As we reflect on the theme of motherhood and God as beyond gender, I thought it would be good to share again this reflection from several years ago on the motherhood of God in Scripture and Christian tradition.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Our readings in the New Testament focus first on the work of Christ as older brother, the one who has gone ahead of us on the path God has laid out for us. Yet they center on the work of the Holy Spirit, which Trinitarian theologian Jurgen Moltmann has come to call the motherly work of God with us and for us.
Jurgen Moltmann, in his book The Source of Life, writes:
“If the experiences of the Holy Spirit are grasped as being a `rebirth’ or a `being born anew’, this suggests an image for the Holy Spirit which was quite familiar in the early years of Christianity, especially in Syria, but got lost in the patriarchal empire of Rome: the image of the mother. If believers are `born’ of the Holy Spirit, then we have to think of the Spirit as the `mother’ of believers, and in this sense as a feminine Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is the Comforter, as the Gospel of John understands the Paraclete to be, then she comforts `as a mother comforts’ (cf. John 14.26 with Isa 66.13). In this case the Spirit is the motherly comforter of her children. Linguistically this brings out the feminine form of Yahweh’s ruach in Hebrew. Spirit is feminine in Hebrew, neuter in Greek, and masculine in Latin and German.
The famous Fifty Homilies of Makarios (Symeon) come from the sphere of the early Syrian church. For the two reasons we have mentioned, `Makarios’ talked about `the motherly ministry of the Holy Spirit’. In the seventeenth century, Gottfried Arnold translated these testimonies of Syrian Orthodox spirituality into German, and they were widely read in the early years of Pietism. John Wesley was fascinated by `Macarius the Egyptian’. In Halle, August Hermann Francke took over `Makarios” ideas about the feminine character of the Holy Spirit, and for Count Zinzendorf this perception came as a kind of revelation. In 117411, when the community of the Moravian Brethren was founded in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Zinzendorf proclaimed `the motherly ministry of the Holy Spirit’ as a community doctrine for the Brethren. He knew very well what he was doing, for he wrote later: `It was improper that the motherly ministry of the Holy Spirit should have been disclosed to the sisters not by a sister but by me.’
As a vivid, pictorial way of explaining the divine Tri-unity, Zinzendorf liked to use the image of the family, `since the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is our true Father and the Spirit of Jesus Christ is our true Mother, because the Son of the living God is our true Brother’. `The Father must love us, and can do no other; the Mother must guide us through the world and can do no other; the Son, our brother, must love souls as his own soul, as the body of his body, because we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and he can do no other’ (see also my book The Spirit of Life, pp.158-9). Zinzendorf then also describes the influence of the Spirit on the soul in romantic terms of great tenderness. And in a German hymn, Johann Jacob Schutz describes the leadings of the Spirit similarly as a guiding `with motherly hand’.
It is right and good that contemporary feminist theology should have discovered the `femininity of the Holy Spirit’ and reinterpreted it, and it is quite out of place and a sign of ignorance when official church organs in Germany believe they can scent heresy in this discovery.
Of course the picture of the family of God Father, God Mother and God Child is no more than an image for the God to whom no image can approximate. But it is much better than the ancient patriarchal picture of God the Father with two hands, the Son and the Spirit. For there God is a solitary, ruling and determining subject, whereas here the Tri-unity is a wonderful community. There the reflection of the triune God is a hierarchical church. Here the reflection of the triune God is a community of women and men without privileges, a community of free and equal people, sisters and brothers. For the building of this new congregational structure, the motherly ministry of the Spirit, and the Tri-unity as a community, are important”.
I invite you as you crack open your Bible with me, to look to and listen to the descriptions of the brotherly work of Jesus on your behalf, and how you can join him in the path he has tread for you, but also to hear the descriptions of the motherly work of the Holy Spirit. Open yourself to the presence of the Spirit in your life, and how you can experience Her as she makes real to you God’s transforming love.
