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God’s Maternity: Could You Trust a God Who Loves Like This?

“May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”

Suppose you want to write
of a woman braiding
another woman’s hair—
straight down, or with beads and shells
in three-strand plaits or corn-rows—
you had better know the thickness
the length   the pattern
why she decides to braid her hair
how it is done to her
what country it happens in
what else happens in that country
You have to know these things.
                                   – Adrienne Rich

In this poem, the poet suggests that if you know what’s happening with a woman’s hair, who is touching it, who is caring for her, you know other things about that woman. You know where she comes from. One woman caring for another is the entry point to understanding a woman and her origins.

If we tell stories about our hair, about who cared for us, we can learn a lot about one another’s countries, one another’s origins. I’d like to tell you a story about my hair. My parents divorced when I was little, and my father picked me up after work on Fridays. The first thing he did when we got to his house, was sit me down before him and begin the slow untangling of knots and the surgical removal of the snarled mats that couldn’t be saved. He cared for me.

Once a year my grandmother visited, and she had designs on my hair as well. She would catch me out of the bath, comb my hair and set to work separating and pulling and folding my hair into French braids. With my father every weekend and once a year with my grandmother—I can’t say I enjoyed the process—but I knew something was happening. Love was happening all around my head

When a person cares for us, what do we feel?

Love? Trust? Fidelity?

Today’s Old Testament passage is famous for Ruth’s faithfulness. Ruth gets her name on pigeonsthe title of the book, and even in my bible, this chapter is titled, “Ruth’s Loyalty to Naomi”.  But I think what’s most interesting about the Book of Ruth is Naomi. I’d like to offer Naomi as a model of wisdom and even as a model of Divine Love.

Naomi’s husband has died. Her sons have died. She is in the very depths of grief. But from within that chasm of pain, her instinct isn’t for self-preservation or self-pity. Instead she looks outward to the care her daughters-in-law.

Naomi tells Orpah and Ruth,

Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. (Ruth 1:8)

Naomi tells them each to go to their mothers’ houses, where things will be easier for them. Where they have the promise of a better life.

Naomi pronounces a blessing on her daughters-in-law, “May the Lord deal kindly with you” putting them in the hands of the Lord and freeing them from any duty to her. “May the Lord deal kindly with you” Naomi says, “as you have dealt with the dead and with me,.” affirming their goodness and their kindness.

In her blessing on Ruth and Orpah, Naomi acknowledges their worth. She expresses gratitude. She places the young women’s well-being before her own, insisting that they go back to where their prospects are brighter.

Naomi self-emptying is reminiscent of Paul’s instructions in Philippians:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . . [2]

Three times Naomi says, “Turn back.” She says,“My daughters, it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Naomi is worried how her bad fortune affects them.

Turn back, she says again. Finally, Orpah is like, “I see your point. I mean, I love you, but if you insist.” Orpah heads back home.

Now here’s that verse where Ruth looks so good. In verse 16, Ruth says, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

This is Ruth’s legendary declaration of loyalty. She is faithful. Praise God! But Ruth’s faithfulness a response to Naomi’s care. Even in scarcity and want and grief, with every reason to be self-absorbed, Naomi is trustworthy. Love and care between these women reveals the emotional country where Naomi and Ruth reside.

So, you might be thinking, What of it? What of women caring for one another? You may be wondering what braiding hair and maternal care or women’s relationships have to do with you, or with the Christian walk.

Allow me to suggest there may be a Naomi in your life, a woman whose kindness and wisdom could lead you in the ways of God. She’s a woman who might seem irrelevant. She may talk too slowly or tell too many stories. Or she might be invisible. You might look right through her every day.

As a widow with no sons, Naomi had no social currency and no power. She was an older woman, no longer able to bear children, her features fading, her hair grey. The bloom is off the rose, as they say. Would you see Naomi if she crossed your path at school or at work or at the grocery store, or if she were sitting in the pew next to you at church?

Of what use to us is such a woman? Here is her power: Naomi is a model of selflessness, a bearer of wisdom. Where can wisdom be found? The Book of Job reads, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” [3]

In the Letter of James, we are told to pray for wisdom.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.[4]

A woman who has experienced immense loss and survived is a reservoir of wisdom. She knows what matters in this life. She has a keen perception what is meaningless or superficial. Such a woman tells the truth.

Perhaps there are others who would welcome Naomi as a model of God’s maternal love. Perhaps your father was absent or distant or abusive, and you have difficulty conceiving of God as “Father”.

If you have trouble trusting God the Father, can you trust this conception of God? A God who wants only your good, whose attentive, intuitive care anticipates your unspoken need. Who in scar

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city, insecurity and uncertainty plans for your well-being and helps you find your way?

Perhaps Naomi could be a model of motherhood for those of you whose mothers could not care for yo

u, for whatever reason, or who neglected you, abandoned you, or hurt you in any way.

