Two days from now I'll be reading and singing and praying with my brothers and sisters, then lining up with them, slowly moving toward the front of the sanctuary where a fellow human will look each of us in the eye and mark a cross of ash on each forehead, reminding us that we are dust. Loved dust.
As we begin once more this journey with Jesus toward the cross, I find myself drawn back to words that I prayed several years ago. They are still my prayer:
Jesus, as we prepare to enter Lent this week, my mind wanders back to St. Anselm who wrote a theology text and then rewrote the whole thing as prayer; it had seemed to him all wrong to talk about you as though you weren’t right there listening to the conversation, initiating it, allowing us to know you at all.
You are one who stands at the threshold, calling us into this journey with you.
You are the one who invites us to come closer, to lay our head on your chest, our ear pressed up tight against the deep lub-dub of your heartbeat.
You are the one in whom our journey ends.
We speak of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday as though we know the whole story. We know it only a little bit. We need to know it again, to live it more deeply, to walk through it hand in hand with you. We need you to point out the details and show us how our stories mingle with and flow from yours.
Teach us, we pray, what it means to be human.
Shape in us your heart’s love-beat.
Satisfy our longing, and help us long more deeply still.
Mighty God made one of us, love us closer to you as we walk these weeks together toward death and then on through death into life that can never be broken.
Taking it further: For some wonderfully practical thoughts on how to cooperate with God as He uses this season of Lent to help shape in us His heartbeat of love, check out Kasey Kimball's article, Freedom to Love: The Heart of Lent.
What can one say when a mother who has made her way safely through the explosive streets of Syria weeps for her seven children lost to flames in a “safe” country, in the sleepy quietness of their own beds? When her husband can't even weep with her as he lies in a coma? What words could possibly express the depth of the anguish, or speak the least bit of comfort into a pain like that?
Across the world we stand in stunned silence, the grief in our own gut swallowing words we might once have had.
Words, which sometimes seem so powerful, aren’t enough for a pain like this.
They aren't enough even for the smaller flames licking around the edges of our own lives, consuming us in a slower, more hidden way: the burns of radiation on one body, of grief in another; the unexpected explosion of words or tears fuelled by hidden pain that is forcing its way to the surface, crying, “See me! Hear me! Love me!”
Everything in me aches with the longing to comfort, to help, to compensate for the terror and make the wrong right. I feel again my smallness, my lack of power against the flames.
I can find only three words: Lord, have mercy.
They seem so small.
But as I wait in the silence, the weight of it all heavy within me, I realize all over again:
You, God, know that words, though strong enough to speak the world into being and to call Lazarus from the grave, are not enough for the greatest of our pains.
You know that pain of the heart can’t be touched with an appeal to the head. We need to be met in that place of our pain, heart to heart, gut to gut, the pain shared rather than reasoned into submission.
And so You come to us not first as a teacher with lessons to impart, but as a father who has compassion on his children, a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and quiets us with her love, a midwife who, rather than explaining the principles of labor, stays close, a calming presence, and helps us find courage to keep breathing through the pain.
You come as our father, running into the flames to rescue your children.
As our mother who will one day wipe away our tears forever. And who longs for us to turn from the corner where we ache alone and weep our pain on your shoulder and begin to receive your comfort now.
For this is what the LORD says:
". . . As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you. . ." (Isaiah 66:12-13)
Since I saw some months ago that Michael Card had written a new book, I’ve been waiting for it to arrive. It’s not because Michael Card wrote it, though I love his music and the other couple of his books that I’ve read. It’s not even because I need another good book to read. (I have a few on the go!) It’s because Card has written the book about a single word from the Hebrew Bible, a word that I’ve fallen in love with over the years and researched and knew I still didn’t fully understand. I was eager to explore more deeply the meaning of this mysterious word that, some might say, is the most important word in the Hebrew Scriptures. The word is hesed—translated, among other things, as “lovingkindness” or “faithful love”—and the title of Michael Card’s book is Inexpressible: Hesed and the mystery of God’s Lovingkindness.
