God is a Big Brown Bear

Post author Rev. Daniel Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain and an Association of Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor.  He works at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC and is an active member at Park Road Baptist Church.  He lives with his spouse and five-year-old daughter and loves craft beer and vinyl records. Daniel blogs at Shaken Parent Syndrome

On the way to church one Sunday morning, my daughter said from the backseat:

“Daddy, can we see God?”

I had to consciously remind myself that she is five and that she did not want or need a theology lecture.  Since I never know how to answer questions like this, I use a little trick cribbed from Socratic learning techniques:

“What do you think, sweetie?” I asked her back.  “Do you think we can see God?”

“No,” she answered.

Well, there you go, straight from the mouth of a kindergartener: we cannot see God.  But the curiosity of a child is not prone to merely asking questions it already knows the answers to.

“I wish we could see God,” she said

“Maybe sometimes you can,” I shrugged.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, can you see love?”

She thought for a moment.  “No.”

“But can you see when someone is doing something loving?”


“Then maybe sometimes we can see someone doing something that God would do.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror; I could see from her expression that she wasn’t buying this.

I didn’t want this to be the end of the conversation; I wanted to rescue this conversation so she would feel as if talking about such things were ultimately a worthwhile endeavor.  “Well, if you could see God,” I asked, “what do you think God would look like?”

Without hesitation she said, “A brown bear.”

I had not seen that coming.  I’d half expected her to give me the classic WASPy child’s answer of an old man with a white beard, but instead I got a brown bear.  I couldn’t help but laugh with surprise – and not a little delight at her rich, if unintentional, subversion of stereotypical God images. 

“Is it a friendly brown bear?” I asked, suddenly struck by one possible problem with this metaphor.

She shrugged and rolled her eyes.  “Of course!”

“So you think God is a cuddly brown bear?” I summarized.  “Sounds good to me.”

After a few moments, she said, “I wish God was in the car with us.”

Again, my silly need to protect abstract theologizing overcame me and I said, “Maybe God is in the car with us.”

“Uh, no he isn’t,” she snapped, “or I would see him.”

“Oh, right,” I winced.  “Well, what would you do or say if you could see God in the car with us?”  At that thought, my own mind went straight to all the times that I, too, had wished for an audience with God.  My need for answers and explanations; my longing for an accounting of the sufferings I’ve seen; an assurance of some purpose at work beneath everything.

She looked out the window wistfully.  “I wish he was here right now so I could cuddle with him.”

I almost pulled the car over so I could let that soak in for a moment.  I pictured my child wrapped warmly in the protective arms of a fuzzy brown bear, no need for answers or explanations or assurances beyond warmth and presence.  My eyes filled with tears.

“That would be really wonderful,” I said after clearing my throat.  “Maybe sometimes God sends us other people who will cuddle us.  Maybe that’s how God cuddles with us, by bringing us other people who love us and cuddle us and look out for us.”

She frowned and continued to stare out the window; going abstract just wasn’t getting us anywhere.  She asked me more questions about God.  How does God eat?  How can God be in all places at once?  Where does God live?  All questions of concrete curiosity about this strange thing called God.  I answered as best I could, trying to avoid abstractions, and probably saying more about what I didn’t know.

My child is a concrete thinker.  It’s her job; it’s what her brain is built to do right now.  Intellectually, there are a lot of things in this world that are impossible to fully comprehend only from the concrete: love, hope, peace, God.  However, there is something really grounding and embodied about letting my child lead me into the concrete realities of these things.  Because I can philosophize about the nature of God all day long, but my real experiences of the divine are things I’ve felt in my gut and in my bones.  I’ve read a lot of books about emotions and love and passion, but the things I truly believe about the nature of love come from the ways I have been loved, and the only ways I’ve ever been loved are by people doing things for me in concrete, real, experienced ways.

I have no idea where God lives or what propels God’s existence or even what God is on any basic ontological level.  (Sorry, theology professors who taught me in seminary.)  I do know, however, that when I joined my child’s image of God – imagining with her how much she’d love to have a big teddy bear snuggle and protect her – that I felt close to God in that moment.  I felt warmth in my chest, felt a twinge of longing in my gut, felt the tears come to my eyes.  Those were all concrete experiences even if they came from trying to ponder abstractions.

