Church tradition has forgotten, ignored or repressed the feminine images of the Holy that are present in the Bible. The truth of inclusive language for the Divine is biblical. We risk impairing the witness of the good news of Jesus Christ when we try to keep God in a box. Also, female imagery for God is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition (Woman Wisdom in the Old Testament and Jesus as Sophia’s—Wisdom’s—prophet or Sophia incarnate in the New Testament). Someone once said that the exclusive use of masculine names and imagery for God is the Golden Calf of this century. We must teach people that the Divine Feminine is reality and truth, and justice will flow.
Rev. Lori Eickmann writes these words in answer to my question: Why do you believe language and symbolism are important enough to go to all the effort to change two thousand years of church tradition? I invited Lori to do an interview for my blog after I read her powerful story in Lana Dalberg’s book, Birthing God: Women’s Experiences of the Divine.
Lori’s story in Birthing God includes this excerpt from 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”: “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” (San Jose Mercury News, May 2, 1998).
Lori recalls that she grew up in a churchgoing family, but stopped attending when she went to college. “I left the church at age 20 not because of any spiritual crisis, but simply because I went away to college and got out of the habit. I returned to church a decade later because I yearned for a church home and wanted my young children to know God and grow up with a community of faith. But when I returned to church, I was shocked at how all the masculine names and descriptions of God made me feel: invisible. Although I’d grown up calling God ‘Father’ and ‘Lord,’ the lack of images of God as ‘Mother’ or ‘She’ now made me feel excluded, unseen, ‘less than.’ How could the One in whose image I was created be imagined as only male?”
At this time, Lori’s pastors were a clergy couple. She asked the woman pastor, Jan, why everything about God and the Bible seemed focused on men and maleness. Jan replied, “There are feminine images of God in the Bible.” Lori expressed surprise: “Nobody’s ever told me that!” Jan gave Lori copies of The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female by Virginia Ramey Mollencott, Biblical Affirmations of Woman by Leonard Swidler, and other books about female divine images in the Bible.
Then Lori and her husband participated in a nine-month discipleship program created by their pastors. Through this program, Lori felt God calling her “to learn and to teach others that there are feminine images of God in our sacred Scriptures.” After the discipleship program ended, Lori went on a spiritual renewal retreat. There she met a woman who confirmed her call and labeled it a “call to ministry.” Lori laughed and reminded her that the motto printed on their church bulletin each Sunday was “Every Member a Minister.” The woman replied, “No, I mean seminary.” Since Lori’s children were in elementary school at the time, she decided that this call would probably come when they were in high school, she says. “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans for the future.”
A few years later Lori entered Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, “stunned but grateful that God wants the cosmos to know all her names and faces.” In 2005, she received the Master of Divinity degree.
Before seminary, Lori worked as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in San Jose, California. The last year she was at the newspaper she wrote the article (mentioned above) for the religion page about her search, as a Christian woman, for her Heavenly Mother. The paper, she says, had “already run national stories about Jewish and Muslim women searching for Our Mother in their sacred texts.” This article was published not only in the San Jose Mercury News (one of the top 10 newspapers in the country), but also in other newspapers nationwide.
Lori continued to look for ways to share her discovery of biblical female images of the Divine. After graduating from seminary, while waiting for a call to a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), she was asked to serve as interim pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Livermore, California. Through that experience Lori realized that her call to ministry was to serve congregations in transition as an intentional interim pastor. This ministry would not only allow her to use her gifts to guide congregations through a self-study process for 12-18 months to help them prepare for a new pastor, but also fulfill her call to teach people about female images of God in the Bible. Lori comments on this unexpected opportunity: “God was surely laughing again! I now had an opportunity to educate many congregations about female imagery for God in the Bible. I developed a three-week class called ‘Rediscovering Feminine Images of God in Scripture,’ and I’ve been able to offer it to each of the five congregations I’ve served so far.”
In January of 2010, shortly after beginning at her third interim congregation, Rev. Eickmann was ordained into intentional interim ministry. Currently she is serving her fifth congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran, as a trained and certified Intentional Interim Pastor in the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA.
Rev. Eickmann reflects on the benefits of teaching congregations about biblical female names and images of the Divine. “Educating people that there are feminine images of God in the Bible is part of helping people go deeper into their faith through Bible study. In the Lutheran church, the Book of Faith Initiative was begun to help Lutherans become more educated about the Bible, which many Lutherans (and other Christians) have never studied in much depth, if at all. People are more open to hearing feminine names for God if they have been taught that these are rooted in Holy Scripture and in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Ultimately, this will lead not only to gender equality, but a deeper, richer and more mature faith.”
Multicultural images of humanity and divinity will also make a big difference, Rev. Eickmann states. “Multicultural images of the Holy One and of women, children and men are simply truthful and woefully absent in most of the white churches I’ve served. In my overwhelmingly Caucasian denomination, diverse images of God reveal a God who loves and is reflected in all people—male, female, many colors, young, old, and everything beyond and in between.”