The book arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been savoring every line. In my view, it’s worth buying the book for the brilliant cover which, in itself, fuels meditation and leads me into worship, and for the appendices which bring together all the verses in which this word is used and the various ways the word is translated, allowing me to soak more deeply on my own. And that’s without all the wonderful writing in between about the richly layered meaning of hesed, the God of hesed, and the magnificent mystery of finding ourselves objects of hesed.The combination of serious research and theology and beautiful, accessible writing led me, in each chapter, into worship of our God of hesed who loves us in such a magnificent way that it is inexpressible in ordinary language and needs this special, multilayered word, hesed, which itself defies a tidy definition, to give us some still-inadequate way to speak of this love.
As I’ve read Inexpressible, it has also added another layer to the lines I wrote a few weeks ago:
“God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into it so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry.”
God picturing himself for us in all these different roles is another manifestation of his hesed. God’s love simply can’t be contained in a single metaphor or definition, though it has been ultimately expressed in the living Word, Jesus, the embodiment of hesed.
The inability of a single word or metaphor to contain God's love makes it all the more important that we savour each small glimpse of God’s love that God gives us in each of the many different metaphors. Each may only be a taste of something far beyond our comprehension or ability to imagine, but it is a taste, one more small way that God invites us to know him and settle into his love a little more deeply.
We all have our bruises and fractures, and each one of those wounds needs tending in a different way. And so this God who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds, this God who leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one lost sheep, does that for the broken parts of us as well, coming to each hurting part of us in the way that that part can most easily receive God’s love and the tender care and comfort that it needs. God comes to the small and frightened part of us as a mother who can’t forget the child she has borne and tenderly holds the child and wipes away her tears, and as a father who defends and protects and affirms. He comes to the lonely part, the insecure and unchosen, as a bridegroom who chooses and cherishes and delights in the beauty of his bride. God moves back and forth between the images in Scripture, inviting us to come and receive love in whatever way we need it just now, always welcoming and calling us to return and make our home in that love.
This week I’ve been back in the image offered to us in Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being. . . We are his offspring.” In this picture, we’re unborn babes, living and moving in the One who has brought us into being and sustains us moment by moment as a mother does her unborn babe. We are separate persons, yet utterly dependent and given all we need for life and growth.
I first awakened to the significance of this picture some years ago through a dream. In it, I found myself bicycling in four-lane traffic. I sensed God inviting me to rest in his love, and responded that I wanted to but didn’t know how in the midst of the traffic. He called me to come and see. I found myself still pedaling my bike, though the traffic had disappeared and I was surrounded by love as though it were some sort of amniotic fluid, though not liquid. It was easy to pedal, easy to breathe, easy to rest. Realizing that there was no need to continue my frantic efforts, and wanting to explore this new space, I stopped pedaling and got off my bike. I found I could push out in all directions and remain surrounded and held in the love, neither liquid nor solid, yet not intangible either. It held me. I sensed God encouraging me to push out and explore, to try to find the limits of the love that conceived me and carries me, sustaining me in being. I might be unaware of it, but I cannot change it. My whole life and self is held in this everlasting love.
“Your hesed, O LORD, reaches to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.” (Psalm 36:5)
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
his hesedendures forever.” (Psalm 136:1)
What difference might in make in your day to remember that you are living it sustained and surrounded by the hesed of God?
I wake, anxious, to a day filled with things that feel too big for me. I take some slow, deep breaths to calm my nervous system, stretch to release the tension that I’m carrying in my neck, feel the bed firm beneath me. I notice where my thoughts are racing ahead and making things seem bigger than they are.
All of this helps—a little.
But what I really need is to know myself held by someone wise and gentle and strong, someone who loves me and for whom this day is not too much.
I find myself praying the first lines of Ted Loder’s prayer in his beautiful book, Guerrillas of Grace:
I come to you now
as a child to my Mother,
out of the cold which numbs
into the warm who cares.
