As I continue to reflect on Psalm 103’s fleshing out of the meaning of the name God gives God’s self to Moses in Exodus 3 of “I am Who I am”, or “The One Who Exists”, “One Who Lives”, or “Living One”, I am drawn to a section I paraphrase as follows:
““1 Bless the LIVING ONE, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless God’s holy name.
2 Bless the LIVING ONE, O my soul,
and do not forget all Their benefits—…
8 The Living One is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 They will not always accuse,
nor will hold anger forever.
10 This One does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is Their steadfast love toward those who fear Them;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far They removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the One Who Is has compassion for those who fear Them.
14 For They know how we were made;
remembering that we are dust.
15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the One Who Lives is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear Them,
Their righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep Their covenant
remembering to walk in Their commandments.”
Where do we find God as the One Who Lives, according to this section of Psalm 103?
In an experience of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, that encircles our days, filing all things with its presence. There is a presence of love, compassion, mercy, which the Hebrew Scriptures calls God’s lovingkindness or hesed, and which the New Testament calls charis or grace, that fills all of our lives and all of our universe, though we don’t always acknowledge or see it. It is always accessible to us and the essential truth about life, according to the way the Psalmist describes it here, yet something we do not always reach out to or lean on.
The Psalmist’s imagery is informative. She or he draws on imagery we are used to for this love of God – picturing God as a father having compassion on his children. We know this well, for Jesus speaks of God as “Father” and, in his model prayer, teaches us to pray “our Father who art in heaven”. But less recognized is the maternal imagery the original Hebrew in which this Psalm was written provides. When God is said in our English translation to be “merciful” and “compassionate”, the Hebrew word for compassion has as its root the Hebrew word for womb. Literally it means “womb-affection”, “womb-love”, “womb-feeling”. It is based on that feeling I can never know as a cisgender male, when a pregnant mother feels their child moving in their own body as it grows and develops so that a unique bond often forms between her and her child. When she hold it in her arms, looks in its eyes, on a deep and profound level she feels affection for it as if it is a part of her own body. For, let’s be honest, that is how it begins: growing within her as a part of her body.
Such affection for a child is not based on what the child has done – its great intelligence, its moral character, its wealth and achievements. No, the child begins utterly helpless, unable to do a thing without its mother. It begins totally dependent on the mother for every need. After it is born, it remains dependent, only slowly becoming able to eat, walk, talk, on its own until it can grow into adult and begin a life of its own.
Even into adulthood, though, doesn’t a mother feel that same womb-affection? I remember sometime in my early adulthood, during college, having mom embarrass may saying something about my early childhood mixed together with motherly advice I believe in front of a young lady I was interested in dating. My face turned beet red and I mumbled, “Mom… do you have to?”
Somewhat apologetically she turned to me and said “Micah, it doesn’t matter how grown you get, you will always be my baby boy”.
I didn’t appreciate that then, because I felt small around this lovely lady I wanted to ask out. But now, looking back, isn’t that exactly womb affection, this deep motherly love Psalm 103 describes God having for each and every one of us?
As Isaiah 49:15 tells us this Living One says, ““Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”
We never cease, no matter what we do good or bad, whether in terms of professional accomplishments, moral growth, or relationships flourishing (or failing), to be ones God looks at as God’s baby boy, baby girl, or beloved child.
This is the meaning in the Christian tradition of baptism. When Jesus is baptized in each of the Gospels, words are spoken over Jesus while the shining light of heaven is seen above and the Spirit broods over him like a mother bird sheltering her baby chicks under wing. The voice from heaven says of Jesus “This is my Child, the One Whom I love, the One in whom I am well-pleased”.
Psalm 103 is reminding us this is ever, always how God who is the presence of life itself looks upon us. There is never a point we are not that One whom God loves as a precious child. No matter how well we succeed or fail at doing the right thing, at our business pursuits, at schooling, in relationships, we ever always have this One saying “You, you, you, are my child. You are the One whom I love. I am well-pleased and delight in you”.
A few other parts of this description of the One Who Lives are worth noting, too.
First this love is not despite, but because of our vulnerability. “They know how we are made”, we are told. A part of this that we are made beautiful – loveable, embraceable. As Psalm 139 says, this One who Lives, acting like a master seamstress, wove us together in our mother’s womb like a work of art, a priceless knit cloth. And so, Psalm 139 says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, held by the mothering hand of God even while being made in our mother’s womb.
Psalm 103, though, doesn’t mention our many wonderful traits but rather says this Living One “remembers that we are dust”, weak and vulnerable, limited.