Although at one time Lori considered leaving the church because of the exclusivity she experienced, she now feels called to change the church. “I did consider leaving the church when I found, as a young mother, that not only did I feel invisible, confused and angry each Sunday during worship, I also began to realize that I could not raise my children to believe that God was a guy. I was not angry at God—it was the church that had it wrong. When my pastors asked me to be part of their discipleship program, part of me was afraid that by going deeper into Bible study I would find that God was/is a guy after all! So I prayed. I said, “God, if I take this class and find out you really are all about men and maleness, you’d better help me see why that is—because otherwise I’m outta here. But part of me knew from the start that Mom was about to take me on a big adventure. I’ve stayed with the church because I have experienced the love of my Mother, the grace of her Son, and the inspiration of the Spirit of Wisdom (Sophia in Greek). I am called to be part of bringing the feminine faces and names of God into the church and into people’s hearts.”
Through her class and conversations and sermons, Rev. Eickmann brings female names and images of the Divine to the congregations she serves as interim pastor. In her class she discusses biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 32:18: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Among the many other female divine images Rev. Eickmann teaches are Midwife and Wisdom. She points out that in Psalm 22:9-10 “God is praised as a caring midwife: ‘Yet it was you who took me from my mother’s womb, you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.’” And Lori elucidates the biblical parallels between Wisdom and Jesus: “In the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus speaks as Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) incarnate when he says, ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ He says this at the end of the passage that starts with the disciples of John the Baptizer asking Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?’ Jesus says they should tell John what they see—that the blind see and the lame walk; thus is Wisdom vindicated by her deeds. The Hebrew Wisdom tradition holds that Wisdom is a feminine personification of God, co-creating with God (Proverbs 8:22 to which John 1:1,3-4 bears striking similarities).
One time when Rev. Eickmann was teaching her class on female images of God in Scripture at a small church of people mostly in their 80s and 90s, one of the older women remarked, “Imagine, learning all these new things at our age!” Lori recalls another time she offered the class at a larger church she was serving; this church was more diverse in age. “Some women, particularly, were very glad the class was offered, while others—both men and women—came even though they were very skeptical. At the end, one older man said, ‘When I first heard about this, I thought it was going to be a bunch of hooey—but now you’ve shown that this is in the Bible!’ Another man said he personally didn’t really like the idea of God being called ‘Mother,’ but added, ‘Now I can see why someone might need those kinds of images of God.’”
Before Rev. Eickmann goes to a church as interim pastor, she usually has an opportunity to express her passion for helping people discover biblical female names and images of God. “Usually when I interview with a congregation to be their interim pastor, someone asks me why I left journalism to pursue ministry. I can’t tell of my call to ministry without talking about feminine images of God. This is usually met with polite smiles and no follow-up questions. (Yet they call me anyway; go figure!) I come to a congregation as an intentional interim pastor with specific work to do with that congregation. I don’t come in and demand that people start calling God ‘She’ or ‘Mother,’ but I do tend to neutralize the masculine language in the liturgy. Talking about female imagery for God and the need for inclusive language comes up in conversation, and I always offer my class. This is seed planting, and I pray that the seeds will sprout in individual hearts and maybe even in the congregation’s life and ministry with the new pastor.”
Rev. Eickmann appreciates the ELCA’s statement on “Language and the Christian Assembly,” calling for inclusive language and imagery for God in worship. “That’s a big step into a just future,” she acknowledges. “However, there still aren’t any officially sanctioned worship resources and liturgies from the ELCA to support inclusive language, so many pastors and worship leaders struggling to promote female imagery for God have to constantly re-invent the wheel. Also, when I am serving as the interim in a congregation that is engulfed in conflict, introducing inclusive language isn’t the first order of business—so in such circumstances I find myself letting the exclusive, male-centric language stand with few changes, and I begin to feel I am part of the problem and not part of the solution.”
Understanding, strength, and inspiration for all her challenges come from many sources, Lori affirms. “I get strength from prayer and meditation (spending time with my understanding and forgiving Mother), from friends and colleagues who share my struggles, and from books, articles, blogs, and worship services I may attend in which the Divine Feminine is named and celebrated.”
Lori recounts an especially empowering experience. “I once participated in an intense, weeklong seminar on Emotional Intelligence for continuing education, and there discovered that because of the daily realities and pressures of parish/interim ministry I was feeling too disconnected from my call to bring the feminine face of God to light. I felt guilty for not doing what God had called me to do. So the workshop leader had me kneel while the rest of the group (both men and women) laid their hands on me and commissioned me as a prophet of Holy Sophia. Remembering that always makes me smile, because it was so cool, but also because it reminds me that I had written into my ordination vows a vow to lift up the Divine Feminine. Truly, this is part of my calling as a Lutheran pastor.”
Through her prophetic ministry in many congregations, Rev. Eickmann is fulfilling this calling. She offers a visionary prayer for the future of faith communities. “I pray that the Lutheran church and other Christian denominations and other faith traditions will all be inspired to write songs and liturgies that are inclusive—reflecting the truth that God is our Mother, Father, Inspiration, Love, Life and Hope.”