It was the Spring of 2000. There I was, a freshman at Trevecca Nazarene University, sitting in the class most feared by fledgling religion majors: Biblical Exegesis. Even the name makes a person want to duck for cover. It sounds like the sort of class you walk into wearing a hazmat suit and gloves before handling something potentially dangerous (which would be an apt description for the potential of the Bible causing harm when mishandled).
Biblical Exegesis was the sort of class where you learn to hear things you’ve never heard before:
The Bible is inerrant in all things pertaining to salvation, not all things.
The Bible contains the Word of God, and the Words of men. But they are not the same.
Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.
Paul didn’t write all the letters that bear his name.
Paul used midrash, but no, you’re not allowed to in this class.
Revelation has more to do with worship than predicting the future.
The list could go on.
So when Dr. Dan Spross used the phrase “our motherly father, care for us” during his typical pre-lecture prayer, I was stunned. It was an odd thing to hear but par for Biblical Exegesis. I had never heard God the Father referred to as “mother.” I had never even considered God as a mother or having mothering characteristics. It wasn’t familiar language. I had never heard a prayer like that. I had never prayed that way.
I had just turned 19 (I am now 41), and for the first time in my life, I heard God referred to in the feminine.
Before you send me hate mail, keep in mind I was months away from my first exegetical paper and had maybe one word study under my belt, and by “word study,” I mean Dr. Spross requiring 6-8 pages on a single biblical word in Hebrew or Greek. I was green, naïve, but full of the zeal of the Lord. Like Saul, prior to becoming Paul, I was passionate but still needed to see. My subsequent education would remedy the anemic feminine focus of my childhood, thanks be to God.
Spross using that phrase in a prayer was as much a part of the learning process as any book or assignment. Still, it struck me as odd when it fell on my ears. As it sat with me, I was appalled that I had been so blind until someone had dared to pray something so different from anything I had ever heard.
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi anyone?
How is it possible to get to that age and never even consider God as Mother? I am not sure. But it happened.
Dr. Spross could see that the new phrase he used fell on a few of us in unsettling ways. I recall he paused, and asked, “Do any of you have a problem with the way I just prayed?” He gazed upon us as if we dare not have a problem with it. Then he proceeded, “Have you not ever considered the way God is our Father and our Mother ?” He went on to share a few biblical texts that reinforced the notion that God mothers us as much as God fathers us, and that our conceptions of God should not be so limited as to be confined to a specific gender. God is Spirit and should be worshipped as such.
This was long before the gender debates that seem to be front and center in our culture wars. Dr. Spross was expanding our minds in prayer. Challenging us with prayer. Praying so that we might believe. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.
I wish I had recorded his improvisation. I left the class changed, open to seeing once again that God is much bigger than my ideas and my prayers.
“Our Motherly Father…care for us”
Today is Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day is a big deal in the Christian Church.
Despite what you might believe, women have played a major role in the life of the Church, the very first witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection being women (and probably mothers given the context of the 1st century) for example. Jesus’ Mother being central in his story is another example.
One is reminded of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the prayer prayed to her through the ages,
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”
Mary is the feminine example of mothering par excellence in scripture.
Her superlatives are never ending: she is attentive, devout, and faithful. She is sacrificial, loving, prayerful, and iron willed. She was pious, ensuring her child, Jesus, was raised in the traditions of Israel. She dealt with a child that didn’t always listen. Jesus might have even had a smart mouth. Luke Chapter 2 says as much, recalling a story when 12-year-old Jesus doesn’t tell his parents he stayed behind in Jerusalem after they had left…and then, when they go back to find him, are subjected to questioning by Jesus when they try to interrogate him. Teenagers…
Mary is faithful to mother Jesus until the end. She is there in his miraculous birth, his escape from danger and exile in Egypt (that must have been a crucible), during his forays into the wilderness with John the Baptist prior to his ministry (90’s grunge rebel children anyone?), during his contentious ministry, and present at the foot of the cross when she beholds his life running down the cross.
Mary is the mother that is there in birth, life, and death.
There a million small things she did for Jesus the world will never know, tears no one will ever see, anguish only she will ever feel. If Jesus prayed so intensely that grief drops of blood spilled from his forehead (Luke 22.44), imagine his mother at the foot of the cross.
If Mary did not posses the mothering qualities of God, then mothering God she could not do. If Mothering was not an intimate part of what God is as God, then Mothering would be impossible for it is surely God-like to love as a Mother does.
Mother’s Day is a big deal in our house, too.
My wife has given me 4 children over 21 years of marriage. She plans her days around her children’s well-being. She is constantly thinking of how to help them, feed them, care for them, and prepare them for their future. She lies awake at night worrying about them. She has foregone a career for her family, to mother her children full time. It was not part of the plan; she just said “yes.” She is more than capable of being anything she wanted.
She takes great care in planning activities for them: planning vacations, sporting events, and family outings to show them they are loved and included in a family that will always embrace them. She makes sure the cabinets are filled with food for each of them, since we’ve been blessed with children that don’t like the same foods. Holidays are the things of legend in our house as my wife changes decorations (that usually only her family will see with regularity), plans meals, finds the perfect gifts, and does her best to ensure that her children know these days are special…and they are special too.
Like Mary, there a million small things she has done for them the world will never know, tears no one will ever see, anguish no one but her will ever feel.
I am sure many of you can say the same for your Mother, for the Mother of your children, or for yourself as a Mother.
In many respects, the gifts that are required in mothering children are only possible if they have their origins in the realm of God. Mothering is hard work. Impossible work. I have no idea how mothers do it.
I have no idea how Mary said yes. How she became theotokos (God-bearer) and was not crushed under the weight, while disciples like Peter would later sink in the sea at the sign of danger and deny Jesus at the mere questioning of strangers.
Mothering is divine; when a mother says “yes” the world gets new life.
I have no idea how my wife does everything she does. How could she tolerate birth pangs and labor yet still want more children? How can she be hurt by what her children say and then still love them more than her own life? How can she care for them when exhaustion is wracking her body? How she can keep the world in her head and her head does not explode.
“Our Motherly Father, care for us…”
Women give birth to the world and nurture the world. Little wonder there is a strand of Wisdom tradition that places Lady Wisdom alongside God when engineering the cosmos. To mother is to actively participate in planning beginnings, instruction (see Proverbs 1-9), and hope for a better world than the one in which life first appears.
Reminds me of a conversation I had in the past year. A professional lactation consultant once told me, “It fills me with hope when I see so many women willing to bring children into the world. We all know things seem a bit unhinged right now, but women who choose to be mothers believe there is a better tomorrow. They have hope for the future and that hope is embodied in their children.”
To Mother is to believe. It is not hyperbole to suggest mothering could be called the original act of faith.
To have faith at all, is to mother something into existence, to sustain it, nurture it, and hope in it. There are few people who believe in us more than our mothers. I do not know how they do it, but my faith tells me their love springs from transcendent soil.
Today is Mother’s Day. It is a good day to love on your mother, consider her, appreciate her, and thank her. If you are a husband or a father, today is a good day to nurture the one that nurtures your family…and hopes in it when all seems lost.
It is also a good day to consider how our prayers, and our theology, shape our everyday lives. On Mother’s Day, let us consider not only how special our mothers are, but how the One who created us all may be a lot more like a Mother than we have ever cared to consider. And in doing so, may we then also reconsider the spectacular part of creation we call “mom.”
“As a mother comforts her child, So I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66.13)
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23.37)
“Our Motherly Father, care for us…”