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.

 

 

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blue books & life lessons.

I picked up my last grades tonight.

File Dec 15, 9 13 36 PM

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.

make my circle smaller.

I seem to live in circles

spirals always cycling back

rotating endlessly

but there is

a fixed point:

you.

and I stray

nearer

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

six weeks in.

six weeks.

we are six weeks into the semester. halfway. my first semester of divinity school is halfway over.

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it’s hard to believe. six weeks? how did that happen? the days are a blur of lectures and readings and precepts, morning prayer at 7:45 am and hours spent in the library. falling into bed far too late and the alarm going off far too early. names and dates and places and concepts and terms that I’ve never heard before, tumbling over each other in my head until sometimes I forget whether I heard something in church history or in theology, in this book or in that book. we hit the ground running day one. there’s no easing into seminary. there is a stack of books and a packed syllabus.

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six weeks. the drive to school is now routine. the first day, I took the wrong campus shuttle by mistake. total freshman move. but now I stand, bored-faced, at the bus stop, no longer nervous about my ability to get my from car to the divinity school. I have a regular spot in the cafe, a favorite room in the library, a regular seat in each of my lectures. walking into my apartment feels like coming home. the faces in the halls are now classmates, study group members, friends. these people – these brilliant, messy, hilarious, wonderful, beautiful, broken people – sit with me on porches and in class and around the table and in chapel services, and we laugh and joke and complain and tell stories and discuss and I no longer feel so painfully alone.

I no longer feel so painfully lost.

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I still can’t give you directions around Durham and I’ve only been inside five buildings on campus. but still, this place is starting to feel familiar. and it feels right.

halfway in, and I finally feel like I am in exactly the right place.

I’m starting to belong.

the past six weeks have not been easy. there has been a lot of doubt. a lot of questions. a lot of crying. a lot of feeling alone. a lot of confusion. a lot of reading. and then more reading.

but – this is where I’m supposed to be. I questioned that the first few weeks, I’ll admit. why? why am I here? what am I doing?

I still don’t know, not really. I just know that I’m here.

and six weeks in, being here feels right.

beloved.

I got a tattoo in September.

did you know that? you probably do if you follow me on instagram (which, by the way, makes my life look like a flawless stream of sunsets and and tea and poetry and journaling. it’s not. instagram lies. we all know that, right? you probably do, but right now I’m tired of hiding behind pretty filters and just want you to know that my life is not nearly as put-together as instagram makes it seem sometimes. I do love instagram, but sometimes it lies, but I love it anyway, but that’s another post.)

but so, a tattoo.

one Sunday night at 8:45 pm, three of my friends threw me into a car, drove me to a tattoo parlor, and walked me in to get inked. which makes the whole thing sound so much sketchier and reckless than it was, I’d been thinking about getting the tattoo for around three years and they just got tired of hearing me talk about it (in the two and a half weeks that they had known me. so maybe I was a little obsessed) and they said…it’s time.

and so, a tattoo.

it’s simple. one word. my handwriting, with a little help from the tattoo artist to even out the loops on the e’s and the height of the d. just a few inches. left forearm, closer to the elbow, on the inside.

beloved.

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people ask me about it sometimes, the girls that took me or friends from home seeing it for the first time or people noticing it peeking out from a sleeve. sometimes I get asked, do you love it?

yes. yes, I love it.

except when I don’t.

see, that one word on my arm declares, staunchly and boldly and permanently, that I am beloved. that my identity rests in being called beloved – not earning it and not performing for it and not following the rules and not being good – but simply that One has called me beloved.

what a beautiful truth.

and so I love it, except when I don’t believe it, that beautiful and impossible truth.

