Thirty years ago, I belonged to a Presbyterian church in Oakland, California. The congregation was mostly elderly. When Pastor Carl asked us to stand, he added, “If you are able.” This church had an intimate atmosphere created by lifelong Christians comfortable with their faith. I enjoyed the short walk from my home to the one Sunday service. It was nice to worship with all the members at the same time.
Every voice counted in that small congregation, so I always tried to lend my voice as unobtrusively as possible to the congregational singing. My voice has never been good, but I love to sing hymns. The words seem to mean more when I sing them with the group.
One of my friends had a lovely voice, so I’d try to sit near her and softly follow her vocal lead. Myrna was a lay person, but she had earned a master’s degree in religious studies. Except for her voice, nothing much about her stood out. She kept her opinions about many things to herself, except when asked, or when we sang.
Most of our hymns were old favorites. Pastor Carl occasionally tried to introduce more contemporary music into worship, but with little success. Myrna had her own plan of modernization. She changed the words of the hymns to more inclusive language.
This really confused me at times when I was trying to follow her musical lead. I can’t remember the precise changes she made, but I was taken aback the first time I realized what she was doing. Gradually, I got used to her changes. I don’t recall whether I kept the traditional words or changed along with her. Maybe I did a little of both.
This was my first introduction to more inclusive language in worship, both in reference to God and to human beings. Initially, I regarded it as Myrna’s personal statement, but as I saw and heard inclusive language appear more often in worship, I learned to appreciate it.
Myrna was a low-key pioneer. She never pressed her opinions on others. Her thoughts were always spoken quietly. I loved her gentle spirit, and respected her insights.
In the past, I’ve had mixed feelings about changing the traditional words. Expressions like “God’s self” grated on me. Sprinkling in “her” or “their” to balance out “him” and “his” seemed awkward. I was slow to learn the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer.
Gradually, I’ve understood the need for inclusive language in worship. The way we talk about God affects our interior life. My image of God changes with the pronouns I use.
Sometimes my picture of God as “he” is defined by the image in the Sistine Chapel of God creating Adam. It’s a beautiful work of art, but it can limit the imagination.
A father God may prompt images of a judge weighing my deeds and finding me wanting. Sometimes I need a mother God. Sometimes I need a Holy Spirit God that is less a person and more a feeling.
I think we benefit from getting pushed a little outside our comfort zone in our religious experiences. Tradition is important to give us common patterns of worship and prayer, but we shouldn’t cling to it with desperate intensity. We need to let some new thoughts and ways in. We can remember our traditions and sing a new song.
Let us pray...
May we open our imagination to different ways of perceiving God. May we be ready to see both the male and female aspects of the Divine Presence. And may we sometimes let a little change into the words of our beloved worship songs.