A Woman, her Bible, and the Church of the Male God

“Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

Recently, I took a little time away from the Bible. It seemed every time I read it, I found not love but judgment, not freedom but bondage to a God who favors men. I would read the Bible and hear the voices of men only, the history of a patriarchy that excluded me as an equal partner in life and spiritual wisdom. But now I have begun to read the Bible again, and what has brought me back is a new translation—new to me at any rate. I have been reading The Inclusive Bible, a translation by Priests for Equality, a program of the Quixote Center. This translation speaks directly into the feminine wounds I harbor—feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, a sense that I am less valued and less wise and less worthy simply because I am female. The Bible I had been reading (translations like NIV, RSV, and The Message) added salt to my wounds by ignoring the feminine in God, glorifying the male by speaking of God always as He, and using words like man and mankind to supposedly refer to all people (which, if it doesn’t exclude women—though I think it does—at the very least makes women feel swallowed up in words that turn first and always to the masculine). There are few Christians who would claim God is male, but, as Sue Monk Kidd put it, “How many times had I heard someone say ‘God is not male, He is spirit’?”

I read this in the preface to The Inclusive Bible:
“‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,’ says the old proverb. We now know that this is a lie. Words can wound, alienate, and degrade people. Language can also affirm and express love. Care for language is a show of concern for people and a revelation of the attitudes of the speaker…. Church language is predominantly masculine. Male terms, images, and stereotypes, so-called sexist language, dominate church expression. Such usage is no longer adequate. It is time to build gender equality into the very fabric of the church life. The effort to build new gender-balanced ways of speaking helps to educate us toward greater equality for women and men.”

In these translators, I found a group of Christ-followers who had seen my hurt, the hurt of women as a group, and they had responded with many years of hard work and dedication to the God we believe in—a God of love for all people, a God who created all humans, male and female, to be like God. The translators created a Bible that spoke to me, a woman, rather than excluding me from its every page through a constant barrage of male-centric vernacular.

One of the most beautiful moments for me when I started reading The Inclusive Bible was when I came upon this passage from Genesis 17: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared and said, ‘I am the Breasted One. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.'” I thought, The Breasted One?? What a crazy way to translate one of the names of God! But I love it! I totally get it, and in this context, it is a perfect picture of what God is to us—One who nourishes, One who brings new life! For those of you who are as startled as I was by this translation, there was an interesting footnote about how this is one possible meaning of El Shaddai, based on the Hebrew word shad or “breast.” But I’m not going to try to convince you if this turns you off. For me, it was a wonderful, perfect, life-giving translation. It announced, “God is not only Father; God is Mother, too!” And as a mother myself who went through the hills and valleys of breastfeeding, I was moved greatly by a God who would claim the image of a breastfeeding mother as a picture of the divine.

Some days, I wake up and say to myself, How did I get here? How did I arrive in this day with convictions so vastly different than those I held a few years ago? I turn to Jesus walking beside me and say, How is it you seem so different to me today than you did yesterday, and yet I still know you to be Truth, Love, Grace? And then I think about Christian Wiman’s words—”even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change”—and I am comforted that God is big enough to hold my past and my future, that the Truth is strong enough to be present in how I used to see God and how God comes to me now in fresh language, out of patriarchy and into feminism.

Wandering through Summer and My Soul

This summer has been cold. And already it is August. I’m sad to see the ragweed in bloom, to think of a waning harvest at the garden, the planting of fall beets and cauliflower. Even though summer is my least favorite season, I cherish the temporary cessation of other responsibilities. But, as always, summer passes with as much bustle as any other time of year, with trips and projects that have been put off until this “less busy” season.

Summer also usually brings a slowing down of my productivity in reading and writing, in mining beauty from within myself. Instead, it’s a time of gathering from the outside: camping, swimming, traveling, experiencing. This summer, however, I feel that I’ve also been able to continue to look inward, even as I experience more of the outward.

I have started reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd and, as always, I have found in her work such a resonance with my own thoughts, discoveries, and struggles. She writes:

Somewhere along the course of a woman’s life, usually when she has lived just long enough to see through some of the cherished notions of femininity that culture holds out to her, when she finally lets herself feel the limits and injustices of the female life and admits how her own faith tradition has contributed to that, when she at last stumbles in the dark hole made by the absence of a Divine Feminine presence, then…this woman will become pregnant with herself, with the symbolic female-child who will, if given the chance, grow up to reinvent the woman’s life.

I find Kidd’s birth imagery a little distracting and ironic because it was the process of giving birth and the months of breastfeeding which followed that woke me up to the “limits and injustices of the female life.” I became ripe for change in the pain, the loneliness, the dark of a motherhood void of the Feminine Divine. I am ready for the journey Kidd describes. I have, in fact, been on this journey now for nearly two years—discovering God as Mother, discovering feminine strength—though this is the first time I’ve recognized the connection between what I’ve experienced and the drive I feel to become a stronger, more true, more uninhibited version of myself as a woman. 

And I am happy to experience the winding journey of summer alongside the winding journey within myself, leading me onward towards discovering and redefining myself as the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to dream of the first blush of autumn.

Perennial Growth

Late summer. Tomatoes ripening in the garden as we pick the last peas of the season; a few tired maples beginning to turn toward autumn; cicadas, katydids, crickets singing deep into our dreams. We begin to look forward, into the change, into school and ripe apples and pumpkin pie.

Soon, my daughter turns one. I remember these final days of waiting last year, how I was ripe like the season, ignorant of all the pain and brokenness I would walk through this year. Because in many ways for me—and though I know this is not something I “should” say, not something acceptable in a culture that often views birth as a wonderful, transcendent experience—Ramona’s birthday was the worst day of my life, and though this year has been filled with much joy, it has also taken this whole year, will take much longer still, to fully heal from the terror of that day. Ann Voskamp and Sue Monk Kidd and Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner have guided, are guiding this journey into love—love for Ramona (how mysterious and wonderful the love of a mother for a child), love for my own broken self, love for the God who guides me into and through this painful journey.