Listen to me inside,
under my words,
where the shivering is. . . (p. 22)
I linger, letting myself settle into the image of being held by the One who loves me and whispers to me, “It’s okay, little one, I’ve got you.” After a while, we turn and look at the day together, and I sense the reassurance, “It’s okay, little one, we’ll do it together.” I’m a three-year old overwhelmed at the toys strewn across the floor, and what looked to my small eyes like an impossible task now becomes manageable as someone bigger, someone who loves me and has done this a million times before, begins to scoop toys from the floor and put them in their places, pointing out a puzzle and a book for me to put back on the shelf, a train for me to put in the basket. This day is no harder for God than it is for a mother to put together a twelve-piece puzzle and place it back on the shelf.
We long for love in its many forms, but there are times of particular vulnerability when only a mother’s love will do. Sometimes that tender wisdom and gentleness and care can be provided by another woman a little older than me, and sometimes I, a woman made in the image of our gentle God, can offer that care to another. But there are times God wants to meet our needs for nurture directly, and I’m so grateful that, though God refers to himself in Scripture as Father, he also gives us many mothering images, reminding us that God is neither male nor female, but the complete and perfect Parent who welcomes and cares for us with the best traits of both mother and father.
God is like an eagle stirring up her nest and hovering over her young as she teaches them to fly (Deut. 32:11), and a mother hen protectively snuggling her chicks under her wings (Ps. 91:4, Luke 13:34). God is a mother in the pains of childbirth (Deut. 32:18, Is. 42:14), unable to forget her newborn child (Is. 49:15). And when God proclaims to Moses who God is, the first word God uses to describe God’s self is “compassionate,” or, in Hebrew, rachum, sister to racham, or womb (Ex 34:6). At the heart of God’s character is a love so gentle, so patient and attentive, that God pictures it for us as womb-love, the love of a mother for her newborn child. It is a love that celebrates when we are glad, and aches with us when we hurt, holding out open arms and cuddling us close and wiping away our tears.
For this is what the LORD says:
". . . As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you. . ." (Isaiah 66:12-13)
As you notice the mothering aspects of God's character, what stirs within you? Are there fears? Questions or confusions? Hopes or longings?
I woke on Saturday with a sense of dread hanging over me. I was tired, my website was still a mess, the deadline for a writing contest was two days away, and I didn’t yet have an idea for a blog post. The kitchen and bathroom floors have needed washing for weeks. The washing basket was full, and I’d had to eat crackers and peanut-butter for my pre-run snack because the bananas were too green and I hadn’t made it to the store to buy bread.
I didn’t list all those things as I woke. They were just there, a dark cloud of weariness and dread as I entered the day. It was early and I lay there for a bit, telling God how much I hated started a day dreading it. Beyond that I don’t remember how the gift came. It wasn’t something I figured out. It was just there, an understanding and an invitation and another piece of the puzzle being put into place so that the whole image was all of a sudden clearer.
The understanding: I have choice here. No one is dying.
The invitation: Live a healthy rhythm of labor.
I’ve seen women who were for the first time experiencing the burning pressure between their legs push not only with contractions but try to keep pushing in between. In only a few minutes they were exhausted. If, on the other hand, they pushed with contractions, when the uterus was doing a huge part of the work to push the baby down, and rested and breathed when the contraction waned, they could keep up the rhythm of push and rest for much longer, and made much quicker progress in delivering the baby than if they tried to push constantly. Rest and breathing was also important for both mom and baby to get the oxygen that they needed.
In the hard work of intense labor, the rests are as important as the pushing.
So on Saturday morning, I sensed the invitation to stop and breathe between contractions. More concretely for this introvert who’d been engaging with people all week, the invitation was to keep all social media turned off and not even do my usual quick email check while I ate my snack before I ran. For this self who comes alive with writing and slowly shrivels with trying to figure out too many new technological issues at once, the invitation was also not to look at the website. It was to set all that aside and just be my small self, alone with God, without any of the roles or trappings or obligations. There in his presence, I could finally see things more clearly: nothing on my do-list was truly urgent. It would all still be there in a few hours and no-one would have died for it not having been done sooner. The only thing that hurt a bit was my pride. Who wants the mess of their website or their floors visible to visitors? But God has been doing his slow, patient work in me, and, for that morning at least, the inner freedom to shut out the world and be quiet with God was worth far more than the sting of possibly being misperceived and judged (or correctly perceived in areas I’d rather keep hidden!).
