Words matter - even the ones we use when we talk about God – or perhaps especially the ones we use to talk about God. Meg Lassiat from The United Methodist Church’s General Commission on the Status and Role of Women discusses how words can limit or expand our relationship with God and how Scripture points us to a broader understanding of who God is.
Guest: Meg Lassiat
- Lassiat is director of resource development and training at the General Commission on the Status of Role of Women for The United Methodist Church.
- Discover more about the resource titled "God of the Bible."
- Check out this link for resources from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
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This episode posted on September 15, 2023.
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Words matter. Even the ones we use when we talk about God or maybe especially the ones we use to talk about God. Meg Lassiat from the United Methodist Church's General Commission on the status and role of women discusses how words can limit or expand our relationship with God and how scripture points us to a broader understanding of who God is.
Crystal: Meg, welcome to “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
Meg: Hi, thanks. It's good to be here.
Crystal: I'm really happy that you're here too. We're going to talk today about a topic that I think that we maybe we need to be talking about in the church, and that's the use of expansive language when we discuss God. So I'm excited about this conversation, but before we get started, I want to talk about your role with The United Methodist Church. You are the director of resource development and training at the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Tell us about that job.
Meg: The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women is an agency, one of the general agencies of the church and our mission, our vision, our discipline mandate really is to challenge the church for the full participation of women in the life and leadership at all levels of the church for decision-making, for building policy, for sitting at those tables and contributing to the conversation. About a year ago, GCSRW made a decision that they wanted to up their game, so to speak, on some of the resources that we have. Our resources have been developed over time and as the world has changed and the church has changed, we wanted to update platforms and update the kind of information that we are sharing with the church. So they created this position and I joined the staff on actually September 1st, 2022. So I coordinate and facilitate conversations around resource development, how we can get our material out to broader audiences and how we can update our material to be more relevant for what the church needs today.
Crystal: And you developed this resource about using more expansive language when discussing God of the Bible. And I learned about this resource when we were both together this past summer at the Youth 2023 event that Discipleship Ministries held and you were a workshop leader on this topic. So I guess maybe just to get started, why was there a need for a resource to discuss and teach other people, teach us in the church how to consider using more expansive language and maybe we should back up and what does that mean using more expansive language?
Meg: One way I like to think about it, words matter and the words that we use are reflections of our understanding of our concepts. They express our ideas, they help us communicate with how we understand others and our relationships with others. So as humans, obviously we are limited by the words that we use. We are limited by the languages that we can speak. What that also means is the way that we approach God or can understand or be in a relationship with God is naturally going to be limited by the languages that we understand or the languages that we use, particularly in reference to God. So the more we can incorporate the vastness that is given to us in the Bible, the vastness of who God is, the mystery of who God is, the deeper I think we can move in our own faith, walk in our understanding of God.
Crystal: A lot of us who grew up in the church or maybe didn't grow up in the church, but talking about God in our culture, our society, we tend to use male pronouns such as “he” and “him.” Why is that?
Meg: Well, you're right. We learned this as children. Most languages are structured off of a male construct. The church over the ages has been developed around male leadership, male language to express that leadership and then out of that a male understanding of who God is. Our society tends to lean that way. I don't think though that that's where God wants us to stay in our understanding of who God is. It does take a conscious effort to relearn this pattern of speech. You're not going to wake up one morning and all of a sudden start referring to God is she or they or he. I mean we learned this over time. So these are habits and it takes some relearning. So this God of the Bible resource was put into place or developed to help people learn what some different images of God are that are already scripturally based already there for our use and our reference. And then to maybe when you're learning a new language, it takes a little bit of courage to speak those words the first time and see how they'll be received. So this also provides a safe setting where people can start to play around or learn what they are familiar with in the ways that they express God. They can do that in a safe space, in a small group or through some self-study and then begin to incorporate that language into their daily faith.
Crystal: Meg, as you were studying and researching and developing this resource, what were some Scriptures you found that most surprised you in the way that God was referred to?
