Name It & Claim It?

A Year of Calling God by a New Name

(Or: A Year of Making Other People Myself Very Uncomfortable)

The beginning of wisdom
is to call things by their right names
–Chinese proverb


My son likes to sing the Ariana Grande song “God is a Woman.”  He is eight. He doesn’t understand the sexual content in the song and he gets the words wrong.  “God of a woman, God of a woman,” he bellows from his bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom. That one, inaccurate line is stuck in his head like a burr in his sock after a hike in the woods.

I am grateful that we are alone in the house, lest someone should find his song questionably reflective of his theological education.


We cannot describe the indescribable. 


The self-naming of God in the Bible: 
A name without gender.


“God is neither man nor woman: 
he is God.” 
-Catechism #239


I have a kind, generous, take-charge, analytical, patriarchal father.   I tell you this because conservative Christian folks often believe that a person who questions the gender of God does so because their own father is lacking or unloving.   Mine wasn’t perfect but he was neither lacking nor unloving. 


My mother is likewise kind but in a quieter way.  Gentle, meek, fiercely loyal, longsuffering, and a really good listener.  I have been married for more than eighteen years but she still does my laundry when I go home to visit.


Both of my parents are conservative, stalwart, evangelical Christians.  This is probably what they would want you to know first.


Have I departed?  Have I strayed too far from their teachings?  I offer this, my numbered but otherwise disorderly list, to you, my reader, as I explore new names for God.  


How you judge me will, I imagine, depend upon your own list of unorderly thoughts.  Were you, like me, raised in a conservative church-going home? This is how I picture you.  But perhaps your church was the wide open spaces of the world, the throb and hum of a big city, the great unknowns of the great outdoors, or something else entirely.  


Am I reaching too far?  Not far enough? I trust you will tell me.


There are currently over 3.8 billion women in the world.


“If God is male then the male is God.”   
-Mary Daly


My family of origin revered men above women.  We didn’t, I don’t think, consciously know that we were doing this.  What I do know is that we liked to tell the stories of men. Especially men who espoused good Christian virtues; men who were humble; men who were willing to apologize.  Men who were a little down on their luck but pulling through with pluck and hard work.  

We’d laugh as my mom told us about the beefy former football player turned weaver who sat at the loom next to hers at the community center (“can you imagine?  What a softie”) and cluck our tongues in sympathy when my dad reported that a male congregant at the church he pastored had fallen off the wagon again but was back at AA trying to get his life together (“aww, poor guy”).   We sympathized with men.  We felt sorry for men. We cheered for them and made allowances for their foibles.  We did not do these things for women.   


“Why did God put men in charge?” I ask my dad when I am eight.  “Well, he had to pick one. And he picked men,” he answers. “Ok,” I reply.  


We disparaged working women.  Women who weren’t at home caring for their children.  Women who were what we deemed politically or theologically liberal.


Dr. Christena Cleveland says that every culture and every group has a secret about God to offer the world; a pathway to God that others do not know.


In Godi, one of the Kru languages spoken in parts of Eastern Africa, there are four possible pronouns.  

O is used for humans, both male and female

E is used mostly for large animals, like an elephant or a lion

a is used for a variety of miscellaneous objects, like pot or stone or bird

U is used for natural elements like sky, wind & water, non-liquid masses such as clouds or dust or smoke, and spiritual entities like evil spirits or God


In English, we have three options.  He, She, or It.  There has been recent movement to add other pronouns, like “they” and “z,” to our repertoire. 


Approximately 1 in 10 churches today have a lead pastor who is female.


“Does God have a penis?”  

Mike McHargue asks this of social psychologist and theologian Dr. Christena Cleveland on the Liturgists “Live From Boston” podcast.  And I think, based on his reaction, that he expected her to say no.  I expected her to say no, anyway. But she surprises everyone by saying “yes and no.”  God, she says, is interested in being personified because God wants to be known. So if someone needs God to have a penis in order to connect with God, then sure, God has a penis.   


Does God have a vagina? 

Nobody asked.


“Do you think it’s ok for women to be pastors?”  I ask my dad.

