Introduction to Theology was one of the most impactful courses of my seminary career. It made me think about God in new ways. It also busted God out of the small box the Church put God in and gifted to me in my youth. Most importantly, it made me realize that while God would always be God, the ways I understood and articulated God (my theology) would change. It was supposed to change, to grow. If sanctification, at its core, is about growth, then how could I grow and never learn or experience anything different in my walk with God? How could I claim growth if my understanding of God at 10 and 50 are exactly the same?
Part of my seminary experience of God-talk was the use of inclusive language. Inclusive language was an attempt to prevent us from limiting God to a particular gender. The goal was to develop within us a greater awareness of the power of naming and describing God and how those names might include and exclude. It also showed us the ways that toxic masculinity was deified in people's understanding of God. Therefore, we could not use masculine pronouns for God. God could not be "he" or "him," and "father"was forbidden unless paired with its feminine counterpart, "mother." Our vocabulary had to stretch to include ways of speaking about God that did not reduce the infinite being of God into a single gender (or race, which they rarely discussed, because we could spend pages on the white-washing of God).
After all, God is NOT a man or male. God is God. (And human beings are not all male so we used humankind, not mankind.)
You can imagine the resistance. Some of you might even be feeling uncomfortable just reading this. (Try to press on). The big fight usually came over the use of "Father." People went to battle over that word. A whole Bible full of titles and metaphors and not being able to use one, "Father," almost made people drop out. This actually proved the point of the whole restriction-people were so wed to the maleness of God that it was nearly impossible to experience God as anything else. To use "parent" was too impersonal. To use "mother," was unconscionable. Some students fumed that calling God "mother" was like "dressing God in drag."(I'm gonna leave that discussion for another time). See? Even though people mentally assented to God as Spirit, they really believed God was a male Spirit. There was weeping, people, weep-ing, as some students expressed their love of God the FATHER and felt like the seminary made them spiritual orphans.
But there was another side. Another group of people who didn't realize how excluded they felt, until the language changed to include them. Some realized that "father" was a painful metaphor that had actually hindered intimacy with the Divine. They, too, wept because the change in language made intimacy with God possible in ways it had not been before. It made them discover and employ other titles and metaphors for God that provided a deeper spiritual connection. The God they knew, or perhaps a better way of putting it, the God they were given, hindered rather than helped their continued growth.
When I entered seminary, I primarily understood God as savior and father. As my "father language" was challenged, I embraced the mothering aspects of God. I understood God's gracious, unearned, unsought after love for the world because I was loved that way by my grandmother who raised me and told me she could not love me more if I had come from her own womb. Eventually, I did not see God as a gendered parent, but as a parent. God as parent was a corrective to the negative experiences that I had with my biological parents and the positive experiences with my parents helped me understand aspects of God's love for me as well as the freedom given to me to make my own decisions. God as parent was the dominant metaphor in my spiritual journey...and then things changed.
Last year, on Ash Wednesday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully, it was in its earliest stages and localized. A biopsy and perhaps radiation was the prescribed treatment. But then my genetics report came back: BRCA1. Prescribed treatment: bilateral mastectomy and the removal of my ovaries. We were all stunned-me, Lydell, even the breast surgeon. We thought we were just ruling out the breast cancer genes. But the genetics test came back BRCA1 positive. BRCA1. Less than 1% of African American women carry this gene. LESS. THAN. ONE. PER. CENT.
I was stunned. Then surprise gave way to anger, fear, and grief...so much grief. I had already lost so much and now I was faced with losing body parts. There was a whirlwind of decisions to be made along with the whirlwind of emotions. Everything changed, including my spiritual life. I wasn't praying, reading Scripture, or journalling as I used to. Songs, especially hymns were my greatest comfort and ushered me into the presence of God. My hope and trust was still in God, but the relationship...we were a bit on the outs. I held onto 1 Peter 5:10: "And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you." Yes, I was resting in God's strength and love for me, but it was different. To be honest, I think I was holding God at arm's length.
It wasn't until I had gotten through the surgeries and was recuperating that I began reading and praying in a more disciplined fashion again. Of course, a lot of the change in my spiritual practices was physical. I didn't have the strength or focus to practice the spiritual disciplines as before. But, if I were to be honest, something spiritual/emotional was at the root. I had no desire to engage God at a deeper level, even if I did have the strength. So when I mentioned to my therapist the joy I was having in my time with God and excitement about practicing my spiritual disciplines again, she asked me what had changed. I paused a moment, thinking and gathering my words, asking myself the same question. Then I told her that I started thinking about my relationship with God as a marriage.
Wait a minute, let me explain. Some of you (myself included) responded to that metaphor like sis in this pic>>>>>>>>>>>
I vehemently resisted the marriage metaphor, especially as a single woman. It was creepy thinking of God in that way because as a single woman, sex was a big part of what I envisioned a husband bringing to the table. To sexualize God was just plain nasty-God would never be to me what a husband was. And I resented the holy people with a very physical being in their beds minimizing the physical emptiness of my bed.
But somewhere along the line, I grabbed that metaphor🤷🏽♀️and it worked for me: "For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth "(Isa. 54:5). Here are a few reasons why:
1) It was hard to be real with a "parent" about the level of anger and disappointment I felt. I could give "Parent God" my fear, but my anger and accusations felt disrespectful. I wasn't raised that way. Shoot, I didn't even breathe heavy when I was angry with an elder. But I could be raw with my spouse and know that the relationship was strong enough to take it and not break.
2) I had a better understanding and experience of working things out with Lydell than I did with my parents. I knew how to talk things through with him, sometimes through multiple conversations because the previous ones did not get us to where we needed to be. I knew what it was to simultaneously feel like I can't stand Lydell AND I don't want to to be without him in my life. I don't want anything between us, but I just need a minute, 🤬🙇🏽♀. AND in the midst of it all, as angry as I am, to know I am STILL loved and he will pursue me if it seems like my anger is taking me too far away from him.
3) When Lydell and I were in pre-marital counseling wrangling over something, the counselor told us that part of communication was listening to each other's hearts. She said we had to listen beyond the words to really understand each other. And that is how I began to see this whole experience. I didn't like the "words" (what was happening to my life, to my body) so started to listen to God's heart for me. I started to see the ways that God was loving on me through all of it.
In short, the God I knew had to become the God I needed in the midst of my situation. I did not change God, I expanded my understanding of God. I recognized that there are a myriad of metaphors and titles in the Book and, thankfully, God is greater than our pet title or metaphor. Yes, God is the same yesterday today and forever, but I'm not. Moreover, how I understood God yesterday may not be the best way to relate to God today.
How has your understanding of God changed? Does it need to change now? Please comment below.