A Mothering God

Isaiah 49: 13-16

My daughter was a first grade teacher for a number of years, and like many teachers she received gifts related to her vocation. Hanging on a wall in her house is a large, framed illustrated page from a Dick and Jane reader, circa sometime in the early 50’s. I’m old enough to have been taught from such a book in my boyhood years. Perhaps you know something about the family life these standard school texts depicted. There were three children. Their names were Dick and Jane and Sally. They lived in a pleasant, comfortable suburban house somewhere in the U.S.A. They had a dog name Spot and a cat named Puff. The father was tall and handsome and had some sort of job for which he wore a suit and tie and was able to be home by suppertime. The mother was pretty, attired in a floral print dress, and a wonderful homemaker for her family. The children had little adventures in which they learned about life and the rules of living together in harmony.

This Scott Foresman basic reader series dominated American classrooms from the late 30’s through the 50’s. In fact in the 1950’s, 80% of American school children had “fun with Dick and Jane.”

Sociologists have analyzed the images of American life presented in the Dick and Jane readers and researched how people look back on this omnipresent influence that shaped the thinking of children in years past. For some, the primary feeling is nostalgia – for an idealistic world in which everything was comfortably predictable. For others, there is a feeling of loss – because the perfect world Dick and Jane inhabited is not anywhere close to the world we know today. Then for some others, the feeling is relief – because the comfortable life of Dick and Jane back in the fifties was never a reality for people who were poor, or black, or rural, or from broken families. Finally, there were some persons whose feeling was one of resentment – about the narrowly defined roles of men and women and boys and girls in the make believe world of Dick and Jane.

While these feelings are interesting, I think the criticisms are overstated. In my file I found an old clipping that reported the survey results done in California public schools which compared the top disciplinary problems and behavior problems among high school students in the 1940’s to those of the 1990’s.

Here’s the 1940 list:

1940’s

1. Talking

2. Chewing gum

3. Making noise

4. Running in the halls

5. Getting out of turn in line

6. Wearing improper clothing

7. Not putting paper in

wastebaskets

Fast forward fifty years to the 1990’s and the list for behavior and disciplinary problems reads:

1990’s

1. Drug and alcohol abuse

2. Pregnancy

3. Date rape

4. Robbery and assault

5. Arson

6. Vandalism

7. Gang fighting

This study underscores the changed world that confronts school teachers and parents in today’s world that could never have been conceived in the world gone by four plus decades ago. The fact is, adolescent behavior, respect for authority, and generally accepted family conformity was more settled and clear cut in the 1950’s than today. Still and all, despite these current challenges to raising a family, the world keeps turning and babies keep being brought into the changed world we know. I suppose in the larger picture, it has been ever thus to one degree or another, as the context for family life has shifted and evolved from generation to generation.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, God proclaims to the people of Israel, “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on the suffering ones.” Then to those who fear God had abandoned them, the Lord speaks tenderly, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, or have no compassion on the children she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…”

J Philip Newall says, “There’s a mother’s heart at the heart of God.” One of the more surprising ideas found in the Bible is that God – the almighty – is like a mother. In today’s reading, God is like a mother who cannot, and will not, abandon her nursing child. In the gospels, Jesus says that God is like a mother hen sheltering her chicks under her wings. In another passage, God is said to be like a mother who leans down and picks up her child. These pictures of God as a feminine mother figure are surprising because at the time scripture was being penned by men, culture and society was unconsciously and pervasively patriarchal.

I have intimately known three mothers in my lifetime: my birth-mother, my wifemother, and my daughter-mother. And because of them, it is meaningful for me to think of God as a mother as well as a father. While God is beyond gender, I find the image of a mothering God to be comforting… and frankly, in my view, it makes sense from a human point of view. Because at best, ideally, a mother’s love is unconditional. However imperfect individual mothers may be, maternal love symbolizes the commitment to love a child for who they are no matter what…no matter the aggravations and irritations, no matter the demands and exhausting dependency. The desire to be loved unconditionally, to know the love of a mother is, I believe, the deepest desire we have.

