Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 9 Fall 1997 · Issue 9: pgs 49-55.In December 1996, the hard reality of a personal faith-struggle came to a head. After struggling over a period of time with a problem with fertility, my husband and I finally were expecting. As we went to see our doctor for our ten-week checkup, we felt all the joys, fears, and anticipation of parents-to-be. Two weeks earlier we had seen our child's heartbeat and its small, developing body. But now, after ten agonizing minutes of searching for our child, the doctor informed us he could not find the baby. The child was not there--or, at least, was not there in the manner in which he or she should have been. The doctor told us he feared our baby was not alive.
Throughout the next week, we constantly awaited news but continually received conflicting responses. That week was like a hellish twilight for us: we knew we were walking on the earth, but we could barely feel it beneath us (nor were we sure we wanted to). All hope seemed ugly, ludicrous, and mean. Worse, God seemed arbitrary, capricious, and cruel. During that time I was teaching graduate-level counseling and theology, supervising other counselors, and counseling clients. I screamed at God, "Why are you asking me to give life to others, when quite literally I may be carrying death inside me?" I was a tomb, yet I was still called to offer life.
During that period of anguish, I recognized the cost of being a life-giver. It was tangibly and palpably real. Our trauma had become a necessary catalyst by which I was forced to ask difficult questions about my calling as a woman of God--to wrestle with God over aspects that might guide me toward Christlikeness as a woman. I wondered anew what it means to be faithful in the midst of soul-wrenching questions--and if there are examples in scripture of such wrestlings which might embolden me to live out my femininity in a godly way?
Few theologians would argue with the idea that God is spirit and therefore is beyond gender. Yet Genesis bears out the reality that male and female are created in God's image. On the one hand, we know God through the Old Testament concepts of king, lord, avenger, and sovereign. But are there not also in scripture references to what we might view as the feminine in God?
As my empty arms longed to hold a child whom I will never see in this life, I had to struggle with what it means to be a comforter when I could not comfort my own child. Yet, despite my frustration and helplessness, I felt myself more able to comfort, even in the void, than I had ever known possible. Is this a reflection of God's heart toward me?
Jesus described his own desire toward humankind as the longing of a brooding mother--to desire to shelter, enfold, surround, and protect his children. Yet, during our crisis, I did not feel very willing to be gathered by God--nor was I aware of having ever sought this aspect of God's heart toward me.
As the Good Shepherd, the mysterious God we serve is pictured as an active comforter--the one who guides, leads, and cares for the needs and safety of his flock. He is concerned with resting and restoration. He removes the curse of fear as one traverses dangerous and dark paths through valleys of the shadow of death. And finally, the shepherd's rod and staff, which are to guide and lead us, are arms of comfort and not chastisement.
There is a tenderness in scripture's image of God as a mother; it is the love expressed by a mother comforting a hurt, rejected, or lonely child. It pictures the balm of a mother's kindness, which can remove the emotional ache from a cut or bruise, realign our sense of position in the universe, and reassure us of ourselves.
Also like a mother, God comforts and has compassion toward his afflicted ones. One of the most powerful pictures of intimacy and care is that of a mother holding her nursing baby. Indeed, there is no clearer picture of nurturing another's physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. How could that moment be anything less than deeply bonding for both involved? The child knows relief of his most basic need, the relaxation which follows as his stomach fills, surrounded by the warmth of his mother's body. There is connection and security in that scene that we will never again experience with another human being in life on earth. And it is a quite complete image: just as a mother's arms and attentive watch guard against injury as she draws her child close to herself, so God's wings place us in safety and comfort.
Yet God promises not only that I may receive his comfort and compassion in my affliction, but also that I shall not be forgotten. The human soul aches for recognition, acknowledgment, and relationship. Without touch, babies die. Likewise, without words spoken into our life, we become spiritually anorexic. We want to believe our life matters and that it has significance--and God goes to great lengths to prove that we are not forgotten, nor far from his heart. He has gone to the extreme of carving me into the palms of his hands; scripture says I am inscribed there. This metaphor is a picture of my significance: the lines are indelibly etched in God's hands, which create, shape, and hold. It is the hand of the strong arm that saves and rules. This God who is the warrior king is also the kind, maternal nurturer.
Words of God's compassion and comfort are not unfamiliar terrain in the New Testament. The God of all creation offers comfort for our struggles, and comfort is tied into sufferings. Without suffering, I might not know of my need and ache for a comforter. Just as pain alerts us to the need for medical attention or help, suffering draws the heart to a place of questions and desire. Will this God who has put his fingerprints on history and in my life come through in this hour of need? What does it mean that he is my comforter in moments when the heavens seem silent?
