Our Mothering Father

I recently read a New York Times article about how the economy of the pandemic does not allow for Americans to have both a job and kids and survive. My husband and I have twin 2-year-olds. He is a pastor and I work from home. My friend asked, “Why are people not screaming about this?” 

We aren’t screaming because we don’t have the energy. Or the time. Or mental space to do anything else in our day. For almost 5 months my husband and I have gotten up early, broken work time into two-hour shifts where we work like there is no tomorrow. But there is tomorrow. And tomorrow starts at 6 am with two crying toddlers. And tomorrow holds what today held: maximized hours, exhaustion, and trying to do three full-time jobs between two people. We are screaming, but mostly on the inside. 

As a seminarian, I used to be particularly interested in rest. Sabbath. What a wonderful God-ordained word. I read books, I practiced, I didn’t study on a single Saturday for 3 years. My church did two sermon series in two years on the concept of rest. My husband preached at least one sermon on rest in that time, and I remember him attempting to address rest for parents as someone who did not yet have children. I think his acknowledgment went something like, “For parents, I know this is different for you, but it is still important…” A few years and two kids later and all I can say is, yes, it’s different. Yes, it is more important than ever. But sweetheart, we had no idea the train that would hit us when we had twins, and then drag us through a pandemic and almost no childcare support. 

We happened to move on March 1, 2020, to a new city. Two new jobs, a new church, leaving two ministries, and a decade of an established community. On March 16, we got the shelter in home orders. We had one Sunday at our new church. I met a handful of people. Our daughters attended children’s church for the first time which meant that I worshipped without kids for the first time in 1.75 years. And then it all happened. Shelter at home. Quarantine. Social distance. 

I’m writing this because if you are a parent who feels like their insides are withering, there is no hope, no timeline, no rest, no difference between weekend and weekday because they are equally exhausting, you, and I, need to cling to someone as tightly as our children cling to us. We need a God who mothers us.

Lately, I find myself struggling with hopelessness as I trudge through never-ending dailiness. I know this is the place of God patiently molding me into His image but right now it feels more like a place of despair. I remember having my second of four knee surgeries and telling myself, at some point you will be done with surgery, off crutches, through the six months of physical therapy, and this will just be a memory. Because you know that, be kind to your mom, expect the pain, get through knowing it will get better soon. Hopefulness. I had something to hope towards, an object of hope. Having such a clear object as well as a clear timeline gave me the hope I needed to persevere in painful circumstances and the perspective to take the bumps that would inevitably come. But that is exactly why this season feels like a free-fall. How many months (years?) will this go on for? Who will I be when I come out on the inevitable other side? How do I stop the spinning to fix my eyes on an object, a direction to hope towards?

The concept of fixing your hope on an outcome or goal is actually deeply biblical. It is central to any understanding of discipleship– we live in a way that might challenge us or make us uncomfortable, but we sacrifice because we have a goal fixed in our minds–salvation and God’s Kingdom coming today as it is in heaven. The Apostle Peter describes this very thing in the first chapter of his first letter when he drops the loaded therefore. Therefore, because you have a hope laid up for you in heaven, a treasure imperishable and undefiled, be holy as I am holy, walk in my ways, conduct yourself with fear and reverence knowing that you will one day stand before the Lord Almighty. If you have a goal worth living for, an object worth attaining, then, as Paul says, run the race in order to win the prize. What we anticipate on the other side of trials shapes how we live today. I know this to be true. It makes sense intellectually, but my heart still fails. 

Appealing to eternity creates a few practical challenges in my heart. Eugene Peterson’s voice rings in my ears as he writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction that believers today want fast discipleship, they want formation now! Most do not want a daily obedience in the same direction for a lifetime. But that is exactly where disciples are made. In the long haul. 

Largely, I feel like I have emerged from life challenges as some kind of victor. A phoenix rising from my own ashes, I view my story as a success story– as most millennials do. But as a working mother, what does “success” look like right now when all you have is pasta on the floor, everyone wanting mommy, and another day of working while your children cry outside your door while your husband tries to calm them down? Where is my commitment to Sabbath? Has my joy in God’s refinement evaporated? I feel as though I used to believe in something and now I am just surviving.

