As a little girl, summertime in Iowa was my favorite of all the seasons. Hours were spent outdoors walking barefoot in the grass with the rich black soil and morning dew between my toes. Unaware of time passing, I would create my own worlds, getting lost in the corn fields, catching fireflies, and finally watching the sun set until the very last sliver slipped away. I would resist coming inside as evening locusts began their song, melodic and persistent, ushering in the cool of dusk. Listening to the sounds of the farm at night, I would lay in my bed and feel God’s presence. I knew there was a loving God that was all around me. No one taught me this, it was fully experienced in my little girl self. A deep knowing. A holding. A benevolent presence who cared for me deeply and that I could talk to at any moment. This experience of the divine was intuited and I knew it without ever having to put words to it, in fact, like breathing, it was so present, it never occurred to me to name it. Though I would pray , “Now I lay me down to sleep” every night to the big God in Heaven, up there, in the sky, I didn’t make the connection this prayer was to the one, this felt presence, that I felt so near the rest of the day.
I also was unaware that this presence went with me every Sunday to the big Lutheran church in town. I was taught the importance of this weekly ritual, dressing up in my freshly ironed dresses and patent leather shoes, my Dad pressing his thumb into my back if I began slouching in the pew mid sermon. We had big green hymnals with all of the songs accompanied by the massive organ at the front of the room. At the end of the hour, we would stand as a congregation and my family would link hands as we said the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father, who art in Heaven...”. For my concrete thinking brain, Heaven felt like it was probably located above me and I remember gazing up at the enormous speakers hanging from the ceiling in the sanctuary as we prayed, thinking God was sitting up there hearing it all and listening to our prayers. For years I believed he was in that little space. I would squint to see if I could get a glimpse of Him, and I wanted so badly for Him to notice me and see me praying this prayer. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the old man God sitting in the speaker system at Nazareth Lutheran Church could be the same Wild God with whom I was dancing out in the cornfields, my tangled hair blowing in the wind.
As I grew up, I spent less and less time outdoors. No one actually told me to stop being so dirty, earthy and wild, my priorities just changed as I began making the swift climb toward womanhood. I was observant of the women around me and in the culture at large; none of them were singing to cats out in the apple grove. I observed my own parent’s values and comments of what was important and translated them to myself. No one handed these instructions to me in an overt way, but I was paying attention to the adults in my life and I internalized the value of being a woman who is agreeable and easy going, kind, polite, and not one to make others uncomfortable. In a way, I think I sanitized myself as I internalized cultural messages about being feminine.
In order to follow these unspoken rules, I unknowingly began to silence my true voice and the still small voice of God within me. I became a bit of a chameleon as I grew astute at taking the temperature of a room and seeing what others needed me to be. I knew which group of people would find a joke amusing while also understanding that another group would be properly offended by the same joke. I was rewarded for my charm and wit, beauty and sense of humor. I unknowingly defined my worth by other’s approving and validating my performance. I think I could have safely stayed ensconced in this bubble of other’s acceptance for the rest of my life. But that is not what happened. I sometimes miss the simplicity and ease of “chameleoning” that came with the first half of my life. But by doing this, I stopped listening to my inner voice, eventually fell asleep to it. But the Wild God who danced in the cornfields with me kept calling and kept pursuing me, I imagine Her saying, “Wake up”.
This waking up was hastened by the birth of my children, two beautiful boys. Like my husband’s and my families of origin, we valued raising our kids in the church. We wanted them to have a foundation that was rooted in the Bible and grow to know an all loving God. Driving home on Sundays, still sticky from the Kool-Aid and cookies in the Sunday school room, they began asking questions about what they were learning. As I would answer these questions and try with the best of my ability to give honest answers, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the disconnect between what I was taught at church and in seminary about God, and how I experienced a very real relationship with God daily. Glancing at their little faces through the rear view mirror, wide eyed and trusting, it occurred to me I was answering these questions in a way that felt more like I was accommodating a system of thought at the expense of a bigger truth that I lived out every day. Church began to feel like a place where I was asking myself to make an agreement about who God was when, in fact, it wasn’t a place where I truly experienced God like I did in nature or art and relationships. Ironically, in church I found myself feeling quite far away from this Presence I had intimately known since my earliest memories, I was lonely for my God when I would listen to the pastor speak of God in church. It was like being at Grandpa’s funeral where everyone talked about the serious accomplished businessman that he was, but I remembered him in his bathrobe with shaving cream all over his face, chasing me around the house to give me fluffy white kisses.