“Well… I really can’t find a way to say that they can’t, from a Biblical perspective,” he admits.  “But,” he is quick to add, “I’ve never known a female pastor who wasn’t totally and completely liberal.” 

I nod knowingly.   


“Liberal” is a bad word in our house.  One to be avoided at all costs. It implies a departure from the teachings of the Bible and a possible penchant for left-leaning politics.   It’s the word we use for my grandmother who voted Democrat in the last election and my aunt who is pro-choice. We hold them both at a wary arm’s length.


Christians have, over the last two-thousand years, reconsidered and/or amended their views on things such as slavery, facial hair, mixing meat and dairy, eating pork, eating fat, planting more than one kind of seed in a field, and touching the carcass of a pig.  We’ve grown and allowed the texts to grow with us. Yet our metaphors for God have remained the same.  


“Why is God a man?  Is God really a man?” I ask my dad.  

“No, God isn’t actually a man.”  

“But then why do we call him he?” 

“Well, we have to call him something.  And probably he is the closest to what he actually is.” 


“God is always bigger than our language,
and the Bible itself gives us permission to address God
using many metaphors.” 

-Elaine Storkey


“You should consider being a pastor when you grow up. I think you’d be really good at it.”  My grandmother says this to my sister when we are in high school and how we mock her for it behind her back. How we scoff at her words, at the very idea. “As if you would ever be liberal enough to be a pastor,” we laugh and laugh. 


“What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition — it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation. 

And then it’s deathly… If you want a God that is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame. 

Otherwise, you’re just going to be left with these dead formulations, which, again, is why the poetry is so important — because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you are left with nothing that has any transformative power.”    

-Walter Brueggemann


In college, my then-boyfriend now-husband gives me a book titled Is it Ok to Call God Mother?  Not wanting anyone to see me in possession of such a potentially heretical book, I read it in secret. I read it on the top bunk under my covers with a flashlight, like a child sneaking a few more pages after lights out.


“As a mother comforts her child, 
so will I [God] comfort you; 
and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” 
Isaiah 66:13


We cannot describe the indescribable.


In a small study with 63 participants, research revealed that our gender metaphor has a profound influence on how we view God.   Offered the same text to read, half of the study participants read about a male God and the other half about a female God. Those who read about a male God thought of God as powerful and vengeful whereas those who read about a female God reported that they believed the text to reveal God as loving and merciful.


As early as I can remember I have viewed God as a frightening, wrath-filled, angry God, perpetually disappointed as I fail over and over and over again.  


I left for college at 18, like my sister before me, in search of a husband.  An education is important, my mother insisted, but we knew that the underlying, and more important, expectation was that we would meet a boy at our small Christian college and we laughed with friends and family about getting our M.R.S. degrees.  We were joking, of course, except that we weren’t. 


I should probably confess straight away that I did, indeed, get my M.R.S. degree.  A “ring by spring.” My sister, too.  


After graduating with an actual degree as well I boldly declare that I, like my mother before me and her mother before her, will be a stay-at-home wife.  And, eventually — of course, obviously — a mother.  


It turns out it doesn’t take very long to clean a 500 square foot apartment. Meal planning for two, likewise, doesn’t take terribly long.  I spend most mornings after waving my husband off to work on the carpet in front of our TV, watching bad television and eating avocados.   


Since having children was still in the far flung future I soon realized that I would need something to tide me over.   I assumed that the longings I felt to do something, to create something, were nothing more than the need to fill my time until my “real” life of being a mother began.  


The problem was this: I didn’t go to college to prepare myself for the working world, for a career.  I was brought up to assume that I would go to college and immediately get married. Which I did. A vocation wasn’t necessary to the equation.  I had never even considered it. 


I tried my hand at secretarial work, substitute teaching, event coordinating.  I wrote in a journal and on a blog. I started my own calligraphy business and felt like I was inching closer.  I started another blog. And another. Always, always I circled back around to writing. But only “on the side” because I thought that if I wasn’t going to be a full-time mother, I should at least pay some of the bills.   I trained to become a birth doula and worked with laboring mothers for four years.

Seeing an invoice on our countertop with payment details from one of my doula clients, my dad looks up at me in surprise.  

“You get paid for this?” 

