God as Gendered

Years ago, a book called The Shack was released and stirred a great deal of controversy within the evangelical Christian world, in part because of its portrayal of God the Father as a large Black woman. Interested in what it was really all about, I picked up a copy of the book and actually enjoyed it a great deal. No, I don’t picture God the Father as a large Black woman – but neither do I picture Him as an old white dude with a flowing, snow-white beard, XY chromosomes, and a penis. The God who exists outside of space and time, who spoke the universe into being, creating it ex nihilo, who created us in His image – I don’t think He can be reduced to either of those human-like representations.

I liked what the God character said in the book, when asked why She was showing up as a woman – “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you…Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?” The main character, “knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange and painful and maybe even a little bit wonderful.”

Isn’t that who and what God is? Showing up in ways we don’t expect? Looking different than what we thought? Demonstrating compassion and kindness? Working in our lives in ways that are strange and painful and wonderful?

I just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s latest book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and one of the most encouraging parts of it was her description of her thought process in imagining God mothering her.

She writes, “Most of us identify God in parental terms as a father – and that is deeply meaningful to me as well…But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression…I find that the older I get, the more I care for the ones I love and for the world, the more I need both – I need both the energy of the mother and of the father. I need the fullness of the expression of God, not a lopsided caricature of either. And in times of suffering or loss or exhaustion, it has turned out that I needed a mother” (p. 172-173).

And she tells of how this has played out in her life recently, saying, “This has been the question God has given to me as a practice of spiritual discernment during my life with chronic pain: How would God like to mother me today? If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today? It’s a great question to ask in prayer when I feel scattered and exhausted and empty” (p. 172). She notes, in her discussion of self-comfort versus self-care that, “Perhaps self-care is simply joining with God to care for ourselves as a mother would care for us” (p. 170).

I am well aware that this idea of God as Mother – or, really, as anything other than an old white dude – can be controversial among Christians. One of Rachel Held Evans’s last tweets before she died was, “I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog posts, and dozens of articles, and only once have I used a feminine pronoun for God. People still point to that as a reason I should be killed in order to quicken my eternal torment in hell. No joke.”

And yet, there is imagery of God as a mother in multiple Bible passages. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

I’m finding myself comforted tonight, thinking about God as both Father and Mother. I am encouraged as I think about the difference between self-comfort and self-care and how this image that Sarah Bessey sets forth of, ” If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today?” can be a guide for me as I move forward. And I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before me, who are reflecting back for us the wildness, the nurture, and the utterly-beyond-gendered-ness of the Living God.

We Left Our Church This Year

In a recent post, I alluded to the fact that this year has been tough. There are so many factors that have been at play in that.

One big one, though, has been a spiritual questioning, an uncertainty.

I became a Christian as a sophomore in college, and I spent the next decade generally feeling pretty at home in evangelical Christianity. Sure, there were some areas about which I wasn’t sure exactly what to think. And there were segments of evangelical Christianity with which I felt I fit more than others. But I fit.

And then came the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. I’d already known that Matt and I were more progressive than many other evangelicals. We voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.

But 2015-2016 felt different – in particular because of the rise of Trump and because so many evangelical Christians supported him, seemingly wholeheartedly. He was famously quoted as saying, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” In my mind, it is a problem if your opinion of a person or their fitness for office would not change if you were to be confronted with undeniable evidence that the person was a murderer.

We already knew who Trump was. We had heard how he spoke about women. We had seen him mock a disabled reporter. We knew. But the Access Hollywood tapes were a whole new level – a stark confirmation that Trump really was the lascivious, lewd, disrespectful human being we had believed him to be. I thought maybe the position of evangelical Christians would be swayed by this clear moral failure – and for a moment, it seemed that it might be. Wayne Grudem, the author of Systematic Theology, a book I considered for many years to be second to the Bible in its authority, penned an editorial withdrawing his support for Trump.

But then – just ten days later – he again urged voters to choose Trump.

