul. You could get coffee and soup at The Black Dog and Goldens. Christos and a Leeann Chin were open for lunch on weekdays in the mostly boarded up Union Depot. Generally though, Lowertown felt pretty deserted on evenings and weekends.

“Crunch, scratch, crunch” was a common sound coming from the alley under my studio window. A steady stream of street people would rummage through the alley dumpster for cans. When I would hear them flattening the cans on the cobblestone surface, I’d look out the window to watch them and say a quick prayer over them. The red brick buildings that make the alley are over 100 years old. Black painted words are still visible that say things like stocks, carriages and harnesses. I’d imagine what horses hooves might sound like echoing off the brick walls. I did finally hear that sound years later as the mounted police clip clopped up the alley, allowing their horses to grow accustomed to the new light rail trains. By this time, the cobblestones had been removed or paved over during the building of The Farmers Market Lofts.

The Farmer’s Market is one of the things that hasn’t changed much in the last 16 years. On Saturday mornings from May to October, I swing open my large single pane windows so I can hear the music. Bluegrass, Old Time, Folk and sometimes Irish, the musicians make Saturdays my favorite day to work. Around noon, I take a break to wander the market choosing fresh, local vegetables and drinking in the brightly colored flowers. The smell of Rocky’s brat cart always lures me over for a cheddar brat with extra kraut. I pull up a curb and visit with Tacoumba while I eat. He’s making and selling art and holding court at the corner of Broadway and Prince, the “Mayor of Lowertown”.

I have great memories of Saturdays at the market. I once saw a homeless family with a young, scruffy little mutt. They were holding up posters the kids had made that read, “Please give our dog a home”. I still have that dog. He’s 13 now and the best free sample I ever got.

I’m moving out of my studio. I’ll miss the market. I’ll miss the view of the word “Factory” out my window. I already miss the can collectors, they’ve stopped coming around. Urban hipsters who mostly, but not always, clean up after the dogs they walk in the alley have replaced them. I often have to close my windows on Saturday mornings now because of the noise. Large, well dressed wedding parties and graduating seniors line up to have their portraits taken in the alley under my window. The old brick and rusty metal doors of the Jax provide a great backdrop. Light Rail Transit, the refurbished Union Depot and CHS Field have led to the building of restaurants, lofts and condos in the once vacant warehouses. My building, which has held artists studios, Books for Africa and a classical ballet studio for over 30 years, will now be part of the gentrification of Lowertown.

I’m preparing for my 33rd consecutive and final St Paul Art Crawl in Jax studio 306. Immediately following, all of the artists must vacate the premises. It will be gutted and turned into upscale lofts as will the 262 Building across the street. I’m grateful for the 16 years I got to spend in this studio, the artist community I was able to be part of and the conversations I had with the homeless of Lowertown. My life is richer for it. I have loved standing in the big north windows looking into the alley and I’m sure I’ll miss it more than I can imagine, but the view has changed.

-DeAnne Parks | www.artdeanne.com

 

 

 

“Not My People. Just… People.”

CeKlmp7WIAAEhC2Welp, I suppose I am Belgian. I mean I am, but culturally, I actually have no clue what it means to be Belgian, and, furthermore, I am probably more Norwegian than anything else (maybe German? I don’t even know). Regardless, I have this strange last name, which most people think is French, but it is actually distinctly Belgian. And because of that, we Baudhuin types do tend to think of ourselves as Belgian above anything else. It’s why I call myself the “Belgian Friar” and it’s why my grandfather at one point had a front license plate that read “The Belgian King”. One day I hope to make the pilgrimage there as my brother did a couple years ago.

When I heard of the attacks in Brussels on Tuesday, my heart hurt. Because of this way in which I identify myself, it felt like an attack on my homeland. When attacks like that happen in areas where you have some connection you really feel it. On one hand, this is not a good thing, because we really should feel it when it happens anywhere, and it happens “anywhere” all the time. We just rarely notice it when it’s not in “the west”, or when it’s not “my people”, or “our friends”. But on the other hand, this is a good thing, because it does wake us up to painful realities of a hurting world.

And that’s what hit me on Tuesday. I heard of the attacks and immediately began to dig more deeply into social media to find out more. These were “my people” so I dug in expecting to see images of “my people”. To my surprise what happened was “Belgium” disappeared for me and instead of seeing “my people” I just saw people. Humans. Terrified, hurting humans- each distinct in their own identity and story, but all connected by virtue of being humans on this earth together.

And then I was struck by what my brother said about it on social media. Having gone to Brussels a couple years ago and falling in love with it (which I believe he would have regardless of our lineage) he had some heart felt things to say about the city and his attachment to it. And then he said this: “Please stop the violence and the bullshit.”

And that’s it for me, I guess. I think that sums up my feelings, and my prayers. I don’t know if this is what my brother meant, but what I took out of that is how I feel, which is the violence is painful, and it needs to stop and stop now, but what also needs to go away is all the bullshit that comes after and around it- the political posturing, the hateful speech towards certain kinds of people, the divisive talk, the increasing of hate and retaliatory violence, and so on. I don’t know how, but my heart longs for all of it to stop: the violence and the bullshit.

If ever I needed Easter, this may be it. I need the belief that somewhere, somehow beneath the dirt, beautiful things are stirring. God bless the world- no exceptions.