One summer years ago I had a conversation with my then four-year-old niece, who was eager to tell me about Vacation Bible School.
“What are you learning there?” I asked her.
“Everything about God,” she replied.
“Well, what have you learned about her?” I asked.
She stared at me, put her hands on her hips, and told me in no uncertain terms. “Tricia, God is not a girl. God is a boy.”
“How do you know that?” I asked. “I think sometimes God is a boy, and sometimes God is a girl. God can be both.”
She quickly changed the topic.
But then a few days later, I was with her again. As soon as she got in the car with me she had an announcement to make.
“My daddy says God is a boy.”
“Your daddy is my brother,” I replied. “And sometimes he is wrong.”
Two and a half decades later several things still strike me about those conversations. First, this was not a family that was active in church. My niece might have gone to church two or three times a year.
But even at the age of four, with very little exposure to church or religion, the idea that God is a boy was deeply engrained in her, so deeply that when I casually slipped in a female pronoun for the divine she noticed it immediately.
Challenging that deeply entrenched idea was something that made her think – so much so that she asked her parents about it and brought it up again the next time she was with me.
My niece and her father are not alone in that way of seeing God. Ask most people the first thing they see when asked what God looks like and my guess is that for the majority that image would be male.
And perhaps male with a long white beard sitting on a throne.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with those images of God. Male references to God are predominant in scripture. And if you took all the songs and liturgies that use male pronouns for God out of our hymnal and prayer book they would be very slim volumes, indeed.
But although male imagery for God predominates scripture, and our liturgies, it is not the only imagery of God.
There are images of God and Jesus as a potter shaping clay, a gardener, a shepherd.
There are images of the divine as a rock, wind or fire, bread and wine and light.
And then there are also images of the divine as specifically female.
We see that in the very first chapter of scripture, when male and female are both created in God’s image.
In the Old Testament, God is likened to a mother bear defending her cubs or a mother eagle hovering over her eaglets.
The prophet Isaiah compares God to a nursing mother or a woman in labor.
The Gospel of Luke says God is like a woman searching for a lost coin, who will not stop until it is found.
And then we have Jesus in today’s gospel reading, in a story that is also repeated in Matthew’s gospel.
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” he says. Jesus is comparing himself to a mother hen.
If you were asked to draw a picture of Jesus would you draw a hen?
It seems a strange metapor for the savior of the world, but I recently read a story that illustrates why it is one that Jesus chose for himself.
A group of firefighters were walking through an area of forest where flames had recently blazed, when they saw a large lump on the trail. It was the burned carcass of a large bird.
Since birds can easily fly away from approaching flames, the firefighter wondered why this bird had not escaped. She moved the charred body aside with her foot, then jumped back, startled by four little chicks that scurried out.
Though the heat of the fire had killed the mother hen, her body provided safety for her chicks. In the face of the flames, she could have escaped.
But instead she gathered her young under her wings, choosing to save them at the expense of her own life.
When Jesus makes this comparison, he is on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows death awaits him.
Like the mother hen in the forest fire, he is telling his people he is willing to sacrifice his life for them, if they would just come to him like chicks come to their mother.
When seen in that light the strange image of Jesus as a mother hen becomes a powerful metaphor of the divine.
The truth is that we need all these metaphors for God and Jesus. Our talk of the divine is always symbolic, always partial.
No single image or metaphor can capture the entire truth of who God is. Each metaphor can give us a glimpse, a partial understanding. And even all the metaphors in scripture or in literature combined still only give us glimpses of the mystery of God.
“God’s nature is too immense to be captured by one image and our disparate life situations too varied to be tapped by one metaphor,” theologian Kristina LaCelle-Peterson writes.
The biblical images comparing God to inanimate objects, forces of nature, animals, people in various roles and both human genders should not be taken literally or alone.
Indeed, focusing on just one might lead us to a form of idolatry, to confuse the metaphor with reality and make absolute something that was meant to be illustrative.
Given the many female images of God in scripture, LaCelle-Peterson observes, “the question is not whether using female images for God will draw us away from orthodox Christianity, but whether using exclusively male metaphors will so distort our view of God as to render our concept of God unbiblical.”
We all may have our favorite image or metaphor of God, one that speaks to us most strongly, gives us the most comfort and strength.
If you feel most comfortable using male pronouns for God, if your favorite images of God are as father or king, that’s okay.
Just remember this: God is not a boy’s name.