This too is how we look at children. It is not despite but because of their vulnerability, that we feel affection to our children. Their stumbling bumbling attempts to walk, talk, and learn how to do things on their own does not make us look down on them. No, it makes us feel warmth, affection. It makes us protective of them, and also desiring they do well.
In her beautiful work The Intimacy Factor, counselor and author Pia Melody fleshes out how mother-love and father-love, this womb-affection, when properly expressed in our upbringing, frees us to be fully ourselves. Failing to receive it can lead us to flounder, with an inability to embrace our own vulnerabilities as a part of the gift of our own lives. Such brokenness can prevent us from fully embracing others around us, even the joy in the life in front of us.
“If no parent is perfect, neither is any child: to emerge healthy from childhood is an act of recovery .. from keenly felt inadequacy and pain…. [as we] regain knowledge of our inherent worth; [and] learn to accommodate to our perfect imperfection.
“The remembrance of our perfectly imperfect humanity is the bedrock on which the spirituality of recovery rests. Human beings have their limitations, but these limitations are not faults; they simply are part of the given truth about humans. If we learn to despise ourselves for being limited humans, we lose contact with the prime spiritual truth of our reality: that we are not perfect and that it is all right.
“There is an authentic self. We are born with it. Under the influence of immature parenting, we lose contact with it. As children warped into shape by immature parenting, we get shamed about who we are. The shame gets bound to our experience of self. When we are ‘ourselves’, we will have a shame attack, and in that attack we feel worthless. Spontaneity is frightening for us; it triggers shame attacks, bringing us back to our feeling of worthlessness. We wall in and shut down. Over the years, we become cautious in what we say and do. We lose contact with our authentic self. Rediscovery of the authentic self is what recovery is about …
“There are five essential attributes of the authentic child that center around inherent worth. The attributes of childhood authenticity, connected to inherent worth like the spokes of a wheel, are vulnerability, nascent reason, dependence, appropriate immaturity, and exuberant energy. The mature, self-esteeming parent guides the child to the proper expression and development of each one of these attributes of the authentic child… “
In her book, Melody fleshes out how not feeling this unconditional loving acceptance in our childhood can lead us to squelch each of these are aspects of who we are that, losing touch with our authentic selves.
bel hooks further argues in her book The Will to Change, the way in which not just mothers and fathers, but society around us can squelch this authenticity in boys:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.
“Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term “masculinity”) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.”
“To create loving men, we must love males. Loving maleness is different from praising and rewarding males for living up to sexist-defined notions of male identity. Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being. When we love maleness, we extend our love whether males are performing or not. Performance is different from simply being. In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.”
What hooks describes occurring for men and boys happens in its own way with women and girls, and even more so for those who don’t fit into our strict gender norms. (For a look at this process at work in transgender and gender fluid people, I would recommend a look at biographies such as Jenny Boylan’s description of growing up as a transgender woman in She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, and “On Being”’s interview with a Jewish transgender woman at http://www.onbeing.org/program/gender-and-the-syntax-of-being-joy-ladin-on-identity-and-transition/5646 ).
The Psalmist lets us in on the fact that this One who is Life itself, this ground of existence, whom we call God, does not despise us for our weakness, but rather it endures us to Them. Like a mother looks with delight on her children’s faltering attempts, being protective of them even while letting them go on their own to find their legs to walk independently, so God loves us accepting our faltering, failing, and vulnerable nature as even a gift to us.
How liberating this can be! So often, especially with men raised in the pull yourself up by the boostraps southern male culture which hooks speaks of in Will to Change and in which I was raised, men learn to be ashamed of feelings of vulnerability, weakness, need for help, and failures. Just in the last three weeks I can think of four or five examples of men I have counseled as a minister who felt this or that area of vulnerability or this or that endeavor that did not succeed in their eyes made them insufficient, broken, or worthy of shame.
Such attitude is not reserved to men. I encounter many women in my pastoral ministry who feel threatened by opening up about their pain, feel broken by their heartache, and put up walls to keep others out. When life tumbles those walls down, as the Psalmist promises it will, they are at a loss.
Yet no wonder God finds our vulnerabilities endearing! After all, it is those very points of brokenness that “let the light in” as Leonard Cohen famously wrote, for they are what open us up to God and others.
Late Catholic priest, pastoral counselor, and author Henri Nouwen, said it well, when he wrote, ““Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers…
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares…”
It is our very experience of vulnerability, limit, loss, and mortality which opens us up to others.
