Saturday, 9 March 2013

Mothers, God and God the Mother

Buying a card for my mum for this Sunday is always an interesting task.  There are plenty of Mother's Day cards, but there are fewer and fewer Mothering Sunday cards.  She, I think rightly, insists that it is Mothering Sunday - ie it is not just her day, it's a day about mothering, and it's not just mums who mother, so mothering as a whole should be celebrated.

But how about God as mothering...?

So two thoughts for you in this post.  The first is about God the Mother.

The Motherhood of God

Many religions have a sense of God’s feminine side, yet Christianity seems to have moved further and further away from this, and this is despite the many references to God in the feminine such as the second verse in the Bible:
‘...the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters.’
Spirit is a feminine word in the Hebrew language, and brooding is what pregnant mothers-to-be do when they put their hands on their swelling belly, pondering what will become of their child. This, to me, is a beautiful image of God, ready to give birth to the universe. A powerful act of will is being readied for.  A pregnant God is readying her/himself to bring forth creation.

But instead of that picture we focus on God the powerful, God the vengeful, God the King, God the conqueror. Might that perhaps be something to do with all the men who have run the church? What happened to our memories of this from Isaiah 66 where God says:
'As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.'
Over and again, despite the patriarchal influence, God uses images of Godself that are feminine. Jesus says of Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Once, in the wind and rain in Scotland I watched a hen do precisely that as she pulled each of her chicks under her wings which she let down over them to keep them warm and dry in the storm. She put herself in harm’s way deliberately to keep them safe. That’s what good mothers do.

That’s what God wishes to do.

So why do we find it so hard to call God ‘She’? Is it because the Bible, probably all written my men, always calls God ‘He’? Yet it doesn’t, only our translations do. A common word for God in the Old Testament is ‘Elohim’, which is a feminine plural word, used with a masculine singular verb. Odd. But still feminine.

And remember, Spirit, in Hebrew, is a feminine word.

So take a moment to be still, and ask this question:
'Why, God, do I struggle to think of you as a woman, as a mother?'

Maybe it’s because we have got so used to St. Paul and his passionate masculinity. That’s St. Paul who wrote these words to the church in Thessalonika:
“But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”  (1 Thess 2:7, 8)
Not so manly after all then.

I wonder, what would church be like if we focussed on the motherhood of God more, and on God’s caring feminine side. I wonder what effect that would have on our disagreements and our church politics.

I wonder what effect it would have on those we discriminate against.

More importantly, I wonder what effect it would have on our relationship with God. Pause for a moment with this well known scripture from Isaiah 40 in your head:
“But those who wait for YHWH (the name of God) will renew their strength.  They will rise on wings like eagles.”
The first image that enters your mind’s eye will no doubt be of a mighty eagle, a majestic, manly sight. But hold on, because that might not be what it means. Angela Boatwright-Spencer explains it like this:
"When baby eagles learn to fly the mother eagle flies beneath them so that when they tire, they land on the mother’s wings rather than on the ground. The mother glides along, carrying them until they regain their strength, then they continue practicing – soaring back into the heavens. It’s an image of God as Mother."
So now, go back to that image in your mind. Where do you wish to soar? What are you waiting to take place in your life? Are you scared to try and fly for fear of falling? God the Mother Eagle wishes to fly beneath you.

God the Mother Eagle.

Dwell on that image, of yourself as a newly fledged eagle. Or if you need shelter right now because you’re hurting, dwell on the image of God the Mother Hen, so wanting to gather you beneath her wings and give you shelter.

God, our Mother. It’s ok. You can call her that.

Our Mother, who art in heaven, and here on earth, and in my next breath, and in the beating of my heart, encouraging me to take the next step, or to glide on to her back, or simply rest in the shelter of her wings.

 Now, in a somewhat different vein, something more specifically about mothers, and what we owe them.  First a couple of readings from the Bible...
1 Samuel 1:20-end
In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’

The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, ‘As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there for ever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.’ Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.’ So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’

She left him there for the Lord.

Luke 2:33-35
And Jesus’ father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

The debt we owe
I’ll never forget, about eleven years ago, going to visit two of our closest friends. They had just had their first child and as I walked into the room the mother was holding her precious new baby daughter. She looked up at me, smiled and said, ‘Look what we made.’ I have rarely seen something more touching and beautiful and those of you who are parents will know that moment of amazement as a completely new creation looks at you for the first time.

But it’s only the beginning.

I’ve also had new parents tell me of the sense of near panic when they leave hospital with their first-born, heading home with the little bundle of joy thinking, ‘But what do we do now?’ Two parents once said to me that they couldn’t believe that the professionals in the hospital were actually going to let them, two complete amateurs, take their baby home!