I wrestled for several years to tend to the two little girls inside myself; the one singing in the sunlight out in the dewy grass, tangled hair and dirty feet, and the little girl sitting up straight with the ironed pinafore in the pew on Sundays. Both experiences, I have come to learn, have been vitally important in forming my concept of God. Yet, for a time, I feared that in preferring the “nature experienced God”, I was straying away from the teachings and traditions of the “Church God” that my family had so carefully handed down to me. While the formal instructions and stories formed a solid foundation of knowledge for me, I felt that the experience and daily connecting with God behind closed doors, out in nature, and beyond the reach of what I felt the church had sanctioned or approved was more vital to a full and abundant life. Without question, this personal experience of the Divine far out weighed the importance of doctrine. I hadn’t yet become aware that the doctrine, for me, is like a foundation for my house, and the experience is like my home that surrounds me. I didn’t realize that the two weren’t opposing, but actually complimentary and I wanted desperately for my boys to grow into men who felt God’s presence always, who felt surrounded by His love in a more tangible way than the earth under their feet. I needed to connect these pieces.
I began devouring books, podcasts, and any information I could find that could offer me some peace in this existential crisis of faith and give me direction to bridge this gap. But more gaps were revealed to me. I became aware of the idea that maybe another aspect of this disconnect was that the feminine characteristics of God had been buried in how I learned to think of Him and therefore how I thought of myself as an Image Bearer. As a child, I was taught that God had no gender, He was too big for that. Nonetheless, after praying to Him for forty some years, God as masculine got somewhat concretized in my psyche. What had not been given birth to in myself if I had no felt sense of my own identity in God, other than as a “good daughter”? I didn’t take hold of a central place in the Kingdom of God when I sang the lyrics to my favorite hymn, “Thy my true Father and I thy true son” and I never volunteered at church as the roles open to me were serving potluck or helping out in the nursery or Sunday school rooms. Only recently I conceived of the unmet possibilities I overlooked if I had been volunteering in the place where my unique talents would be maximized; delivering a message from the pulpit.
This shift in my consciousness feels kind of rebellious at times and downright heretical at other moments, as I am challenging some important religious and cultural norms. Scared of being scolded, the little girl with dirt under her fingernails squirms and begs me to clean up for church, not cause trouble for the status quo. Yet, then I go back to my roots, my deep inner knowing, that no doctrine or dogma can dismiss. I was born a girl. I identify as a feminine creature. I am God’s and made in Her image. When I dance, laugh, and play, and when I connect with the Earth and sky, I am inhabiting and expressing my own divineness. When I am out playing in nature and feeling the breath of God on me, I am exhilarated to tap into God with me as Feminine, spurring my creativity and passion. Still, other times I need God to be the archetype of a Papa and a good Daddy, masculine, other, and protective, and I will call out to Him and find safety in the shadow of His wings. I get the sense as I keep growing closer to God that She doesn’t really care what I call him/her. The pronouns are a human thing, not a Divine Love thing and I wasn’t given this life to ascribe to a set of beliefs and ideals about who She/ He is, or rigid rules about what I must call my Creator. But rather, I am being made to co-create, live this one wild beautiful vibrant life, and to invite others to live theirs.
In this tumultuous and delightful waking up, it has become apparent that there is a third expression of God as well, not like the other two, outside of me, but one within me. Like the other two, this spirit within never leaves. As I practice the presence of this Divine God within me, I tap into the beautiful, powerful, creative kind soul that I am. I have access to healing mine and other’s wounds, seeing deep truths that are hidden if one isn’t paying attention, and feeling my connectedness to all people and all of creation. Imagine my surprise when I first noticed I was circling back to the teachings that I once received in the church pew that first taught me all of this. This isn’t heretical after all. That is where I learned that God was three beings in one, a trinity, they said. I learned that Man and Woman were created in God’s image and so I was deeply loved because that meant I was created in God’s own image. I learned that Jesus came and walked the earth to show us that God was with us and for us not against us. I learned that when Jesus left his friends to go to Heaven, he said it was better for him not to be with them because he would send a guide that would always be with us. That is that third presence within, I knew I sensed it. It makes room for seeking God in a house of worship or by a mountain stream, finding wisdom in a book or in my own self, finding God within each person I meet or in the stars in the night sky. I am seeing every moment as Holy. A book couldn’t tell it to me to make it as true as I know by my felt experience. None the less, I am glad it is written down somewhere so someday my boys can go back and see it right there in black and white. However, I suspect that they won’t need that to know it’s true, I hear them outside singing too.