mothers & midwives [a sermon]

In case you don’t know, I’m doing a field education placement this summer and interning at a church. I gave this sermon at Spruce Pine United Methodist Church on July 31, 2o16.

The sermon text is Isaiah 66:5-14.

Hear the word of the Lord,
    you who tremble at his word:
Your own people who hate you
    and reject you for my name’s sake
have said, “Let the Lord be glorified,
    so that we may see your joy”;
    but it is they who shall be put to shame.

Listen, an uproar from the city!
    A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
    dealing retribution to his enemies!

Before she was in labor
    she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
    she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
    Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
    Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
    she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
    says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
    says your God.

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
    all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
    all you who mourn over her—
that you may nurse and be satisfied
    from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from her glorious bosom.

For thus says the Lord:
I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
    and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
    your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants,
    and his indignation is against his enemies.

“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”

I just want to begin by saying that I recognize that using maternal imagery for God might be uncomfortable for you, but feminine imagery for God is in fact deeply biblical. God is neither male nor female, yet God is described as both father and mother in Scripture. I think we tend to talk more about God as Father, and I want to discuss this less common depiction of God as mother because I believe it has something valuable to teach us about the character of God.

And I want to note that I do not necessarily think that mothering is restricted by gender or by biological relationship. As a friend of mine once told me, “sometimes we all need to mother, and sometimes we all need mothering.”

If we talk about a mother as being the parent who is nurturing and tender, we reinforce gendered stereotypes and ignore that fathers are also nurturing and tender. If we talk about mothers as only women who have given birth to children, we ignore the men and women who have lovingly cared for people with whom they have no biological relation. A mother is someone who holds hands, and wipes away tears, and offers hugs. A mother listens without judgment and loves unconditionally. I have been mothered by many women and men who are not my biological family – who have taken me in and brought me into their household, who have fed me and cared for me, loved me and encouraged me and supported me.

This passage from Isaiah pictures God as a loving mother – nursing her infant, cradling and carrying and comforting her child. Using familial relations for God is always complicated. Describing God as Father or Mother can be difficult for people who don’t have the best of relationships with their parents. If your own father or mother was absent or disengaged, harsh or demanding, cruel or judgmental, or flawed in one of the million other ways that all human beings are flawed – it can be hard to picture God as father or mother without connecting the damaging aspects of our parent’s character with God’s character. This is the danger of metaphor: whenever we describe God as like something else – father, mother, king, shepherd, prince – we all have our own conceptions and ideas of that particular object. And some of those conceptions may be negative, and harmful, and contain characteristics that we would not want to attribute to God.

Anything that we associate with a particular image that is not good, not just, not loving – that is a result of the sin and brokenness of humanity, and those flaws should not be transferred to God. Perhaps our relationship with our mother or father was not perfect – but we cannot apply those damaging and hurtful attributes to God.

This is the beauty of the Bible, however – we are given a multitude of metaphors for God. Scripture describes God as father, king, shepherd – these, we are probably familiar with. But Scripture also describes God as gardener, laboring woman, rock, bread, wine, clothing, sweetness, tree, lion, bear, and mother hen, among other images. We are given this variety of images because no one image can ever fully contain and express God’s character.

God is divine; we are human; and any human description will inevitably fall short of encompassing God. Our language and our understanding does not allow us to fully understand the enormity of God. God is limitless; we are limited. But God gives us these many images so that we can look at them and come to a deeper understanding of who God is. Hopefully, by putting together the metaphors – learning to understand God as both the almighty and all-powerful ruler and also as the small and weak mother chicken – we can begin to glimpse the fullness of God.

That’s my disclaimer about gender and metaphor. If you have any questions, concerns, or comments, please feel free to direct them to Jeremy.

A little historical background – and this is, admittedly, the boring part of the sermon. The book of Isaiah is divided into three sections by most scholars. Our passage is taken from the section referred to as Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66. Third Isaiah is often dated to the post-exilic period of Israel’s life. The biblical tradition tells us that the people of Israel were attacked by Babylon and deported from their land. For 70 years, Israel was a country in exile. The people eventually returned to the land and expected the glorious homecoming that had been depicted in earlier portions of Isaiah and other prophetic books.

However, their return was not as triumphant as they had hoped, as Israel was still under the rule of another government. The people were now faced with the challenge of rebuilding and reshaping the community after the exile and in the face of many hardships. Many of the passages in Third Isaiah are interpreted by contemporary readers as eschatological – referring to the end times and the remaking of the heavens and the earth at Christ’s return. However, for the people of Israel, these passages reflect an immediate hope and expectation that God would show up, that God was at work among the people, and that God’s promised restoration would soon appear. We can attend to these passages as promises for the future, but we also need to remember that God’s kingdom is not just far in the future, but that God is always presently at work among God’s people.