Now it strikes me that mothers have one of the hardest tasks in the whole world.  Fathers share with them the fun of conceiving a child (I know, it's not always fun, but you get my drift), but it is the mother who has to carry the growing infant within the confines of her body for nine months. It is the mother who has to get used to all her resources being used up by the growing child within who has decided that her bladder makes a good football, and it is the mother who has to go through the pain of childbirth, knowing that her body will struggle ever to return to the shape it once had.

Ideally both parents share the joy of bringing the child up, but it has struck me that it is also often the mother who feels most keenly the time when they finally leave home. When the nest is empty some mothers find it to be may even be a time of mourning, that something special has come to an end.  But there’s something more to this. I wonder how many of you mothers consider that yours is often the truly difficult task of giving your child to the world; not just of setting them free to be themselves but of actively making them a gift of love to a hurting world.

The readings above are about two mothers who did precisely that, and of the great courage it took to do so. The first one was a woman named Hannah who lived hundreds of years before Christ. Hannah was one of two wives that Elkannah had, living in a time when it was permissible for a man to be married to more than one woman at the same time (which in itself is another challenge to those who say that anything other than one man and one woman is a threat to marriage...)

His other wife, Penninah, had lots of sons and daughters and would bully Hannah who seemed unable to conceive, perhaps because Elkannah loved her so very dearly. So Hannah was distraught and would weep in her prayers so hard that a priest once thought she was drunk. But what Hannah did was to pray a special prayer to God, that if God would give her a son then she would set him before the Lord, once he was old enough, and he would serve in the temple.

Sure enough, finally after many years of childlessness Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son whom she named Samuel. In fact after Samuel she went on to have three more sons and two daughters. But it is Samuel who is most important to our tale. God had answered her prayer and so she kept her side of the promise, and when Samuel was old enough she took him to the temple and gave him into God’ service.  Samuel grew in wisdom, insight and prayer, becoming a trusted prophet for the Lord to all Israel to whom God would speak. Samuel was eventually entrusted by God to choose not only the first king of Israel, Saul, but also the second and greatest king, King David. And it was from King David’s line that we eventually reach Jesus and the second mother in our story.  But remember this. All of this happened so that when the time was right Hannah gave her son into God’s hands to serve. If she hadn’t done so then history could have been very different. She honoured her promise and did one of the hardest things a mother has to do; give her child as a gift to the world.

Let’s turn then to the second mother in the story, and this time it is Mary the mother of Jesus. The short passage from Luke’s Gospel picks up the story when Jesus is still a newborn baby and Mary and Joseph take Jesus to present him before the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem, the place where Samuel had once served, though now rebuilt and a lot larger.  So Mary comes to offer Jesus before God and is greeted by a very old man named Simeon who immediately recognises Jesus as being the one sent from God to save us. He takes Jesus up in his arms and thanks God for allowing him to live long enough to see this day. And then he says those rather scary words to his mother, Mary:
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Jesus changed the course of human history. But at some point Mary, even knowing what she did about who she was, had to relinquish her son and give him as a gift to the world. In so doing she, just like Hannah, showed the way for all mothers, and it’s a hard path to tread because at some point, if your children are to reach their full potential, and if the world is to benefit from all the time and effort you have put into them, then you have to give them away.

Every one of us has the potential to be a gift to the world. Every one of us can make a difference, but for us to be able to do so requires that our mothers do an exceedingly hard thing... give us into the world and let go.

So I for one would like to thank my mother for doing that for me, and I’d like to thank all the mothers of those I know who have achieved such wonderful things in their lives because their mothers prepared them and then gave them as gifts to a world that needs them. Thank you.

Now there’s just one more thing to say. Hopefully by now you will have become used to my reference to the importance of recognising the motherhood of God. Well there is an element of what I have said present here too. God nurtures us like a mother, teaching us, encouraging us, comforting us and being the one who holds us when no one else understands.  But some day, sooner or later, God gives each of us as a gift to the world. God never stops holding, growing and nurturing us, but likewise we are not meant to be umbilically attached to the safe secure stable life that we may have become used to. Each person who believes, who follows the ways of God, needs to be ready and willing to be given by God as a gift into the world, ready to offer themselves wherever they are given.

This is God’s calling, to give us as God’s hands, feet, lips and love for the world. Our response is to be willing to be given. Are we? God as a mother gives us as her children to a world that needs loving. Will we go, or will we stay at home with her where it’s comfortable?

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