In my life, opening to the experience of the Holy Spirit first happened among a youth Bible club in my high school, a group of mainly Baptists and charismatics. I remember as I joined in a prayer circle with them, and joined in praise choruses to the strumming of one of their guitars, feeling my heart open and sensing a presence of love that melted my defenses and opened me to feel fully alive. I experienced then, and since, the Holy Spirit in the terms Moltmann describes Her in his book: “the Holy Spirit is the unrestricted presence of God in which our life wakes up, becomes wholly and entirely living, and is endowed with the energies of life”. In different ways through different experiences and practices in my life I have felt God’s presence flow over me like water, embrace me like a mother’s arms her child, and I have felt myself filled with the sense that I am fully alive.
This presence in which our lives wake up, the mothering Holy Spirit, is not just available in the strum of guitar chords or in moments of prayer, but in each moment and each place in which we draw breath. Just as the Holy Spirit has helped me discover the joy of being fully alive, so the Holy Spirit is there for you in each moment, as you open your heart to Her presence.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Matthew 16:13-20. I wonder as I read this story. We often read it literally, as if Jesus is trying to put together some Christology or maybe an ad campaign for himself, like in “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Jesus literally asks “Who do you say that I am?” Yet Jesus already knows who he is. Jesus does not need someone to inform him on the right doctrine of Christ, to let Jesus in on the secret of his own identity. I wonder if instead of asking who he is by saying “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus is really asking those who answer “Who are you?” by this question. After all, our answer to who Jesus is to us is really more our description of our relationship to Jesus than anything else. Our answer to this question flows less from our theology and from Bible verses than we would like to admit. My answer to “Who do you say I am?” flows more from my lived experience of Jesus in my life. It comes from my heart, my life. Your answer does too.
The challenge of this verse for me is that Christ still haunts us with this question. “Who are you, really? I know who I am, but who are you in relationship to me?”. The question of who we are is the question we struggle with the most. God is constant, Christ is ever for us and with us. The Spirit is nearer than the air that we breathe. They never falter. Yet our hearts waver, and we struggle to find our way. Know that Christ is not trying to force you into some mold that is not who you are. Nor is Christ sitting in judgment of the rightness or wrongness of your beliefs, as if your ideas about Jesus determine your rightness with God or others. Rather, Christ is holding out his hand, saying “follow me”, “walk with me”. Christ is offering to walk with you on this journey to discover who you are, who you are always meant to be. You cannot answer either the question of who Christ is, or who you are, without embarking on this journey. Jesus is not worried about the abstracts of your dogma. Jesus is worried about you, and offering a richly rewarding relationship with you that will help you discover who you truly are and what your life is for. Jesus invites you and me to a journey that is never ending, never easy, but worth each step and every mile
Matthew 28:11-20. What strikes me as I read this story is how Jesus has made a 180 from his earlier approach. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus nearly refuses to heal a woman because his mission was only to the Jewish people and she was not Jewish. She confronted Jesus on how he had let his cultural upbringing stand in the way of God’s work. Jesus heard this woman out, and he began to change his approach so Jesus’s ministry included more people. Now, after his death and resurrection, Jesus commands his followers to go into all the world, proclaiming God’s realm to people from every nation and walk of life. We see Jesus learning, growing, and evolving, throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Apparently the sort of holy sinless life Jesus embodies is not one that is static nor the holiness of a man that doesn’t make mistakes. This shows me that a mistake and a sin are different. There seems to be a point where God confronts us with our prejudice we inherit from our culture and upbringing, an inheritance that puts up walls to keep the other out. When that happens, we have to choose what to do. After that encounter, such prejudice becomes not just something we grew up with but outright sin and bigotry. Jesus’s