Let me read again part of today’s text. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her – that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

This passage jumps back and forth between describing first the city of Jerusalem and then God as the one who is providing for the people. Jerusalem, also called Zion, is depicted as a mother nursing her child and then later, the prophet describes God using this maternal image: “Thus says the Lord…as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” The prophet is here identifying Jerusalem with God, and does this in other places throughout the book of Isaiah as well. This is God’s holy city, and so God is providing for God’s children through and alongside the city of Jerusalem. And this maternal language gives us an image of a God who is incredibly near to her children.

It’s hard to think of an image that brings up as much intimacy and care and tenderness as a nursing mother. This is God, coming close to us, becoming exposed and vulnerable to provide sustenance. A nursing mother is literally giving of herself to provide for her child. She gives up her time, her comfort, her agenda to feed her child – and she does it out of love, out of care, out of a desire to see her child grow and be healthy. This is a God who is willing to sacrifice for us, a God who promises to provide for us.

And not only provide for us, but bless us far beyond simple provision. In our translation, verse 11 reads “that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom.” The word translated here as ‘glorious’ is perhaps more accurately translated as ‘abundant’ or ‘full-laden.’

God promises that we will drink deeply, with delight, from God’s abundance. God declares that God will extend prosperity like a river; the wealth of the nations will come to Jerusalem like an overflowing stream. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice. Isaiah paints a picture of generosity – God’s blessings like a river, a stream flooding its banks and nourishing the land. Your bodies shall flourish like the grass.

What more does a mother want than for her child to flourish? To thrive? To have all the good in the world? This is how God loves us – not out of obligation or with a love that is shallow and false; but God loves us like a mother. God loves us like a woman loves a child that she has carried for nine months and given birth to out of her own womb. God loves us as God’s own flesh and blood.

And God comforts us as a mother. “You shall be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” It seems like lately, there has been an overwhelming amount of pain and heartbreak and hurt in the world. The hate and anger and violence surrounding us leaves me longing to just be held for a minute.

And here we have this image of a God who cradles us in her arms, as a mother does her child. A God who embraces us, who pulls us close, and wraps us in her own body to offer security and shelter and comfort. A God who, like a mother, rejoices with her children in their joy, and mourns with her children in their pain. When a child falls and scrapes their knee, their first instinct often is to run to mama, who will kiss it better and wipe away tears, who will feel their child’s pain as if in their own body. This is how God loves us.

This is our God – a God who feeds and nourishes, a God who desires the best for us, a God who draws near and comforts us in our pain. A God who loves us more deeply and fully than we can ever truly comprehend. We do not have a God who is far-off and distant. We do not have a God who is unfeeling and cold. We have a God who is incredibly close and intimately caring. We are God’s children, and we are cherished, cradled, and caressed.

But God does not only mourn with her children and offer comfort as a response to pain. The previous verses in this passage describe God as the one who delivers a child into this world. “Shall I open the womb and not deliver? says the Lord; shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb? says your God.” This is not the only instance of God being described as a midwife. In Psalm 22, the psalmist declares that “it was you who took me from the womb.” A midwife’s role is to bring new life into the world. A midwife must be ready at any hour, and must be willing to be present for as long as the labor takes. A midwife is working and striving to bring something new into being.

Walter Brueggemann writes that the birth language present in these verses signifies the “radical and abrupt newness that will be caused only by the power of Yahweh.” And this birth imagery is in contrast with language of barrenness. Throughout the Old Testament, we see barrenness associated with hopelessness, and we see a God who brings children to Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Hannah. Isaiah 54 tells the barren one to burst into song and shout, because God is bringing children and hope. God is overcoming the hopelessness of Israel with new life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again of water and the Spirit. In Second Corinthians, Paul writes that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.

God makes new. This is what God does.

God’s act of creation did not end after the seven days documented in Genesis. God is always at work, renewing and re-creating. The image of former things and new things is found throughout Isaiah. Isaiah 43:18-19 reads, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 65:17 promises that “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” In Isaiah 42, God is actually described as a woman in childbirth – crying out, gasping and panting to bring new life into being. The Bible is full of promises of hope, and restoration, and healing, and re-creation. Our God is in the business of new life.