What do you do when someone you once considered to be virtually infallible in his Christian character and wisdom and understanding makes a choice – and urges others to make a choice – that you find clearly morally repugnant? What do you do when you start to identify more with writers like Shannon Dingle (who wrote an incredibly persuasive editorial about why she, as a pro-life woman, was voting for Hillary Clinton) than with Wayne Grudem? What do you do when the voices that speak to you most begin to be people like Sarah Bessey and Jen Hatmaker? When you actually read some of the writings of Rachel Held Evans – whom you’d always, for some reason, dismissed as a rogue inventor of convenient theology – and find that you actually identify with her and her questions and explorations?

What happens when you learn and understand more about the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals and begin to see how important it is that you do not go along with the church’s high-priority, black-and-white stance on an issue that Jesus never saw fit to address once in the Gospels? What about when you have a daughter with a physical disability and you realize how behind white evangelical Christianity is in prioritizing the lives and access of people with disabilities? What about when you know that her experience – and your experience as her family – at your own church has not always worked for your family and is heading toward another season of not working as well as it should? What happens as you realize that the differences between your own stance on gender roles and your church’s is growing, not shrinking – and on top of that, your three daughters are racing toward adulthood? What about when you begin to think about the ways in which church structure – a topic you’d always considered pretty uninteresting – actually matters a great deal to the ways in which relationships within the church function and the health of those relationships? And what happens when you realize that, within your sphere, there are some questions it would not be okay to ask and some answers it would not be okay to give?

If you are me, you begin to investigate – quietly. You begin to question things that you used to believe were black-and-white certainties. You read books. You talk to people you respect. You realize that there are so many more questions than there are answers. Sometimes you do have answers – but those answers are not always the same as the answers the people you have revered as heroes of the faith believe to be true. And sometimes you come to believe that the questions might stand on their own – with answers to be unknown in perpetuity.

And you realize that you can no longer stand in a place of claiming Truth in all of these matters. You no longer believe that the answers are all black and white and certain. You have been given new glasses, your vision has deepened, and you now see the grays.

There is a discontent in the questions. You miss having the answers. You didn’t mean to trade your answers for questions. You thought you were chasing new answers, and you still hope that someday you will find them, but you realize that for now, you are being asked to sit with the questions.

But there is also a peace. There is a space for the not knowing. There is a space for the investigating. There is time for the paths and the future to unfold. There is freedom in that but also fear. You wonder what the future holds – and you don’t know. You are now conscious of the fact that you cannot see the entirety of the path your life is taking – you never really could, but now you know it.

As you contemplate a separation from your church, you realize that you have spent so long conflating the voice of your church and the voice of God that you are no longer able to distinguish between the two of them. You know that the survival of your heart depends upon your relearning to recognize the voice of God. You feel a little bit like Elijah, standing out in the wilderness, waiting and listening – wondering if the voice of the Lord is going to be in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. You know in your heart that it is not – but you also don’t know whether you will recognize His voice when the low whisper comes. You hope desperately that you will – and you know that you have to try.

And you resign your membership in your church. You cry and you mourn and you grieve. You talk to your therapist. These were your people for 12 years. You served together in ways too numerous to count. You brought your babies home to this church. You have shared your life with these people, and you know that some of those relationships will be altered. You have no desire to walk away from these people. But you no longer feel like you fit in this particular institutional manifestation of the church.

It feels a little bit like becoming untethered. Where you were once firmly stationary, set in your little place in the big world, you are now adrift. You feel more alone, more separate from a group, than you have felt in a long time. Part of you feels free to breathe in that new alone-ness; and part of you feels lonely. You are able to explore much more broadly the world around you. You are now free falling, and oh, my God, it is beautiful! But it is wild and terrifying, as well. You wonder – the God of the universe, that Being whose essence you once foolishly thought could be captured in a theology book, whom you once thought you were close to understanding as well as was humanly possible – will He catch you?

And you hope in the wisdom of the Internet age that you have seen so often before.