“Yeah, of course.”


“Yes, Dad.  It’s my job.”

“Wow, I didn’t realize you got paid.  I thought it was just some sort of ministry or volunteer work.


I closed out my twenties with two babies in swift succession.  They are everything and more than I could have imagined. They expand places inside of me that I didn’t know were clenched and taut.  I had reached the pinnacle of what I believed my life was meant to be — being a mother — yet I discovered I still wanted more. I still wanted to contribute; to make things; to hold something in my hand and say “Look. Look, I did this thing.”   I talked about it with my husband but I dared not mention these yearning to my parents or my sister. I was, after all, a mother and that should be enough.  


Eventually, thirteen years into married life, six years after I become a mother, after trying my hand at seven different jobs, I finally, finally looked at the meager, emaciated seed that had been waiting patiently for me to acknowledge its presence all along and decided that I would, after all, like to give it my attention.  To water it and see what might grow.   

I sat on the couch with my husband after our boys were down for the night and made my confession.  I was bashful. Scared, even. I wasn’t sure what it would look like or if I was capable or even worthy of such a pursuit.   But I kinda, sorta, maybe want to write, I said. I feel like maybe I’m a writer. I remember looking down at my hands, clasped as if in prayer.  When I looked up, my husband was smiling. Nodding a knowing nod. Yes, he said simply. Yes, you are.


Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Big Magic that “defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself.  It begins when you declare your intent. Stand up tall and say what you are.” 


I am a writer.


“It is necessary to define words.
It is also at times necessary to undefine them.  
One of my aims as a writer of faith is apophatic.
From the Greek word apophasis.
An apophasis is an unsaying. 
Out of all the words I have heard in my time,
“God” is in my view the one most grievously abused by humans;
The one most deserving of a careful unsaying.” 
-David James Duncan


We attend a church with five female pastors on staff.  There is one male pastor. With a vacant lead pastor position waiting to be filled, there is much talk of imbalance.  About whether it’s ok to have so many females on staff and only one male.  

When we were first married, my husband and I attended a church with three male pastors and one female.  She was the youth pastor. I don’t remember any concern about “balance.”


On January 1, 2018 I made a New Year’s Resolution to only use feminine pronouns for God.   I wanted to see if I could carefully unsay the name of God that I had grown up with. I wanted to see if my perspective of God would shift and change and open in new ways by the simple act of exchanging he for she, father for mother.   


It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
Hosea 11:3-4


On Facebook my friend Wendi shares something good that happened at work.  “Thank God/dess,” she writes and I shift in my seat. I want to be comfortable referring to God as “Goddess” but I’m not there yet.  “Mother” and “she” feel safer to me, more theologically grounded. “Goddess” holds, for me at least, connotations of sorcery and witches and other off-limits imagery from my childhood.


“We pray in the name of 
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
One God who mothers us all.” 



On the same Liturgists “Live from Boston” podcast, musician David Gungor, lead singer of The Brilliance, sings three familiar hymns but he changes the pronouns, singing “All Creatures of Our God and Queen,” “This is My Mother’s World,” and “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” using the pronouns she, z, them, it.  


I drag my finger across the screen again and again to minute 15:08 so I can listen over and over and over, allowing the surprising pronouns to germinate and grow new things in my mind’s eye.   I see mountain sides of wildflowers and the lake where I swam last summer on Orcas Island.  I see the heron diving headlong from our roof to glide out over the pond and the birch trees that sway outside the bedroom window as I spread blankets over my boys.


“More metaphors give us more access to God. One can work one metaphor awhile, but you can’t treat that as though that’s the last word. You’ve got to move and have another and another… it’s just amazing; in Isaiah, Jeremiah, there are just endless metaphors.”  

-Walter Brueggemann


Like an eagle protecting its nest,
hovering over its young
God spread out [her] wings, took hold of Israel,
carried him on [her] back.
Deuteronomy 32:11


According to the brain scans performed by researchers at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, thinking of a loving God causes the compassion centers of the brain to light up on MRI, whereas belief in an authoritarian God arouses the regions in the brain that prime a person for fighting.


