Siblings in Christ,
Pastor Peter and I recently spent a couple of days with our bishop and colleagues from the Saint Paul Area Synod. We worshipped, received updates on the synod and learned from Dr. Eric Barreto, a professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary. (And Pastor Peter’s advisor when he was still teaching at Luther Seminary.) Dr. Barreto invited us to open our imaginations as we engaged with the book of Acts.
I would like to invite you to open your imaginations as we continue our conversation about images for God. Last month, in this column, I wrote about how God is so much bigger than familiar images for God allow. This month, we invite you to think about the language we use for God, especially in worship.
The language we use to talk about God has a powerful impact on the shaping of faith, in adults and children. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, the only language ever used for God was male: He, Him, His, Himself, Father, Lord, Master, King, etc. As mentioned last month, God does not have a gender. In fact, God has as many attributes that have traditionally been considered female as those traditionally considered male. If we want to shape an image of God in the minds of the faithful that is as expansive as the whole of creation, our language needs to be equally expansive. (By default, we are then invited into more expansive understanding of gender roles among humans!)
In worship, we take seriously the way language shapes our faith. We have been working to adapt our language in prayers, preaching and liturgy to reflect a more fulsome image of God. We avoid gendered pronouns when we can, using God/Godself instead of he/him/himself. From time to time, it becomes awkward to use God instead of he, so we might use he, she or they (‘Let us create humankind in our image…’ Gen. 1). When we make the sign of the cross, we use Creator, Son/Redeemer/Savior and Spirit/Sustainer. One can also use names for God that are less limited but still holy, descriptive and faithful: Regent in place of King, Holy One, Sacred All-in-All, Most High.
When we pray what is often called the Lord’s Prayer, we are obeying Jesus’ instruction to “Pray then in this way…” (Matt. 6). The name that Jesus uses—which we translate as Father—is “Abba.” This is not simply the moniker of a male parent. Instead, it is a deeply intimate term of address, used only by children addressing a beloved parent. It is not used idly. It is used in love, need, in deep and abiding relationship. That role isn’t limited to the fathers in our lives.
Think of it this way: God is Father, but God is not only Father. For some folks, Father is a painful or even absent figure and limiting our intimate naming of God to Father might leave them behind. It might be that the tender, caring person in their life is mother, grandmother or uncle. The point of this prayer is the deep and personal intimacy between the vulnerable beloved and the caregiver who provides.
Some begin this prayer “Our Mother, Our Father.” Some use “Abba, Imma.” This invites each of us to be obedient to Jesus and connect with God in the intimate way Jesus intended. We will begin using this language in worship later in the year. It will be a stretch for all of us and difficult for many of us as we use the full array of what God offers us in language and imagery to be as faithful as we can.
As we experience this more expansive language, before responding, we invite you to dwell in it, pray about it and reflect on it. We invite your imagination as you consider your images for God and the language that has shaped those images. Experiment with more expansive images for God: tender, maternal, beautiful, nurturing.
Then let’s have some conversation in love and faithful compassion.