As I saw the invitation to step back into a healthy rhythm of labor, I also saw once more where God was in it all: The Divine Midwife was midwifing me.God had just put a hand on me, helping me sense whether there was a contraction or not, whether his power was in that moment at work in me, encouraging me to add my effort to his, or whether this was a moment to rest and breathe and prepare to work together again shortly.
For me, facing the day with dread is often a sign that I’m trying to keep pushing, relying on my own effort, when I’m being invited first to rest and breathe.
The exact signs will be different for everyone, but each of us can, over time, learn to recognize when we're pushing solely in our own effort, and when we're adding our strength to cooperate with something that God is already doing in us.
I’ve mentioned the understanding and the invitation, but not yet the puzzle piece being put into place so that the whole image became clearer.
The puzzle piece: I’ve long wondered how all this fits into the time I lived in a little mountain village in Afghanistan, sometimes as the only doctor for 150,000 people. Was that an exception, an impossible situation that couldn’t have been lived in a healthy rhythm? What about my obstetrical training when I had to work 24, 28, and sometimes even 36 hour shifts? Does this invitation to live a healthy rhythm apply only to those who don’t have a busy job or small children or another circumstance that may keep them running for years?
Certainly there are stretches of our lives when we seem to have little control over our own time. But even then, as I look back once again at my own situation, I see places I could have chosen differently and didn’t, usually because I was afraid of disappointing someone. Yes, there were huge, real constraints on my time and energy. But at least as big a part in my failure to live a healthier rhythm of labor was my over-active sense of responsibility to please everyone.
It takes time to learn to recognize when we're pushing in our own effort and when we're cooperating with the Holy Spirit and, as Paul said, "struggling with all [God's] energy which so powerfully works in me" (Col. 1:29), but there are hints and promises to help us in the process. I can
- Begin to notice signs that indicate I’m trying to push when I’m being invited to rest. What happens in my body, my thoughts and emotions, my relationship with God and others when I'm pushing in my own strength vs. when I'm cooperating with God and living a healthier rhythm of pushing along with Him and then resting and then pushing again?
- Pay attention to the clues we're given. I've found love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 a good starting list for noticing what's going on in me and what it might mean. I can work hard but with a sense of joy and gentleness, or I can drive myself anxiously and aggressively. In the first case, I'm pushing along with something the Holy Spirit is already doing. In the second, I'm likely trying to bring something to birth in my own effort.
- Ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in noticing well, in following the nudges to rest, and in letting Jesus heal me in the places I need to be healed so I’m not being driven by fear of what others might think but am responding to God's nudges.
The wonderfully encouraging news in this process?
The promise: We’re not on our own in this process of learning to listen and live a healthy rhythm of labor. We have an ever-present Midwife who knows us and is always with us and in us, midwifing the birth of our lives more deeply into God's, and of God's life in and through us into the world.
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s withinus. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Rom 8:22-28, The Message)
Welcome! Pull up a chair. If you’re reading this online rather than via email, you’ll notice that I’ve been working this week to transfer my blog to a new home to better welcome you, and the move is still in process. If you can’t see the search button or the list of topics, that’s because I haven’t unpacked them yet. The pictures aren’t hung and nothing is quite in its right place, but I’m so glad you’ve come anyway. The kettle’s on and we’ll pause in the midst of the mess to notice that God is here too.
The fact is, sometimes I hear God’s heartbeat most clearly when I haven’t managed to tidy everything up. Maybe it’s because then I most need to hear his heartbeat reminding me that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and that the Holy Spirit delights to hover over formless chaos and from it shape ruby-throated hummingbirds and the milky ribbon of stars in a clear winter sky and the sun glinting on the tips of salty ocean waves.
