All my life, God has been described as a Father.
Growing up, my religious upbringing taught me men were called to be providers and leaders, and this was because God revealed Himself as Father, as a He. Therefore, men were to model courage, leadership, and provision, while women modeled support, submission, and nurture.
My religious upbringing taught me this. Life showed me something entirely different.
Life provided me with way too many powerful women to simply accept this theology at face value. Life also threw many reasons my way to not trust God as Father.
While most children grew up in homes with a male provider, this title was held solely by my Mama. She was the one who sacrificed for me. She was my caretaker and friend. She was present and loving, but firm and gave me space. Right off the bat, I was exposed to a woman who modeled provision and leadership.
And then there’s my Gammy, the matriarch with subtle but impressive power. She is kind and compassionate and loves us dearly, but she is firm and puts us in our place when we step out of line. She’s the one who will buy me a book on youth ministry just because she saw it at a store, yet will command my cousin Michael to write his graduation thank-you notes instead of putting them off and looking ungrateful. She is the rock of our family, preserver of our memories, the one we all look to for hope and strength. She was also a leader, and as a woman who worked three jobs, helped support a farm alongside my Poppy, and helped to raise six kids, you can be certain she’s one brave and strong lady, too.
My aunts also modeled this subversive idea of gender roles. They devoted their love and attention to me, along with their wisdom. They taught me how when life becomes most difficult, you have to find the will to keep going. They taught me the importance of family bonds, and how family will never leave you. I called my aunt Leslie at least once a week in middle school when I came home overwhelmed by unexplainable anxiety, knowing she could offer me words of comfort and consolation. I called my aunt Karen after a nasty break-up, knowing she had been through a very similar one when she was my age. I called my aunt Kim when I started Zoloft, because she was on it and had encouraged me to try it long ago. They were some of my earliest cheerleaders and most loving confidants.
My friends gave me a community of fun, laughter, encouragement, and love. Emily stayed by my side beginning in preschool. Beth put a card on my door when my Poppy was in the hospital. My college friends wrote me a book of love, support, and wisdom in the midst of a bad relationship. These women called me out when I was being ridiculous, held me during my struggles, and cracked jokes at me so I wouldn’t take myself so seriously. They showed me community and unconditional love and support.
My teachers and leaders shared their wisdom, attention, inspiration, and empowerment. Ms. Williamson showered me with devotion and care. Mrs. Pitcock continued to draw out my love of English and writing and humor. Mrs. Clouse listened to my stories day after day in her class, and she was the first one to witness me pass out after talking about blood.
These women shaped my life, faith, and future. They inspired, empowered, and encouraged me. They gave me hope, love, and strength.
Now when I hear God described as provider, I think of my mother. When I think of the strong yet subtle voice of God, I hear my Gammy. When I think of God’s Kingdom of community, I think of my friends and family. When I hear stories of the God of empowerment and inspiration, I remember the leaders and teachers who drew out my dreams and destiny.
But the men were a different story for the most part.
My father had been absent for most of my life. He was little more than a memory to me, yet I was supposed to identify God as a Father. And my stepfather aloof and unfaithful, so together, these two did not give me the best idea of God the Father.
If God was Father, could He leave at any given time? Could He deem me unlovable and unworthy just for the sake of my existence? Did this mean I had to impress Him to keep Him around? Would He grow weary of me? Would He just stop caring and go off to someone else whom He deemed “better?”
For so long, I thought that since these men had failed me, all men had failed me. Since I didn’t know love from them, I could not know love from any men. And if God was a man, I certainly couldn’t know love from Him.
But then I looked at my Poppy, the man who was firm and stern but whose eyes lit up whenever his grandkids came to visit. Then I met my father, a man whose compassion for others and open mind and heart inspire me to stretch my arms a little wider to embrace those around me. Then I learned from my high school teachers and college professors. Mr. Tillman, to this day the teacher of the most difficult class I’ve ever taken, encouraged me to keep on going with his class, even though I was almost failing it. I have never been more proud of a final B+ grade, and I still have the first A+ paper I received in his class. Mr. Belkin and Prof Watson stretched my mind and challenged me to think boldly and for myself. Bryce showed me immense and unconditional love, attention, grace, compassion, and gentleness, first in our friendship and now in our relationship, and they have done glorious wonders for my soul. He was also one of the first people to tell me to pursue ministry, writing, and leadership, even before I was willing to fully admit that I wanted to pursue those fields.
These men showed me love, grace, and strength. They shared with me their wisdom and ideas, but they didn’t impose them on me. They were gentle and compassionate but knew what they stood for and did not give in. They embraced and loved me for who I am, who I was, and who I was becoming.
I began to recognize the image of God in them, the image I had for so long recognized in women. I recognize in them the image of our Creator, who loves me for me, who is always with me and for me, and who abides in infinite love and grace.
If we’re both made in the image of God, God cannot be a man. Or even a woman. God gave us God’s characteristics, both male and female.
God is bigger than gender.
I see God in men and women. I see God in the men who stay at home and the women who provide. I see God in the women who lead and the men who follow. I see God in “traditional gender roles,” and I see God in the “not-so-traditional roles.” I see God in the ones who acknowledge the dignity of others. I see God in those who empower and love others. This isn’t confined to a gender. It can’t be.
I see God in my friend Jess and in Bryce, in my Mom and my Dad, my Gammy and my Poppy, Prof. Watson and Dr. Trupe, Mr. Tillman and Mrs. Pitcock, Mr. Belkin and Ms. Williamson, Kim and Mike, Tracy and Tony.
It was never either/or. It was always and/both. It was always meant to be open to all. It was always meant to be all about love.
We all carry God’s image. How we show it is all up to us. Dogma and doctrine can’t control or fence this in. The Spirit moves us, empowers us, inspires us to be who we are made to be: Restorers of Creation. We all do this. We all have our gifts and strengths, hopes and dreams, whether we are man or woman.
Be the image. Restore the world. Share the love.