At a recent conference, I attended a workshop where, among other things, the presenter made the case for using gender-neutral pronouns to teach children and youth about God.
This is a debate that rages in a lot of circles. People fear that if we talk about God using only male pronouns, we risk excluding those who aren't male. We also contribute to patriarchy and perhaps even to the oppression of women. In response to these fears, there are now gender-neutral Bibles and hymnals.
On the one hand, I get that.
As a youth worker, I want to help ALL people relate to God.
Yet, as I listened to this presenter talk, I wrestled with this issue.
It's one thing to change references of men to people.
It's another to describe God using only gender-neutral language.
In the weeks since this conference, I've continued wrestling with this issue.
Meanwhile, I've also been preparing for my baby girl's first birthday. As her birthday approaches, I've been reflecting a lot on this first year, including my breastfeeding journey.
While pregnant, my husband and I attended the requisite breastfeeding class. I left determined to at least try breastfeeding – mainly because I'm cheap and couldn't bear the thought of purchasing expensive formula if I hadn't at least tried the free version first. That said, I left knowing I didn't want to needlessly pressure or stress myself out about nursing.
So I set small goals.
Initially, it was simply to try nursing.
I almost didn't make it past that goal. A dismal experience at the hospital left me frustrated, sore, and exhausted. Had it not been for a kind lactation consultant at a different hospital, my breastfeeding journey would have ended there.
But it didn't.
The lactation consultant got me through those first tumultuous weeks. After that, I set a goal of nursing Hope for 6 months.
When we reached it, I realized neither she nor I was ready to stop. So I set another goal of nursing through Hope's first birthday - which is Sunday. After that, we'll start weaning in preparation for a month from now, when I'll be away from Hope, leading the first of two summer mission trips for my youth ministry.
As this nursing journey comes to an end, I've been reflecting a lot on it.
Nursing has taught me about determination. Breastfeeding isn't as natural as I once thought. It doesn't always come easily. It certainly didn't for me. Instead, it took work – hard work – to make it happen. Successfully nursing my child also meant dealing with some discomfort, like engorgement and blisters. And yet, I've chosen to persevere because for us, nursing was the right thing.
Nursing is also simultaneously convenient and inconvenient. There's nothing more convenient than having a ready supply of food with you ALL the time. Yet, it's been inconvenient to have to schedule breaks into retreats every two-hours to accommodate nursing... Or to take Hope on research trips. Still, the inconvenience has been worth it.
Through nursing, I've learned to be tender. Prior to this year, that's not a word I would have used to describe myself. Now it is. I've learned to look at my child with tenderness and to treasure the moments when she's pressed against my skin.
Through nursing, I've learned to appreciate my body. I've stood in awe over the fact that my body is producing exactly what Hope needs, in exactly the right quantities. When she gets sick, my breastmilk changes in order to give her the antibodies and boosted immunity she needs. I've learned what it means to provide for someone and to help heal them.
Through nursing, I've also learned what it means to bond with someone. Sometimes when we nurse, I just stare at Hope, oblivious to everything except my love for her.
In so many ways, nursing Hope has been one of the most sacred privileges of my life. Maybe that's why I keep thinking about Isaiah 49:15, a verse in which God is compared to a nursing mother.
If God is like a nursing mother, then she is determined.
God is willing to be inconvenienced for her children.
God is a tender provider and healer.
God's love for her children is intense and fierce.
In some ways, I've always known and believed these things about God. And yet, nursing Hope has expanded my understanding of the God who created both she and I, helping me to see God in a new, richer way.
Had it not been for this feminine imagery of God – imagery found in Scripture right alongside the male imagery of God -
I never would have reached this new, deeper understanding of God.
Maybe that's why, then, I bristle when I think of this speaker's suggestion that we teach children and youth to describe God using only gender-neutral language like person, they, or parent.
When we reduce God to a gender-neutral being, we risk missing something important about God. When we only use gender-neutral pronouns to describe God, God is neither male nor female. But when we leave them in place, God is both.
Maybe, then, the answer to patriarchy and oppression isn't gender-neutral language. Maybe it's a willingness to embrace both the feminine and masculine images of God found in Scripture; to realize that while God is a good, good father, God is also a beautiful nursing mom.
Both images are true.
Both images are good.
And both images help us to better understand a God who is greater and more complex than we could possibly imagine.