My inner spirit opened itself to the larger Spirit, and I came face-to-face with God as Mother. Scenes unfurled on my inner eye in undulating landscapes, and she stepped into them. A tall African woman, the Mother was someone my heart recognized instantly, even though I had been raised with male images of God. . . . In the visions, the Mother cared for me, providing nourishment, clothing, walking sticks, and gemstone necklaces that spoke to me of my inestimable worth in her eyes.
This is an excerpt from the beginning of Lana Dalberg’s book Birthing God: Women’s Experiences of the Divine, released this week by Skylight Paths Publishing. (http://www.skylightpaths.com/page/product/978-1-59473-480-9) In this powerful book forty women relate Spirit-filled moments. These inspiring stories, based on interviews Lana conducted with the women, reveal culturally diverse experiences of the Divine and invite readers to deepen their own spiritual practices.
Lana Dalberg grew up in a loving Lutheran family, with her father a Lutheran minister and her mother a church organist. From an early age, she felt drawn to Native American spirituality. In college, she became involved with Central American people’s struggles for liberation.
Lana began work toward her master’s degree in Theological Studies at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary with a desire to learn more about liberating theologies and to practice them. “But feminist theology was not one of them,” she recalls. “Through my twenties and thirties, I was all about empowering whole communities—men and women, together, working to transform poverty and injustice. As I entered my late thirties and early forties, I became more aware of women’s oftentimes ‘triple’ oppression (gender, class, and race), and I became more sensitive to gender inequity in my own life.”
During this period in her life Lana began meditating daily and experiencing visions of the Mother. “These visions were the beginning of my understanding of the Divine Feminine, and they came from within,” she says. Here is one of these visions which Lana recorded at that time and now includes in the introduction of Birthing God:
Today I saw myself emerging from the water, clothed in buckskin and with long black braids. But as I emerged, I saw pieces of myself break off like shards—shards of me falling away, splashing into the water. I was afraid, and I reached toward the sun, my Mother. The sun voice said, “Behold, here is my daughter, with whom I am well pleased.” And I was a woman’s body again: curvy, voluptuous, pregnant, and, although pregnant, old. I walked with a cane. I carried age in my bones. The time came for me to bring forth the child in my womb. I gripped a pole, and my Mother Midwife soothed me, stroking my hair, patting my brow dry, feeding me water to drink, and whispering words of encouragement in my pain. My pain was the labor of birth but the pain of not knowing, too. I heaved and groaned through the pains, and I birthed an adult—an androgynous human being that was as big as me, that merged with me, swirling like the symbol of the yin and the yang. This was my birth, I realized. I searched for my Mother God, and I heard her say, “I am here: in the rain, in the sun, and in the earth. I will always be there for you.”
Several years later Lana Dalberg wrote this poem, entitled “Mother God,” dedicated to her mother, Anabelle Dalberg (published in my book Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Ministers):God to me
Is my dark-haired mother,
Stroking my forehead
As she lullabies me to sleep. My Mother is the earth
And all her creatures,
The web that brings us into relationship
With one another. God to me
Is the Mother
Who spills Her essence into the world,
Creating and calling us to create
From the wombs of our being. God to me
Is the Mother
Whose voice was drowned out
For most of history. And yet,
I find Her in my deepest wisdom.
Alone, I feel Her touch
Upon my brow, Mothering me still,
Mothering us all.
It was through meditation that Lana came to understand the importance of inclusive language and leadership in the church. “In meditation, immersed in the consciousness that unites all of us, I was broken open to see the damaging effects of a church that excludes and puts down many elements of this wondrous creation,” she says. “Excluding some humans from full participation because they are female is damaging to everyone. It reduces everyone’s wholeness.”
To help change the church so that it is contributes to wholeness, Lana actively participates in Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran in San Francisco, a member of the mainstream Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (www.herchurch.org). “We are always re-envisioning the Divine,” Lana says. “God as Mother, as Baker-woman, as Midwife, is constantly kneading us, calling us to follow in her image and to create anew. This birthing and creating anew has a ripple effect.”
