Sometimes I refer to God as Papa, and if you’ve ever read William Paul Young’s The Shack then you already know what image this title brings to mind for me…
I remember the first time I was chastised for not being “manly enough.” My grandma worked at a church-run daycare center in Covington, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio. Another man from her church worked there as well. Let’s call him Brian (I do so because he and I are still friends… I don’t write this with any anger or resentment).
This particular summer, I went to Nanny’s daycare and was involved in their secondary program. Brian was working with us that day. The time came to play either dodgeball or whiffleball (“sportsball” tends to be the word I use most often). I wasn’t very good, but I was trying. In a moment of excitement, I literally squealed in a very high-pitched tone. Brian quickly turned his head around and looked at me, eyes glaring a bit. “You’re a boy. Boys don’t make that sound. Boys don’t scream like that.” I don’t know that anyone has ever shrunk that quickly before. I suddenly became 2 inches tall with no power and even less confidence. I don’t remember saying anything the rest of the day. In fact, I imagine that I spontaneously changed from a boy into a chameleon, and my skin morphed into the institutional sky blue of the gymnasium’s cold concrete walls.
My voice, or more specifically, the high pitch of my voice, would be something that brought me much humiliation, embarrassment, and even shame over the years. Not changing until I was nearly 16 (despite the rest of my body hitting puberty much earlier), I spent many phone calls telling people I was a “sir” and not a “ma’am,” something I still have to do (although it comes in handy when telemarketers are trying to reach Michael Overman and I get mistaken as “Mrs. Overman” (we’ll save that bit of heteronormativity for a different day). Today, I still have moments where I enter Jack MacFarland “head voice” and am told to bring it down a bit. I’ve been rejected by other gay men for simply not being “masc” enough. Even Christian music artist Jeremy Camp once agreed (playfully) when I referred to myself as a bit of a queen. Masculinity, it would seem, is something to be sought after… protected.
…it’s amazing how much emphasis is placed on preserving the man-made masculinity of God these days…
When I first applied to seminary… hell, when I first returned to the church in 2009, my language for God was still strictly masculine. I had no room in my system of faith for thinking of or referring to God as anything other than “He/Him/His,” capital H included. And then, shortly after I began attending Holy Covenant United Methodist Church in Lincoln Park, I met Audrey, my very own “professional feminist.” It was this fantastic whom who first introduced me to the idea of “gender neutral” language for God (God/God’s/Godself). Overtime, after I’d become proficient at utilizing said language, Audrey encouraged me to move further into a more feminine idea of God. After all, it’s Audrey I have to thank (or blame, depending on how I feel that day) for my going to seminary and answering God’s call on my life for ministry. And now, it’s Audrey I have to thank for my desire, for my passion, to protect God’s womanly side.
The week Nanny died, my last week with her, I read The Shack for the first time. I’d survived my first year of seminary and become much more proficient at referring to God in a gender neutral way. Then came Papa, Young’s black grandmother envisioning of God. I wasn’t upset when I first encountered papa. Instead I was intrigued. Papa reminded me of some of the most amazing women in my life (Tippi, Nelvia, Felicia, and Iris). Papa was gentle yet prodding. And as far as I could see, Papa, this short, round, aging black woman had more power and chutzpah than most men I’d known. She didn’t need a penis or broad shoulders, muscles or chest hair to have power.
The image spearheads Hayward’s article discussing Rachel Held Evans and Owen Strachan. The battle was this simple. Evans, in the context of a conversation about the pain of Mary losing Jesus, referred to God as “Herself.” Strachan, whom I might like to personally bitchslap, verbally burns Evans at the stake, calling her to repentance, but more importantly, making out preservation of God’s masculinity, God’s maleness, God’s penis, as a matter of heaven or hell.
I’m not going to rail on Strachan’s verbose beat down of Rachel. It doesn’t serve the time or energy right now. What I will say is this: when protecting God’s maleness involves the shaming and shunning of someone, when it becomes a weapon of oppression, then we need to seriously examine our priorities. Reading through Strachan’s burning of Rachel, I couldn’t help but cringe at what I experienced as his own insecurity. It was clear that this was his landing post for attacking Evans’ progressive stance on gender and sexuality. As soon as I became aware of what his true motives were, I stopped reading and started writing.
Being a hospital chaplain, I understand just how much power there is in a pronoun. Amy Greene, my soon to be supervisor at the Cleveland Clinic, remarked on my early writings where I referred to God in masculine terms, letting me know that only gender neutral language is allowed at the Clinic (a reality about which I was super excited). I feel bad that people like Owen Strachan are confined to viewing God as a man. There’s so much to be gained from understanding the breadth and depth of God’s diversity, of God’s femininity.
In the months after Nanny died, the image of God as Papa became vital to the re-strengthening of my faith. God as a man felt distant and detached, cold even. Yet Papa… she drew near to me in my grief. She shared my feelings of powerlessness and helped bear the burden of my doubt and questions. She gave me space to feel sadness and anger and even betrayal. Yes, there are times when understanding, when embracing God’s maleness and masculine side and draw us closer to God and help us understand better the ways in which God is working in and around us. But when we’re afraid to let Papa shine through, to see and acknowledge God’s feminine side, then we’ve made God in our image. That, my friends, is not okay….
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. Michael lives with his partner and their two cats in Chicago and is currently preparing to enter full-time hospital chaplaincy. In his spare time, he loves chocolate, wine, and scifi.