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.
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.
“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?