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Why Using “He” in Worship Could Be Hurting More People Than You Think by Erin S. Lane

“Give me one moment while I have a conniption fit,” I cautioned Rush. We had been fine a few minutes earlier, talking about a worship service he was planning for his youth group. Our friend Will, who would be leading music with him, had just spent an hour picking and strumming and singing in our living room. I apologized to Rush for being a hermit and not coming out of the bedroom to say hello, but there was no bad blood between us. Not until he mentioned a particular song he was planning to sing.

Sunday worship is the hardest hour of my week. And it’s not because I’m an introvert who often sits alone. Nor is it because I have trouble hearing God in a service that relies so heavily on words, words, and more words. Sunday worship is the hardest hour of my week because it’s the one in which I show up begging to get a glimpse of God’s abundance and leave feeling a little less human. It’s the one where I worship a God who is always a he.

“You’re singing the jealous song?” I asked, actively working on my tone. Rush tells me my tone is often off-the-charts awful. I tell him maybe he’s tone deaf. Either way, I wanted to play nice with my partner.

“And that’s the song that says something like, ‘He loves like a hurricane and we bend like a tree under his wind and mercy?’”

By now Rush could tell something was festering because I was trying too hard and trying too hard was the telltale sign. Something did not fit.

Let me dispel your fears that I am looking to make God into my image. I am not. But I expect this happens to us, men and women alike, from time to time. We are, after all, talking about God, the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8.). No, I am looking to worship the God of reality, from whom the image of both male and female and everyone in between was patterned. Genesis assures us of this much. God is not some neutered, gender-less spirit in the sky. Rather, God is more than, higher than, fuller than our human thoughts and ways of gender. I’ve come to believe that we worship a gender-full God.

This belief makes worshiping such a God rather, well, complicated. While most mainline Protestants I come across agree with me that God is neither male nor female, the majority is unwilling to change the lyrics of modern-day music to reflect said reality. One former pastor assured me that I was free to change the lyrics myself, singing God for every he, God’s self for every himself. I told him this didn’t seem to be the point of worship considering the biblical mandate that we be of one mind and spirit (Phil 2:2.) Shouldn’t we at least be able to be of one lyric?

So, I asked Rush, kindly I thought, “What do you think about changing the lyrics of that song? To be honest, singing about a nameless he—even if it is meant to be Jesus—kind of reminds me of a domestic violence situation. I mean, we bend beneath his weight like a hurricane?” I thought about the recent statistics I’d read in which one in every four women is expected to experience domestic violence in her life time. Was it safe to assume one in every four women sitting in church might experience the same? Was it possible worship leaders did not know this, did not know one of these women?

It had happened before, in perfectly polite churches, too. I’d be singing a hymn when all of a sudden a word would get caught in my mouth and come choking out. “Did that just say the Spirit molests us?” I’d whisper to Rush. “Who thought that’d be appropriate to sing in church these days?” It’s not that I didn’t believe these songwriters had good intentions when they wrote the lyrics. I just wondered if they knew how the words from their heart might fall on the heart of a woman.

“Erin,” he said to me sitting in our bedroom now, “I just don’t think this worship service is the time to make the change.”

It was never the time. Not once had I ever talked to a male pastor who really heard me when I said it wasn’t about political correctness or even linguistic equality but about the need to discern as Christian brothers and sisters what is good and right and lovely to meditate on (Phil 4:8) and what is just plain unhelpful, even wounding. In my memory, Christ never worked via majority rule. He favored the few in the pew.

Now comes the conniption part.

If I couldn’t convince my husband, partner, and woman-loving-pastor to risk change, then what business did I have thinking I could influence anyone else to do the same? And if a sensitive wife like me with her own story of sexual abuse wasn’t reason enough for a man to be moved, then what was?

Within seconds, I transformed from purposefully placid into a whirlwind of cuss words and snot. And he let me. He let me lay out all the things I’ve laid out here. And he didn’t even have to pretend to look kind.

“And I know people say we should at least be able to keep the he’s that refer to Jesus,”—sniffle, snort—“but, honestly, I’m not even sure that that’s orthodox because isn’t Jesus now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven”—wheeze—“and, if so, shouldn’t we really only be calling him a he when we’re singing Christmas carols”—big inhale now—“and about other pre-resurrection stuff?” I paused and looked at his face, cocked gently to one side. “But we can talk theology another time.”

Exhale.

“I just don’t know why you won’t change the lyrics from he to you. Isn’t it more meaningful anyway to sing to God rather than about God?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, leaning toward me and wrapping his palm around mine. “OK?”

I thought back to something I learned in graduate school. It was the personal nature of kinship metaphors that distinguished the Judeo-Christian tradition from neighboring religions. And so we do a disservice to this tradition when we remove personal pronouns altogether from our language. I’ve always thought that a messy combination of pronouns and metaphors and titles may be the fullest way to express a God whose reality is beyond measure. My medieval sister Julian of Norwich is masterful in this kind of expression, writing,

As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything, I am he the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and grace which is all blessed love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the unity; I am he, the supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who makes you to long; I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.

Even if she does rely solely on the masculine pronoun, there is a fountain of mystery bubbling over her words.

I often hear older feminists lament the fact that we’re still debating language for the divine. But it doesn’t surprise me. After all, St. Augustine took God’s name “I am who I am” to approximate “being itself.” All words then are merely portals for transporting Christians into the Kingdom Reality where we are one with each other as God was one with Christ (John 17:21). Should a portal get blocked from time to time, for the sake of unity, we have a duty to consider our part in un-clogging it.

After all, the stories of our fellow worshipers in the pew matter. They should shape our evolving language for worship, even as we build on years of tradition together. Later, when I learned the story behind that song which I had had so much trouble singing, my heart immediately softened. Here was another person with a wounded heart.

I ended up going to that worship service Rush led for his youth group. I sang along with him and Will and the teenagers around me. And when it got to the song in question, the lyrics had been changed.

“You love me. O, how you love me,” I wailed long into the night, and I couldn’t remember feeling more full.

And more in love.