The Gender of God

When I grew up, there was an expected way that boys acted and it was different than the way girls acted. I learned this from my very traditional middle class suburban home.  My dad brought home the bacon and my mom fried it up, so to speak. She took care of the house and the kids while my dad worked. Dad had a few responsibilities around the house, the yard, garage and discipline. If we did something especially horrible during the day, my mom would put us in our room and tell us to stay there until dad got home.  This would give us hours to stew and wait. We knew that when dad would come through that door he would be mad that we had ruined his peaceful evening.

These roles were pretty rigid. I don’t ever remember my dad vacuuming, dusting, cooking or crying.  Ever.  I don’t ever remember my mom driving the car with my dad in it, mowing the lawn, swinging a hammer, or seriously spanking us. Ever. When people would bully me, my mom would hold me as I cried. My father would encourage me to stand up for myself as terrifying as that might be. I accepted without question that there were things moms did and dads did and that women did and men did.

Our house was a reflection of the culture around us. Most everyone held these stereotypes. Men went off to war to fight for what was right, and women stayed back and kept the home fires burning. Men played poker and drank beer and women played bridge and drank sherry. Women gave birth and men passed out cigars in the waiting room. Women asked for directions, men drove stubbornly until they happened to stumble on their destination. Women loved to go church and men were dragged against their will.  Men took pain like, well like a man, and women cried at the slightest sadness. Women listened, nurtured, and encouraged their children, men taught them right from wrong, responsibility and self-defense.

These stereotypes were not created by my parent’s generation. They were how people have understood the “differences” between men and women for thousands of years. This understanding informed how we imagined God, too.  Officially God has always been beyond gender. God is neither male nor female. Unofficially, most people when they close their eyes picture a God that looks like a man not a woman.

Just as the stereotypes I have mentioned are wrong, a vision of a male God is wrongheaded, too.  It limits our understanding of God.  When we picture God as a guy, God starts acting like a guy, and only a guy in our imagination.  I am not talking about mowing the lawn and driving the family car. We picture a male God as a fierce warrior for justice, never crying and the scary God we have to meet at the end of the day who will carry out dreaded discipline. These hyper masculine traits crowd out the other qualities of God that we stereotype as feminine: nurturing, loving, listening, encouraging, and caring.

Like children whose father is distant because it simply wasn’t his responsibility to care for his kids, God seemed distant to generations of Christians. I am betting this distance led Christians to honor Mary in a unique way.  In Mary, the Mother of God, as she was officially called, Christians saw someone who could calm down and talk to this angry testosterone filled deity. If God’s own mother couldn’t keep God from raging against a miserable world, who could?

Mary became a hero of the faith unlike Abraham, Moses, Elijah or David. God chose her to do something that none of those other men could do, give birth to Jesus.  And she said yes even though it could not only complicate her life but endanger it. Mary feels deeply and wrestles quietly with what she hears. She is the ultimate good mother. She worries about a precocious Jesus who wanders from her at twelve, follows him in his ministry to keep him safe and when necessary making him feel guilty that he isn’t helping out more at their friend’s wedding and finally weeps at the foot of his cross as he is executed before her eyes.

Mary’s gifts are noticeably absent in the manly God of many people’s imagination. The tough and demanding God pictured was to be feared not loved. The popularity of Mary among Christians might have something to do with this thin image of God.  It seems the church at one time almost needed Mary as a counterweight to the angry, judge they preached. Mary was a caring mother who would listen and plead their case before an impatient father.

Mary is a hero of faith. Her story is exceptional and she is worthy of our honor.  God chose her and she said yes and lived out that yes faithfully to the end. Yet, our honor of Mary gets off track when we imagine that God needs Mary’s feminine advice and counsel in the throne room of heaven. We are misunderstanding the witness of Mary when we imagine her qualities to be anything other than a revelation of God, God’s self.

Times have changed for the better in my estimation when it comes to these stereotypes. My parent’s generation encouraged this change. My parents caught in pretty rigid roles themselves, raised their kids to be less observant of them. My older sister mowed the lawn when she was old enough to push the thing. She was the most athletic one in our family and the only who can work on cars today. My brother and I were vacuuming and dusting the house pretty much after learning to walk. My mom taught only me how to cook because I was the only one interested. It was okay for any of my parent’s children to cry.

These arbitrary boundaries continue to fall in my generation. My kids can rarely remember me driving if Paige is in the car.  No one appreciates my driving.  Paige also did most of the disciplining in our house just because when she gets mad everyone needs to stay out of her way. We have more distance to travel in eliminating false stereotypes but we are moving in the right direction.

With these stereotypes falling, our male image of God needs to fall, too. God is neither male nor female, but the fullness of both. God is love and that love is revealed in power and might on behalf of the creation and in tender service and sacrifice for the lost and least. God is the good mother, who gives us birth, nurtures us at her breast, holds us when we cry, weeps at our pain and meets us wherever the road of life takes us. God is the good father, who holds us accountable for the pain we have caused, passionately thirsts for justice for all of the creation and provides everything his children need.  Just as we see all of these qualities of love in God, we can see all of these qualities of love in any individual made in the image of God, male or female.

We honor Mary not because she is a female hero of faith, but because she is a hero of faith that reveals the image of God within her.  Both men and women should aspire to be more like Mary, faithful to God’s call, contemplative of God’s demands, open to deeply loving God’s child. We don’t need Mary to calm down an angry, male God. We need Mary to show us by her faithfulness the great joy found loving fully the God of creation.  Amen

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