Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In a name…

Rock, Consuming Fire, Fountain, Mother. Quick- What do these have in common?! Answer: A) The letter ‘o’. B) Scripture uses each as a metaphor for God. Even, to my mind, as names for God.

Of course, the Big Book shares a more ‘formal name’ for God, transcribed as YHWH (or, Yaweh). But God’s Top Ten (Commandments) included the following- #3, “Thou shalt not take the name of YHWH in vain”. Thus, throughout history and still today, many observant Jewish worshippers have avoided speaking the Biblical God’s formal name, preferring Adonai or Hashem instead.

Also- and here’s the creative part- they gave God new names, metaphors drawn from personal experience that evoking fundamentally divine traits. So believing God offers steadfast support, they said, “God, you are my Rock”. Or recognizing that God’s Spirit enlivens our passions, they said, “Our God is a consuming fire”.

But the most famous human-created name for God I’ve found is one Jesus himself used often. Not exclusively, mind you, but he kept returning to it. Father. Even, in Jesus’ styling, “Abba” (an Aramaic word for “Daddy”). Certainly, Jesus wasn’t alone in the ancient near east in analogizing God’s relationship to humanity as that of parent-to-child. Greeks conceived human creation as resulting from Mother Earth and Father Sky’s copulation. The Egyptian Pharaoh- supposed son of the sun god Ra (and thus, quasi-divine) - was subsequently dubbed “Father” to his subjects. The Hebrew Bible, unsurprisingly, jumped on board, describing the Jewish people as children of the supernatural Parent. God=Parent, apparently.

Alas, something else common to these societies was a commitment to patriarchy. Or, in less stuffy language, they treated men better than women. Hence, most rulers were Kings, most priests were male, even prophets- the ethical progressives of ancient societies- rarely let women in their gender-exclusive club. Combine that with the wise insight that the uniquely powerful parent-child relationship is uniquely prepared to apply to God, and we get much and gushing language in scripture praising the goodness of God, Our Father.

But you’ll notice again that our brilliant, flawed forebearers of faith still didn’t let one image, one name of God win. #2 on God’s Top Ten is, “Don’t create idols”, i.e. don’t prioritize one image, one name above equally valid others. After all, God is both Rock and Fountain, as well as neither Rock nor Fountain. God, rather, is greater than all human language! So, we name God not to ‘get it right,’ but to get glimpses of divine abundance, to make connections between our experience and Ultimate Reality.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve used more gender-specific language for God recently. Specifically, I’ve been intentional about calling God ‘Mother’, and using ‘She’ or ‘Her’ when designating the divine. My reason for this shift is my noticing how much Father-language arises in our worship. The Lord’s Prayer, during Scripture readings, personal prayers, hymns, etc., etc. Calling God ‘Our Father’ has obvious scriptural and emotional power, and over the centuries, it’s wonderfully helped people connect profoundly with God. The thing is I don’t think we want to emulate the past’s patriarchal mistakes; we should never turn one divine metaphor into an idol. And when it comes to names for God, there are so many more than we typically invite into our worship, let alone our personal prayer life.

So I’ve decided to provide more balance for our worship and witness, and I invite each of you to join me! What name for God in scripture speaks deeply to you, even if you don’t hear it often used? What name would you ‘give’ God from your experience, were you to presume to be so bold?! I use Mother-language because a)it’s Biblical, b) it holds deep resonance to my spirit, and c) I want to counterweight the dominant Father-language. But who knows?! I’ll probably branch out and use others, some we’re familiar with, some we’re not. Because whatever we say, we know we can’t ever contain God! But we can grow in our experience of God’s divine abundance, if we use all the language, all the names, all the gifts in our possession. And isn’t that the point of church, really?

 Grace and Peace,

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