I hate it when I don’t believe that I am beloved. I hate it when I’ve been struggling and feeling like I am falling oh so short. I hate it when I’m trying to earn love and getting nowhere. I hate it when I’m unhappy, when everything seems grey, when I start to feel that at the core of me I am nothing but a mess. I hate it when I haven’t been talking to that One and I want to yell at him but I feel like there’s no point because he won’t yell back. I hate it when my tidy pieces start to fall apart and I don’t think I deserve it anymore.

on the days when I don’t believe it, I want to scrub that word right off my skin. because it feels like a lie, sitting all pretty in the crook of my elbow, telling the world that I am beloved when I am feeling the furthest from beloved. when I am feeling unlovable.

but that’s why it’s in ink, that’s why I walked into that tattoo shop. because even when I don’t believe beloved, I am still beloved. truth is like that, it’s permanent. and this truth is one that I need to be reminded of, frequently. more frequently than the good church girl in me wants to admit. this truth is one that I want to tie my whole being to: that I am dearly loved. much adored. precious.

that I am beloved.

because I think if I can rest in that, that will be enough.

feet on the ground.

I walked away from the words for a little. away from the wrestle, from the fight, away from the tangled and messy and hard and beautiful thing that is scraping your soul raw and laying it out in lines.

away from the work of working through, of writing through. of chasing wild, of hunting healing, of trying to puzzle it out and put it together. I needed space, or maybe I didn’t, maybe I shouldn’t have stopped, but it’s done now.

and I find myself not sure how to do this because the heart-on-page thing is a habit that’s easy to get out of and it feels a little awkward coming back. still like coming home, but someone painted the walls while I was gone and I didn’t know.

I don’t really know if I have anything to say. it seems all I have lately is empty hands and slivers of thoughts.

(and some hopes and dreams tucked in there too, I suppose, though I’m not really sure what they are. but I’m working on that one.)

because honestly, it’s hard. things are hard. this whole doing life with people thing? it’s hard. it’s way hard. this whole doing life thing, in general? it’s hard. I am unsure and I am asking questions and thinking things through. and I have doubts and I have hurt places and I have things I wish I could change and things that I am slowly making peace with. and God has been rather silent lately, or maybe I haven’t been listening, but either way something is shifting.

some nights, I want to quit. a lot of nights, honestly. I want to get away. I want to run. I want to get in my car and drive, drive till I find a new town and pick a new name and make a new life.

but I’m a fool if I think that I won’t bring my same broken self to my new life.

and I’ve got people who love me, broken bits and all.

so I’m staying. and I’m asking the questions, and I’m wrestling. I’m dreaming and I’m hoping. I’m trying to fit sentences together again and I’m asking God if He’s still there, if He would show up for me. and yes, I’m still crying on the floor sometimes. but I’m fighting. I’m fighting for myself and who I want to be. some day, it’s a fight just to get out of bed.

but I will continue to plant my feet on the ground and fight.

press in.

press in. you can press in, or you can hide. i hope you don’t pick hiding.

there are thin places in you. the places where you are stretched, or cracked, or just worn down. the places where you feel as though the core of you resides, places where you tuck your secrets and your fears. and maybe someone will ask a question, or offer a sentence, and you will feel it brush up against the thin place in you. and you will want to run from the thin place. don’t. because the thin places, i think they might be where the divine can break in.

press in. press into the thin places. maybe it all comes down to this: pressing in. not running. not hiding. sitting with. sitting in. sitting among.

faith. all the messy, middle, still-stuck-in-it, silent, lonely parts of faith. and doubt, silence, un-answers, emptiness and friendships, the good and the hard and the painful and the truth-telling and the heart-wounding of it all. broken places and healing places and not-yet-healing places and freshly-healed places. aching places and longing places and hollow places.

it’s choosing. daily. it’s waking up and choosing to press in. choosing to fight. choosing to believe.

this is what i want for you: to choose the pressing-in.

and note, here, that when i say you, i mean me.

because perhaps, the thin places in me have been brushed against lately. perhaps the doubts have been settling into armchairs. perhaps i am needing to press in.

so i am learning, slowly and unsteadily, how to choose. how to lean against the tender spots instead of turning away.

and i am seeing the beauty when you press in.

seeing the divine break in through the thin places.

and that – oh that impossibility, the divine breaking in – that is what i want to press into.