Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mama Christ and God the Father

“Everyone knows that God’s beyond gender. Why does it matter what pronoun you use?”

I’ve always had a hard time with boy-god language. It was a huge thing for me in trying to come back to church after my adolescent time away, and I worked hard to uncondition myself from initial my gut-punch reaction to hearing God referred to as “he.”  I read all the feminist theology I could get my hands on in college and I wrote my master’s thesis on deconstruction, language, and religious experience.  A version of it was published in a journal 8 people read.

Bottom line: “Yes, it matters.”

Maybe it’s just me. Of course, it could just be me, uniquely tossed about on my own personal-is-political winds of fortune.  In many Episcopal churches it’s  general practice to use less masculine language when it’s convenient, like “It’s right to give our thanks and praise” instead of “It is right to give him thanks and praise” when we lift up our hearts at the prayers for Communion.  And certainly in many pockets of the church inclusive language is a priority.

But our defaults are still male.  Crushingly, my own children refer to God as “he” and I am powerless to stop it. Mean streets and what not.  My son (7) insists that this is just another thing that I, as his mother, Just. Do. Not. Get.

Again: “everyone knows” God’s not male, so who cares?

Scrupulous as I am about un-gendering my own language for God, I’ve had relatively little practice with differently-gendering my language for God.  In my commitment to God being beyond the male gender, I’ve insisted along the way also that God is also beyond the female gender and left it at that. Christian theology is scattered with images of Jesus feeding us with his bloody breast as mothers feed their babies (particularly in the medieval period, but long before then, too).  As someone who had a hard time with the stereotyped images of mothering (another piece of writing for another day) I instead have always talked generally about God as a parent, not a mother or father.   At some point a few years ago when I prayed the Jesus prayer (kind of a Christian mantra—you repeat it to yourself again and again, either in formal prayer or in the course of doing other things—sometimes “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and sometimes “have mercy on us”) I began saying “Amma, Christ, have mercy on us.” Amma is, more or less, the feminine parallel to the Aramaic Abba (which means “dad,” as Jesus referred to God).  In the habitrail of my mind, it was a nice shift. But it was just me.

Until this Lent.
I don’t know how it came about, but this year in assembling the prayers of the people for my parish for Lent, I put in the phrase I’ve prayed with under my breath for several years.  Amma, Christ, have mercy on us.   This is the part of the service where we name concerns for the church and the world, prisoners and captives, friends and members of the congregation who are ill, anniversaries and birthdays and conflict and violence and freedom. The usual response is “Lord have mercy,” but instead the reader ends each petition “Amma, Christ” and the congregation responds “Have mercy on us.”

And, have mercy. It knocked my socks off.   You might note that this is posted before the second Sunday of Lent so we’ve only done it once, but I was so surprised at how different the rest of the service felt because of it.  I am not totally thrilled with how the prayers are written—it’s really, really wordy and long—but hearing “Amma Christ” said by everyone else, not just the echo chamber in my head was, ten years into saying all kinds of masculine prayers, a revelation.

The thing that surprised me, though, wasn’t that it was nice to have my own theological preferences reflected in the worship.  Certainly that is very pleasant.

The real shift for me wasn’t in how it felt to say “Amma Christ” with my parish.

The real shift was what it felt like to say God the Father.

I am a good logicker—I can justify a lot in my head if I think about it for long enough. So often I just mentally “type over” male God language when I have to use it. I mean, yes, empirically, Jesus was male so I can’t not say “Son of God.”  The Trinity, too, is kind of a big deal, and yes, I do baptisms in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But in my mind, there’s always a little prickle of discomfort. Talking about Jesus as mother actually freed me to say God as Father without holding my breath.  And I had not expected that.   

It turns out that, yes, while “everyone knows” God is beyond gender, there is still something about how using the whole range of gender expression makes it easier to hear both the middle and the edges.  It doesn’t work just to mentally erase the male stuff (even while still saying it out loud) and not add in an alternative.   

I have a degree in gender studies. I know all of this is an accident of culture.  (though my son will be glad to explain to you how pink is empirically a girl color and the fact that it was his favorite color from ages 3-5 does not change that)

Apparently, though, however post post post whatever I want to be, I’m still stuck in the binary.  Apparently the words we use do matter.

Apparently it helps to use all of them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Happy (yes, happy) Ash Wednesday!

I’m writing early for my parish blog post this week on Ash Wednesday, grateful for the opportunity the holiday—such as it is—offers to remember our creatureliness.  When it comes down to it, Ash Wednesday isn’t a holiday—it doesn’t commemorate anything about our story of faith or any particular person we remember or any event in the life of Jesus. Ash Wednesday instead is a gift the Holy Spirit has come to offer the church through our practice.  It has nothing to do with our virtue or our accomplishment.  I’m pretty sure it’s not our own cleverness. It’s just pure grace.

Wait a minute, Sara. I just got home from church and I listed my sins in excruciating detail--I sin against creation, against others, and against myself. What do you mean it’s pure grace? Shouldn’t grace feel good? Why can’t the church be logical for once? Isn’t this just another time the church says people are bad?

Well, sure. There is that.
Ash Wednesday doesn’t feel good like a massage or a nice curry or a walk at sunset. Still, there’s something almost exhilarating about the honesty that Ash Wednesday invites us into.  We spend a lot of time in this life trying to look like we lead well-curated, well-organized lives in which our kids always say clever things and our spouses never get annoyed with us.  Social media has not improved society in this way. In the US, at least, self-reliance is right up there with cleanliness and godliness. This month I’ve been reading Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking,  (based on her 2013 TED talk of the same name) which starts with her story about being paralyzed at letting her husband help her financially. He’s rich and famous (the writer Neil Gaiman), and she’s mortified about accepting help from him will mean for their relationship and her identity as an artist. Under it all, she concedes, is her terror vulnerability—we’re all afraid to be vulnerable. You don’t have to be a famous artist to be afraid of that (see also: anything Brene Brown has ever written).

Ash Wednesday just pulls the rug out from all of that. There’s no pretending. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  That’s it.   We are beloved and wondrously gloriously blessed by God, but we are still dust. Ad’ham, made of the earth and to earth we will return.  What a relief! I’m not perfect and I don’t have to pretend.  Widening the view toward eternity puts life in more rightful perspective—both in terms of our frailty and in terms of our power. If we are dust and will return to dust, we can also take some risks once in a while. Longing to be perfect is a pretty heavy burden to bear. You don’t have to.

The other thing that’s great about Ash Wednesday and its focus on our earthy dirty selves is that it’s only one day.  We take ONE day to look at all of this, and then we’re done. Boom, on to Lent, on to the actual repentance part.  And repentance is great—we can always turn around, we can always go in a new direction, we can always try again.   Lent is about all the ways we’re not stuck in our sin.  

 Jesus was waited on by angels in the wilderness. Does God want less for you?