You don’t know what this journey forward will look like. But you place one foot in front of the other and you trust that God is still writing your story, and that He is good. Sarah Bessey writes in Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, “When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine” (p. 157). You feel great comfort in that but also great wonder. You wait, listening, for the low whisper, and you wonder what it will say, and what your story will hold.

The Little Things are the Big Things are the Little Things

This year – 2019 – has been rough for a number of reasons; there hasn’t been room for anything except the essentials. I expect I’ll share more about some of that later. But I do enjoy blogging, and I want to get back to it. This is an important space for me, and I hope I can serve my family and others with it, too. Today I have some parenting reflections to share.

One recent afternoon, I was working my way through a substantial “to do” list. Yet one of my kiddos had been struggling, and I’ve found that when my kids struggle, they need me to ramp up my efforts toward connection with them. To that end, I asked her if she wanted to play a round of Solitaire, which we often play as a cooperative game, working together to strategize and try to win.

I thought it would be a low investment, high payoff situation – it would take 5 minutes, I’d have that moment of connection with her, and then I’d be able to go work on my list. It didn’t quite work like that! We played one game – and lost. We played a second – and lost. We played a third – and lost. We were having a stretch of bad luck.

I could feel my anxiety rising. I needed to get moving on my list. This was taking much longer than I thought it would. I was tempted to tell her that I needed to be done, and whatever happened in the next game, I had to stop, but I knew that would be frustrating for her, not to end on a triumphant, successful note.

And so I started talking to myself. “Connection with your kids is the most important thing you do as a mom. The to do list can wait.” Persistence is important. I needed to stick with this and play until we got a win. That was true in Solitaire, and it’s true in parenting. So much of the time, my parenting work takes longer than I expect, is not as productive as I hope, and is more frustrating than I think it will be. Sticking with it until I am successful is important.

We lost a fourth game. She said, “We should switch from this blue deck to the red deck. The red deck is better for us.” Sometimes we need to change our strategies. Our goal remained the same. We remained committed to working toward it. But we tried something different. And sometimes those different strategies make all the difference.

Did I really think the red deck was objectively better than the blue deck? No. But what was important was listening to my daughter, letting her know that I was willing to hear her, that I would make a change when she wanted us to make a change. It matters to my kids to know that they have a voice with me.

And the fifth game? We won! She was delighted.

It was a brief moment of connection and teamwork in the middle of my day, and it was absolutely worth it to take the time away from my attempts at productivity in order to have that time to connect with her. It ended up being a highlight of my day – I need those moments of connection, too.

I Ran (and Walked) a 5K! And Then My Girls Did, Too!

I shared a couple months ago that I’d taken up running, though I was experiencing some problems with my knees. Many of you chimed in with helpful suggestions, and after gaining a better understanding about proper running form, purchasing new running shoes and socks, starting some strengthening exercises, and doing some more stretching (including using a foam roller), my knee pain lessened dramatically, and I was able to keep running.

I did not actually complete the full couch-to-5K program – week five in which the runner is instructed to go from running a maximum of 5 consecutive minutes to running 20 consecutive minutes did me in! I decided, though, that it was still worth it to keep training. I could keep increasing (more gradually) the amount of time I was running, keep building my endurance, and just see what this first 5K looked like.

My friend Courtney and I did the ShamRox Run 5K on St. Patrick’s day, and it was a good first experience.

We started off running but took breaks to walk as we’d get tired. Since we live 2 hours apart, we hadn’t been able to run together leading up to the event, but it was good running with each other at the event. I’d trained more so had a little bit more endurance, but she’s definitely a faster runner, so we pushed each other. And we gained some insight about events like this – for instance, it turns out that when planning race courses, they do NOT work to avoid hills in quite the same way I do when I’m running on my own! Who knew?!