It is essential that we have images for God.  We are imaginative creatures who make meaning through stories and symbols.  How can we understand a thing like the divine without the stories of scripture and our own lives?  Without the taste of bread and wine among friends?  Without the cleansing coolness of water or the sweet smell of oil and incense?  Without the hands of parents or the laughter of friends or the exhilaration of air in our lungs and sunlight on our cheeks?  I overlook all the concrete experiences that inform my understanding of God’s presence in favor of the vast and arcane theological arguments, but it is impoverishing for me to do so.  My child has no choice but to live in the concreteness of her life and it would do me good to join her.

A significant concrete experience of her life is living in her body.  Toes and fingers and curly hair and yes, the things that lead her and those around her to identify her as a girl.  Even though inclusive language is a theological concept adhered to with strict discipline in both our household and our church, she has still absorbed the tendency to speak of the divine with masculine pronouns.  For now, I don’t correct her; the abstractions of gender and language don’t seem particularly illuminating without the capacity for formal operational thinking.  But she sees a woman in the pulpit every Sunday morning at our church.  For the ways in which she sees pastoral leadership embodied by a strong, confident, thoughtful woman, it is well worth pleading with her to sit quietly while Pastor Amy preaches.  And as a church and family, we must continue to help her see herself in the divine, as we tell stories of faithful women disciples and of God as friend, Spirit, mother, midwife, sister.  As she uses the concrete world around her to learn to imagine, her mother and I want her to include as vast an array of images as possible in her make-up of divine possibilities: women, bears, and anything else she can dream up.

Of course, she is learning to experience the abstract through the concrete, even if she can’t yet comprehend it.  I’m thankful that she has people in her life who will cuddle and hold her and protect her and encourage her.  I’m thankful that she has food to eat and a bed to sleep in and shoes for her feet.  Her concrete experiences of care and provision will help her trust a God who seeks goodness and blessing for everyone.  And I’m thankful that she in turn can remind me of the concreteness of goodness.  Not just so I can get in touch with my own blessings, of which I have experienced many, but also that I might seek to be a concrete good for others.  Goodness – indeed, Godness – comes in many, many forms.



Not So Fast...The Double-Edged Sword of a Few Opportunities for Women Pastors


Post author Rev. Christine A. Smith has served as Senior Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, Euclid, Ohio, since 2006. She is the author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling:  Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors (Judson Press, 2013) and creator of Shepastor, a blog for women in ministry. Rev. Smith has been married to Aristide Smith, Jr. for 22 years.  Together they have two sons (Aristide III and Caleb) and one daughter (Aris).

More and more congregations across Protestant denominations appear to be accepting women as licensed and ordained ministers.  Over the past two years, ABC USA saw the hiring of at least 6 women to serve as executive ministers in regions across America.  Recently, the historic Riverside Church in New York called a woman pastor.  Increasing numbers of churches have women serving as associate ministers.

Many seminaries have enrollments comprised of approximately 50% women. We are on our way, so it would appear.  But not so fast…

While it may seem that the struggle for women clergy is over, data proves otherwise. According to a 2015 Duke University study on the number of women serving as senior/solo pastors, the number still lingers at 11%.

In the article, “How Thick is the Stained Glass Ceiling?,” Heather Hahn writes:

Even as U.S. congregations become more ethnically diverse, a new analysis of Duke University’s National Congregations Study shows that women hold only a small minority of those faith communities’ top leadership positions.

Women serve as senior or solo pastoral leaders of just 11 percent of U.S. congregations — indicating essentially no overall increase from when the study was first done in 1998. These women-led communities contain only about 6 percent of the people who attend the nation’s religious services.

Yes, we have seen advancement in the number of women being called to and placed in senior/solo pastor positions, but the advancement is minimal and at a snail’s pace.  The fact that we can name the women indicates their scarcity. 

