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

B44F5F65-ECFD-417A-AF59-078A301C9B25

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

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Thirty-Seventh Letter: Generations of Women

IMG_5395

Dear Daughters,

Yesterday, as I picked up a frowning, teary, and inexplicably needy just-turned-two year old, I heard myself asking her, What’s the problem? The way I said it was comforting, not accusing, a question more along the lines of, How can I help?

As baby girl leaned her face into my neck, pulling herself tight against me, I asked again without thinking about it: What’s the problem?

Then something surprising happened.

In my head, I heard the question repeat in my maternal grandmother’s voice. Clear as day. As if I’d heard it a million times before, though I don’t have any distinct memories of her saying it.

And then, as I listened to the reverberations of her imagined voice, I heard my mom’s voice saying it, too. What’s the problem?

I listened more, still holding baby girl, who had wrapped her legs around my waist, and the two voices–my grandmother’s, my mom’s–became indistinguishable.

Because they’re nearly the same voice.

Sometimes when I’m on the phone with my mom, I hear in my mom’s voice the distinct intonation that was my grandmother’s. Actually, I hear it most clearly when I listen to her speaking to you, probably because what I’m remembering is the way my grandmother spoke to me.

I remember once as a teenager listening to my mom and her three sisters visit during a holiday gathering. They all had the exact same laugh, it seemed to me, and even twenty years ago, I recognized in it my grandmother’s laughter. Grandma was still alive then.

Sometimes, when I answer the phone, your dad says to me, “You sounded just like your mom.

Sometimes, when I answer the phone, I myself can hear her voice come out of my mouth.

We named the eldest’s first babydoll “Elsie” because my mom’s first dolly was “Elsie” when she was a little girl. We have a photograph of my mom and her Elsie back in the 1950s. It’s amazing to me that Mom’s bright eyes and round cheeks foreshadow yours so strikingly, girls.

So much of what I think of as “me” as a child, I see in you. And the older I get, the more I realize much of the me part of me is really my mom. And that part of her has a lot to do with her mom.

Mother’s Day was Sunday. Yesterday was my mom’s birthday.

A few years ago, one of my dad’s sisters came to visit, a woman who of course had known my mother well when Mom was my age. They’d sat in many a church pew next to one another. While in town, Aunt Diana went to church with us, and later she told me that sitting next to me in the pew was like sitting next to a young Bonnie. She said my mannerisms were the same, the way I sat, the way I crossed my legs. Those details were just like my mom.

Nobody had ever mentioned those likenesses to me before.

Last weekend, I put a new pair of stretchy jeans on and stood before our full-length mirror, something I don’t do very often. I saw my mom looking back at me. I’m a lot taller than Mom, but it was uncanny. In fact, I came down the stairs and told your dad, “I look just like my mom.”

Girls, you and I come from strong women. Women of courage.

My grandma died before you were born, and because it was important to me that the eldest carry her name, I hear myself saying Grandma’s name all day long, day in and day out. And Grandma’s voice echoes to me each time I see you print those five letters on your artwork. You are so proud of being able to write your name.

In those early, hazy days of being a mom, when I felt like I was sinking rather than treading water in the ocean of parenthood, one of the few things that brought me comfort when rocking you or nursing you or bouncing you on the yoga ball was doing a very non-Protestant thing.

I talked to my grandmother about being a mom. My grandmother who was deceased.

I asked her to pray for me.

She had six kids, and the first three were really close together. I thought she must have known a thing or two about how I felt, exhausted, hormonal, focusing on getting through the minutes because the day as a whole was too overwhelming.

My mom was her firstborn. My first name is Grandma’s middle name.

I figured if Grandma could get through this thing called motherhood and end up the sane woman I knew her to be when I was a child, she could help me get through it, too.

And she did.

My mom tells me that the first time I crawled, it was because she was catering a meal at a church and was busy in the church’s kitchen. Mom had left me down the hall in the nursery, and she could hear that I was crying, but she couldn’t stop what she was doing and come to me. In a little while, here I came, still crying, but crawling out to find her.

I love that story.

Maybe the ending goes something like this:

Mom sees me crawling and crying, my face red and frustrated, my bottom lip sticking out the way both of you do when you’re sad. She washes her hands and walks over to me, and I pull myself up on her legs to stand. She picks me up. I lean my head on her shoulder, pull my body in tight, and wrap my legs around her waist. She rubs my back and asks me, her baby girl, “What’s the problem?

And maybe she hears her mother’s voice.

Love,

Your Momma