Meg: I want to take one step back just to tell you how we got to the evolution of where we are today with this resource. GCSRW originally developed this in 2017. They commissioned a group of women, writers and editors to put this together and their goal was to help people expand on their understanding of God. What we launched in the summer of 23 was moving the resource from assembly paper downloadable P D F into an online format that's much more interactive, that includes video, updated images. We've tweaked it a little bit so it can be available for individual study. So the content was developed in 2017 and given that now after the pandemic, we are all much more comfortable attending Zoom meetings and online lessons. We wanted to format it to make it more fit how people might use it today. So just to give you a little bit of background on how we got to where we are today,
Crystal: Thank you for sharing that. And we will link to the resource on the episode page. So this resource was designed, it could be used by individuals, it could be used in small groups, Sunday school classes, a lot of variety of applications.
Meg: Absolutely. And recently we used, one of our staff members used it in a retreat setting, so it could be done over a two or three day retreat. I think it's applicable for anyone as old as mid youth, up through adults probably is where you'll be able to engage the material.
Crystal: And even though the work of GCSRW focuses on women, this is not a resource that's only for women.
Meg: Oh, definitely not. This is a resource for anybody who is interested in expanding their understanding and using inclusive language to talk about God and faith. Absolutely. Okay,
Crystal: Great. So what did you learn that might've surprised you when you were learning about how scripture talks about God?
Meg: I found there are so many meaningful passages in scripture that get us beyond only male language for God. Scripture as early as Genesis one in the image of God, the first creation story tells us in the image of God, we are created male and female, we are created. So that to me, in the very first chapter of the Bible, we are seeing a God who is broader and bigger and more vast than we are. Isaiah 66 talks about the image of God as a midwife. Proverbs eight teaches us about the importance of wisdom in making up God's being and refers to wisdom using feminine pronouns. Matthew 27, when Jesus is lamenting over Jerusalem and he wants to gather all the people from Jerusalem back in, he talks about the image of a mother head as she gathers her chicks. For me, I think one of the most meaningful ways is where God is revealed to Moses in scripture.
Meg: And when Moses asks God what God's name is, the response is,” I am who I am.” Also translate it as “I will be what I will be.” So those are a lot of images right there that not only don't talk about gender, they talk about the vastness of God and you can go on. There are images of God as a tiger and God as a bear and God as a flowing fountain. All these images are throughout Scripture and in the God of the Bible resource. As you study through that, there are images of Scripture throughout the resource for participants to talk about, think about journal about whatever makes sense for that lesson.
Crystal: When I've had conversations with folks about using or not using only male pronouns for God, sometimes it's because someone brings some trauma, they've had some trauma in their lives and thinking of God only with these male constructs, that's just a barrier for them. Is that part of this conversation?
Meg: There are places that we touch on this. This is not, this resource isn't based out of addressing traumatic backgrounds or traumatic circumstances in people's lives. But one of the chapters that comes to mind is chapter on how God nurtures and parents and supports us. And in that chapter we do ask people to think about how they were raised, images of people they knew, whether friends or family that were either helpful for them in understanding in talking about God or images that may have been more hurtful. People certainly are invited into the conversation, but we do not assume that this is a place where a traumatic background would have to be brought into the conversation.
Crystal: And that's not the only reason someone would want to start thinking about using a more expansive vocabulary for God.
Meg: Oh, absolutely not yet at the heart of it for me, I believe it can help us expand our faith, expand our understanding of God and deepen our relationship with God and ultimately how we serve God and serve others.
Crystal: We are talking about this word “expansive” to talk about how we increase the ways we speak of God. I guess the term limited. We could use that to reference how most of us talk about God. So how does using the limited terms kind of the reverse of what you're doing, how does that limit our understanding of God?