This is why Jesus must begin his ministry by isolating himself in the desert, nearly starving from lack of food and water. To face into our limit is to connect with where our heart and the womb-affection of God touch, for it opens us up to others.
Similarly, outside the Christian story, Siddhartha Gautama comes to enlightenment only after facing into his pain and that of others, by seeing the toll aging, disease, and death take on humanity. The path to Buddha nature for him is feeling the pain of vulnerability. It is our experience of limit and pain in ourselves and in our world that enable us to feel the compassion, the womb-kindness, of God.
This compassion does not come devoid of anger and limitation being placed on us or others from God’s side, nor ought it be expressed by us rejecting anger or need to set boundaries upon others.
But this anger, this limiting of others, flows out of compassion. It parallels what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said about love, power, and justice:
“One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Ultimately the anger that flows from this womb-affection, this heart compassion, is at all that threatens the full flourishing of love and life in the one that is loved. The limiting which flows in others is boundary-setting to keep such love and life whole.
Quoting Pia Melody again in her Intimacy Factor,
“Truth about self and respect for the truth of others are the portals through which true intimacy and spirituality enter. No intimate relationship is possible without them, and spirituality is a gift of relationship.
“At the center of this discovery is the concept of boundaries that create the experience of truth and respect. The system of boundaries … enables each of us to maintain our inherent worth in the face of all outside pressures, rarely allowing the opinions or emotions of others to erode our belief in our inherent worth. Secure in our own self-worth, we do not feel so threatened, diminished, or shamed by others. We do not have to make defensive or offensive adaptations to maintain our dignity. It is in such a state that true relationships are possible. For most of us, achieving this state is one of the most delicate and often painful achievements of adulthood. Most of us find our greatest and pain and disappointment in relationships that we cannot make work.
“When we are in relationships, we are called on to give body, thoughts, and emotions, to our partners and to accept body, thoughts, and emotions from them. Learning how to do this is a prerequisite for intimacy and the spirituality to which it gives birth. To do it badly causes misery. To do it well honors the best part of our humanity and puts us in psychological balance, which results in a sense of connectedness with life’s goodness”.
A final note on this aspect of how God is experienced in this womb-compassion, lovingkindness, or grace that surrounds our days: in this Psalm it is pictured almost as a space in which we live. This lovingkindness precedes our growing up in the world like grass, and follows our eventually passing away like wilting plants in winds scorched by summer heat. It is love that is stronger than failure and loss, continuing after we pass to surround the days of those in whose care we leave our world, our legacies, our passions, our dreams, and our many causes for which we strive.
We picture this Love in terms that seem human, painting the God from which such love flows as if a person like us: a father having compassion on his sons, a mother who will not forget the child at her breast, a lover loving their spouse as if their own bodies… We picture it this way because we need to see love with skin on, with eyes and face and hands, to feel it as real.
Yet the fact that love is something that encircles us in embrace, like the air, sun, moon, and stars encircle us. One of my favorite saints – a mystic, prophet, preacher, and scientist – Hildegard of Bingen describes this experience of God as a spaciousness of love that surrounds and embraces us well, when she prays:
Most royal greening verdancy,
Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light,
in this circle of earthly existence
You shine so finely,
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.”
It is important to note that outside the Christian tradition, in many Eastern traditions, lovingkindness is seen, along with karma, as a force that guides our lives which meditation and contemplation helps us experience. Without a belief in a God who is like a Person, they embrace the idea that a reality pervades all exist, surrounding and shaping us, which is lovingkindness itself. This too is a way we can envision God as the One Who Lives, the One Who Exists, as that loving presence encircling our lives.
I like how the Doubter’s Psalm Blogspot (http://doubterpsalms.blogspot.com ) pictures God in this way in its rendering of Psalm 24:
“This world and its life is sacred;
the very flesh of the Holy One.
She birthed it, breathed her own life into it
set in motion the evolution of its life.
Who now can stand before Her?
Those with open hearts
who love the truth and care for the world
They will be blessed.
Fling open the doors of your heart!
Open your being to God
You will know joy and peace.”
The image of God’s care as womb love invites us to experience all of our lives – every place we encounter, everywhere we go, as the womb of love in which we grow and develop. It calls us to both envision God in terms of person – mother who loves us – but also beyond person – as the spaciousness of love that surrounds us, both nourishing us and also limiting us when need be.
I invite you, as you go through your day and days ahead, to pay attention to moments and experiences of this goodness, this grace, this forgivingness to life, and to recognize that as the presence of God in your life. I challenge you to also bear that presence by living out such lovingkindness too.
Your progressive redneck preacher,