evolving holiness suggests something to me about our calling as Christians. The Christian life is not adhering to a list of rules and regulations. It is following Jesus. It is embarking on the same shape of life Jesus lived out. For Jesus that was a life constantly open to learning new things. It was a life of ever adjusting his boundaries so they reflected more and more of God’s mercy, love, generosity, and grace. This holiness is a journey where we follow Jesus in moving daily out of the cultural prejudices we have been raised with, oftentimes which view only certain people as worthy of God’s love or the community’s embrace. This path of holiness guides us in moving more and more toward fulfilling more perfectly Jesus’ command to reach out embracing all kinds of people in all kinds of places with the message of God’s love. We are fooling ourselves if we think this is a simple process. This path, like Jesus’s own holiness, is evolutionary. It means regularly confronting our own inner prejudices that could be overlooked, and working to really see people for who they are, so that we can honestly more fully see them as just as much bearers of the Divine image as we ourselves are. It also means not just making the other mistake of beginning to castigate those who grew up as we did, who taught us the values that we did, as evil and unworthy of grace, love, and inclusion in God’s family. We do not know their journey or story, and they too have need of love. Living out this all-inclusive grace is the holiness Jesus modeled for us, and it is a journey and a process. Its destination is a day of great home-coming and family reunion where all sit at the table of fellowship. May it come quickly in this earth, and thank God it remains for us beyond this veil of tears!
Romans 8:1-11. Two lines resonate with me in this rich and moving section of Scripture. First, “There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. So much of my Christian life I lived as if God’s love was fickle, as if God was a kid who did take backs on God’s gifts. Yet in clear words we have the promise: there is no condemnation in God for those in Christ. All fear of divine retribution, fear of being abandoned by God, and fear of being kicked out of God’s family need to be laid aside. God’s love and acceptance is here for all of us. This inclusion in Christ sounds like it is for some of us, but in actual fact all are included in this. God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus. The whole world, not just part of it. Jesus came for all the world, so that all are included in this phrase “in Christ”. This promise lets us in on the great secret: we can abandon any need to relate to God with fear and can begin now to open up to God.
I think that the phrase, “there is no longer any condemnation,” also speaks to me because I am my worst critic. I beat myself with my “if only’s”. To quote my friend, Pastor Bec Cranford-Smith, I should on myself all the time, until I am a should-y mess. This is not God’s doing. This is my continuing to live as if I am not in Christ. It is continuing to live as if the story being written for me is the word of shame I heard from so many sources as a child, the word of rejection I heard as a little boy on the playground, the word of abandonment I heard as a young minister when colleagues and mentors decided I was “too far gone” with the inclusion I preached and practiced. I know firsthand how powerful these shoulds can be, but should-ing on myself does not make my life any healthier or this world any better. All should-ing does is make things messier and uglier.
In fact, shoulding on ourselves is paralyizing. It makes me, makes you, feel helpless and unable to change for the better. It also causes us to see condemnation all around us, even in people who love us and care for us. It makes it hard to hear good advice, fearing underneath it might be shame, rejection, or abandonment because of words of critique or disagreement.
No wonder “there is no condemnation” is the first word in this text! Without it, nothing that follows can be life-giving. In fact, I would argue that the words “there is no condemnation” are a lens we can use to guide us on how to interpret the whole Bible. We can ask, “since there is no condemnation, what does this verse mean?” and go through Scripture treating it less as a rulebook with a pass/fail test at the end, instead realizing it is a testimony, a letter of love and grace to us and to all people. We can let go of that fear of being condemned. Doing so can help us realize that interpretations of Scripture which seem to present that this or that person is rejected, condemned, cut off from God, are far of the mark because we are promised that all people — even the whole world — are in Christ, and in Christ there is no condemnation.