Meg: I think that goes back a little bit to what I was saying earlier about how our words are a reflection of what's going on in our mind and how we relate to the world. So by nature, we're going to be limited just through the language that we use. God doesn't want us to stop there. You have to start somewhere. And through education and training and conversation and spiritual growth, you can get to the place where God wants us to be. And so that's why one reason I think if we can move beyond this limited language, we can also move beyond our limited understanding of faith and how we live out that faith. So this question when I was reflecting on this before our conversation today, are you familiar with the Hidden Brain podcast? There's a podcast, it's put out by National Public Radio and Shankar Vedeantam is the host and it's Hidden Brain. And he talks about one of his episodes way back in, I looked at it in 2018, talked about languages. And this quote for me is very meaningful for this conversation too. Languages are shaped by the way people see the world, but they also shape how people see the world. So languages, the way I understand that is languages are connection to the world and it connects the inside of what we're thinking with our external relationships with people, friends, neighbors, and how we relate to others and also our relationship with God. So now I'm rambling.
Crystal: That's so interesting and I was going to ask you, can you give us an example maybe based on the training of an exercise or something that we might do that would get us started in maybe being more intentional about substituting pronouns or just using a different word? How do we start this?
Meg: Okay. We use a lot of imagery as a way to start the conversation in one of our lessons. Session four for example is called God of All Creation. And as you scroll through that lesson, we begin by inviting people to think about images of God as water, how water is essential for life and how you might see God in that. We talk about how stained glasses in churches tell stories of faith and invite people to reflect on images that they have grown up with or experienced that have helped them to experience faith. We talk about how God created earth and animals and ask questions like what amazes you the most about God's creation? And then through this scripture study, there are images we pull out images of God is a rock, God is an eagle, God is a lion or bear or a fountain or light. And we point people to what their scripture passages are, ask them to read them, reflect on them, and to start pulling examples from their own life of when they've seen God in this way. That's one way that we get the conversation started.
Crystal: I think about this Meg, and it feels uncomfortable. I mean there's a part of me that's like, is it disrespectful? Am I not reflecting the holiness of God if I start using different languages or different terms rather? Can you talk about that for just a minute, how we kind of cross what would be kind of a speed bump for me?
Meg: Sure, I get it. And that's one reason why the study is really centered in Scripture. We really want people to have a broader understanding of what the Bible has already given to us. This isn't something that we're inventing, that these aren't new names that haven't been used before. These really are scripturally based ways that we talk about God. And then earlier I speak about this much Spanish, right? And I know this whole, but I know basic words in Spanish and every now and then I will be in an encounter with someone who is Spanish speaking and I'll try to say something so I can maybe communicate with that person in a different way and it scares me to death. What am I going to sound like? How's my English accent going to carry through to speaking Spanish? Am I going to say something wrong? And I think the question you're asking reminds me of that kind of analogy.
Meg: So that's why when we can do this kind of study in small groups and start practicing that language in a place that's safe until it feels more like it's a natural language for you to use, then it is going to take a little bit of courage and you're going to have to step out and do it. But hopefully the practice in the small groups and the repetition can set you up for that time where you want to use some different language or introduce some different imagery perhaps into a conversation or a prayer or a Bible study that you are leading in your church or youth group or anything. And we do have time. There's intentionality at the end of this study for participants to name new names that are meaningful for them, for God and to state, I think I'll try to do this this way, so we build up the language, give people a chance to state their intentionality and give them that support that they need as they're getting used to this.
Crystal: Why do we need to do this as the church? Why do we need to be even having these conversations?
Meg: I think because the churches are reflection of who we can best be as the people of God. If the church would be who God wants us to be, we can be a beautiful reflection of who God has created us to be and call us to be. And to me that means having as much diversity, as much inclusivity, as many different kinds of people and faces and names and gifts at that table, and when half of our population is female and a hundred percent of our language about God is male, what kind of message does that send to girls and women who are also called to live in the image of God and to be who that is created and to be?
Crystal: It seems like that this can be taking on these different, well, to use your term expansive language, taking that on and using that and becoming comfortable with that can be so transformative for our understanding of who God is but also for our connection to God.