Lana Dalberg is also changing the church and the wider culture through her book Birthing God: Women’s Experiences of the Divine. “A little over two years ago while at a Faith and Feminism conference sponsored by herchurch, I had the idea of gathering many women’s stories of their spiritual experiences,” Lana recalls. “I felt called to elicit women’s spiritual stories and to lift them up for others to celebrate.”
For many years Lana has combined her passions for social justice, spirituality, and writing. One of her community transformational projects in the 1990s was raising awareness and funds for Salvadoran women’s empowerment initiatives. In 2001, she began leading workshops and classes on writing and spirituality in retreat centers, congregations, and universities. And while serving as Grants Manager at Episcopal Community Services, she completed her MFA degree in writing at the University of San Francisco in 2007.
In the introduction of Birthing God, Lana explains her process in writing this book:
I made room in my professional and domestic life for a new project, asking women to share their stories with me. I started closest to home, in my church community, and broadened the circle to draw in others who were interested. Many of the women had been involved in courageous, compassionate work for years, and they were just now recognizing the injustices thrust upon the collective female soul. Some were creating women’s circles, others were collaborating in ecofeminist ventures to safeguard the earth, and others were involved in healing and creative work to lift up the Divine Feminine. Instead of disparaging themselves, these women were embracing themselves as cherished and one with the Divine.
Lana goes on to celebrate what she learned in writing Birthing God:
I learned many things as I interviewed these women, but everything they shared reinforced one simple treasure: however we name Spirit, we receive it with deep-hearted openness. Our receptivity is active, recognizing the value we bring to relationship by trusting and honoring the God within; by experiencing Spirit as soul mate; by glimpsing the Divine all around us; and by allowing God to cradle and nourish us. At the same time, our spirituality is a process, unfolding and growing with each passing day. Our spiritual stories are full of missteps and unabashed celebration. They are narratives of suffering and of hope; lessons in shedding fear and learning to love ourselves. Ours are embodied stories that begin with emptying so that we can glimpse the Holy Other, this Light who appears in ways unplanned, unexpected, and unsettling. Our lives are the surprise that begins with the response, “Let it be.”
One of the women Lana interviewed for Birthing God is Rev. Lori Eickmann, a Lutheran pastor. Here is an excerpt from Lori’s story, based on Lana’s interview and on an article by Lori entitled “In Search of God: One Woman’s Quest Leads Her to Change Her Life and Answer the Call to Become a Minister” (San Jose Mercury News, May 2, 1998).
Lori describes sitting in church and longing for something different, something more affirming of women. “I felt invisible, there in church. Maybe it was because I had children—one son and one daughter—and I was seeing the world through their eyes. I had to notice that the world offers a God who, as someone wrote, ‘is somehow more like my father, husband and brother than like me.’ I began to ache for all the daughters who couldn’t see themselves reflected in the Divine. I ached for them and for myself, because I knew we were created in God’s image, but mainstream Christian religion seemed unwilling to admit that.” . . . Many years later, Lori was ordained as a pastor called specifically to serve churches that are in between pastors. In addition to helping churches discern their next pastor while serving as their interim pastor, Lori leads a three-week study on female imagery for God in the Bible. She discusses passages like Isaiah 42:14 (God giving birth), Isaiah 49:15 (God likened to a nursing mother), and Matthew 23:37 (Jesus likening himself to a mother hen). “My passion is helping people see that there is a biblical basis for naming God Mother or she. It is not just something twentieth-century feminists made up! God is revealed to us in so many ways. I asked; God answered; my life changed. Even before I asked, God was the Heavenly One, my Sacred Mother, my Savior-Brother, the Passionate Spirit within. And I’m just one person. Each of us lives with the One inside our hearts who is everything we need and more than we can possibly imagine.”