In the midst of pain and sorrow, I need this reminder that God is at work. God laments alongside me, and God comforts me – and God is also at work. Sometimes I feel helpless, hopeless – sometimes the world seems far too broken.

But God is still creating. God is still making new. God is still working. Just like a midwife, God is constantly at work in the process of creation. God is bringing renewal – to hearts and minds and bodies, day by day by day. And God will not cease this labor.

“Shall I open the womb and not deliver? Shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?”

I am deeply encouraged by these images of God. God who is near, who is comforting, who is nourishing. God who is working, striving, to bring about new life. This passage in Isaiah can be read as referring only to the new heavens and the new earth, at the end of time. But as we ask, every week, in the Lord’s prayer – may your kingdom come; your will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.

And I believe that God is at work on earth, remaking the earth to better reflect God’s heavenly kingdom. God is at work with the devotion of a mother and the dedication of a midwife.

And if we are made in the image of God, what does this mean for us? What does this imply for our lives, our actions?

We are to be like God. We are to be the hands and feet of God in the world. We should be mothers. Just as God is not gendered, just as mothering is not necessarily tied to gender or biology – all people of Christ, who are living into their calling to reflect the image and heart of God to the world around us – we should mother as God mothers.

We should mourn with those around us when they are mourning. We should rejoice with the joys of others. We should draw near to all who feel lost, alone, hurt. We should comfort those who are in pain. We should nourish those who are hungry – not only spiritually, but physically as well. We should desire that those around us flourish and thrive. We have the opportunity and the responsibility and the privilege of caring for God’s children with love and tenderness.

And we should be midwives. We should be working ceaselessly to bring about new life. We should constantly be striving to bring reconciliation to broken relationships. We should be laboring to recreate broken and unequal systems that cause harm and damage. We should be seeking to be made new ourselves, every day, in the image of God.

Remember that God is near. Remember that God loves, and comforts, and cherishes. And remember that God is at work, making all things new. Rest in this truth. And then go out, to work alongside God, to love, and comfort, and cherish, and make new.




a gathering of thoughts, vol. 2

this is usually the part where I say something about words and silence, and being gone and coming back, losing the words and trying to find them again, but – let’s just skip it. because I don’t really know what I have to say about the words and the silence and the finding again.

but I do know that somehow, the writing of it helps.


learning, as of late:

be the first person in the room to admit that you’re hurting. or scared. or unsure. or whatever it is. I guarantee, you’re not the only person. everyone’s just trying to pretend they’ve got it together. be the first person to say it – and be a safe place to let other people say it, too.

when in doubt, wear lipstick.

take risks. things are scary. do them anyway.

give hugs. give lots of hugs. sometimes all you can do is sit there, and let someone cry on your shoulder. be there. show up. give hugs.

take selfies. decide you’re beautiful. declare yourself beautiful.

want things. it hurts, sometimes. the dreaming hurts. there’s an ache when you’ve been wanting for so long and that want remains unfilled. don’t stop wanting, though. don’t stop dreaming.

you will get through this. you got this. you are so much stronger than you think.

make peace with the not-knowing. it’s not easy. it’s unsettling. but accept it, as best you can, that perhaps this is a time of questions and not answers. a time of deconstructing and pulling apart and unraveling. let it be. maybe it’ll all come back together. maybe it won’t. learn how to sit in the middle and call it beautiful.

learn how to call it all beautiful.



here’s to you, year one.

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Today, I finished my first year of grad school. After a week of non-stop studying and three days of three-hour exams and another five hours of attempting to force my tired, muddled brain to focus, I turned in my last paper at 4:33 pm and then maybe starting crying a little bit in the library because of all the feelings.

It’s done.

First year is over.

And I’m not really sure how to process that or what to do with it. I think first, I want to sleep and watch a lot of netflix and go for a run and do laundry and wash my sheets. There’ll probably be some more crying at some point. But for now, I took a shower and went grocery shopping and I am happily sitting on my couch, simply delighting in the fact that I don’t have any studying to do.

It’s been a long, long year. And it has been…a  lot of things.

But we survived and we maybe even thrived and we finally made it to the other side and now I am one-third of the way to having my M.Div.

So here’s to you, year one.

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Here’s to all the books I read and all the words I wrote and all the grace I received the times I didn’t read the books or write the words. Here’s to Thomas Aquinas and Saint Athanasius and Lauren Winner and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Anne Lamott. Here’s the professors we loved and the professors we loved less, and the lessons we learned from them both about how to teach and lead and use power responsibly. Here’s to “suffice it to say” and “my teacher, Brevard Childs” and church history memes and here’s to the lectures with sing-alongs and the lectures we fell asleep in.