Comfort is given not just to dry tears and assure us of God's maternal or paternal protection. Comfort is given also for others' comfort and salvation. Something of coming to know and understand God is visible in our receiving of his comfort. By this I don't mean the showing of a stoic upper lip in dealing with struggles; rather, I speak of brokenness--of living life with open hands to heaven, not closed fists. Comfort is to be offered to and shared with others, in the broken bread and shed blood of Christ and his followers.
Patience means waiting eagerly and expectantly for God's plan to be fulfilled. We are well aware of the ongoing human struggle to survive in a world hostile to truth, replete with pain, loss, separation, and grief. If we seek justice and mercy in this world, we must recognize we are in an unending war with poverty, inhumanity, hopelessness, and despair. This fallen state leads to a groaning along with all of creation for something we know is possible only through faith in the unseen. Comfort reminds us that we will not remove the struggle or the groan from life on earth; but we can be known by God in the midst of it. Our sufferings are tied into future glory.
Slowly, despite my grieving heart, I sensed my suffering could be purposeful, though no less ambiguous. Comfort points to more than my emptiness. It leads to hope.
Not only did I lose the opportunity to hold a newborn life in my arms and encounter the picture of a heavenly parent in the process, but I lost my calling to nourish. In miscarriage, we often blame the inadequacy of the woman's body to support, sustain, and nourish life. She can neither prepare life within her nor nourish it after life is born.
Feeling the weight of that loss was more poignant as I thought about it in light of scripture. Scripture often describes God as a feast-giver, preparing a table and providing nourishment for his people. If this is an important aspect of his nature, how does it impact my call as a woman?
For many infants, women provide the first feast through nursing. Indeed, for a woman the act of nourishing others can be seen as part of her physiology. This sustaining of others spiritually, emotionally, and physically can be a satisfying yet costly decision for a woman. Choosing to offer herself for the growth and nourishment of others in any arena comes at a high price and involves a willingness to hope. I knew this to be true in allowing myself to dream of becoming pregnant again.
Likewise, to prepare a table in our culture is typically the role of women. Yet there is a danger in the expectation that meal preparation is translated as a woman's "duty." A biblical view of women shows them as household managers, conducting business and charity outside the home as well as providing meals for their families and others. Personally, while I work full-time at many tasks and different callings, feast-giving is one category I would rather overlook. However, something within me shudders at the notion of my husband eating a cold chicken pot pie because he and I are too busy to cook. Internally I know something is violated in such a scene. What would it look like for me to see feast-giving as an act of service and love?
Whenever my siblings and I return home, often from quite a distance, there is a warm welcome awaiting us. My mother will seat us in the dining room in embroidered seats, the ones we always feared spilling food on when we were young. She sets the table with fine china, crystal, and the silver from generations back. Often at each place setting there is a little gift or note. And in the center of the table is an arrangement of flowers.
Upon entering this scene our raucous voices are often softened. We sit a little more gingerly than we might normally, our manners are improved, and dignity is imparted at being one of the fortunate guests at this table. Stories are shared invariably with laughter. The meal is savored. No one rushes to push back her chair from the table. That family meal is not just food for hungry bodies, but is an experience of communion and creativity. A sense of beauty is offered, pleasing not only the sense of smell and taste in the act of eating, but the sense of sight as well. A fine meal is an aesthetic, sensual experience.
God not only feeds me, but prepares the table for my partaking--indeed, important feasting tables have to be prepared: The Upper Room was readied for the most profound meal ever eaten. The essential elements were present. The bowl and towel were there for foot washing. In addition the bread and wine were present, for blessing, breaking, sharing, and storytelling. The table was prepared to tell our story for generations to follow as we gather at God's table. It is interesting that Christian worship usually centers on the table; one of the sacraments involves partaking of food. It is a way that God's blessing is communicated and known sensually.
In light of God's table setting, I am called to be a person who knows of my need. It is then that God, the feast-giver, extends his call to me to come and receive a rich fare. It is a call for those who are thirsty and penniless: "Eat what is good, what will satisfy." There is a feast that is an answer to raging desire. There is drink to quench the parched throat. And they are available without money or cost. They are a gift, free to those who thirst and hunger for God.
I have tasted this feast in part. At moments I have known God's provision is the richest of fares. However, often I feel far from that table. The feast was brief, heightening my hunger, leaving me thirstier than before. Where is this feast that God described that is unendingly available?
Final fulfillment is found at a wedding that occurs in the triumph of time. This will come at a time when God will make all things new, consummate his relationship with his people, erase every tear. There will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain as his new order begins. Feasting will take place amidst love-filled celebration and communion. There will be complete and ongoing satisfaction.
The wedding feast is the ultimate symbol of giving oneself over to the covenantal bond of a new relationship. Something new is established; the old has passed away. The church, as the bride, has at last found the feast that offers the most delectable of fares. We will know delight as it has never been known. All the pains of hunger and thirst will ultimately be satiated at this holy supper. And how we feast on earth today provides a partial picture of fullness in the future.
