She Restoreth My Soul
Today is a day for taking a risk from the pulpit, so here I go.
But I am able to take this risk because Robert took a risk today with the offertory anthem he chose.
And Robert took the risk because someone at our grad school took the risk to use this anthem in the chapel services we both attended.
And the chapel worship planner took the risk because the author of the anthem text, Bobby McFerrin, took the risk to write it.
And he took the risk to write it because of the witness of his mother. She took the risk to have a child, to influence her child deeply with her love, and it led, through a chain of courage, all the way to this pulpit today.
So what’s so risky about this anthem?
Well, it takes what is very likely the best known and most beloved text in the Bible, the 23rd Psalm, and changes the pronoun for God in it.
Instead of “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters,” you will hear the choir sing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all I need. She makes me lie down in green meadows, beside the still waters she will lead. She restores my soul, She rights my wrongs, She leads me in a path of good things, and fills my heart with songs. Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land there is nothing that can shake me, She has said She won’t forsake me, I’m in her hand. She sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes. She anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows. Surely, surely goodness and kindness will follow me, all the days of my life, And I will live in her house, forever, forever and ever.”
For some of you, calling God “She” will not be at all troubling. It will be beautiful and inspiring and even comfortable and familiar.
For others of you, it will be distinctly off-putting. You won’t be able to connect to it at all, and you’ll be wondering if it’s really okay to change the Biblical text like this.
Many of us fall somewhere squarely in the middle.
We’ve heard of the practice, we understand theologically that God is much bigger than our paltry human concepts of gender, but actually praying to God our Mother?
We do that pretty rarely, if at all. I mean, why would we?
Well, Bobby McFerrin answers that question from his perspective in an interview when a journalist asked him to explain why he used “she” instead of “he” in his version of Psalm 23.
“The 23rd Psalm is dedicated to my mother. She was the driving force in my religious and spiritual education, and I have so many memories of her singing in church. But I wrote it because I’d been reading the Bible one morning, and I was thinking about God’s unconditional love, about how we crave it but have so much trouble believing we can trust it, and how we can’t fully understand it. And then I left my reading and spent time with my wife and our children. Watching her with them, the way she loved them, I realized one of the ways we’re shown a glimpse of how God loves us is through our mothers. They cherish our spirits, they demand that we become our best selves, and they take care of us.”
For most of us, that is true—our mothers did love us in a generous and giving way that few other people in our lives are able to.
For some of us, that’s not true—our mothers were abusive, suffering from alcoholism or depression or other limitations that did not allow them to love us the way we deserved.
But that’s precisely what it’s so important to expand the number of ways we refer to God.
For many people, “God the Father” is not a life-giving concept, either because their own fathers could not love them well, or from the simple draining force of patriarchy that eats away at their identity for decades at a time.
What we call God determines what we think and how we feel about God, and nothing matters more in the world that knowing that we can trust God at a bone-deep level.
That’s why I’m a proponent of what we call “expansive language.”
Expansive language is an “all of the above” approach. In expansive language worship or prayer, sometimes we would use “he” for God, sometimes we would use “she,” sometimes we would use words that have no gender connection at all to get away from the polarity, and we might consider using pronouns that people who identify as gender-fluid or gender-non-binary use.
Why? Because every human being on this earth reflects the being of God, and the face of every human being is reflected in the being of God.
We’re not going to see God in each other until we see each other in God.
And that means speaking about God in lots of different ways.
You know the phrase, “preaching to the choir”? Well, I don’t need to preach to the choir today, because they’re the ones singing this anthem!
I need to “preach to the pulpit,” by which I mean preach to myself.
I may be socially progressive, but liturgically? I am a hard core conservative.
I’m the resident Book of Common Prayer Nazi on the St. Francis staff, and poor Father Davies has to put up with me and occasionally remind me that the prayerbook rubrics are not to be followed with the same zealotry as the Beatitudes or the Ten Commandments.
I have to remind myself that Cranmer’s entire purpose in writing the 1549 prayerbook was to change the language of worship to give people better access to God.
I was in the Diocese of Michigan this week, and their clergy conference worship made use of a lot of different and interesting language choices. They weren’t that far out there, but I get so stuck in my worship language rut that many of them felt disorienting to me.
What a sad thing.
Am I actually letting my Good Shepherd lead me in right pathways for her name’s sake?
Not really. I’m following the same path I’ve always tread. I think I know where the still waters and green pastures are.
But I don’t. I need guidance, and I need comfort.
That became clear to me when I noticed how much I hesitated to preach this sermon.
“No one wants to hear about gender-expansive language from the pulpit,” I told myself. “You’re going to get labeled again,” I thought.
“Angry feminist” and “snowflake millennial” are the ones I dread the most.
I only fear hearing that from a very few people, but those few are enough to limit my thinking and my preaching.
And that is exactly why I had to give this sermon.
We—I—need to think bigger about God and about each other.
We need to pay attention to labels and names and gender stereotypes and observe how we’ve used them to hurt and limit each other.
And then we need to push past them and forge into the deeper territory of the richness of our souls.
I very much did not want to get up here and talk about God our Mother and then use words like “tender” and “nurturing” and “gentle.”
God is all those things, as God our Father.
And God our Mother is the God of furious recompense and clouds and thick darkness, of liberation and justice who commands our awe.
No words can contain our God, and words can only contain our worship of God if we let them.
And it therefore follows that no words can contain and limit and imprison us unless we let them.
So do a little experimentation this week in your prayer.
If you have been praying to God our Mother for years, go back and look to see if God the Father has anything to say to you.
And if “Our Father, who art in heaven,” is your default, try “Our Mother, who art in heaven,” just to see what happens.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. She maketh me to lie down in green pastures; she leadeth me beside still waters. She restoreth my soul.”
She knows what we need.
And so we can be brave.
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