The novel, The Secret Life of Bees, is a story set in the mid 1960’s about a fourteen year old girl named Lily whose whole sense of self was emotionally scarred by one devastating memory of the afternoon her mother was killed when Lily was just four years old. Besides her harsh and unyielding father, Lily’s only family companion is Rosaleen, an African American woman who takes care of her. Lily yearns to know something about the kind of woman her mother was. One day she finds an old photo of her mother as a young woman holding a jar of Black Madonna honey with the words, “Tiburon, S. C.,” scrawled on the back. Lily decides she and Rosaleen should escape to Tiburon, a place she hopes holds the secret of her mother’s past. Arriving in Tiburon, Lily finds jars of the Black Madonna honey on the shelves of the general store. She is told that the honey is produced by some sisters living on the outskirts of town. It turns out to be a family of three African American women who invite Lily and Rosaleen into their home. There they introduce Lily to a mesmerizing world of tending beehives, observing the life of bees in terms of life itself, plus adoration of a revered object in the form of a carved figure of the Black Madonna.

Literally the Black Madonna was the masthead from a slave ship that capsized off the shore of South Carolina. Slave women swam to freedom when the ship was lost. The sisters and their neighbors believe this event was divine providence at work. This is howAugust, the eldest sister, explains it to Lily. “Everyone knew the mother of Jesus was named Mary, and that she’d seen suffering of every kind. That she was strong and constant and had a mother’s heart. And here she was, sent to them on the same waters that had brought them here in chains. It seems to them she knew everything they suffered…They called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke them. (p. 109-110)

Throughout the rest of the story, Lily uncovers details about her mother as August acts as a surrogate mother gently teaching Lily “there is nothing perfect…there is only life,” and helping Lily to “find the mother in [herself].”

Each of us has learned different things in different ways from our mothers and fathers. But there are certain ways in which all nurturing parents are alike. Nurturing a child is a matter of teaching character and values through words, habits, example, actions and the softness and toughness of love. It is a lifetime commitment that at one stage of life involves wrapping sheltering arms around little ones, and at another stage of life holding the arm of a fragile mother in her old age.

Today of course is Mother’s Day. While not officially a religious holiday, it is a day we are reminded of the love and sacrifices that caring mothers do for their children and families – and that certainly is an element of our faith.

Many people believe that Mother’s Day has its origins with Julia Ward Howe. Julia Howe, who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” conceived the original idea for Mother’s Day as an International Peace Day. She was appalled by the carnage wrought by the Civil War, when families were torn apart and destroyed. She wanted to designate an international day that would focus on mothers and encourage them to teach their children the way of peace. In 1870, she expressed her vision for a Mothers’ Peace Day: “We women of our country,” she wrote, “will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, ‘Disarm, disarm.’ The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” However Julia Ward Howe’s original idea for an International Mothers’ Peace Day failed to take hold. But then in the early 1900’s, a Philadelphia woman, Anna Mary Jarvis, picked up again on the basic idea. Through letters, petitions and her personal efforts, she finally got the governor of West Virginia to proclaim the first official Mother’s Day in 1910. Four years later, it became a national holiday. And so it was, the root of Mother’s Day is to promote peace and reconciliation in our nation and in the world.

From its original beginnings, Mother’s Day has grown and evolved to be an occasion to honor the role of mothers in our lives. It was a motherly God who spoke tenderly to the children of Israel, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” And millennia later, in a Mother’s Day column several years ago, another mother, Irma Bombeck, imagined the complex task of how God came to create a mother. The opening of the column set the premise: “Creating a mother was not easy for God. After all, God had to build a creature who could run on black coffee and leftovers…have a lap which disappears when she stands up…a kiss that can cure anything from a small bump to a broken leg, to a disappointing love affair…six pairs of hands and three pairs of eyes.” Then she wove this mythical story …

When the good Lord was creating mothers, he was into his sixth day of overtime, when an angel appeared and pleaded with God not to work so hard. “Lord, said the angel touching God’s sleeve gently, “Come to bed.” “I can’t,” said the Lord. “I’m so close to creating something so close to myself.” The angel circled the model of the mother very slowly.”It’s too soft,”she sighed. Ahh, but tough!” said the Lord excitedly. “You cannot imagine what this mother can do or endure.” “Can she think?” “Not only think, but she can reason and compromise,” said the Creator. Finally the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek. “There’s a leak,” she pronounced. “I told you, you were trying to put too much into this model.” “It’s not a leak,” said the Lord. “It’s a tear.”

“What’s it for?” “It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness and pride.” “You’re a genius,” said the angel.” The Lord looked somber and responded, “I didn’t put it there.”

It is literally through the tears of many a mother that we are comforted, encouraged to be, and sustained. Such is the depth of a loving mother’s heart. Such is the depth of the love of our God, who creates us, sustains us and redeems us. Today we thank God for the mothers among us, and for our own mothers who have reasoned with us, compromised with us, been tough and been soft, and have inscribed our names on their hands and hearts.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.