When the pandemic began, I reached for Isaiah. I figured, hey, might as well live in scripture that reflects our current reality. The prophets have become a strange comfort for me– both harsh and exacting, and yet offering the crystal clear view of restoration that only comes from suffering and being humbled. When I taught Bible studies at Harvard and we spent a summer in Isaiah, I signed up to teach chapters 23-26, and the image I remember is that of a woman giving birth to a gust of wind. I remember chuckling at the silliness of that phrase. Israel’s hopes becoming a gust of empty wind, not a new life, not a crying infant bringing salvation. The uttermost of disappointment. Their object of hope seemingly drifting away in a breeze. I read it as a metaphor, which it is, but I read it not as a mother.

As I finished the book in this season, it was the final chapter that caught me. I think about reading God’s word like winding a ball of yarn. The yarn remains the same, the same thickness and width. But it is the habitual, daily wrapping that creates something solid and of value. Growing every wrap. Gaining volume and mass quietly, invisibly. You wind and wind and all of a sudden it’s the size of a grapefruit. Slow and steady. That’s how it is reading God’s word regularly. So while the gust-of-air-birth is somewhere in the middle of my yarn-ball, another image was added this time around.

At the end of this massive prophecy spanning two centuries of the story of God’s chosen people, their daily struggles, the promises of how they will be turn out on the other side, all of it is wrapped up with the image of a mother. God as a mother. Consoling her beloved child. Holding it. Nursing it. Tenderness. Hope. Our Father, like a mother. 

“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” (Isa 66:7-8). A mother does not give birth before labor. A mother does not give birth before finding out she is pregnant. No child comes before a mother is scared, before she waits, before she grows and expands, before she suffers, before she loses sleep, before she loses herself to another. 

Motherhood, like God’s formation of his people, is a slow maturing, an uncomfortable forming, a losing, a preparing. A long obedience towards literally bearing new life. And God, like a mother to his people, is the refresher and nourisher, the one who delivers that which is promised. He gives birth to a nation, a royal priesthood as Peter calls us. He sustains and feeds and consoles his growing-pained people on his abundant chest (Isa 66:11). This is our God. A God who extends peace like a river when our bones our weary, who hold his children close and feeds them with tenderness, who carries His children on his hip when they need to be held and bounces them upon his knee out of sheer delight (Isa 66:12-13). This is our mothering God. 

The thing that has struck me time and again in my brief two years as a mother is how slowly we grow. How slowly our children grow. People see me with my young girls and say, “Oh, enjoy every moment! They go so fast!” I think what they are really saying is pay attention. I will not enjoy every moment. But I do need to be present because someday they will be grown. But today, they are not. Today they are two and still in diapers and stringing some nonsense words together and smearing yogurt in their hair. Growing up takes time. Just like being pregnant, growth takes time–there is no way to speed it up and keep it real. Isaiah is getting at this in the final chapter. You can’t give birth before you have labor pains. And God actually planned it this way. He likes watching us grow. He made us to be slow movers. The long days are where we actually choose him. Our lives and our children testify to this. We are simply not designed for fast discipleship. We are designed for slow days of choosing the good.

Somewhere in the middle of my reading of Isaiah, a young woman I know was questioning this “comfort” God gives. The imagery of Isaiah is tender to be sure—“As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (66:13), but what do we do when we don’t seem to be experiencing it? I comfort my daughters on my chest. I hold them close after they wake from a nap. I rock them when they cry. I comfort them. And this is true enough comfort, but it is not the whole biblical picture. Reading The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, my husband came to dinner one night astounded with the new knowledge that when God talks about comfort, he isn’t talking about a warm blanket for nap time. He is talking about spurring weary soldiers into battle. As our comforter, God calls us into battle to fight for His Kingdom to come in the daily work of being his saints. God calls us to action. Comfort is both the tender faithfulness of a mother holding a crying child and the battle cry to fight alongside our God.

