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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.

Pep Rally or Game Plan?

IMG_8391Last week was the Annual Conference of the Minnesota United Methodist Church. It’s our big gathering. Our clergy and lay members gather in St. Cloud, MN to reflect on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re headed. It’s a fun and fruitful time, but also an exhausting and exasperating time (at least for me). What I fear, however, is that what our Annual Conference has become (or is becoming) is a mere pep rally when it should be a locker room talk.

It’s like this: My daughter’s fast pitch softball team really struggles, and that’s okay. What I find amusing, however, is often we’re in a game and losing by as much as a dozen or more, and they chime in with one of these cheers that seem to be what the bench does in softball. It’s a call and repeat cheer that goes something like this: “Janey is her number (repeat). 7 is her name (repeat). Even though we’re mixed up (repeat). We’re gonna win this game (repeat).” Then everyone goes on in unison chanting, “Hey don’t be a fool. Somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one having fun in the sun…”. A few of us parents chuckle every time, because while calling out this cheer, they are down by double digits and have won one game all season. They’re not gonna win this game. And they’re far from number one.

As our Bishop mentioned this year, the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is the fastest declining conference in the nation two years running, yet sometimes I felt like we’re cheering within that truth, “…somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one…”. While we need encouragement, and need some atta-girls and atta-boys, I felt very strongly this year that we were getting a game plan in the locker room, but we were treating it like a pep rally in the gym.

Our key note speaker was Rev. Junius Dotson who is the Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, and his talk reminded us of what this is all about- of in fact what being a United Methodist is all about. It’s about discipleship. He said that if we can’t connect to our “why”, then what we do will have little to no effect. He was talking a lot about our personal “why” (that is, our personal purpose in this world) but he was also talking about our communal “why”. As we look at our Conference and the churches that make it up, we must ask “why do we exist?” Well, if we’re United Methodists (which we claim to be), then no matter what your church’s mission/vision/values are, the answer to that question is easy: We are here- that is my church and your church exist- to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s it. That’s our collective, communal “why”.

The trick is that there’s another why beyond that. Everybody wants to have a positive impact on transforming this world. The way I like to phrase it is restoring shalom to the world or working for wholeness in the world. The “why” within this is, “why do we need to be disciples of Jesus Christ in order to transform the world?” To put it another way “to what degree do we believe that being a disciple of Jesus Christ actually does that?” Do we believe it at all? As Junius Dotson indicates in his short video at seeallthepeople.org, are we merely trying to “fix” our churches? Or are we working to partner with the Holy Spirit in transforming the world?

 

 

If we are going to be who we say we are- which is United Methodists- then we must trust that being a disciple of Jesus Christ can actually transform the world. And I don’t mean this some God-awful imperial way with sword and spear. I mean this in an actual Jesus way with basin and towel. This does not make us the saviors of the world, but it does mean that we believe that when we give our lives to the ways and rhythms of Jesus, that we believe that our own personal worlds (that is, our hearts, souls, minds, and even bodies) can be transformed; that our local worlds (that is, our homes, neighborhoods, cities and communities) can be transformed; and that (as redundant as it sounds) our global world can be transformed.

The “why” of the Church for United Methodists is the transformation of the world by being disciples of Jesus who go a make disciples of Jesus. But as one of the “TED Talk” speakers at Annual Conference said, “making disciples is hard work”. There is no quick fix to this. That’s why Jesus said in his most thorough and exhausting teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, “The Gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14, NRSV). [Side note: If there “few who find it” what might this say about churches that draw and woo the masses?] Being a disciple requires being disciplined in an intentional way of being or rule of life.

To put it another way, being a disciple of Jesus requires a method. It’s time we in Minnesota put the “method” back in Methodist. We don’t need anything new. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, or even come up with a whole new mode of transportation. The method has already been laid out for us, but you might have to crack open that 2016 edition, or even dig up an old dusty edition of the Book of Discipline (which perhaps we should rename the “Book of Discipleship”).

Go ahead do it: Listen the binding crack and smell those fresh thin pages. It’s not just there only to tell you about restrictions on property sales and how many people should be on Trustees. It’s actually got the whole game plan of discipleship outlined for us in paragraph 256.1, which also refers us back to the General Rules (we keep using that word- I do not think it means what we think it means) in paragraph 104. And when you’re done with that, give paragraphs 216-221 a good reading as well. This is our game plan, folks.

We don’t need to ask, “what’s your/our discipleship method?” We should be asking, “how are you structuring the discipleship method?” We already have the method! That’s why we’re Methodists! It’s laid out for us in the Book of Discipline, but beyond that there is Disciples-Making-Disciplesmore help in doing this. Go grab the “Developing an Intentional Discipleship System: A Guide for Congregations” at seeallthepeople.org, and perhaps work through this with your leadership team and staff. Also consider ordering the three part series of books recently released, the first of which is written by Minnesota’s own Rev. Steve Manskar called Disciples Making Disciples. The others in this hat-trick of resources help us in fanning this out to our children and youth (perhaps our biggest failure so far as conference), and are called Growing Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Children and Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Youth.

I challenge all of us Minnesota United Methodists (clergy and Lay Leaders and Lay Members to the Annual Conference) to read these books over the next year, and then maybe the planners of our 2018 Annual Conference could find some space for us to talk about what we’re learning from them, and, more importantly, what we’re doing about them. This is our game plan. We’re not number one, nor are we even number two. And the point, of course, isn’t winning (by no means), but that statistic should give us great pause. It should cause us to look at our game plan pretty closely. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of pep rallies. I want to get back into the playbook and make sure I understand and begin to run the game plan.

We have work to do, friends- hard work. Let’s be honest about that. This is hard work. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t Tweet well (I’ve tried). It’s not a quick fix. It takes immense focus and discipline. But it’s beautiful work. It has the power to change lives, change our communities, and change our world, and even enliven our very own souls as we lead our congregations in it.

It is in fact why we have a “people called methodists” at all. Let’s put the method back in Methodist.