The Ninety-Second Letter: Cowbirds, Toilets, & Trinitarian Motherhood

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Dear Daughters,

I once heard a youth pastor use the metaphor of an overflowing toilet for the love of God. As in, I kid you not, “God’s love is like an overflowing toilet.”

Even as a teenager, I thought that was a strange metaphor, and certainly a strange way to connect with teenagers, except for maybe on an awkward shock-value level. Regardless, I was thinking about it yesterday morning, and as it’s probably been at least twenty years since I heard the metaphor, I guess it was successful to some extent. It sure stayed with me.

That said, our toilet overflowed yesterday morning. Just after your dad left for commencement, of course.

From the bedroom, I heard a weird glup-glup-glup sound while I was getting dressed, and when I went to check it out, the toilet was completely full. The sound was the overflow drain trying to keep pace. (It wasn’t.) By the time I ran downstairs to grab the plunger (and some rags), the whole thing had spilled out onto the floor.

It was a great morning, let me tell you.

As I cleared everything out of the bathroom, soaked up the standing water, and disinfected the whole floor—twice—and paused to cut a door in your cardboard playhouse and help rig a blanket for the other fort and overall was continuously interrupted by both of you who had no concept of what a disaster an overflowing toilet is, I had a lot of time to think. And that’s when the whole God’s-love-as-a-toilet crossed my mind.

Because of course, I cleaned up the mess. I plunged the toilet. I paused to answer your questions and help you with your fort and your house and talked about why the bathroom was now smelling like the public pool. Yep, I got down to business and took care of the problem.

Because an overflowing toilet is a problem. And it doesn’t take much human intervention to stop it. And then it’s super messy to clean up.

So the metaphor of God’s love being like an overflowing toilet only goes so far. Because God’s love isn’t a problem, right? It can’t be plunged out of existence.

I’m going somewhere with this, trust me.

It’s Mothers Day weekend, you know. And I did not particularly want to spend my Saturday morning disinfecting a poopgerm bathroom floor. I did not want to move furniture out of the bathroom by myself. I did not want to pause in my efforts to help you. But I did it, because I’m the mom.

*

If God’s love is like anything, it’s like the love of a mother.

Because of course it IS the love of a mother.

The Bible is so chock-full of images of God as mother that it’s surprising to me how often Christians ignore them and focus instead on God the father. Creator God birthed the world into existence. The image of protection in Scripture is often maternal—the mother hen, the mother eagle. The image of provision in Scripture is often maternal—the Psalmist finds nothing uncomfortable about talking about God’s followers nursing at God’s breast or as weaned children sitting on God’s breast in peace. In fact, that is held up as the highest peace there is—a weaned child on the breast of her mother.

Oh, girls, how I wish it weren’t radical to hear God talked about as mother, because it hasn’t always been that way! Early Christian mystics mixed gendered metaphors for Godall the time—and even for Jesus, who was literally a man—and it isn’t awkward. It’s beautiful and mysterious and everything that God is.

*

We found a cowbird egg in a finch’s nest outside on our front porch, so our science project Last week was researching cowbirds and learning about this parasitic bird species. We learned that if the cowbird egg hatches in this nest, the purple finch momma bird is going to raise it as her own, even though the cowbird is so obviously not her own in size. It’s a much larger bird.

I’ve been thinking about how hard that momma finch is going to have to work to provide enough food for this baby that isn’t hers. It’s going to be dominant in the nest. Her other babies will suffer. (The truth is that they will likely die from malnutrition or are pushed out of the nest.)

It’s heartbreaking.

Some bird lovers say that you should remove the cowbird egg from the nests of other birds. But cowbirds are actually protected under the Migratory Bird Protection Act, according to the wise internet, so you aren’t allowed to. But even if you were allowed to remove them, it isn’t an easy call, at least for me, to remove the cowbird egg.

The cowbird momma bird placed that egg in another bird’s nest because that is what she does for her species to survive. She doesn’t have her own nest. She watched the nest and at the perfect time of another bird laying her eggs, she placed her own into that safe and snug home to be hatched and raised by another momma.

That’s heartbreaking, right? It isn’t just me?

Girls, the story of motherhood is often heartbreaking.

*

God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.

As a mother who has experienced loss, I read this verse as a testament to the fact that God knows intimately the loss and pain of miscarriage.

If God indeed knows life before it is formed in the womb, then that same God is well acquainted with grief. Because the womb is a place of grief and loss for many women.

God mourns with those who mourn.

It seems to me that Scripture is heavy with images of God understanding the burdens of motherhood. Both the Old and New Testaments speak about God’s children, adopted children, wayward children, barrenness, broken promises, heartbreak. It’s all there.

*

My next-door neighbors have a robin’s nest above their front door.

On Friday, they told us that the robin used to fly off the nest and yell at them every time they came out on their front porch but that they they were worried because they hadn’t seen her in a few days. They were debating what to do about this nest, not knowing if the mother would come back, not knowing if it had already been too long since she’d been there.

My neighbor reached up and brought the nest down so we could see into it.

And there they were—Four bright blue eggs. Amazing, perfect, motherless eggs.

*

I was thinking about my momma this morning and all the other women I know who’ve lost their moms.

I was thinking about friends with fresh infertility grief while the children’s choir sang this morning.

I was thinking about my single parent friends who are mothering alone day in and day out. Those with spouses who travel the majority of the week. Those who share custody.

Those who feel heavy with the burden of failing marriages and uncertainty about the future, about their children’s futures.

Those who are waiting for fostering relationships to become permanent through the courts but already feel permanent in their hearts.

Those who feel like failures at parenting. Those with wayward children. Those with chronically sick children.

Those who are mourning.

Those who feel alone.

*

Girls, the story of motherhood is not just one of using the plunger when you don’t feel like it or the constant stream of questions that interrupts any sort of productive and coherent writing project.

It’s not just about hand-print art projects brought home from preschool or getting your favorite meal one day of the year that has been arbitrarily chosen as a day to appreciate you.

The story of motherhood is also one of heartbreak.

Real life tells us that.

The Bible tells us that.

But the Bible also tells us something else if we take seriously the metaphor that God is our mother.

Because the God revealed in Scripture is also a mysterious Trinity.

God is community.

God the mother does not stand alone.

God the mother does not provide alone.

God the mother does not grieve alone.

And that is the Mothers Day message on my heart today.

Love,

Your Momma

 

 

 

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