Growing up Southern Baptist meant growing up with an image of a Very Male God.
Whatever images of God were given to me, one thing was always clear: God was He. Of course, Southern Baptists by no means had a monopoly on the pronoun, but the universe of faith I grew up in had no room for God to take on a new orbit. Somewhere along the way (college, I think), I came across a little book by J. B. Phillips called Your God is Too Small, which pushed me to think in some new ways, even though his images were exclusively male. One of my regular college exercises was rereading The Chronicles of Narnia. Two scenes, in particular, have stuck with me (though I can’t find the references just now). One is the warning in Dawn Treader that Aslan is “not a tame lion.” The other is Lucy meeting Aslan on the children’s return to Narnia and stepping back when she hugs him, startled that the lion is bigger than she remembers. “When you grow, I get bigger,” he tells her.
When Ginger started reading the passage from Luke 15 yesterday before her sermon, I was reminded of pivotal those parables have been in allowing my God to grow. I don’t remember when it happened, but I do remember the wonderful feeling of surprise and hope I felt when I realized Jesus was telling a story in which God was a woman: God, the tenacious housewife. (I know the parable doesn’t say anything about her being married, but that’s the way I understood the story at the time.)
The woman in the story was not one who had, as we say, disposable income. She had ten coins – the equivalent of ten day’s wages – and she lost one of them. Living on nine-tenths was not an option. She searched the house with a tenacity that grew out of desperation: she had to find the money. She moved furniture, tossed couch cushions, opened and reopened drawers. Nothing. Though the parable is short, I imagine the search was not. Who knows where she finally found the money. It was, I’m sure, as my mother always says, “in the last place she looked.” (Isn’t that always where you find something?) In that moment, her torment turned to joy and relief such that she spent the rest of the week’s grocery money throwing a party to celebrate finding the coin.
The parable is sandwiched between the story of a shepherd, also a social outcast and an odoriferous one at that, and a father. I realized in the sermons I had heard growing up that preachers said God is our shepherd and God is our father, but God was like a woman searching for a coin. But that’s not the way Jesus tells the story: God is a poor, desperate woman who is as relentless in celebrating what she found as she is searching for what she lost.
As I was rereading the passage this morning, I was struck by the verse that introduces the parables:
By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. (Luke 15:1-3, The Message)
If our God is too small then our image of humanity is diminutive as well. If God represents only power and might (by that I mean if our image of God is white and male), then only the powerful and mighty will matter. If we take the Incarnation seriously, then God is not only a shepherd, a poor woman, and a longing father, but God is also an undocumented immigrant, an AIDS patient, an insurgent, a gay man, a lesbian, a Darfurian refugee, a Katrina victim, a family farmer, a troubled teenager, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the description of a straight white male.
For the past six years I’ve been an hourly worker in restaurant kitchens. I’ve averaged bringing home around $20000 annually. Yet, when I walk into a store or a restaurant or pretty much anywhere, no one questions my right to be there. When I’m in downtown Boston, where public restrooms are hard to find, I can walk into the swankiest hotels and ask where the bathroom is and they tell me without assuming for a moment that I am not a guest. I don’t get followed around in stores to see if I’m going to try and steal something. I’m not held suspect because of my skin color or my accent. I have the run of the place because I’m The Man.
What I love most about these parables is Jesus’ message is clear: God is not The Man.
I used to get complaints from my English students because I wouldn’t let them use a male pronoun to stand for everyone. From time to time, they would argue from tradition. “It’s like the Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal.”
“You’ve made my point,” I would answer. “When they wrote those words, they meant all men, not all people. In fact, they meant all white men who own property.”
If we want our words to include everyone, we have to choose them carefully, which is not easy work. We have to expand our vocabulary intentionally. We have to teach ourselves to think and feel new things in order to effectively articulate the reality in which we live. So it is with our image of God.
By the end of Luke 15, everyone from the single sheep to the big brother has been invited to the party. Our untamed, unabashed, unfathomable God has invited everyone. including the people who make us squirm. “When you grow, I get bigger,” Aslan told Lucy. Perhaps God is saying to us, “I’m bigger; now you grow.”