Here’s to the days filled with laughter and joy and delight, and here’s to the bad days, the crying-on-the-couch bad days and the pit-of-the-stomach-feeling anxiety days. Here’s to realizing that the bad days don’t make me a bad person, and here’s to asking for help. Here’s to the people who helped me and and held my hand and walked me towards healing, literally as well as metaphorically.

Here’s to late nights and early mornings. Here’s to coffee at midnight and a million cups of mint tea in the morning. Here’s to chapel and here’s to the days we skipped chapel. Here’s to pre-lecture popsicles and friday night dinners and movie nights that turned into hours of conversation and never getting around to the movie. Here’s to pink hair dye and an impulsive self-given haircut and a new tattoo. Here’s to dark lipstick and high heels and feeling fearlessly like myself.

Here’s the new friends who loved me so well in Durham and the old friends who loved me so well from afar. Here’s to the painful process of pulling up roots and the slow, steady process of putting down roots. Here’s to the people who fed me and hugged me and spent countless hours in the library with me. Here’s to twitter friends and snapchats and texting from across the lecture room. Here’s to the people I loved from day one and here’s to the unexpected kindred spirits. Here’s to a first-year class that somehow went from feeling divided and clique-y to feeling like a giant family – a messy family, yes, but a family nonetheless.

Here’s to the questions, and the answers, and the questions again, because I’ve learned that it’s more about the asking and wondering and becoming and unbecoming than the answering. Here’s to feeling lost and here’s to somehow feeling found again. Here’s to the things we took on and the things we decided to let go of. Here’s to the challenge and the pain, here’s to the doubt and the frustration. Here’s to the humbling and the un-doing and the uncomfortable.

Here’s to you, year one. It’s been brutal and beautiful.

And here’s to the next two years and all the adventures they will bring.

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take 2.

Classes start tomorrow.

My second semester at Duke will begin at 2:30 pm with an Introduction to Old Testament lecture.

I’ve been cleaning my desk, attempting to get ready for everything to start. Tonight, I finally dealt with all the papers from last semester – assignments and notes and readings sorted out and filed away. The textbooks are starting to pile up and I am equal parts excited and overwhelmed by them.

And as I’ve been cleaning and throwing away and getting ready and settling back into my space in Durham, I’ve been finding myself thinking how entirely different this feels from five months ago, when I was about to start my first semester.

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Orientation was terrifying, honestly. I was sure that coming to Duke was a mistake. I had a handful of acquaintances and no real friends here in Durham. I couldn’t even drive to Target without a GPS. I wandered cluelessly around the div school, trying to find my classrooms, desperately trying to look less scared than I felt.

But now – I know which bus to take. I know where my classes meet. Last night, my apartment was full of friends, reunited after the break, talking and laughing and switching precept sessions so we could be in class together. Tomorrow I’ll hug people and I’ll sit in my usual spot in church history and I’ll joke about professors and assignments. I’m planning museum trips and family dinners. This little basement apartment is covered in christmas lights and knick-knacks, a space that we’ve made our own.

So in some ways, the start of the semester is so much easier, this time around. I have people – good, solid, salt-of-the-earth people – by my side. I’ve been there, done that, didn’t fail out. I know my way around Durham – or at least, to Target. Classes are new, sure, but tomorrow isn’t entirely unknown.

Which also, in some ways, makes it harder.

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I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. I know how tired I’d be, the late nights and the early mornings. I know the amount of reading and writing that will take over my days and nights and weekends. I know how the expectations, the pressure, my perfectionism and my competitiveness combine to make an unhealthy blend of stress and anxiety. I know exactly how brutal final exams will be (and trust me, I am not looking forward to that) and I know how many times I’ll wonder if I should drop out. How many times I’ll question if I’m in the right place, doing the right thing.

That hasn’t changed. Five months later, one semester down, and it still feels like I’m second-guessing the decision.

But I also know that there will be days when I know, when I am sure, that I am in the right place.

I’m still doubting. I’m still questioning. I probably always will be.

Classes start tomorrow, and I’m not ready. But that’s okay.

Here goes.

blue books & life lessons.

I picked up my last grades tonight.

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This stack of blue books, hastily filled out in 8 hours’ worth of testing, those are the final exams of my first semester. Those blue books are supposed to represent, encapsulate, demonstrate all the knowledge I gained during the semester.

Names and dates and locations and terms and theories and theologies.

