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Worship and Names for God
Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Genesis 3:8-10; Isaiah 42:13-16; John 3:1-5
Speaker: Joel Miller
The American theologian Marcus Borg liked to say: “Tell me your image of God, and I will tell you your politics.”
Mary Daly, an early feminist theologian, wrote: “If God is male, then the male is God.” (Beyond God the Father, 1973).
The writer Anne Lamott proposed: “You can safely assume you have created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” (Bird by Bird, 1994).
What these writers are naming is something we already know on a gut level: The images and language we use for God matter. They shape us from a young age and follow us into adulthood.
Very few if any of us have a blank slate when it comes to God-language. We’re either repeating, rejecting, or reimagining it; embracing, escaping, or ignoring it. Not that everyone does this consciously every day. But that’s kind of the point. Language and names for God often work in unconscious ways, even if we no longer find God language helpful at all.
When our daughters Eve and Lily were still quite young I was having a conversation with a friend who had similar aged daughters. He said he and his wife had decided to use feminine pronouns, She and
Her, whenever they were talking with their daughters about God. His reasoning was that since God is neither/nor, both/and masculine and feminine, his daughters would most benefit early on from language that reinforced their ability to see themselves in the Divine.
Abbie and I liked the idea and put it into practice ourselves. As the girls got older and realized this was not the typical way God was talked about it led to more nuanced conversations.
I guess that makes us a bit like those psychologists or anthropologists who run experiments on their own unknowing children. Or maybe all of parenting is just one big experiment. I have a hunch it’s the kids who have been running experiments on us the whole time, but I digress.
The Bible contains frustratingly overwhelmingly masculine references to God, but it also contains a surprising variety of images.
In the opening chapters of Genesis God is the Initiator of the evolving cosmos, separate from creation, speaking it into being. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God said, let there be light, and there was light.”
God is also a very creaturely-like Presence, right in the midst of creation, enjoying it. The woman and man hear the sound of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Just out for an evening stroll.
What, I ask you, is the sound of God walking? And have you ever caught a hint of that sound? Is it a crunching of twigs underfoot? Is it a shift in the wind? Is it when all the birds go suddenly silent, or sing all at once?
Sandwiched in between these two God/Creation stories is that bit about humanity being created in the image of God. Our relationship with the Divine is forever intertwined with our relationship with ourselves.
The first name in the Bible for God is Elohim, Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.” That name contains a clue that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with any one notion of God. El was the common name for the high Deity in that part of the Ancient Near East, used across cultures. “im” is the plural ending for Hebrew nouns, like our “s.” Elohim is understood as a singular, in plural form. God, the Creative energy behind creation, the creaturely presence joyfully promenading within creation, is a plural singularity. Or is it a singular plurality? If that seems a bit unusual and hard to get a hold of, perhaps that’s the point.
The other primary name for God in the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh, doesn’t give us a whole lot more to grab onto. The Divine shows up to Moses in the form of a plant perpetually on fire, a burning bush not consumed by its flames, and, when asked to name itself says “I am that I am.” Or, another translation, “I will be what I will be.” Those same letters get condensed to the four letters that compose the name Yahweh which is a form of the verb “To be,” and, as some have suggested, sounds, when properly pronounced, like an in and out breath.
Maybe, to hear the sound of God walking in the garden, one need listen no further than the sound of one’s own breath.
So if you’re taking notes, here’s what we have so far: God = a plural singular. God = A playful take on the verb “to be.” And…every time we breathe, we whisper the name of God.
And those are just the first couple chapters of the first two books of the Bible.
As foundational as these portrayals of God might be – built into the very Hebrew names for God, I’m guessing these have not been foundational for our ways of talking about and understanding God.
In sticking within the biblical world here, we’ve most likely experienced a fair amount of confusion over what this God character is actually like.
Within the scriptures God is portrayed as the protector of the oppressed – coming to the aid of Hagar in the wilderness when she is rejected by Abraham and Sarah, delivering the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. And God is the destroyer of countless innocent lives – Noah’s flood.
God is portrayed as a gracious covenant maker – with Abraham, with the nation of Israel. And a ruthless covenant enforcer: Israel’s destruction and exile to Babylon was interpreted as divine punishment for sins.
One minute Elijah’s prayers to God are answered with fire descending from heaven, killing the prophets of the rival god Baal. The next minute Elijah witnesses more fire alongside an earthquake and great wind, only to realize that God was better known in the form of a still small voice. I Kings 19.
God is a sovereign king who demands allegiance. God is a passionate lover – Song of Songs.
God is a warrior (Isaiah 42), God is like a woman crying out in childbirth, calling forth new worlds (Isaiah 42).
A Christian response to all this is to point to Jesus as the defining image of God for us.
What is God like? God is like a wandering healer, roaming village and city street, mending wounds and restoring outcasts.
What is God like? God is a God of abundance, multiplying loaves and fishes, a sower generously scattering seeds, turning water into wine to enliven the party.
What is God like? God’s power is not the power of Rome. But rather the power of a Galilean - gathering multitudes not through coercion but through invitation, joining in solidarity with the oppressed, even to the point of death.
But even a Jesus-centered approach to God can get convoluted when Jesus’ death gets equated with the need for a Divine sacrifice in order for God to forgive humanity. As if the purpose of Jesus is to protect us from God rather than reveal the embodied goodness of Yahweh, closer than our very breath.
Our new hymnal involved much intentionality around language we use for God. Much of this is taking underemphasized metaphors already present within the tradition and making them more prominent.
So we have a song like Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth, which we could see as an exploration of the often-cited exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus tells the teacher that in order to enter the kingdom of God he must be born again - not just a biological birth, but a spiritual birth. Even though a feminine image of God might not immediately come to mind when we hear this passage, the very direct implication is that God has a womb. Since Jesus says you have go through that womb in order to enter the kingdom of God, it seems like good theology to me to say that if you’re not able to submit to a feminine God you’re going to miss out on the fullness of the kin-dom.
And a song like the one we’re about to sing, “Bring many names,” celebrates the many ways Spirit shows itself to us. “Strong mother God, working night and day.” “Warm, father God, blessing every child.” “Old, aching God, grey with endless care.” “Young, growing God, eager on the move.”
The language we use for God matters.
As we sing these songs, we can be hopeful we can let go of any dominant images that have cut us off, rather than drawn us in, to the heart of Reality that is plural within a greater oneness.
I would like to end by going back to Genesis 1 which, if you haven’t caught it yet over the years, is one of my very favorite chapters in the Bible.
We’re talking about language for God, and Genesis 1 has some important things to say about what language does – given this is how God makes the world. Language shapes reality. Words create worlds.
And one of the ways it does this is by separation and distinction. Light is separated from darkness. Waters are separated from dry land. Creatures are separated from one another and later given names to mark this separation.
Language is a powerful tool, a spiritual technology, for carving out of the oneness of reality the distinctions that provide individuality. But beneath all our taxonomies and charts and dictionaries splicing reality into more and more distinct categories, is a oneness that binds us together.
We use language for God because we must. Because that’s how we think and relate. And so we have many images and words and metaphors for God. They give us touching points with something that is not even a thing. Some non-thing that language fails to capture. Behind our language is a silence that speaks a deeper truth. The 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross wrote that God’s first language is silence.
And so our goal doesn’t have to be getting the language for God completely right, searching for just the right metaphor that captures the thought.
Sometimes it’s good to just encounter the unnamable, the I am who I am, in the vastness of silence. To know that’s enough. And to know that all our words are mere fragments of a Reality far beyond our ability to think or imagine.