By Linda Bales Todd
When I was a youth, I went to church every Sunday morning as well as to every Sunday night youth group. Ohmer Park United Methodist Church was my home church. I loved this church and all who worshiped there. Many of the members of Ohmer Park were like my second family. I, along with my two sisters, was baptized at Ohmer Park. Later in life, I, too, was married and had our two sons baptized in this special place in the heart of Belmont, a blue-collar neighborhood in Dayton, OH. I trusted the people at Ohmer Park and felt loved.
Like most Christians, reading the Bible was something I did.
If one were to ask whether I had a favorite scripture passage, I’d have to say I have two: Psalm 139 and Luke 18:1-8. Psalm 139 is magical, loving, and filled with assurances that God is with us from the very beginning and would be forever. A sense of awe and gratitude runs through my veins when I read that God “formed my inward parts and knitted us together in my mother’s womb.” One could not imagine a more intimate verse in the Bible – a verse that, indeed, causes me to “praise” God and know that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made.” When reading this scripture, I feel special and loved, or, according to Henri Nouwen, “beloved.”
In Luke 18:1-8, standing up to those in power to challenge the injustices of the day is the call of the widow. Her boldness reminds me of an actor who takes on the “bad guys” and wins the day by some grand act of will and courage. The widow is bold as she makes her case for justice and keeps “coming” to the judge begging him to do what is right. She is a strong woman standing firm on a belief that she, indeed, is worthy and is loved and is “made in the image of God.” Jesus’ use of women in his stories was not unusual – women who, in that day, were seen as “less than,” marginalized and powerless. Jesus, the Son of God, loves women, too, by valuing and trusting them to lead others for righteousness sake.
During Sunday school as a youth, we studied about God and viewed different artists’ renditions of God. Typically, the renditions were always older, wiser-looking men with beards usually white and long. God was “Father.” God was a male image that permeated the Holy Bible and bestowed upon humanity both judgment and love. I dutifully prayed the Lord’s Prayer, which began as “Our Father.” I read scripture after scripture that referred to God as “Him” and believed every word of it. God and Jesus were one with the Holy Spirit, which, I suppose made all three of them “male.” I believed every word of that, too.
In 1972, after the birth of my first son, I joined United Methodist Women, an organization that changed my life. It was as if I found another home – one where I felt affirmed as a woman and trained and valued as a leader. My mind was stretched by educational initiatives on issues that mattered most to me at that time – theology, spirituality, world realities about women and how they struggle for wholeness, and how to bring balance to being a mom and working for justice at the same time. It’s amazing how one finds such life in a community – life that empowers one to seek answers, seek truth and ways to be a critical reader of everything including the Bible! And, it’s also amazing when an organization and a strong community of “believers” can cause one to shift one’s thinking.
Those scripture passages I loved so much, where women were truly valued, became woven into my heart affirming that certainly God had to be something other than “Father.” It no longer made sense to me. Changing my mind about the image of God didn’t come through some sudden act of transformation like a lightning bolt. Rather, it happened through my interactions with women and men theologians who viewed the Bible in the cultural context of the day, which was centered in patriarchy and power. Through this, I claimed a more expansive understanding of God. Believing that God had feminine qualities such as a “mother hen,” God “giving birth” made sense if I, a woman, was really created in God’s image!
The scales continued to fall off my eyes after reading, “Words that Heal, Words that Hurt,” a UMC publication telling the damage language can do when using male language for God, especially to women who are victims of domestic violence. How can she relate to a male God when a male has just levied emotional, psychological or physical damage to her body and soul?
Now I rarely use pronouns to describe God due to their limitations. I resist falling back into that pattern of restrictive language whether it is the spoken or printed word. I no longer pray the Lord’s Prayer as “Our Father,” but as “Our God”.
I changed. I moved from being a passive bystander and accepter of a historic theological dogma to one who more clearly grasped the vastness of God’s being and meaning in the world. This awakening was a catalyst for my professional journey as a social justice advocate for women around the globe. My strength, confidence and self-esteem were magnified through claiming a larger God. It is what I hope for all God’s people – women and men. This evolution of seeking the truth to life’s questions has created a new human being who has found greater love, sustenance and affirmation through a God who is, in reality, beyond description.
Linda Bales Todd is retired and a member of the West Ohio Annual Conference