"I have long believed that it is important for us to expand our understanding of who God is," said the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. "If one's language and concept of God never change, it means one of two things. Either you've completely figured out who God is, thus making you equal with God, or your God is too small."
Responding to this challenge, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) has created a new Bible study. The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, pastor of South Gate United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a commission member, said the goal was "to cross the line from being limited in comfortable language about God into revisiting poetic and inspirational images for God, which have power to strengthen our discipleship journeys."
God of the Bible is the new study. Writers are the Rev. Aida Fernandez, pastor of Hope United Methodist Church, Belchertown, Massachusetts; the Rev. Adrienne Trevanthan, associate minister of education at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church, Chicago; and Susan Hylen, associate professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology. The Rev. Carol Cook Moore, associate professor of worship and preaching at Wesley Theological Seminary, edited the study.
Participants in the five-week, small-group study explore names and images for God and the ways Scripture reveals God. The study "promises to strengthen our personal relationship with God by removing unnecessary limitations from our understanding of who God is," say the writers.
The Rev. Debra Jene Collum, pastor of Chatfield (Minnesota) United Methodist Church, recommends God of the Bible to people who want to explore a greater understanding of God and their language use. "When the Minnesota Conference asked Collum and Faye Christensen, a certified lay speaker from Brainerd, Minnesota, to teach a class for lay servant ministers, Christiansen found God of the Bible "an excellent resource for the students and the class."
Amanda Mountain, a deaconess in the New York Conference and study consultant, said participants in Youth 2015 in Orlando, Florida, enthusiastically supported expanding and enriching their God-vocabulary in order to deepen their faith.
"When we talk about God," said the Rev. Michael Williams, senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, "we are speaking of a reality that we can experience but cannot fully explain. In essence, we are attempting to describe a divine mystery. Words and images are the tools we employ to talk about God, and we are always using them metaphorically, describing a reality we cannot fully know by making comparisons to things we do know."
God of the Bible, he added, will help participants recognize the diversity of biblical metaphors used to speak about human experiences of God. "These images are drawn from across the created order. They are animal, vegetable and mineral. They are male and female. The images of God we carry around within us largely determine how we live out our faith.
"We impoverish our faith," Williams said, "when we restrict God to just a few of the many images that the Bible and our life experience provide to deepen our relationship with God."
The Rev. Kathy Armistead is a Nashville, Tennessee-based writer and a deacon in The United Methodist Church, www.kathyarmistead.com.
To use God of the Bible
Download God of the Bible study guides at www.gcsrw.org Click on "Resources," then on "Curriculum" on the navigation bar.
Sermon starters, reading lists, worship resources and other information can be found in the appendix, which is included with other materials. Download it also from www.gcsrw.org.
Subscribe to Connections, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women's newsletter, which will include examples of expansive language for God in liturgy. Contact Jenn Meadows, director of communications, email@example.com, to subscribe.