We all want to be present when a new life has come into the world. We all want to see and hold this new baby and share in celebration with the new parents. It is a time when people experience sheer joy. We rejoice and declare the new life everywhere we go and seem to instantaneously possess such love we’ve never known before. Birth is one of the two most significant marks of our lives. We are promised very little from the time we are born but we all know that someday we will die. What about those moments when you witness the last breath of a person’s life?
I’ve been working as a Volunteer Pastoral care-giver at the local hospital for a few weeks now and have been witness to people in the process of dying. The first person I visited was coming to the very end and I left the hospital with a deepened sense of the mark that they had left on me. I am marked by my birth, my siblings and every other person who has a significant place in my life, but never have I ever been so acutely aware of the mark that this relative stranger’s dying-process has left on me?
The experiences I’ve had at the hospital, caring for those near and after death, have marked me. Nicolas Wolterstorff wrote a book called “A Lament for a Son” where he expresses how the death of his son marks everything in his life. This book writes of the raw, dirty, gritty path through grief that we do not experience openly in society.
When I lived in Kenya, death was far more ‘common’ than it is here. What I mean by this is that death is far more visible. It is not hidden behind sanitized doors and it is not swept away immediately after a short ceremony. Funerals can last hours and when a person dies, the entire community is made aware. Wails and moaning can be heard from far away. As upsetting as it is to witness such open grief, I wonder If there is something to it that provides healing.
The community gathers around the grieving family and they have a vigil. People will pray for days and days before the service without leaving the house of the deceased.
Even though each of these unique situations are very different I recall being immersed in a deep feeling of gratitude and privilege. It is a privilege to be present during the last stages of life, just as it is to be at the beginning.
When we look at the themes of birth and death we often see them as a gain and a loss; life is given through birth and taken through death. I have come to look at it in a more cyclical fashion; the journey of life began at a time that we have yet to completely comprehend, it begins in a place that we understand and then it returns back to the place it began. I believe that it is in the witness of those left behind that we find the great gift, like the witness of a birth, of a life returning back to where it came from.
I’ve been reflecting a great deal this past week over a conversation that happened over Facebook. For those of you who do not know what Facebook is, it is an online community where people can post interesting items or thoughts as well as pictures. People can put in some personal information if they wish. This conversation happened around Mother’s Day and someone posted on their page that God is not a Mother. I, being who I am, decided that I would put my two senses in. I generally tend not to engage in deep theological conversations via the computer as I think that much is lost in the colour of conversation between two or more people. However, this is what I said:
To express God as a 'not' is rather limiting of God. Yes, God is not evil and God is not sin, but God is so much more than what is possible for us to imagine. Ancient Greek translations of the Holy Spirit use the word "Pneuma" which is a feminine word. The same applies to the Holy Spirit described as "Sophia"- feminine form of wisdom. Therefore, if God is all-in-one (the Trinity) and feminine words are used to describe God, I think it is quite appropriate to use a term 'Mother' to describe a certain characteristic of God. It is not limiting in any way. It is simply a way for humans to begin to understand the magnitude of God.
The conversation that ensued was based around the fact that Jesus taught us to prayer “Our Father who art in heaven…” thus it is not possible for us to believe that God could also be Mother. After I explained that in the Old Testament God was actually referred to in both female and male terms, it was expressed that perhaps people may get too caught up in the anthropological and historical aspects of God, and in this point I think they are quite right. They were not convinced by my argument of the femininity of a noun was a way of expressing God. I have been thinking about this for the past week and I thought it would be interesting to reflect on it in this blog post.
As I write this I am listening to “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” which is a personal favourite hymn. I think that it is interesting that we can apply metaphors such as the Tree of Life, Rock, Bread of Life, Fountain, Root, and many others as a means of expressing God. What is unique about all of these metaphors? They have been personified. None of these items have life in the human-sense. They have been given life-like features as a means to help people understand the magnitude to God’s abilities, love, and presence in the world. Christians do not seem to have a strong dislike of describing God with things that do not have life in the human sense, yet they are adamant that God cannot be Mother. For fair comparison purposes, we have human-inspired metaphors such as King, Ruler, Offspring, Rabbi, and Messiah, all of which have male attachments. This is the wonder of language and life; often we do not have the words to describe the intricate beauty or complexity that we encounter so we use a measure of words to help us begin to understand it.
So, back to my original question: what can’t we understand God as Mother? What is so wrong with that? As the Bible has been translated over and over into many different languages, somewhere along the lines we lost some of the complexity to describing God. There is even sure representation that Ancient Israelites understood God as/and many gods (gasp!). When patriarchal societies ruled in history past, the Bible began to reflect the ideologies of the time (for some further reading, see this blog post I found http://www.biblewheel.com/forum/archive/index.php?t-2758.html) and feminine descriptions of God were lost. Male understandings of God are not wrong, but then again, neither is the female.
As a woman, I found this rather upsetting that people were so against the idea that God could be a Mother. How could God not be a Mother? Both my parents have shown me the ways of God, each in their own wonderful and unique ways. To say that God is not a Mother is the same thing as saying that God is not working in and through my Mother, one of the most loving and caring people I have ever met. If you say God is not a Mother, then how could God have created such a wonderful person in my mother? This may seem like a long jump to this conclusion, but how could God create such a woman in my mother if God is not a Mother as well? I suppose that this hit me rather close to home because someday I hope to be a mother myself. I hope to work with God, using my body to create life and raise it in that same love. I believe that God created me in God’s motherly image to be a future mother.
I think this is where it ultimately comes down to; we are made in God’s beautiful and perfect image. That does not mean that we are perfect, by any means, but that God must be all things to all people in order to create such originality. In God the Mother’s image my mother, grandmother, aunt and every other mother today and time past is made in that beautiful image. In a way, they act as metaphors of God, just like the words we use to describe God. It is through and with them that I learn more about God’s love, compassion and kindness every day. I love the image that Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 3, that we are the letters of Christ where he writes
“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all humans; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Beautiful! We are the letters in the image of God! There is no need of a letter of recommendation for our place with God!
Therefore, whether I use the term God my Mother or God my Father or God The Tree of Life whose “fruit doth make my soul to thrive, It keeps my dying faith alive; Which makes my soul in haste to be With Jesus Christ the apple tree” –Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. Amen