During my third and final year of seminary, I was student pastor of a large UCC church just down the street from the school. Out of my entire seminary career, it was the only contextual education experience where, stereotypically, the seminarian was given everything that nobody else on staff wanted to do: I coordinated the senior high ministry, I organized the Thanksgiving Day service (producing this wonderful memory), and I preached on two Sundays that nobody else wanted, namely Scout Sunday and Mother's Day.
I didn't really get the big deal about Scout Sunday, but I did understand the bother with Mother's Day. There is a certain contingent that perhaps expects or prefers the gushing, wine-and-roses sort of sermon about wonderful mothers and motherhood on that particular day, but to go full bore with this tact easily leaves out those with bad relationships with their mothers, those who are unable to be mothers, those grieving their mothers, mothers grieving children, and so on. So let's give it to the seminarian and let him deal with it.
I ended up giving a sermon about God as parent, trying to stay pretty neutral about the whole thing. I celebrated how God acts as parent for us, watching over us and encouraging us. I did my best to avoid pronouns and favoring God as Father or Mother in particular and probably at least implied that God is beyond male and female designations even as they are helpful to understanding who God is and what God is like. I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, to be honest.
As I received people in the greeting line afterward, an elderly lady came up and shook my hand, but her handshake was such that she wanted me to lean down so that she could say something. I obliged, and was subjected to a 30-second half-whispered rant right in my ear about how God is male and should be addressed as Father, after which she promptly stormed out of the narthex.
Obviously, I'd struck a nerve that morning. There has long been a debate in my denomination, the United Church of Christ, about which gender-specific pronouns to use for God, if any. Our most recent hymnal caused one such stir, and a recent change to our Constitution and By-Laws caused another. And if you talk to the right people in my congregation, you can still hear all about a former pastor addressing God as Mother Hen during a prayer, and this happened two decades ago. These serve as examples of just how heated the debate over God's gender can get, and how important it is to people that God be addressed in certain ways.
What's really at stake in this debate? It really depends on who you talk to. For some, it's a matter of staying true to a Biblical image of God and, more generally, staying true to a correct interpretation of the Bible. Those who insist upon God's maleness will point to Jesus addressing God as Father, among other instances, to show that this is a position scripturally tested and approved, so why are you arguing otherwise? This may inevitably lead to a more general argument about correct scriptural interpretation: if you don't address God in male terms, as the Bible clearly does, then what else don't you believe about the Bible?
In truth, God is sometimes depicted as having more feminine characteristics in the Bible. I offer a brief quote from the post I link above:
But in addition to masculine imagery there are many feminine images as well, such as mother (Isaiah 42:14, Numbers 11:12, Isaiah 46:3-4), seamstress (Nehemiah 9:21), and hen (Matthew 23:37), among many others.Yes, there really was Biblical precedent for that former pastor to address God as Mother Hen. Whether I personally would have chosen to do that in this context is another matter. Regardless, there come instances in scripture where God is more the tender nurturer, the concerned gatherer of offspring, or the one crying out in labor while birthing a people. The first two, it is worth mentioning, can be done by fathers, but certainly not the third.
Besides that Biblical imagery, aren't there times when we need God to be more the nurturer, comforter, gatherer, birther? There are churches and ministries that thrive on emphasizing God as warrior, king, MMA fighter (don't get me started), but there come times when we need God as more of a gentle encouraging presence in our lives, healing and assuring and embracing. This is why at times the prophets and others chose the imagery they did. At times Israel needed God to go to war for them, and at times they needed God to speak comforting and reassuring words. In times of grief or despair, do we really need God-as-warrior telling us to suck it up, or do we need God-as-comforter helping us to recover? The Biblical writers had no problem recognizing when each was needed, so many modern Christians would do well to explore the diverse images for God that address our diverse needs.
There really is nothing to be afraid of regarding God's feminine side. After all, God created humanity, both male and female, in God's image (Genesis 1:27). There is plenty of room to consider how men and women are both created in God's image, and how in turn God's image is embodied in each. God exhibits traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics in human experience recorded in scripture, throughout the theological writings of the church, and in modern movements, and so we would do well to celebrate them all rather than emphasize some and downplay others. The latter actually limits God, while the former more fully recognizes how we may experience God and how God is present and active in the world.