In light of the splendor of heaven's meal, preparing real food and soul food for others seems a more enticing call to celebrate, commune, and delight in one another. My gratitude is stirred for the one who first prepared me to hunger, set tables in the wilderness, and came down as the bread of life.
I had an unforgettable invitation. A friend was giving birth and asked me to be with her during the labor and delivery. Participating in that moment with cheers of support, sympathy pushes, and tears of wonder, I knew what Moses must have felt as he encountered God in the fiery bush. The obvious pain on my friend's face, labored breathing, and the way her body took over as if it knew from the beginning of time what was required to initiate a new life into the world, are imprinted in my memory. A little curly head and then the tiny body silenced us all in awe. Life-giving is nothing short of miraculous.
God comforts, nourishes, and offers new life. Scripture bears witness to this latter promise of new life, new hearts, new spirits, and new birth. In one instance, it describes a battlefield strewn with corpses that stand erect at the call of a prophet to the four winds. Somehow, life is born and raised up in the midst of death.
God revives and restores what seems dead, dry, and lifeless. His people are not only dead physically but, apart from him, are without hope, which is spiritual death. God wants them to know he is about the business of opening their graves and raising them to life. His Spirit is given for them to live. God takes the stuff of life to fashion a living army of his people, and they are raised to life with a purpose and a call.
Like the simple clay he used to mold a man, God takes the parts and attaches, joins, and assembles the body to support the breath of life. In such a manner, Ezekiel's valley is like the miracle of creation inside a mother's womb. Life is stitched together by an act of assembling conjoining parts and growing what is needed to support life.
Women bear life uniquely in a way that seems to mirror God's handiwork of infusing life into the limbs he has created. God, as life-giver, has created our innermost being and knit us together in our mother's womb. Indeed, the act of giving life within the confines of the woman's body is God's handiwork.
Each day of life is preordained by God; we are known from the earliest assembling of life forward. And the act of creating life increases in mysterious wonder as we learn more of the intricacies of infant development. In the midst of exploring this mystery, there is a call to praise. There is something about this creative act of development that reflects so grand a design that we are awestruck and delighted by God's work. Standing before a God of such power, creativity, and care, we know reverential fear.
Life is a gift from a bountiful giver. A woman's body knows the joy and sorrow of offering life. There is incredible pain and wonderment at the miracle of new birth. As that new life grows, separation and distance develop. Ultimately, the act of giving life ensures suffering because there will be times of loss, grief, and alienation within the relationship. The mother bears that grief along with the riches of joy this new life has brought to her. So it is with God who gives us life and freedom to move toward or away from our original life-giver.
Not only is there knowledge of life-giving in the act of birth and child rearing, there is opportunity to experience the act of giving ourselves to others to increase their new life or liveliness in Christ. Offering life to others involves sacrifice on the part of the giver. The cross reflects the price Jesus paid for others' new life. This call to love for his followers is no less. What does it mean to lay my life down? Should it include my agendas, selfishness, control, and sinful habits which keep me from true relationship? Undeniably.
Scripture is clear in its command to us to offer our life to God and to others as an act of faith. This kind of sacrifice can be seen in caregivers who adapt their lives and hearts to care for disabled, ill, or handicapped children or loved ones. In the midst of giving more than they have ever been called to give, there is exhaustion and yet blessing. People who adopt children with AIDS, for instance, know the cost of choosing a path of sorrow for the sake of life in the present for another.
I am called to offer life in my work, family, church, ministry, and friendships. I have something to share that God has granted me the freedom to give. Will I choose the sacrificial path to be a life-giver? I can be confident in offering life-giving words and support to others, because the true source can revive even at the graveside of hope.
When my husband and I lost our first child at ten weeks into the pregnancy, we had to wait a week before we knew definitely that the baby was not alive. The agony of living in the midst of my questions, doubts, and grief put flesh on the bones of these three callings for me. I was called to comfort even when I thought God had robbed me of an opportunity to "mother." I was called to feed, nourish, and prepare a table for friends and adversaries. I was called to offer life-giving words as I carried death inside me. The paradox of giving and receiving despite the chaos blessed me deeply. In bearing my calling, all three of these--comforter, feast-giver, life-giver--were required in that difficult week and the weeks that followed.
Studying these categories convicted me of my need to love. Through those dark days, I found hope. Even my grief, emptiness, and sorrow were used to feed his sheep. Through this, God revived my hope and hunger for heaven, the place where I will know of God's comfort, provision, and new birth in their fullness. It is also the place where more than one whom I love await me.
Acknowledgment: The author wishes to extend her gratitude to Precious Atchison for her gifts of friendship, insight, and encouragement, without which these ideas might not have been shared.