“Lydia,” I said, “you be Jesus.”
I had to assign each of the kids in my Sunday school class a role in acting out one of the Gospel stories. This particular story called for four guys, Jesus and three of his soon-to-be disciples. But wouldn’t you know it? I had three boys and one girl.
“Ooh!” Lydia said. “Can I be sassy Jesus?”
A decade ago, the idea of a girl pretending to be Jesus would have struck me as sacrilegious. Jesus, and God, were always addressed as he. Him. Father. “Sassy” Jesus would have gotten me in a tizzy of holy fury. (Sassy Jesus also makes me think of the dad in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. “He was a man! He had a beard!”)
In the novel by William Paul Young, The Shack, God appears as a black woman who calls herself Papa, a Middle-Eastern carpenter named Jesus, and a semi-transparent Asian woman named Sarayu.
What is happening?! the paranoid, post-college Sarah shrieks inside.
What Young does is embrace the mystery of God, calling him-her and she-it and it-them because, dude, the Trinity is craaaaazy like that. He’s shaking post-college Sarah and insisting on breaking her incorrect, Americanized version of Jesus—blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned Jesus.
But then again, post-college Sarah also had a specific understanding of what it meant to be female. Traditional gender roles embedded themselves in me from family, church, friends, culture, and everywhere else I went and said I was supposed to live a certain way—marry, have babies, take a backseat to my husband’s leadership, stay home with my children, do “women’s work.” At the same time, family, husband, and friends encouraged the leader in me, the aspirational Sarah. Yet I felt I was supposed to be a certain way, according to my culture’s particular set of guidelines for women and men.
When I had an opportunity to take on a new job at a university, I was six months pregnant with my second child, who would be born fifteen months after our first. My husband decided to stay home with the kids. Gender roles got reversed. Ever since, my husband has been the primary caregiver for our children. I am the primary breadwinner. He does laundry and makes meals and pays bills. I mulch the yard and dig in the dirt.
These roles didn’t reverse as a fun social experiment on raising a family; our roles reversed to best suit who we are and what we’re made of. If I love to work hard and sweat and take pleasure in yard work, does that make me less female? If my husband makes a meal and takes the kids to school, does that make him less male? If my husband had not been the man he is, recognizing the opportunity for me and our family and allowing me to grow more into myself, we would not be what we are today—better, more full versions of ourselves.
The breakdown of this gender stratification for me meant greater freedom to be who God created me to be, to live fully out of my strengths and acknowledge my weaknesses.
Christians say God is Father, Abba, Daddy. For most people, he and him are the preferred pronouns. And let’s face it, it’s weird to call God “it” when you are trying to talk about a relationship with a person, so the gender-neutral pronoun fails here, except maybe if we went with the plural they, them, their?
But to see only the maleness of God is to deny ourselves the fullness of our experience with him. God is not gendered. We are gendered, but God is neither male nor female, and God is both male and female, and God is wholly other than male and female.
Awhile back I worked on a cross-stitch (because I am an old lady in a millennial’s body) of the names of God. Mighty God. Prince of Peace. Almighty. Lord of Lords. Emmanuel. These names feel masculine because we assign gender roles to traditionally masculine characteristics—might, strength, leadership.
Jesus was a man, it’s true. But God is also Spirit. Comforter. “El Chuwl,” the God Who Gave You Birth (see Isaiah 43:1–3b and Psalm 139:13–18). “El Roi,” the God Who Sees (see Genesis 16:1–16; Psalm 33:18–19). “Elohim,” the Creator. “Yahweh-Rapha,” the Lord that Heals.
Sometimes God—my understanding and experience of God—has been so destroyed by him and Father and maybe even Mother that the names we assign, the gendered roles we place, keep us from being able to access the love and grace and peace that can be found in God. Earthly fathers and mothers typically form early perceptions of God. If Dad was angry, then God is Very Angry. If Mom was passive, then God is Very Passive. If Dad rewarded good behavior, then God is a God of Scales. If Mom criticized your every move, then God is a God whose love you must earn, a God of Judgment.
My mom is one of my best friends, and my dad has been the model of strength, provision, and hard work. But both of them—because they are human—have faults and habits that shaped my perspective of God.
The names and pronouns for God can get in the way of pursuing some understanding of who God really is, the immense reach of God’s love, and God’s declaration of unity through Jesus Christ of all genders and races and social classes. To see “God” and only read “he” leaves out so many beautiful opportunities for complexity and connection with God, the mother hen, who clucks in the gospel, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Sometimes I need to change the name of my God to release the chains of my assumptions and prejudices. Sometimes I need to change the name to see his-her-their face.
Brian Doyle, a brilliant essayist and Catholic writer whom I adore, asked his elementary-aged Sunday school class to rename Jesus for the same reasons I’ve explained here. Their Sunday school answer of “Jesus!” to every question was getting in the way of any real conversation they could have about the Son of God. So for a while they referred to Jesus as Mister Louie. Doyle wrote, “One day Elizabeth said something so naked and direct about Mister Louie that after she said it I excused myself and walked out of the room and wrote it down. ‘It doesn’t matter what we call him,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter what his name is really. It just matters that we can still talk to him and that he said love is the boss. Isn’t that right?’”
That seems right to me too. It doesn’t matter what his name is because in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, whether we call him Jesus or Yahweh or Lord Almighty or Lamb or Mighty King or Shepherd or Comforter or Mother Hen, God is God is God is God. And God is love.
It doesn’t matter whether my daughter or my son plays sassy Jesus, because “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” and “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.”
We are all one in Jesus Christ. One great big sassy Jesus.