The flip side of this text only makes sense when we realize no one it talks about here is condemned. The text begins to talk about the way to a full life that God intends, and it talks about the way of life versus the way of death. This brings us to the second set of words that stand out to me. It talks about a way that is guided by flesh or Spirit. Flesh is a translation I hate, because it makes it sound like our bodies, the trees, the water, the birds, …. all those fleshy things … are evil. A condemnation of our bodies and our earth is not what I understand the Greek word sarx, which we translate flesh, means. Sarx means more flesh without spirit in it. Sarx is body without breath or life in it. Sarx is not flesh in the sense of living skin. Sarx instead is more like the corpse that is dead flesh being chosen over the life-giving Spirit. The life-giving Spirit is what gives our bodies life so they are not a corpses but living things that carry within them the image of the invisible God. Yet we can live as if this is not the case, live as if we are zombies, just bodies without life. We do this when we only focus on the material of life, without its meaning, without its purpose, without its connection to the deeper reality that undergirds it. To not live as zombies is to cooperate in our bodies with the Spirit of life.
The ironic thing about this text is that instead of ignoring our bodies and the earth as some take this verse, the Spirit we are called to cooperate with in this passage is the Spirit that is already in all of us, and which gives our bodies life and breath. So Paul calls us to cooperate with the Spirit who is breathing life into us each moment, rather than to fight against Her. Jesus embodied what this looks like, what this cooperation with life is like. Cooperating with the Spirit sounds like a struggle in these verses, but that is only because from day one we have learned that working against nature, working against our own natures, is necessary to survive. We have to fit others’ molds to succeed. We have to be the good boy or girl, the strong man or motherly woman. Or do we?
This text paints a picture that we can come to know full life only as we follow Jesus’s example of continuing to cooperate with the Spirit of life who indwells us. Two images help me with what it means. Both suggest that, far from becoming flesh-hating, we are being called to love our bodies. My sister is a sustainable agriculture student who works as a sustainable farmer. Getting plants in step with the life-giving Spirit is what she is studying to do. To thrive, that plant needs water, fertilizer, and sunlight. As a sustainable farmer, my sister does this for the plants as organically as possible. To remove the plant from these things would be the agricultural equivalent to pulling that plant away from the Spirit of life so it lives according to the flesh as a vegetable zombie. To do so would mean that plant or that field of plants would shrivel, waste away, and eventually die. Physically, we have all seen not just plants experience this, but neglected animals and people in dire straights. To cooperate with the Spirit is to open ourselves up to those ways the Spirit is available for us to help nourish us, to cause us to thrive.
Another image that helps is the one CS Lewis gives in his book, Mere Christianity. He says it is like without the Spirit, we are Pinocchio dolls. The Spirit is the One who animates us and gives us life. She wants to work together with us so that we can go from marionette dolls to becoming real boys and girls. The Spirit is the Love of God made manifest, so we Velveteen rabbits can become fully alive.
I hear a call in these words of Scripture to ensure we take time and space to drink deep of the well of Spirit water that quenches our soul thirst, to stand near the sunlight of Christ light shining upon us, to set down roots deep into the ground of the Creator Spirit we call “Father” and “Mother”.
Romans 8:12-25. On one hand, this section of Scripture is a word of unbounded hope. You and I have been adopted into the family of God. Somehow you and I have been brought into the relationship of love God the Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit have shared from eternity past. That all-enduring embrace is about you always. It is a pledge that we now stand upon a solid foundation that will not be shaken, that lasts. It is a promise that beyond the suffering of this world, there is a great home-coming in store for you and me at that great family table laid out before the Creator’s home-stead. It is a certainty that whatever you and I face, the outcome will be more beautiful than this suffering, for we will enter into the quality of life Christ has known in the Father and mothering Spirit from eternity past.
Yet this son-ship and daughter-hood we are granted is also linked here with the redemption of all creation and the earth. Again this shows Paul is not anti-flesh, anti-body, anti-earth. Paul is not a hater of the created world. He looks in hope to see it redeemed from its suffering, through our entrance into our full life as children of God. A part of this pledge is a reminder that our salvation is not just about heaven apart from this earth. It is also about God redeeming all of creation in this earth — from the mountains and rivers, to the trees and tigers, to the clouds in the sky — from the damage our selfishness, pollution, and abuse, has done to them. This is a part of what the doctrine of the second coming is supposed to be about in the Christian tradition: Jesus redeeming all of creation from what we have done to it so that heaven and earth may become one.
