Post Author: April Berends
A couple of weeks after I returned from maternity leave following the birth of my first child, I sat at the lunch buffet with a parishioner. He was older than my dad would have been, with children of his own. He asked me, “How has becoming a mother changed how you think about God?”
It was such a good question. I had so many answers, and even more questions. Everything, including my own identity, seemed so new and different. I told my parishioner the first thing that came to mind, “All of those images for God, the mother images, the father ones, make so much more sense to me now.”
When I became rector of the most recent church that I served, I selected the hymn, “Loving Spirit, Loving Spirit” as one of the songs for my celebration of new ministry. My father made the trip to attend that service, even though he would die of cancer a few weeks later.
Like a mother, you enfold me,
hold my life within your own,
feed me with your very body,
form me of your flesh and bone.
Like a father, you protect me,
teach me the discerning eye,
hoist me up upon your shoulder,
let me see the world from high.
I gulped when I sang those words, thinking about my own faithful, loving father sitting there in the pew, and how he had shown me God’s own love since my very beginning. In my very first memory, I sit on my dad’s shoulders, my chin resting on his hat.
At that moment, I did not yet know that I would become a parent while pastoring that church. And I didn’t fully understand that becoming a parent would change me more than anything that had happened to me thus far–more than my ordination, more than my marriage, more than the deaths of both of my own parents. Though the images of God as mother and God as father held deep meaning, the fact that another life would be tethered to my own, and that I would be responsible for this life in the most intimate of ways, had not yet become my reality.
When I became a mother, parts of me started spilling over into these new little people. I continue to be amazed by how much space they occupy in my psyche. I recently returned from a two-week trip overseas during which my two children stayed home with my spouse; I felt as though part of my body was missing. My two year-old tried to crawl into the computer while we were talking via Skype. “Mama, pick up?” he said as he reached toward the screen. I watched them eat breakfast while I prepared to go to sleep on the other side of the world, and I could hardly stand being so far away.
Four years later, my comment to my parishioner about parental imagery for God rings even more true. My children have helped me to glimpse the depths of God’s love. El Shaddai (the One who nourishes) the mother hen, the prodigal father, the mother who does not forget (Isaiah 49), all of these images began to take on new meaning when I became a parent.
My first baby has grown into a sweet, exasperating little person. Each day, I see him learning and growing into the person God is shaping him to be. I am humbled by my own responsibility to help him do this growing. I have watched his first steps, and listened to his first words. I have heard him tell me that he loves me, over and over again. I have witnessed his first unprompted, “Thank you.” I have listened to him form the words of prayers. Since his birth, I have known a love that I hadn’t known before, and that love has grown bigger than I could have imagined.
Even as this love has grown, so has my capacity for heartache and frustration. I remember the first time that he looked at me with stormy eyes and yelled, “I don’t love you, Mama.” I have tried to help him find answers to questions about death and race and guns and why people hurt one another. I have held his little body while he sobbed. I have cringed when I have seen him be the unkind one; yesterday, he dangled a toy out of his brother’s reach, a maniacal grin on his face. I have watched him struggle to accomplish things that come easily to other children his age. I have panicked when I could not find him. I have walked into the kitchen to find the sink overflowing and every single dishtowel pulled out of the drawer. “Look, Mama! I cleaned up my mess,” he exclaimed.
I shake my head and smile, or I don’t. I get angry. I forgive. I take delight. I keep coming back to him, and he keeps coming back to me. My heart has grown bigger, more tender, more attuned to the joys and struggles in my children’s lives and thus to the ones in the world around me.
Mirroring the daily life of motherhood, the images of God as a parent have taken up residence in my prayer life: God caring lovingly for all creation, weeping for the sorrows of the world, grieving for the violence that we inflict on one another, rejoicing when our lives reflect the love that God has extended to us, longing to gather us up under protective wings, and mourning for the loss of a son. They are shaping my life as a mother, and informing my ministry in ways that I hope will help me to be more humble, more generous, and more patient.
I realize that all metaphors for God fall apart eventually if we push them too far. God’s resources are infinite, and mine are most decidedly not. Some days, I feel as helpless and as out of ideas as the crying child in my lap. God never seems to run out of ideas for helping us to grow. I also understand that viewing God as a parent brings up painful things for a lot of people, and these images are far from the only ways to understand God. Still, I take joy and comfort in the fact that God loves us even more than I love the little ones whose very being is written into my heart.
A God whose heart is big enough to hold it all: the heartache and the betrayal, the slamming doors and the faltering explanations, the messes that we make and our botched attempts to clean them up, the joy and the becoming, this is the God whom I call home.
 Words: Shirley Erena Murray, The Hymn Society, 1987
April Berends is an Episcopal Priest and the mother of two small boys with big imaginations. She lives on a mountain in Tennessee.
Image by: Jorge Elías
Used with permission