Mothers lead into battle. Mothers summon courage and strength. Mothers speak wisdom, truth, and life into their children. And this is only a reflection of our God. Right now, I need that mother. I need that mother so badly to carry me on her chest. To tell me the tides can change quickly, but she will remain the same. As I mother my own daughters and bear this image to them, I need someone to bear it to me. I need my Father in Heaven to mother me. To bounce me on his knee and also summon the courage I need to keep fighting. 

Today, if you find yourself weary of mothering, weary of fighting on behalf of others, weary of the slow dailiness of being a Christian, remind yourself that your God chooses to identify with you, your motherhood. He deems it infinitely valuable. He holds your unique burdens and pains in such esteem that He chooses to wear the spaghetti-sauce-stained clothes of motherhood so that we might understand him more. And he does not grow weary. When your arms and patience fail, His will not. He will not grumble as he holds you, he will not resent your neediness. Today, find rest leaning on the chest of your mothering God. 

Listen to comfort of our mothering Father here.

The discipline of remembering

This morning I called my mom for a quick chat and she reminded me that this week was “a bit of an important week…do you remember what happened this week?” Although this kind of conversation is rather typical, I responded that, no, I could not recall the importance of the dates ahead of me, and she proceeded to remind me of two wedding anniversaries, two birthdays and, most importantly, 7/11 day (where you get free Slurpees from 7/11 gas stations). My mother has a steel-trap of a memory; things go in and they never come out. She remembers events with such specific details that sometimes I feel like she must be making it all up. “Anne, do you remember what we were doing 9 years ago today?! We were driving through Utah on our way to Moab! We stopped at that little coffee shop in Grand Junction—oh, you must remember the one!?”

My mom’s remarkable ability has always challenged me to remember. Not in a nostalgic way, but in an informational, you need to know this, kind of way. The kind of remembering that reminds you of your story, where you came from, and events in your life. She has written several accounts of our ancestors immigrating from Norway and Sweden to settle in the mid-west. Her most recent research was dedicated to me, my siblings, and her five grandchildren. Although it is not uncommon to check my email and find the full known story of a Hans or Lars somewhere back in our family tree, reading my daughter’s names in this dedication made this story feel more important, connecting another link in a small, typical family and whispering, you are part of this story. These are your people. This is where you came from. Remember.

Christians have a memory problem. The whole story of Israel can be boiled down to forgetfulness. When we open Exodus we find a people who had forgotten God calling out to a God who had not forgotten them. Much like the cycle of the judges, Israel repeatedly forgets God’s faithfulness and character, and consequently forget who they are. Moses is gone on Mt Sinai for a few days and they forget Yahweh and make a new god. They forgot the plagues, the Red Sea opening before them, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, the manna, meat, and water that God provided. They forgot who God was, and because they forgot, they acted like he didn’t exist. Sometimes when I read Exodus it feels ridiculous. How can you forget the pillar of fire that led you each night? Or the mysterious manna that gathered like dew in the desert? How could you forget what God had done? 

But the reality is, we are exactly the same. Remembering is difficult in the midst of our busy days and future plans. But if Christians hope to live faithful, joyful, and Jesus-centered lives, we cannot afford to forget. We must practice the discipline of remembering. Remembering God’s story– for the Christian, our story, is a fundamental Christian practice. Humans are narratival beings. We live in and embody all kinds of stories that shape us, give us meaning, tell us how to live, what to buy, who to associate with–all of our choices and actions demonstrate a story we believe. To be in Christ means you are embodying (or living in) the story of God–  that is what it means to be a Christian. Christians believe that God’s story is true–His account of what humans are for, our purpose, how we are supposed to treat one another, how we use our bodies and our money, how we should speak–all of our actions and choices should align with the story God tells about himself and his people. When we forget God’s story we inevitably start living in another story. These stories rarely reinforce the Biblical narrative, but rather begin to recast where we put our hope and what we look to for identity.

