Finding the right word

What term is appropriate for a God who is both Mother and Father?

By Bruce Day

I am struggling to find a word. As I have become moderately advanced in years, this has become a more frequent occurrence for me. However, the word for which I search is not one that I have lost. Rather, it is one that I have never known. My experience on Mother’s Day renewed that search.

Yesterday morning the choir sang Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth by Jean Janzen, based on the writing of Juliana of Norwich. That title is the first line of the song. The second and third verses begin “Mothering Christ …” and “Mothering Spirit …” I am a somewhat traditional person trying to find my way in an increasingly non-traditional world. Five years ago this song would have troubled me, and 10 years ago — well ….

Some would argue that such a song should remain troubling today. They would contend that the Bible portrays God as Father and therefore we should not entertain the thought of God as Mother. Perhaps the concern of others is that our understanding of the triune God falls apart if God is something other than or more than “Father.”

Of course that need not be so. Such ones seem to forget that God is often referred to in feminine and mothering terms in the Bible. “Like a mother …” God gives birth, God nurses, God comforts and God protects. My favorite of such passages is Matthew 23:27: “How often I [Jesus] have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Yes, something compels me to certainly explore, if not embrace, this new and somewhat awkward imagery. Perhaps it is the influence of a daughter graduating from McAfee School of Theology. She definitely challenges my preconceptions. Perhaps it is my journey into meditation. The closer I get to God the huger God gets. I want to be clear about the One on whom I reflect; I want to get it right. However, as I attempt to define God more clearly (and perhaps more narrowly), the image of God seems to grow exponentially.

I suspect the simplest explanation of my openness to God as Mother is the influence of mothers in my life. These include my mom, whom I miss dearly. She was my protector and confidant. My mother-in-law was a hospitable woman who had an endearing, playful nature. My step-mother-in-law is very thoughtful, giving and expressive of her love for my family and me. Though she is not my mother and does not mother me (thank you, dear) my wife has been an outstanding example of a mom, teaching and loving our daughters with an unconditional love. A new mom has entered my life, as our daughter is expecting our first grandchild. Shannon will be a devoted mother, utterly captivated by the beauty and wonder of the child she carries.

Each of the above characteristics is exemplified by the God I have come to know and love; the God who loves me in the above ways. How then can I go on being bound by imagery that is limited to Father and does not include the wonders of motherhood?

This concept has increasingly become more comfortable to me. I first expressed it as the God who exemplifies the best of father and mother. Until recently I have squirmed when ministers prayed to “God our Mother and Father.” I better understand the need to adopt new language. It is not, as some have supposed, a part of a feminist agenda. It is rather the attempt to capture more fully the beauty and wonder of a God who loves us as we know the positive qualities of both our mom’s and dad’s.

This, then, brings me back to my struggle to find a word. It is a word for one who is both a mommy and a daddy. Is there one word which denotes one as a parent, either/or/both mother and father, but yet a term which is intimate, as “abba” has become associated with daddy?

I cannot think of such a word in the English language (though I may be missing something obvious). “Parent” does not suffice; it does not convey intimacy. Perhaps such a word exists in another language. I would be happy to adopt such a word in order to address God in a less awkward way in my private devotion. As I did not address my parents in private as mother or father, but mom or dad, I perceive the need to use such familiar and intimate language when I address God privately.

Perhaps my quest is a fool’s errand. (It will not be the first, and I suspect not the last). Perhaps it is misguided to seek one word for the loving God who could not be fully expressed by all of the words known to humankind. Therefore, until my query is satisfied or I am persuaded to suspend my quest, I will tenderly focus my moments of meditative prayer on the God who is my “Mommy and Daddy.”

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.