This year, I am full of thankfulness. I am filled with eucharisteo. I am broken, but I am blessed.

Grace for the Broken

On Saturday, I finished a study I’ve been doing with my mom on Sue Monk Kidd’s When the Heart Waits. One of the study questions asked us to draw what we think playing with God would look like. I wrote in my journal, “Playing with God is wonder and discovery,” and spent an hour sketching pictures of Wisconsin wildflowers: Virginia bluebell, columbine, Solomon’s seal.

As I drew, I considered what I had learned during this study about myself and about God. I thought about how a flower must shed its bud, letting go of its protective outer shell, to open wide to the light and wait for God’s provision to fill the flower with new life. I thought about how flowers bear fruit or seeds, their small gifts of thankfulness for sustenance. And this image was the gift God gave to my heart. I am like the flower. I wrote:
 I am letting go of the notion that I control my future, that I can plan my next move. I am letting go of dreams that I now see were foolish and ill-conceived. As I let go, I am learning to wait open to the future. I know life is suffereing as well as grace, and I would be naive to believe further suffering does not await me. Yet still I must wait open, unafraid. God knows the path he has chosen for me, both cruel and sweet. And in the end I will find my new self fully birthed, being nursed in the loving arms of Jesus. Every single day, there are a thousand, thousand graces bestowed upon me. The path of peace–the path that relinquishes bitterness–sees and names and glories in these graces.

And then yesterday, I woke to a crying baby. My little girl, usually so playful and happy, had big tears on her perfect, chubby cheeks. She refused to be comforted and would not nurse. As the day wore on, she continued to fuss; as I got out my breast pump, the stress wore on me. In the afternoon, when Ramona was crying uncontrollably in my arms and would not come to my breast, which is so often her solace, I held her on my shoulder and cried, too.

To give ourselves a break from the stress of the day, we went out for a walk. I breathed deep and tried my best to stop fretting, to take in the freshness of the cool afternoon. My mind was winding a deep path of worry and I was leaning on myself, trying to climb out by handholds made of wet clay.

Then, on the lakeshore path, I looked to my right and saw Solomon’s seal in thick weave along the path. Thank you, Jesus, for never giving up on me.

Symbol making, as inspired by Sue Monk Kidd’s When the Heart Waits

I think I’ve known for a while that symbols are important, that they break open your deep places and spill light into soul-caverns. One that has been with me for some time now is the tree with its age rings. How it grows outward to newness only through embracing and accepting all of itself–everything it’s experienced, all the pain, the moments where everything seemed lost, the moments of weakness. All this must be enveloped in order for growth to happen. It is a love of oneself, of each bruise and burn that defines the shape and texture and breath of life.

This is the lesson I have seen in the tree, that I have tried to turn away from in my diapause, my clinging to the old, familiar version of myself. But now it is also the symbol of what I can be.

When I wrap my arms around a tree, I am embracing its life; I am embracing my symbol; I am embracing myself. May I learn to love me in my weakness, in my bruises, as Jesus does. Because he sees the beauty of the thing that he made.

In answer to Zach’s question, "What did you think of Edith Schaeffer’s book on homemaking?"

It’s hard to not feel a need to do something large with your life—something epic. What if my life goes by and I haven’t made any difference to anyone? That is the fear that drives me to paralysis.
Of course I wouldn’t admit that to most people. It’s a naive wish—to make a difference in the world. Because who can?
But at the same time, perhaps I need to reexamine what it means to make a difference in the world. Because I don’t have to touch multitudes to make a difference in someone’s life. Almost everyone has been a huge influence on someone else’s life. Almost everyone has only influenced a handful of people. That’s what we do: we influence on a small scale. The small scale at which we, being small, operate.
Edith Schaeffer gets this. (She doesn’t get the harm she has done to her sales and readership by titling her book using the word “homemaking,” but she does get what it means to live and to yearn to make a difference.) There is longing within me to do something beautiful. Longing that Edith understands. She writes:
We may think ‘If only…’ – If only I weren’t so tied down with the mundane things of life. If only I had had a chance to go to art school. If only I had time to develop instead of being caught in this job. If only I hadn’t this endless round of housework and crying babies to overwhelm me. ‘If only…’ feelings can distort our personalities, and give us an obsession which can only lead to more and more dissatisfaction.

If only I were a better writer. If only I had more discipline. If only I could focus my life totally around that one pursuit.
But that’s not what life is. We are pulled like taffy; we are straining like the edge of the water lapping on rock and sand. We are full and we are empty. We choose dissatisfaction.
What would it take to pull away from TV, from work, for an hour a day? What would it look like if I could put myself down in print, relieve the tension and straining I constantly feel? Perhaps the first step away from ‘If only’ is ‘What if?’
And then the water opens up to my emptiness and cools me with the quench of possibility. The words on this page, these little possibilities, are the chord that drags me into the sea, drags me from questioning to action. “People so often look with longing into a daydream future, while ignoring the importance of the present. We are all in danger of thinking, ‘Some day I shall be fulfilled. Some day I shall have the courage to start another life which will develop my talent.’” There can be no “another life” for me. There is just this happy open yearning pulsing one where I am a wife and a worker, a professional and an environmentalist, a lover, a Christian, a writer.
I am open to a new fullness and striving towards a full emptiness. I choose to be satisfied in my desire to matter, to make a difference. Through writing—now, here, in this very moment.
There is art in all of us that can become a strangling ‘If only.’ Don’t be afraid of the ‘What if?’