I was writing in a coffee shop the other day and overheard some women sitting at a nearby table. Their conversation must have been about faith and parenting, because one woman said she found it difficult to talk with her children about God the Father when their own father had walked out on all of them. Another woman chimed in, wondering how she could convince her children that their heavenly Father loves them when their earthly father, who also supposedly loved them, had been so abusive.
I heard the struggle in these mothers’ stories, the anguish in their voices, and I wondered why they needed to teach their children that God is a loving heavenly father. Why try to stuff God into a metaphor that has no resonance in their lives? Why not talk about God as a loving heavenly mother who was willing to sacrifice everything, to an even greater extent than the mother whose living example is before her children daily?
Jesus didn’t randomly choose to refer to God as father; he had specific reasons for doing so, both personal and political. They were his reasons, a natural outgrowth of his life experience and the life experiences of those around him. And his doing so was considered quite scandalous at the time – how dare he cast the God of Israel, the Lord of Hosts, in such an intimate, human role! How dare he describe the one, true God in language so similar to that used by the hated, idolatrous Romans (paterfamilias)? I cannot imagine that Jesus would in any way fault us for doing the same scandalous thing in our time, out of our life experiences.
Christians have spoken of God in feminine and maternal terms throughout the ages, though these expressions have been largely overshadowed by the loud shouting of masculine and paternal images that became fossilized in the creeds. Jesus described himself as a mother hen who longed to shelter her chicks beneath her wings; why are we so reluctant to use this imagery ourselves?
I feel sad that those mothers found themselves struggling in the one place they and their children should have been able to find peace and comfort: their faith. I believe that Jesus, who was notorious for meeting people on their own terms, would have sat down at their table and told them marvelous stories of a God who is like a woman that asks a neighbor to watch the rest of her children while she goes out looking for the one who didn’t come home at curfew; a God whose kingdom is like the glitter you keep finding all over the house months after the art project has been turned in; a God who always makes room in bed for the child who has a bad dream, even if it means She has to spend the rest of the night clinging to the edge of the mattress.