I don’t think this connection, though, is just about what is coming by and by, whether in Jesus’s return and the new world that follows, or in our entrance into glory at death. I think it is also about the meaning of son-ship and daughter-hood in the Bible for here and now in this earth today. Because we know Jesus as Son of God is also a reference to Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh, we often forget the meaning of son-ship in the Hebrew Scriptures. A son of God in the Hebrew Scriptures was a messiah, an anointed one, sent by God to deliver people here and now from oppression, to heal the broken earth, and to be one who helps the promise of Abram of all people being blessed, and the earth beginning to be healed so it is more like Eden than Pharoah’s slavery-powered Egypt. Many figures are such sons and daughters of God in the Bible. These sons and daughters of God messiah, anointed one, figures in Scripture including David and Deborah, Cyrus of Persia and possibly Zerubabel. So to be adopted as a son or daughter of God means you and I also, in this world, are called to be ones who, like these sons and daughters of God who came before us, join Jesus in the work of overturning injustice, bringing liberation to the oppressed, bringing healing to the broken, reconciliation to the estranged, and healing to this earth. Here, in this world, we are to work to make this world more as it is in heaven, in anticipation of that mysterious moment in which God will make earth and heaven into one, a moment which Christians picture in the language of Jesus’s second advent. It is a daunting challenge, and possible only because we are not alone, but welcomed into the embrace of love the Father, Son, and mothering Spirit have always shared through being adopted as God’s children. This work flows from the adoption, into this world.
Romans 8:26-30. This text continues to look at the work of the Spirit. “The Spirit….comes to help us…when we don’t know how to pray,” means so much to me. A part of this promise is, of course, that we do not pray alone. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us, inspiring us from within how to talk to God. But I think, too, of many times I needed to reach out and words would not come. We all have moments of joy and pain too deep for words. We are promised here that wordless times can also be times of prayer. We can sit before God, groaning or silenced by what we face, and know God hears. God the Spirit translates these groans to words.
The famous words, “God makes everything work out for the good,” follow this description of silent groans and sighs as prayer. This working out for the good of all things, too, is the work of the Spirit in response to our wordless groans. The Holy Spirit not only fills our hearts, but fills all things with Her loving presence, so that everything from the stars in their shining orbits, the plants in their growing, the rain as it falls, is in a relationship with the loving Spirit who indwells them. This is not what traditionally is thought of as predestination. Our hope is not in some cold determinism of God’s will, blind fate, or our will-power. It is in the fact that all that is remains indwelled by a loving Spirit who relates to it and to us as a Mother to her children. Biblically, this relationship of the Spirit to us and all things is pictured as a mother bird sheltering her chicks under her wings. Like a loving mother, this loving Spirit does not force anything — from the earth moving its tectonic plates, to birds in their migration, to the choices of men and women — to do anything. Like a mother to her children, the Spirit whispers, nudges, guides, and leads all things. Like a Mother, the Spirit is persistent. We can know that while no one and nothing’s outcome is forced, such a leading, though it cannot prevent pain and heartache, will guide, inspire, and lead all things to work toward healing, hope, love, and new beginnings for all people and all that live. This is what our mothers on their better days have done for us as children, and so what the Holy Spirit as the Mother of all living continues to do for us and all living things, always and forever.