While the image of women serving in the pulpit is a welcomed picture, it can also be a double-edged sword.   With the advancement of a precious few women to the role of senior/solo pastor, some are developing a perspective that the struggle is over. With the increase of churches licensing and ordaining women, women serving in the role of associate minister is also on the rise.  Congregations who have one, two or more female associate ministers may truly struggle to understand the issue simply because they see women in the pulpit.

The stained glass ceiling, however, remains.  Statistics show that 89% of the time, Protestant churches pass over clergywomen and instead select a man for the top ministerial role.  In light of these daunting factors, what can advocates for women clergy do to change the current trend?  Below are some practical suggestions…

  • Retiring male pastors can help prepare their congregations to be open to God’s best… 3-5 years before their retirement, male pastors who are advocates for women clergy can spend time encouraging their congregations to be open to God’s best for them, regardless of gender.  Through sound biblical teaching, giving women opportunities to serve in prominent leadership roles, and open, honest dialogue, male pastors can plant seeds of receptivity among otherwise resistant lay people.
  • Denominational leaders can work with regional executives and elders to conduct workshops, provide resources (books, articles, guest speakers, etc.), and offer educational experiences to local pastoral search committees…  Whether churches have the “call” process or the “appointment” process, providing resources to church leaders that will help them to choose God’s best, regardless of gender, could be very beneficial for all concerned.
  • Develop a “Lead Pastor” project for women who feel called to pastor… The United Methodist Church developed a special program designed to pair women clergy called to pastor with women currently serving in the lead pastoral role.  The clergywomen shadowed/interned the lead pastor for a period of time.  This gave the clergywomen exposure and experience in leading larger congregations—a critical factor in creating opportunities for women who are often passed over due to lack of experience. (Read more about this endeavor here.)  Other denominations can develop a similar approach to increase opportunities for women pastors.

The aforementioned suggestions will not answer all of the issues related to the dearth of women pastors.  However, such efforts will advance the work to get beyond the stained glass ceiling!

Daring to Reach Out

Post author Lynn Casteel Harper is an interfaith chaplain, Alliance of Baptists minister, and writer living in Greenville, South Carolina.  She is currently working on a book about spirituality and dementia. 

On May 17, 1968, in front of the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland, nine activists burned draft files, using homemade napalm, in protest of the Vietnam War.  Among the Catonsville Nine (all of whom were arrested) was Daniel Berrigan—Roman Catholic priest, peace activist, and poet.  As he walked in handcuffs on his way to trial, a young nun, Berrigan’s close friend, reached out her hand to him in a gesture of solidarity.  A federal agent descended on them, in what Berrigan describes as “a swift, reptilian move,” and crashed down between their hands with a karate blow.  “Don’t touch!” the officer barked.  Reflecting on the episode, Berrigan writes: 

It was the epitome of the system…Don’t touch—make war.  Don’t touch—be abstract about God and death and life and love.  Don’t touch—make war at a distance.  Don’t touch your enemies, except to destroy them.  Don’t touch…

Forty-seven years later, the “don’t touch” system persists.  It permeates our lives through all the forces that suppress whatever is true, honorable, and just.  Don’t touch—keep a safe distance from problems.  Don’t touch—violence toward women and people of color isn’t that big of a problem.  Don’t touch—keep your faith personal and private, nice and quiet.  Don’t touch—leave well enough alone.  Don’t touch—leave undisturbed the powers and principalities of the status quo.  Don’t touch—you can’t change much anyway.

“Don’t touch” rears its defeatist head in our faith communities.  True, churchgoers are probably not karate-chopping joined hands with swift, reptilian moves.  Rather an ethos of apathy toward injustice weaves its threads through the fabric of our communal lives.  Seemingly benign forms of “don’t touch” abound in the church, especially with respect to race and gender.  Maybe some of these lines sound familiar:    

  • Most people in our church support women in ministry, but we’ve just always had male pastors.  
  • We ordain women.  They serve as deacons in our church and as guest preachers on occasion. We do more than other churches in our town.
  • Our church is mostly white, but we welcome everyone.  Race is not a problem here.
  • Our worship styles are too different, so it just wouldn’t work to come together.
  • Race and gender aren’t topics of conversation at our church.  Those issues were settled a long time ago.  
  • We don’t want to get too political here.  It’s not worth creating controversy or losing members. 
  • If we just focus on following Jesus, injustices and inequalities will resolve themselves.
  • We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

These sentiments—which are often tacitly held rather than directly expressed—function to keep intact the status quo.  They reduce the rolling, rushing waters of justice to an anemic drip. They do nothing to counteract the underrepresentation of women in pastorates and pulpits; they do nothing to undermine de facto white privilege.  To do nothing, to risk nothing, is the essence of “don’t touch.” 

