More Than We Have Imagined: When God Is Like a Mother

By Lee Ann M. Pomrenke

It is universally acknowledged that the images we hear, speak, and sing in church shape how we understand God. Metaphors are the best we have to describe how we relate to the unfathomable God of All. Father, mother, friend, or ruler are only metaphors, not statements of fact. Yet they are the ones we use to mold our imaginations.

For example, Christianity has for many centuries leaned so heavily on the metaphor of God as father—which Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere—that the default picture of God in the imaginations of many Christians is an older man with the propensity to act as judge or disciplinarian and who remains at some emotional and physical distance from us. Whether or not that describes your father or the father you are trying to be, the cultural assumptions of such roles are deeply ingrained.

But is God only like a father—and only in the ways we recognize?

Like a Mother

To pigeon-hole God does a disservice not only to God—whose reality is beyond all genders and human roles—but also to us, who tend to value more the people who resemble the roles and characteristics we associate with God.

Womb of Life and Source of Being, ACS 948

For a long time in many branches of Christianity, the ordained office of ministry was not open to women. If the phrases “mothering God” or “God our mother” were repeated often in scripture, the trends in church leadership were different.

Yet the Bible—and Christian art and music—are not bereft of descriptions of God behaving as mother, even if the explicit word or phrase is not prevalent.

One way to correct our course from facing so far in one direction is to listen to and truly see what those who mother do and recognize those behaviors in God’s actions. I know that all who are intimately involved caregivers changed by the experience—my definition of “mothering”—reflect God’s commitment to humanity.

Now imagine a generation growing up in congregations where God is referred to regularly with both feminine and masculine images and pronouns.

Who can be a case study for us? Whom are we already scrutinizing for their relative oddity among us?

Clergy mothers, of course. Our concepts of God and the clergy are already enmeshed, so perhaps we can embrace that for a moment and see God through the lives of clergy women.

In my book Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, 2020), I narrated a collection of behaviors I knew were part of my role as church leader and as mother, like two sides of the same coin: incessant waiting, divided attention, emotional labor, and much more.

As frequent targets of congregants’ transference of emotions about their own mothering figures or lack thereof, clergy women also find ourselves poised to address a favorite metaphor of insular congregations: “this church is like a family.”

That might be so. But claiming that without examining it prevents us from realizing what unhealthy family behaviors we have been passing down too. Clergy mothers are uniquely positioned to call a “family meeting” and reframe how we choose to portray ourselves in the world. What a gift this self-examination can be to the church!

Developing Our Imaginations

Now imagine a generation growing up in congregations where God is referred to regularly with both feminine and masculine images and pronouns. People hear and call upon an expansive God from the pulpit and in classrooms, in small groups and in songs. The value of equity among leadership becomes embedded in our metaphors.

Our view of God expands as well. As I unpack how much give-and-take there is in a mothering relationship—so that the parent as well as the child is changed by it—then we must ask this.

Is God also changeable? Is God also transformed by relationship with us?

If so, the incarnation means something different than satisfying a debt to a disciplinarian God. There are also—most certainly—the cringe-worthy illustrations of intimate caregiving in my life and in God’s behaviors that must be uncovered. Anger flares up so quickly and powerfully when the same children into whom we have poured ourselves then disobey us. Might we develop empathy for God as we acknowledge our shared experiences?

Now comes the moment when we take these metaphors of a mothering God—and our commitment as mothering church leaders—out into the world. In the final chapter in my book I note that, “I am convinced that the skills and passions honed by raising children are not meant to stay within our narrow definitions of family.” Nor can a more expansive, vulnerable, transformed image of God stay within the church.

If we trust that this is how God relates with humanity, then it will change how we are willing to interact with and be changed by our siblings—all children of God—far and wide.

About the Author

Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an ELCA pastor, mother, and author. She currently works as an editor for Luther Seminary’s digital resources—Faith+Lead, Working Preacher, and Enter the Bible—and hosts Faith+Lead’s Book Hub events. Her first book is Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, Inc, 2020). She lives in northwest Ohio with her husband and two daughters, blogging occasionally at

Photo. The image at the top of the post if from the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives, across from Old City of Jerusalem. At the foot of the altar is this mosaic of a mother hen gathering her chicks. The image recalls Christ’s words in Luke 13.

Elm Ensemble to Appear at Valpo Liturgical Institute

If you can, join us in the Chapel of the Resurrection for the program, which is free and open to the public. You can also watch and listen free online. The program will be live-streamed on the Institute’s YouTube channel.

View the Bulletin for In Deepest Night: A Festival of Psalms

Watch the full In Deepest Night program on YouTube

In April, the Elm Ensemble will present “In Deepest Night: A Festival of Psalms” for Valparaiso University’s Institute of Liturgical Studies. Since 1949, the Institute has served as a source of renewal for the church’s liturgy and life through ecumenical engagement with scholarship and practical applications of creative worship planning in parish settings.