But this stack, and the sentences scrawled inside, and the numbers marked in red ink on the covers – they can’t begin to tell you what I learned this semester.

Because I learned in lecture halls and seminar discussions, I learned in reading and writing. But I also learned on front porches and on couches, gathered around dinner tables and library desks.

I learned from all the people I encountered, in class and in the caf and in late-night study sessions and movie nights. I learned from professors and preceptors who taught and who cared.

I learned how to love well. I learned how to work hard, how to do your best, how to walk away when you needed to take a break. I learned about how to ask for help when you need it and how to accept it when it’s offered.

I learned that dry shampoo is a must.

I learned to say yes to people, to value relationships over grades.

I learned to show up, even when you’re afraid. Especially when you’re afraid.

I learned that I didn’t know what I was doing, still don’t know what I’m doing, but you do it anyway. You take a step and you take another and you trust that your steps will get you where you need to go.

I learned how to believe in myself.

I learned that God is so much bigger than I thought. God is complicated, and unknowable, and confusing, and beautiful, and present.

I can’t believe my first semester is over. How did that happen? Where did the days go? They passed in a blur of papers and lectures and hours in the library. Cups of coffee and study guides and laughter in the hallways, friendships forged over the breaking of the Body in the chapel and the breaking of bread in homes.

It wasn’t easy. Oh, no, it wasn’t easy.

And I still don’t have answers. I might have learned a lot, but I’ve also learned that I have so much to learn.

Next semester is going to start, sooner than I think, and there will be more late nights and stressful papers and tears. But there will also be laughter, and joy, and jokes. There will be people who sit on couches and aren’t afraid to ask the big questions, people who will be there for me at midnight if I need them.

There will be God, complicated and beautiful and present.

And there will be more blue books.

don’t listen to the lies.

don’t listen to the lies, darling.

she’ll come knocking. she always does. no, she doesn’t knock. she just busts right in through the doors, makes herself at home as if she’s lived here all her life.

because maybe she has.

that inner voice? she’s back again.

that inner voice, telling you all those mean things? she’s back again.

she’s slipping words into your mind, dropping them in your cereal bowl and hoping you’ll sip them in with your coffee. she scribbles them on the covers of your notebooks, decorating the pages of calculus with her lies.

you’re not good enough. not pretty enough. not skinny enough. not smart enough. you don’t work hard enough, you don’t show up enough, you don’t do enough. you are not loved. not wanted. not cherished. not valued. not. not. not not not not. 

open the door. invite her in. sit her down on your couch. put on the kettle, stand at the stove with two mugs and the honey, feeling her eyes on your back, knowing she’s just sitting there, stringing words together until she has the perfect sentence to spit out that will send you to your knees, overwhelmed by your not-ness.

bring her a mug. sit on the couch next to her, blankets draped over your legs, hands wrapped tight around your tea. and listen to her.

let her talk. listen to everything and realize: she is scared. she is lonely. she is sad. she is empty.

then you say: you are a liar.

and then you sit there, with your blankets and tea and your aching heart, and you tell her all the things that true. you tell yourself all the things that you know to be true.

small things, if you need. small things, if you’ve been lost in this sea of lies for a while and you have nothing to anchor yourself. anchor yourself with the small truths. what your favorite color is. that you bake the best cookies around. whether you like coffee or tea. that you run, or you bike, or you dance. that you are the caregiver with your friends, or you make everyone laugh.

and then, tell her – tell yourself – that you are cherished. that you are valued. that you are enough. that you are wanted. that you are loved. you are loved. you are loved.

and then, tell yourself all the things you want to be true. all the ways you want to grow and change, the ways you want to be more alive, more vibrant, more unashamedly you. all the things that you want to believe, all the things you want to be more true than the lies. you are brave. you are vulnerable. you are raw. you are unafraid. you are beautiful. you are witty. you are giving. you are gentle. you are strong. you are. you are. you are.

tell yourself the things you want to be true.

and someday, one day, in the telling, you will realize that they are true.


make my circle smaller.

I seem to live in circles

spirals always cycling back

rotating endlessly

but there is

a fixed point:


and I stray


and farther

and you,

you wait patiently

for my path to circle back

to you.

but I,

I am tired

of the circles, the endless looping

near and far,

and I pray that my steps

would take my circle

a little closer

this time around.

this time,

maybe I will not

stray so far.

this time,

maybe I will make

my circle

a little smaller.

and next time,

a little smaller.

and maybe

my circle –

instead of

taking me away

– will only

revolve around you.

// october 2014