Practicing the discipline of remembering pulls us out of false stories and back into God’s story. The Bible is God’s story for us, so that is the story we must abide in. Scripture is the primary way God ingrains his story into our hearts, minds and actions. If we don’t know the story of God, we cannot live it. The Old Testament is full of reminders about the forgetfulness of God’s people. “But take care, lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deut 6:2). “Remember how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness (Deut 9:7). Remember the Sabbath day” (Ex 20:8), “Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he has uttered” (1 Chron 16:12). Again and again, remember! We must remember what God has done and who he is. His character is always revealed in his actions, so to remember his actions is to remember who he is. 

When I was pregnant with twins the hardest part was abiding in God’s story, and church was often where God’s story was most difficult to remember. When people found out I was having twins a few things would happen– a wide-eyed look of surprise, then the mental math criss-crossing their faces—I have one toddler and I am barely surviving, how are you going to do it with two?, and finally a closing statement that ranged from “I hope you feel really supported,” to “you must be getting a full-time nanny,” to “I’m so glad you are quitting your job,” (I didn’t, I wasn’t and I wasn’t). One transparent 23-year-old said what most people communicated to me when he exclaimed, “OH NO! I am SO sorry!” 

How people responded to the good news of having two kids at the same time revealed the stories they lived in. You aren’t going to be able to do this. Mothers should stay home. Children are so much work. I am barely surviving. And these stories were coming from God’s people. Where were the reminders of the Christian story that God is sovereign and he gave you twins? That he will sustain you even though this will certainly be difficult? I wasn’t looking for false comfort, I was looking for Biblical comfort–the comfort of firm faith and a loving Father. I wasn’t hearing that story very often. We must be people who remember the story of God and abide in it, not forgetting who we are or abiding in an alternative story. 

When we remember rightly, we are able to hope accurately. The power of remembering is not about nostalgia, it is about the right orientation before our eternal and good God. When our hearts and minds are dwelling in His story, promises, and salvation, we are living in a story of hope. John’s Revelation paints the glorious picture of the new heavens and the new earth. Paul exhorts us to remember the hope we have in heaven and live accordingly. Hope is kind of like future remembering. It is looking at the past, taking account of how God has acted in real time with real people in real circumstances, and applying what we have learned to the future. If we do not know the story and character of God in the past, we cannot envision what he might do in the future. 

Attending a women’s bible study last week, this very question came up. How do we respond to God when it feels like he isn’t here or doesn’t care? Or in other words, what keeps us hopeful when life gets hard? The answer is the story of God. When life is hard, we need the psalms proclaiming the provision of God and accounts of his works. We need the prophets revealing a God who remains faithful. We need the Gospels showing us Jesus who brings life to broken, weary and hopeless people. The story of God is a story that brings life out of death, that sets captives free, that promises (and demonstrates) the authority of the one true God as he acts throughout history. When we feel hopeless, we must practice the discipline of remembering and allow it to recast our vision of what God might do in the future. 

Remembering what God has done, and rightly hoping in what He will do, gives us what we need to abide in Christ today. Today, you and I need to participate with God in his story. Here are three ways we can practice communion with God so that we remember his story.

  1. Read the story every day. One of the easiest ways to abide in God’s story is to read it regularly and allow the words of God to dwell within you, reshaping your hopes, teaching you your history, and revealing more of God’s character. Reading scripture helps give us eyes to see God’s provision and presence because it centers us daily upon Him.
  1. Communion is an act of remembering as a church. “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) At this supper, Jesus is inaugurating the new covenant. His body and His blood will be the sacrifice poured out for the atonement of others. Do this in remembrance of me. Jesus is calling all who are in Him to physically and spiritually participate in a meal that will commemorate all that he has done. This humble meal might feel mysterious or mundane, but it points to a greater spiritual reality and reminds us of the work of Jesus.
  1. Rely on the Spirit. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit…he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26) One of the Holy Spirit’s jobs is to bring to remembrance everything Jesus said: the Holy Reminder. Before the Spirit came, Moses tells Israel to wear the laws of God around their necks and to put them on their doorpost so that they wouldn’t forget them (Deut 6). But the prophets promise a new covenant in which God will write his laws on our hearts. The law will no longer be external but will become internal by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we participate in Christ by his Holy Spirit we are given supernatural power to remember the Lord in our days.