In church last Sunday we sing a song with a chorus that says, 

“You’re a good, good Father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are
It’s who you are, and I’m loved by you.”

I sing instead:

“You’re a good, good Mother
It’s who you are, it’s who you are
It’s who you are, and I’m loved by you.” 

It’s a big enough church that nobody hears me.  At least I think it is. 


We are eating dinner with friends and I am asked to bless the meal.   I wrack my brain, trying to figure out a clever way to pray so as to avoid using any pronouns.  It feels easier — and by that I mean to say less scary — to skip the pronouns altogether than to say, “Thank you, Mother, for this food…” and clumsily explain my New Year’s resolution.


There is a song we sang in chapel my first year of college called “I Will Change Your Name” by John Stothers.  I was lonely and out of sorts and sInging it made me feel strong, capable, brave.

I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, Outcast, Lonely or Afraid

I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One
Faithfulness, Friend of God, One Who Seeks My Face


Remembering it now, twenty years later, after 12 months of attempting to rewire the circuitry in my brain, I try the song in reverse.  This time it is me speaking over God rather than God speaking over me.

 I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Vengeful, Angry, Smiting or Unkind

I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Generous, Creative One, Bringer of New Life
Mercy-filled, Ground of Love, God of Endless Tries 


According to theologian Phyllis Tickle, the Hebrew word for mercy is the word for womb with different vowel points.  So mercy, she suggests, is womb-like mother love. It is the capacity of a mother to totally give herself over to the need and reality and identity of a child.   


“This is my body, broken for you.  This is my blood, poured out for you.”  Stepping forward to take Communion the words sound to my ears like those of a laboring woman, giving herself over to the wracking, primal, incandescent urge to push her baby out of her bleeding, exhausted body.  


My husband reports that during his morning meditation on our back porch he had a vision of God.  She was a black woman in a multicolored dress. He wonders briefly if this is a cliche. Yes, I tell him.  He nods. It was nevertheless a warm and inviting presence, he says, as he sat in the cool morning air.  I conjure the image for myself in bed that night when the rest of the house is sleeping and I feel weightless under my blankets.   


I listen again to David Gungor’s pronoun-shuffling songs through earbuds as I walk in the woods.  I quietly sing the line this is my mother’s world as I lift my eyes to the tops of the White Cedar and Western Hemlock. God is a mother. God is like me.  Intellectually I would tell you I have known this to be true for years, decades even, but maybe a thing becomes more true when we say it out loud?


To be a mother is to be a Touchstone
and the Source,
Bestower of names,
Influencer of identities;
Life giver,
Life shaper,
Original Love
-Allison Woodward 


For me right now, to be a mother is to be the reader of Harry Potter, working on my best Hagrid voice.  To be a mother is to be the unlikely studier of Nintendo and Percy Jackson, Minecraft and the mechanics of hoverboards.  To be a mother is to be the ultimate chauffeur, driving to school and back again after play practice and chess club, piano lessons and orthodontist appointments.  To be a mother right now is to be the soothing voice when my boys wake in the night, the maker of jelly sandwiches, the builder of forts and the eager listening ear.    


I am perfectly still inside a clanging, pulsing MRI machine.  My head is clamped into a cage. Profoundly claustrophobic, it is a dreaded place for me, but necessary.  MRIs help track my multiple sclerosis and I should be used to them by now, having had seven — three of my brain and four of my spine —  since diagnosis, but still I start to panic.  

My breathing comes in short, shallow bursts and my heart rate rises.  Try to remain still, the tech tells me over the tinny intercom.  When my calming techniques fail to soothe, I pray.  God?  Are you there?  I need you. Nothing.  Radio silence.  Remembering my New Year’s resolution, I think desperately, ludicrously,  “Mama?  Mama, are you there?   Immediately I have a vision of my head resting in my mother’s lap. 


We cannot describe the indescribable.


Is Mother a better name for God than Father?  No. Is God more feminine than masculine? No.  Am I merely trading one insufficient option for another?  Perhaps.


But, reader, we have had more than 2,190,000 days with masculine metaphors and pronouns for God and I’ve had less than 400 with feminine.  So without forsaking the former, I’ll forge on with the latter. For a few more days, at least.


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