Lana comments on the importance of including multicultural as well as female divine images in church. “Multicultural images of the Divine Feminine are vital. I intentionally expanded beyond my circle to include many women of different faiths and multicultural backgrounds because cultural perspectives different from our own offer us new vantage points and fresh insights.”
From her experience at Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran, Lana affirms the power of multicultural female divine images to bring peace and social justice. “At herchurch, we are changing the culture.” Lana comments that if all children, like those at herchurch, “grew up with the idea that all of us embody the Divine,” then “we wouldn’t have so much degradation and violence against women and girls.” Former council president, Susan Solstice, celebrates the Divine Feminine imagery included in worship at herchurch, empowering her daughters to see themselves in the divine image. In Susan’s story in Birthing God, Lana writes:
Because God is imaged as female, Susan’s daughters can experience innate goodness in themselves, which rarely happens for girls when God is equated with maleness. According to Susan, when a girl values herself, she is empowered to care about herself and, from that place of self-love, to care about others in ways that enhance and reinforce her core goodness.
Lana feels blessed to be a member of Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran because “it incorporates feminine images of the Divine into the worship and includes an appreciation of the earth.” So she has not considered leaving church, although she recently had a troubling dream. “In my dream, Kathleen Hurty, co-editor of Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership, and I entered a church hall area because she was dropping off some glass serving bowls as donations. When we went up to the sanctuary, it was packed full for a service, but the people had been taken hostage by a gunman. That was when the dream turned to a nightmare, when my body felt sluggish and unresponsive. I struggled to get up from the pew as the other congregants began to flee. My body felt weighty and it was hard to get out of that pew and out the back door despite the urgency I felt and the repeated shots of the gunman. When I reached the church’s side door and was heading down the exterior steps, following all the others who had fled, I woke up. Awake and conscious, I immediately equated the gunman with a church hierarchy that has held its congregants hostage to dictums that are unjust, a hierarchy that has shown itself to be complicit with corruption and perversion. In the dream, it made sense to break from its tyranny and violence.”
But awake, Lana realizes that her call is changing the church, not breaking from it. “ I feel that I am part of the movement that is creating a ruckus and stirring things up in the church. I am part of a movement that is welcoming in freedom and fresh air. As St. Paul says, we must become a new creation. We are constantly being birthed anew by the Divine Mother/Father, the Creator who keeps on creating and who calls us, in like fashion, to renew and re-envision church.”
In writing and publishing Birthing God, Lana acknowledges that she has taken risks as she stirs things up. “Even though I am not a clergyperson and I do not depend on the church for an income or health insurance, I risk the threats of marginalization or trivialization.” The term “Goddess,” used by some of the women in the book, sparks the most resistance in people, Lana says. “I think that the witch hunts of past centuries have ingrained fears that are so deep most people are not even conscious of them. Many of us have a gut aversion to goddess language or feel in our bones that it is heretical. All that repression worked to instill a deep fear that resides in most of us.”
Lana Dalberg envisions and works for the transformation of fear into wholeness as we experience the fullness of the Divine through many names and metaphors. “I pray and work that we may experience the Divine in all its fullness. That we grasp the paradox that the Divine, which is ultimately beyond our full comprehension, can best be experienced through the particular, and the particular includes female and non-human metaphors such as Divine Mother, Compassionate Midwife, She-Bear, the Rock that bore us, High-Soaring Eagle, and Mother Hen who gathers us beneath her wings.”
In the epilogue of Birthing God, Lana further articulates her expansive vision:
Most of us have been taught that God creates life, breathing our days into existence, our nights into being. We have been taught that Spirit, however we name it, births all that exists. And this is true. Yet we also birth the Divine, as the women in these pages have shown. All encounters and understandings of the Divine are essential to the whole. In bringing to light women’s spiritual experiences, we increase our day-to-day awareness of the Divine and enhance our global consciousness of God. And when we see in ourselves and others the divine connection between us all, we increase the level of goodwill and equanimity in the world.
I highly recommend Lana Dalberg’s website and blog, http://womenspiritandfaith.com/, for more of her prophetic, creative work.