Meg: I believe that's true. We've talked about how language is the conduit between our understanding of who God is and how we relate to God. I would hope in our spiritual journeys we're constantly seeking ways to draw closer to God and we do that by one way we can do that is by expanding our understanding of who God is.
Crystal: Meg, as we finish up today, is there anything we didn't talk about that you wanted to make sure you mentioned or is there something that you wanted to talk more about and I rushed right past it for us?
Meg: No, you're fine. I think you also asked the question about why we need to do this as a church. The church is one place that leadership development can happen in a way that benefits not only what we need for church leaders, but the kind of leadership we need to be demonstrating and witnessing to the world around us. We talk about diversity, it's not only important to be as inclusive as possible, but it's also important to encourage those who come behind us. Children, youth, those who are growing into a call, they need to know, they need to experience and see people who look like them, act like them, come from the same kind of community where they come from so that they can emulate that kind of leadership. The Indiana Conference this past June, I'm a member of that. I'm an ordained deacon in the Indiana Conference and at our annual conference session last June, our local GCSRW put out a sticker and it lifted up all kinds of women in the Bible and it said things like protect like Miriam, challenge like Deborah, fear not like Mary, encourage like Elizabeth.
Meg: And the center line was lead like a woman and there were maybe three or four other Bible characters named. It's important that these stories are lifted up and honored in the same way that the stories of Moses, of David and Paul are Lee told. Because when we're pointing people a life of faith and inviting them to live into the wonder of how God has called us to live, they need to see examples along the way. They need to know that their role will be valued and honored, that they will be heard and that they can use their gifts in the most helpful way to serve Christ, to serve the church, to serve our communities, to transform the world as we say in the United Methodist Church.
Crystal: And the God of the Bible is most definitely the God of Miriam and Mary and Esther, just as the God of the Bible is the God of Moses and Paul and the men of the Bible that we hear that we tend to hear more about.
Crystal: Well, thank you Meg for this important conversation. I mean, I hadn't really thought about it until I heard of your workshop and I wanted to learn more. So it was a very self-serving reason to have you as a guest on “Get Your Spirit in Shape,” so I could learn more. So I just thank you for the ministry and that you are your ministry with GCSRW and with the whole denomination. To finish up, I am going to ask you the question that we ask all of our guests on “Get Your Spirit and Shape” and that's how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Meg: This has evolved over time and I tend to go through practices depending on what's going on in my current life. For example, during the pandemic, I made it my practice to walk a mile outside every day, no matter the weather, no matter what. And that was very helpful for me. Then currently what I'm doing that is bringing me a lot of joy is reading more. I realized during many after the pandemic, I had gotten out of reading even though it was something I really enjoyed doing. When we moved back to Indiana about a year ago, I started a book club because I wanted to challenge myself to read more. So now I'm gathering once a month with about 10 women and we're working our way through mainly fiction, uplifting books, challenging books, books based on family relationships. But I find that that is bringing me a lot of joy. And then the other thing that's really important to me is a texting group that I have with six women. We have known each other since we were three years old, since we were 10 years old. We were in junior high and senior high and college together, and we text regularly. We pray with each other and for each other regularly, and they are really a strength for me. Those would be two that I would share today. Thank you so much for asking that question.
Crystal: Thank you for sharing that. And I love that texting group idea or practice that you have. I'm really blessed by a texting group as well of six other women that I lived with in college and we do the same thing. We share prayer concerns and joys and tough days and all of that. And even though we live in different places, we can be connected in that way. So thank you for sharing that. And Meg, thank you for being a guest here today and for all that you're doing for the denomination.
Meg: Thank you for the chance to talk. I really appreciate it.
That was Meg Lassiat from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women discussing using expansive language for God of the Bible. To learn more about Meg and the work she does around this topic and other vital conversations happening in the church, go to umc.org/podcast and look for this episode where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” listeners, [email protected]. If you enjoyed today's episode, we invite you to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen. Thank you so much for joining us for “Get Your Spirit in Shape.” I'm Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.