Creation is like that. We see a newborn baby or the first green shoot of spring peeking up from the ground and it awakens within us hope, and tenderness, and a desire to protect the new little life. The mystery is great, and the awe, and the hope. But also the mess. Someone got dirt under their fingernails planting those bulbs. Someone made space within herself and carried that baby-in-formation through three-quarters of a year of nausea and back pain, heartburn and mood swings, weariness and the little guest tucking himself up under her ribs or kicking her bladder or doing aerobics when she was trying to sleep. Someone breathed through the pains, and soaked the carpet when the water broke, and wondered if she could do it, and gave all her strength to push this new bit of life out into the world, slippery with fluid and blood and caked with white vernix. The coming of new life is messy.
That’s one of the reasons that the Psalmist’s understanding of God as midwife so delights me. People who choose to make their life's work caring for women and the life coming into being through them aren't generally afraid of the mess. Nor of the unpredictability of the process. And so in the messiest and most dangerous moments in his life, the Psalmist cries out to the divine Midwife.
In Psalm 71:6, when the Psalmist’s life is threatened by enemies, he prays, “It was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” The Hebrew text reads, "It was you who cut me from my mother's womb," picturing God as the midwife cutting the psalmist’s umbilical cord at his birth.
In another of the most painful times of his life, when his sense of being abandoned by God was accompanied by physical illness and exhaustion and desertion by friends, David finds hope in the reminder that the same God who was present at his physical birth, guarding his life, still tends him: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb. You kept me safe on my mother’s breast” (Ps 22:9) The Hebrew literally says, "Yet it was you who pulled me out of the womb. . . ,” picturing a midwife helping a baby be born.
It is quite possible that Jesus himself turned for comfort to the image of God as Midwife. From the cross, his raw back rubbing rough wood with each word, Jesus cries the first words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and the writer of Hebrews quotes Jesus as speaking v. 22 in the context of his suffering (Hebrews 2:12). As a Jewish boy, Jesus would have memorized large portions of Scripture, and in his agony, this entire psalm may well have become his prayer, its poetry wrapping up all the outer details and inner wrestlings of those hours leading to his death, holding open space for trust during his excruciating birthing of us, “a people yet unborn” (v. 31), into the inner life of the Trinity. Every part of him burned: his pierced hands and feet, his dislocated joints; Jesus, along with the psalmist, may have cried that his heart had melted within him (v. 14). He was being torn apart, as though by “roaring lions that tear their prey” (v. 13). If Jesus was indeed praying this whole psalm on the cross, then for help in the tearing, burning intensity of his labor, he turned to the divine Midwife: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God” (v. 9-10) “In you our ancestors trusted . . . and you delivered them,” he reminded himself (v. 4). Into the skilled and gentle hands that had delivered him and thousands before him he could commit his body and spirit.
I'm intrigued that David and likely Jesus as well (both men!) found comfort in the image of God as Midwife. In Galatians 4:19, the apostle Paul addresses the recipients of his letter, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .” He paints a startling picture in which all Christian believers (women and men!) are pregnant and Christ is the baby growing inside of us.
It’s an incredible privilege to carry Jesus within us. But I also know from my experience as an obstetrician walking with women through their pregnancies that as much as they might love the child being formed within them, pregnancy can be frightening. Spiritual pregnancy—Christ being formed in me—can feel scary and out of my control too—particularly knowing that this One being formed in me isn’t afraid of calling me to come and die on my way into new life. When fear rises, or I'm aware of my messiness, there’s comfort in knowing I’m in good hands, being cared for by the same skilled Midwife who was there at my own birth, unseen but present and wise and tender. That midwife is still guarding my life and skillfully working to safely deliver the life that is coming into being in and through me.
How is it for you to consider that strong and gentle hands are holding you and all that concerns you, even in the times you might not feel those hands?
Is there anything you'd like to say to your divine Midwife right now?