A final part I think is important to me as I reflect on this text is that this movement is linked to “those who love God and are called to God’s purpose”. This is a reminder to me of what I noticed yesterday: that being adopted as a son or daughter of God is not just about our being loved, blessed, and given a secure place in God’s homestead. It is that, to be sure. It is also the Hebrew concept of son-ship; being anointed as one who shares the responsibility of working together with the Spirit to help the healing of the world to happen. This adds to my sense that all things working together for the good is not cold determinism. We have a part of being ones who listen for the Mother’s voice, who listen for those Spirit whispers that come. We must cooperate with God the Holy Spirit and in so doing we help further this process of God restoring all things. Being a child of God is to be a partner with the Father, Son, and mothering Holy Spirit as they work to draw all things into healing, reconciliation, and peace. Closer to that day all will be brought to the peace and wonder of the Father’s heavenly homestead.
Romans 8:31-39. This text says it all. It is a glimpse into the very heart of God, which is exactly what Christians believe Jesus came to reveal to us. What is the heart of God? A promise, true as a baby’s cry, firm as Appalachian hills: nothing, my child, will ever separate you from my love. Nothing will ever doom you away from my care. Never, in all of time, will you ever be forgotten or abandoned by me, even in those moments that like Jesus you cry “my God, my God, why?” Nowhere, in all of space and a multiverse of worlds will you ever be hidden from my sight, or too far for my love. Even in hell below, and in death to come, yet my heart will hold you close. You are my child, precious and beloved. Hear this words today, and know they are ever, always, God’s promise to you, to me, and all who live and breathe in this world.
Romans 9:1-18. Paul is very human here. Paul is struggling through how to understand the Holy Spirit’s work to turn all things to the good in a situation where Paul feels people are not making the best choices. Why do my own country-men and country-women not choose to embark on this new path of Christianity? Paul agonizes over it as a Jewish believer in Christ Jesus. I too can relate with times when the paths others take — and I take — are ones I end up agonizing over, fearing they (or I) have gone a path that is dangerous, risky, and that misses the mark.
The picture I get of the Spirit’s working in Romans 9 is that the Holy Spirit does not force us to a particular choice, but works together with our freedom. The Spirit works with the paths we embark on, trying to lead us and gently guide us. We don’t always make the right choice, and at times that means pain or suffering for us or others affected by our choices. This is not the final word, though, for even then the Spirit works with us, within our lives, within our world, as if in labor pains, working to bear within the Spirit’s own self both our good and bad choices, just as a pregnant mother bears within her own body every move her child makes. The Spirit is constantly working so that out of these good and bad choices something good, beautiful, and healing can be borne into the world. We are like the child wriggling in the Spirit’s womb, sometimes kicking against her womb walls, sometimes growing comfortably, but ultimately never separated from our loving Mother who forever surrounds us. Ultimately, we cannot overturn the Spirit’s work of turning us and all things to good, though we can fight and wrestle against them, causing grief to the Spirit. Like a mother leading her child back home, so the Spirit is able to guide us to the right destination from all of our journeys, even when we make a wrong turn. And often the turn that seems wrong to another may be right for us, even if it is wrong for them.
It seems to me that Paul does not know what the Spirit is doing, and why his fellow country-men or women reject the Christian message. I think instead of trying to rule on who is in or out, Paul is trying to illustrate that God the Spirit is still turning all things to good, even when how that will happen is not clear. I wonder if we have a better picture of this question he asked today. Do we not see Jewish people of faith who, without becoming Christians, live out their Jewishness in a way that makes the world more whole, more healed, more beautiful? Do we not also see how the continued witness of the Jewish people in their own terms has caused Christians to have a more beautiful, more loving, more just faith through hearing the stories of these Jewish believers? I wonder if this example shows us to trust the Spirit when people and groups go down paths we feel are wrong. Who knows what the outcome will be? Who are we to say that it is ultimately wrong for them? After all, the Holy Spirit continues to work with that person and those groups, groaning in them and in our world, until that path is brought into one that brings healing. Even when our choices are not perfect, the Spirit is able to guide us aright, and guide our world. To me that is a message of hope for us, for all we care for, and for all who live on God’s earth.