The “In Deepest Night” program explores the gamut of emotions voiced by the psalmists while modeling the many ways in which the psalms can be sung in worship—a program that will explore the rich, thin, and deep spaces between exquisite and practical, between liturgy and life.

We will offer psalm settings by Abbie Betinis, Heinrich Schütz, Bobby McFerrin, I-to Loh, and others and will lead the assembly in singing many more hymns and psalms.

We will also sing a world premiere by Robert Buckley Farlee called “All Shall Be Well,” a setting of a text by Julian of Norwich. The program’s name is taken from Susan Palo Cherwien’s hymn text “In Deepest Night.”

Elm is offering this psalm festival as the David G. Truemper Memorial Concert, an annual part of the Liturgical Institute named after long-time institute director and beloved Valpo professor Dr. David Truemper. We are honored to be invited to Valpo—alma mater to many Elm Ensemble members—for this occasion and are excited to be singing in person again after more than two years.

If you’re able, please join us on Tuesday, April 26 at 8pm in the Chapel of the Resurrection in Valparaiso, Indiana, for the program. If you’re not able to be there, please support us with prayers for safe travels, good fellowship, and insightful conversations. And stay tuned for new recordings from the event.

Abbie Betinis, “Blessed Be the Lord, My Rock” — Psalm 144

All These Ashes: A Lenten Reflection

By Liv Larson Andrews

All these ashes.

At the small urban congregation I serve, we concluded Transfiguration Sunday by singing “All of Us Go Down to the Dust,” ELW 223. The repeated Alleluias helped us confront the grave and the dust: the terrible news of war, the housing crisis in our city, the strained relationships among family and friends at this point in the pandemic.

A little Alleluia goes a long way.

We will bury this Alleluia now. But on Sunday it aided our fellowship and led us to the Eucharist, since we now share the meal following the dismissal in our gymnasium where we can take off our masks more safely and keep physical distance. Ah, the ashen reminders that are our COVID protocols. Mask, vaccination, abundant hand sanitizer. Everyone here is mortal, fragile.

Ashes, ashes.

Like several stanzas of a well-written hymn text, there’s a lot going on in these ashes. What will you sing this Lent to explore the layers of meaning here?

There is ash that evokes the dirt of the earth. Ash that is the good soil, the nutritive source, the garden compost. Ashen dirt that will yet yield life. Turn it over, encounter the lively bacteria. Smell summer’s produce waiting to grow.

Then there is ash that evokes burning, annihilation, and destruction. Ash that coats the windows in a city being bombed. Choking ash in the throats of refugee mothers who cannot find food or a safe place to sleep for their children. Homes, schools, sanctuaries, hospitals, train stations and art museums all burned to ash because of greed, power plays, and waste.

All this is here in these ashes. The little clay dish of ash that the presider holds, maybe with a smidge of oil, contains these many realities in a simple sign. Garden nutrition and terrible chokehold are both present here. Life-giving hope and death-dealing fear are entwined in these ashes. And still, we bend to put them on our bodies, singing, “Remember.”

Maybe the music of this Ash Wednesday needs to be a bridge between consoling prayers for peace and cries for change in the streets that our throats also long to raise. We grieve the costs of our unjust systems while also lamenting their existence. Maybe the way we sing can help us find the energy to organize change. I’m feeling that the voice of Joel (call a solemn fast) and the voice Isaiah (away with your dumb rituals) need to be side by side in one Lenten songbook this year.

Lord Whose Love in Humble Service, ELW 712

Today, we will sing ELW 712, “Lord Whose Love in Humble Service,” at our evening Ash Wednesday service. It moves beautifully between our need to call for a moment of reflection—a fast of our attention—and our need to center our focus on the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. It points to all kinds of human suffering, “still your children wander homeless, still the hungry cry for bread; still the captives long for freedom, still in grief we mourn our dead.”

Consecrating the move from devotion to Jesus to action in community, the hymn meets me where I am this Lent. Three of the four stanzas use the word “love.” Theologian and good-trouble-maker Cornel West teaches that “justice is what love looks in public.” The love sung of here points to our buried Alleluias acting seed-like, going underground in us to bear fruitful living in due time.

Singing and music-making are essential to helping those seeds germinating in ourselves, our congregations, and our communities. Malkia Devich Cyril writes that to give our hands to the work of freedom and social change, we must first give our bodies to the work of grief.

Now is not the time for numbness or forgetting—we don’t sing to escape. Now is the day of salvation. And because there is so much suffering to grieve, we fast. But even in our fasting we keep singing. We sing to deepen our encounter with pain and suffering so that it can become good soil within and between us. “Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go.”


About the Author

Liv Larson Andrews is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington. She lives about two blocks from the Spokane River with her spouse and two sons. She serves on the board of directors at the Grünewald Guild and on the advisory council for the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. She participated in the Collegeville Institute program Writing to Change the World with Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove in fall 2017.