Matt and the kids came to watch and cheer us on as we crossed the finish line, which was sweet 🙂

We finished at 36:54.05, which was a pace of 11:55/mile. That’s obviously not a stellar result, but I felt like it was decent for people who had been running for only about 2.5 months! It’s a good baseline time 🙂

After our run, I started reading more about the run-walk-run method, and I actually really like it and think it would be effective for me. In fact, in my runs in the couple weeks after the 5K, I tried to use that strategy more as its creator suggests – taking walking breaks much more frequently, as opposed to pushing myself to run for as long as possible – and I found it helpful. I enjoyed the running time more. And in trying to run for as many consecutive minutes as possible, I was losing the opportunity to try to run fast. I actually ran 2.5 miles at a pace of 11:07/mile a couple weeks after our 5K, and my new goal is to have a pace of under 11:00/mile.

As I’ve been talking more about running, my older girls started to wonder if it was something they would enjoy. I took them out for a run with me one morning, and they said they wanted to do a “Color Run” 5K that a local middle school was hosting as a fundraiser for their girls’ track team, so we did that this past weekend. Our friend Sarah – after being assured that we’d be doing this at the girls’ pace and not at mine! – joined us, as well!

The girls’ opinions of the run were rather different. Madeleine CaiQun announced during lap 2 (out of 6) that she was ready to sit down and be done…and that remained her attitude throughout most of the rest of the race! Miranda, on the other hand, absolutely loved it. She kept wanting to run more and telling us how much fun she was having! Honestly, that’s mostly what I expected they would think about it (though I would not have predicted the heights of Miranda’s enthusiasm), but I wanted to give them both a chance to try it for themselves and see what they really thought. Miranda has asked me to find some more races we can run together, so I’ll look into that, and I’ll continue to enjoy other activities with Madeleine CaiQun!

My future runs may have to wait a bit – I’m currently dealing with a slight ankle sprain after attempting to run on an incline treadmill, but I’m following my doctor’s advice about that, and hopefully I’ll be back to running soon! I’m planning to do another 5K at the end of May, at least 🙂

What I’m Reading

It’s an icy, wintry day here in Missouri – perfect for curling up on the couch and reading!

I’m actually working my way through a large number of books right now – this is the stack of books in which I’m currently spending my reading time.

One thing I’ve loved over the past years has been building relationships via book discussions. One Thanksgiving, our whole family read and talked about a book. Matt and I have read books together for years. And I’ve loved talking about books with friends – and it is one of the great joys of motherhood for me that my children also love reading and discussing books.

I ordered Mary Oliver’s Devotions for Christmas, and Matt and I have been reading through it together. Her poetry is challenging and inspires contemplation but is also a peaceful resting place for my soul. We’re also reading All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung, a memoir by an Asian-American adoptee, and we’re finding ourselves encouraged to think about what it means to raise our children, particularly our Asian-American daughters, well.

My mom gave Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson, to Miranda for Christmas, and the older girls and I have started reading through it together as our bedtime reading book. Already it has prompted some interesting conversations about friendship, immigration policy, and intelligence.

Madeleine CaiQun received the first five books of the Wings of Fire series from my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas, and both she and Miranda are devouring them. They love them so much that they pleaded with me to read them, too, so I’ve been spending time in the world of Pyrrhia, reading about dragons and their adventures! I’m only on book two so far (Miranda is in book four, and Madeleine CaiQun is reading book seven), but they’re an enjoyable light read. The girls are delighted to have me participating in this reading with them, and I so enjoy that they want to bond with me over our shared experience of books.

My friend Courtney and I are currently reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, a fascinating and thought-provoking story interspersed with philosophical observations. It’s been the springboard for some interesting conversations!

And though these books I’m reading with others are absorbing most of my reading time, I’m also slowly making my way through Suffering and the Heart of God, by Diane Langberg. The question of how an all-sovereign, all-good God co-exists with a world filled with tremendous suffering has long been one with which I’ve wrestled, and I’m appreciating this book’s insights, as well as its counsel on how to love those who are suffering.

I’m enjoying these books – but also looking forward to what I can dive into next! Here are a few of the books currently waiting on my bedside table – gifts from my mom and my friend Marisa and my brother David.

And if anyone else has any great book recommendations – I’d love to have them! I’m always looking for more good reading material.