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Metaphors, Mothers & God

Metaphors, Mothers & God

Glynn Cardy 8th May 2022
Mothers’ Day is a time to recognize the love, nurture, and commitment that many mothers have given, and continue to give, to their children. And it is not only their children who might express this gratitude, but also our society as a whole. Raising children in a context of love, nurture, and commitment lays a foundation for good, for the good of us all, for good to endure. So today we pause to give thanks and praise, and in praising continue to encourage such good.
Mothers’ Day is also a time of remembering the mothers, most of whom are long dead, who shaped and influenced us, who bequeathed to us not only their genes, their habits, and their attributes, but also their shortcomings for us to process and overcome. So, we remember the good times, try to forget the bad times, and resolve to make the time we have with children and others entrusted to us better. Much better.
In our liturgy on Mothers’ Day, there is also recognition that God, despite assumptions to the contrary, has a history of being portrayed as a mother. This is shown succinctly in Shirley Murray’s hymn From Mother’s Arms where Shirley gives scripture verses to source the feminine metaphors. Such hymns, prayers, and referencing has become more common in the last 50 years as Christians have realized both the limitations of always pronouning God as a male and the spiritual harm this can do.
When I think about the image of ‘Father’ God in scripture, the metaphor is inevitably shaped by the role and responsibilities of men, especially powerful men, in the biblical cultures. When we think of patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, and David, they may have had many commendable attributes, certainly lots of authority over others, but their ability to love and nurture their children (especially their sons) was lacking, with dire consequences. The interesting thing is that the biblical editors did not delete those shortcomings. Maybe they told of the shortcomings so we would not repeat the.m
Searching my memories of my father in the 60s and 70s, I recall his garage/workshop. It opened onto the street, and he would bang away making and creating. And talking. For people would drop in to chat. Neighbourhood kids with a wheel to fix on their trolley. Or kids curious about the many gadgets he had. Like with many men of his era the garage was his domain, much like the kitchen was my mother’s.
When I was a teenager, Dad had a parenting style of quiet support. Not saying much. I think at some point he realized it was futile to make us fit into his preconceptions. The landscape was swiftly changing from the ‘50s through the 60s and into the ‘70s, and wisdom was to be found in not trying to control your children but being there for them.
Dad was a practical man. He liked to do things, make things, and fish, hike, swim, sail, and hunt. He didn’t have much in the way of authority over others, and didn’t seem to really want it.
I offer this brief snapshot of my father to point out how vastly different his fathering was from those of the biblical patriarchs, and if we used my memories of fathering to describe God, how vastly different God would look.
God would, for example, have a garage. A workshop for projects and lots of junk. A place for repairs and chatting. God would not give advice, unless asked, and even then, very carefully. A sort of ‘you-figure-it-out-and-I’ll-support-you’ approach. And God would take breaks, as often as possible, to head out into the hills, and would be delighted if we accompanied him.
Not a speck of omnipotence and omniscience to be seen. Maybe some omnibenevolence though.
When we turn to mothering images of God in the biblical tradition, we are faced with a similar disconnect. The matriarchal examples of Sarah, Leah and Rachel, and Bathsheba aren’t much better than the patriarchal ones. Consider Sarah’s treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. Consider the rivalry between Leah and Rachel and how that played out in the lives of their sons. Consider the plotting of Bathsheba in paving the way for her son to be king.
Yes, I know these women had significantly less power than their husbands and were shaped by cultural restraints. And yes, I know their stories have been written up by male scribes. And yes, I know that these women were often victims of a system and its mores, and also were courageous in how they sought to overcome such victimization. They guarded, nurtured, and strategized for their children to succeed. Kind of like some private school mums today?
What I’m saying is that if we use ‘mother’ as a metaphor for God I’m not convinced that the examples of the biblical matriarchs are the best. Maybe we should look more to the margins – look to the likes of Ruth, or Tamar, or Rahab – and the stories that while acknowledging their sexually questionable behaviour extol their risk-taking courage. Then God would be portrayed as marginal rather than mainstream, as questionable rather than a questioner, and as a risk-taker rather than a law-maker. And this God would be found more often among the poor and needy rather than the powerful and, too often, the greedy. A weak god.
When I think of my own mother in the 60s and 70s, my recollections are very different from matriarchs scheming for their children to succeed, or risk-taking women on the boundaries challenging the male-stream. I remember mum cooking, washing, organizing, caring for her parents and other elderly souls, taking ‘Cubs’ each week, and adopting neighbourhood cats. She seemed fairly typical of mothers of that time, and of that neighbourhood. She wasn’t overtly controlling of us. Indeed, we would disappear for hours at a time, building huts, riding our bikes, prowling the neighbourhood, running barefoot wild. As long as we were home for dinner no one seemed to care.
In those days, in our neighbourhood, there were no fences around properties, and no locked doors either. So, people would drop in on each other, always entering via the back door. Only Mormons and other pedlars would use the front door.
As I got older, I became more aware of what Leunig’s prayer today alludes to – namely the importance of a mother nourishing and protecting her own inner life and independence. Mum would deliberately ignore the mess that parents of four children know so well, and take time to read and think. And take time to write letters to friends around the country and overseas. Indeed, she would take time for friendship. She would stop, put the kettle on. She also liked to walk in the bush. Whenever she could. This was something my parents had in common. Not that they walked together. Dad the extrovert would walk 20 yards ahead chatting to anyone he could, and mum the introvert would walk alone 20 yards behind. They gave each other the space to be themselves.
In my remembering then, I realize not only how different her world was than mine, but also from the picture of mothers that the Bible offers. If we used my memories of mothering to describe God, then God would look vastly different. God, for example, would be quite happy for Her children to go off and do their wild rambling thing around the neighbourhood, as long as they came home for dinner. God would look after stray cats and always have a saucer of milk out. God would worry about old Mrs Baker down the end of the street who lived alone. God would take time for friendship, never use fences to keep people away, and always have the backdoor unlocked. The kettle and tea pot would be always on the ready. And God would take time for, and encourage us to make time for, quiet pondering and stillness. The time to nurture our inner life, our soul.
Metaphors are given substance by our experience. To talk about father God or mother God is, despite what the Bible offers, to link our experiences of being fathered and mothered with our experiences of God. Some of our experiences in our upbringing of course won’t be good – and some of us have more of these than others of us. But other experiences might be quite good, things we remember fondly, and have tried to replicate.
The second reading today is a quaint little episode, a story rather than history, envisaging Jesus as a precocious twelve-year-old. Mum, Dad, and Jesus have come to the big city. And Jesus goes AWOL. For three days! Mum and Dad are worried (no kidding!). They find him in the Temple and his mother expresses her dismay: “Child why have you treated us like this?” And he gives a twelve-year-old’s unrepentant reply, in paraphrase: “What’s your problem?” Then comes my favourite verse: “But they (his parents) did not understand what he said to them.” And all parents everywhere responded, “And ain’t that the truth!” I like this anecdote because when you think about it, if you were Jesus’ mother (or father) this kid was going to give you grief. He was a worry. Going off. Later going off wandering the countryside, upsetting the religious, upsetting the Romans, getting killed. For his parents there was lots of worries. And no settling down, no stable job, and no grandchildren. The anecdote ends with (in the King James translation) “and his mother kept all these things in her heart”.
If Jesus’ experience of God was shaped by his experience of being parented, then Mother God was patient. Even when she didn’t understand. Even when he did things to worry and upset her. And Mother God took time to pause, ponder, and attend to the heart.
May we all know the blessing of such mothers.