Xmas

The language, images, and metaphors we use to refer to God in our hymns and songs are more a commentary on our human experience than on God's divine nature. We define and experience God through who we are; and since we are all different, we define and experience God differently. God doesn't change — people change.

Christians have long used male language for God — in the biblical image of Father and in masculine pronouns in our hymns, liturgy, and Scripture. But there are also numerous examples of feminine language used for God in Scripture, hymns, and in our own United Methodist Book of Worship. As feminine language has been more often used in our General Conference-approved resources (UM Hymnals and Book of Worship), so have they become more used and accepted in daily United Methodist worship. Here are some examples from our official denominational resources:

  • Hymn 105 (United Methodist Hymnal), "God of Many Names," refers to God as the womb and birth of time.
  • Hymn 605 (United Methodist Hymnal), "Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters," prays that as we long for God's nurture, we will be fed by God's milk, an obvious metaphor for God as a nursing mother.
  • The Book of Worship #527 prays the following:
    "O Creator God, let the waters of your womb heal … may the waters that covered us at our birth once again remind us of our creation in you. Remind us that we are vessels of the waters of hope and that your outpourings have power to heal and make whole our bruised world. Let the living waters of creation, womb, baptism, and Spirit encircle us that we may remember we are yours and be thankful." (From 1987 United Methodist Clergywomen's Consultation Resource Book, page 41, written by the Rev. Elizabeth Lopez Spence. Used with permission.)
  • The healing service prayer (Book of Worship, 624) notes that God gave each of us life and surrounded us with love in our mothers' wombs, and then called us forth to life from that secret place.
  • "An Alternative Great Thanksgiving for General Use," (Book of Worship, page 78, © 1972 The Methodist Publishing House; © 1980, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1992 UMPH. Used with permission) declares: "Holy are you, and blessed is Jesus Christ, who called you Abba, Father. As a mother tenderly gathers her children, you embraced a people as your own…"
  • In a prayer (Book of Worship #398) by Anselm of Canterbury, England, from the eleventhcentury, we read: "And you, Jesus, good Lord, are you not also Mother? Would a mother not be one who, like a hen, gathers her young beneath her wings? In truth, Lord, you are my Mother! Amen."
  • A prayer from The Book of Worship (page 439, © 1964, 1965 by Board of Publication of The Methodist Church, Inc.; renewal © 1992 UMPH. Used with permission) prays: "Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children, so you watch over your Church."
  • An opening prayer from The Book of Worship (#463) addresses God as the Parent of Jesus, and our Parent, and declares God to be both Father and Mother to us.

When The Faith We Sing was first released, containing language and images similar to these examples in six different songs, there was a short-lived protest against the collection. The songbook has gone on to enjoy solid sales in the denomination, and it continues to sell well. In examining the collection, including these six songs, I was able to identify only one song that broke new theological ground in the songs that we sing: Hymn 2122, "She Comes Sailing on the Wind." For the first time, in a collection intended for United Methodist congregations, the text referred to the Holy Spirit with a feminine pronoun. (See Music Musing #4, "The Holy Spirit, She.")

What does it mean to refer to God as father, mother, he, she, "womb of life," or any other gender-specific term? Are we saying that God is male or female? Are we saying that God's characteristics include the physical presence of X and Y chromosomes? Obviously not. What we are saying is that we humans experience and know God in ways that sometimes resemble human characteristics and relationships that are both male and female. Perhaps it is appropriate to use both when talking about God.

How will these images and metaphors inform current and future United Methodist congregational singing? I expect more examples of gender-inclusive language in future hymns, hymnals, and songbooks. I expect composers and hymn writers will increasingly explore a variety of images. United Methodists of good faith and standing do not all agree on this issue, but I believe they will include this language in their hymns, songs, choir anthems, and solos.

May we remember that hymn and song language — pronouns, images, metaphors — are a reflection on the human experience and perception of God and not a claim on the physical nature of God which, of course, transcends such matters. Genesis 1:27 tells us, "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Our maleness and femaleness are the very image of God. Should our hymns and songs reflect anything other?

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