In the midst of such moral-ethical-spiritual stagnation, a new vision is emerging: Equity for Women in the Church, Inc. is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.

To the forces of “don’t touch,” Equity for Women in the Church responds, “REACH OUT!  Risk touching and transforming faith communities and society!  Dare to imagine a new way of being the church!”  While the vision may seem idealistic at first blush, it makes good sense.  How natural (though not easy) for those who have been historically pushed to the edges of community life—women and minorities—to come together and forge faith communities across denominational and gender and ethnicity lines.   

In the Gospels, the woman who had suffered from hemorrhages serves as a good guide on this “reaching out” journey.  In the midst of a large crowd that pressed in on Jesus, she fights her way to him and dares to touch him, if even the fringe of his robe.  To receive healing, she reaches from the fringes to the fringes.  Feeling power “go out” from him, Jesus calls the woman out from the multitudes.  Instead of scolding her for her audacity, he holds her up as exemplary: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”  This woman’s bold faith compels her to reach out, to hope for restoration, and to take hold of healing.  She defies the “don’t touch” forces that seek to hold her back.  Might we be so courageous?

This gospel story shows the healing power of touch, but we know that not all touch is life-giving.  We are painfully aware how touch can turn violent and violating, which is why we need just visions that seek to restore the sanctity of touch.  A just vision calls us to reach out in compassion, to extend the self in the service of truth and love, and to make ploughshares of swords.  The vision of Equity for Women in the Church calls us to touch in an effort to heal—to make well the sicknesses of thought and deed that prevent a more global, more complete vision of the gospel.  It is a touch that ultimately communicates peace.

The challenges to implementing such a transformative vision are many.  It means resisting a cheap unity, which flattens out real differences and silences discomforting voices.  It means developing relationships—not by avoiding the tough stuff—but in and through the dangers, toils, and snares.  It means approaching my own wounds and the wounds of others with equal reverence.  It requires “diving into the wreck”—to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich—and entering deeply into the stories (and histories) of our messy lives.  And especially for persons in dominant groups, it means serious, unblinking self-examination and critique—undergirded by an acute historical awareness of the legacy of white supremacy and male privilege.  

If all this seems too daunting, too impossible—well, that’s because it is.  It is a kin-dom vision, which means it is impossible to manage or administrate into existence.  It is impossible to contain or control—which is what makes the vision one of faith and not one of corporate expediency.  After all, the wind of the Spirit blows where she pleases.  

But let us make no mistake: while the vision cannot be micromanaged and bullet-pointed into reality, it does require intentionality, spiritual discipline, and good practices.  It calls on individuals and communities to make real commitments and to take concrete actions.  Without such intentionality, it is far too easy to default to a comfortable church-social club hybrid…and to roll back out the same ole “Don’t Touch” signs.

For Berrigan, the karate-chopping officer’s “don’t touch” epitomized a violent, impersonal system.  As I search for models for a transformed church and society—marked by courage, justice, and the pursuit of healing—Bree Newsome comes to mind.  On June 27, ten days after the terrorist attack in Charleston, Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina capitol and cut down the Confederate flag.  “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer,” she said.  “We can’t continue like this another day.”  

She refused the status quo.  She defied the “don’t touch” forces that say “just be patient,” “don’t rock the boat,” “wait another day.”  She dared to reach out (quite literally!), to cut down injustice, and to claim a greater vision.  May we possess a similar clarity of vision and audacity of action. 

Connect with Lynn at: lynncasteelharper.wordpress.com.