Our God is a God who cares intimately for us. Who hears our every need. We can find God’s care in quiet and stillness. We can find God’s care in the wisdom of people God sends into our lives.

God’s tender care is revealed in the book of Hosea when God says,

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did 

not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”[5]

Naomi led Ruth out of a landscape of grief and hopelessness with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. And so God leads us.

If you are in a state of uncertainty, if doors are closing and you are unsure of the path out, if you are shaken by the loss of a loved one or the loss of a place, trust that our Good God cares for you. Pray for wisdom. Pray to the Lord, who is worthy of your trust, Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.

[1] Poem by Adrienne Rich, Moyers, Bill, ed. The Language of Life. (New York: Doubleday, 1995) 349.

[2] Philippians 2:3-8

[3] Job 12:12

[4] James 1:5

[5] Hosea 11:3-4

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Cleanse Him with Water, Snow and Ice: an Islamic Prayer for the Dead

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In my childhood line of sight, his brown legs ended in thick leather sandals, the kind with big brass rings and tire-tread soles. He wore them tending the garden, by the pool.

I called him by his surname, Ishaq. The Ishaqs were the only family we knew when I was growing up, the weekend-in-the-cabin family, the camping family, the chicken curry family (Ishaq was Pakistani), the family with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.

If Ishaq wasn’t in the yard when my mother’s car pulled up, he might be reading the paper in his fake plycraft recliner, goldish tan, tire treads on the ottoman, the first thing I’d see when we stepped in the side door.

When his children, Serina and Rashid, and I were too much, he’d expel us from the room imploring us to “Go play in the traffic.” 

Circa 1971, ’72, ’73, ’74,  ad infinitum, I sat in a swiveling barstool across from the stove, flanked by Rashid on one side, Serina on the other. The three of us hitched and twisted in our chairs like roughly spinning tops. Ishaq and his wife Ann cooked chicken curry as we three watched, pan simmering, heady, foreign spices, splatter of oil. I can hear Ishaq saying, “Wonderful.” One night, my drunk mother started screaming he had put a chicken anus on my plate. I shrank in horror, feeling sorry for Ishaq. I knew little of chicken anuses, only gratitude that someone had cooked for me.  And I knew Ishaq was kind. I always knew this.

When he was pleased or amused by some turn in conversation, he’d say, “Beauty, beauty!” 

Circa 1975, I was mad at Rashid and threw his towel in the play pool. Ishaq chased me to swat my butt.

Circa 1979, swerving down a steep hill on my bike, a tennis racquet balanced on the handlebars, I took a terrible, high-velocity fall. That evening at the Ishaq’s, I noticed blood seeping from the flesh above my pubic bone. Nine or ten years old, I stood in the bathroom humiliated and unable to hide, dead silent as Dr. Ishaq cleaned up my privates. He weighed the need for stitches. He decided on a butterfly bandage.

In past years, I regularly ran into him at the grocery store. “Ishaq!” I’d call, “Dr. Ishaq!” a little louder. He face beamed, his arms spread wide. “OH-my-GOD!” he’d say—Pakistani accent—as if surprised every time, as if seeing me were the most wonderful thing in the world. He’d hug me. So much love.

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‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon Ishaq, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’

-Islamic funeral prayer

Choudhry Mohammed Ishaq, rest in peace. Thanks for the beauty.

The Terror of the Nativity: God Chose this Place

I didn’t grow up as a Christian, so my Christmases were not religious. I do distinctly remember singing Silent Night, and the peaceful scene it conjured. And in childhood I loved The Little Drummer Boy and was sure he was an integral part of the nativity scene. This was all I knew of Christmas until my 20s. The story of Christ’s birth is more complex and more meaningful that I imagined in my childhood.

The Secular Christmas I celebrated, and that the world continues to celebrate, has its own doctrine. It tells us that we will never be lonely. That all the seats at our table will be full.  Secular Christmas tells us families will be together, and young children and adult children will get along. The world’s celebration allows for no grief, no loss, no discord, no disappointment.

The Biblical story is a bit more complex. Today in Luke Chapter 2, we read, “an angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”

What does “The Glory of the Lord” mean? It is the blazing light that exudes from God’s presence and power. In the Book of Exodus, when the Lord calls Moses up the mountain to receive the ten commandments, the text describes the glory of the Lord appearing to Moses like a DEVOURING FIRE on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

Imagine, like the shepherds, you’re going about your business sometime after dark, coming home from a late shift or walking the dog, or you’re relaxing outside on a summer night, and suddenly an angel of the Lord, is before you, a devouring fire BLAZING all around you.

How does you react?  Scripture tells us how the shepherds reacted. Verse 9: “They were terrified.”

But the angel reassures them,

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”

Then the angel instructs the shepherds how to find THIS CHILD, their savior. It is a startling proclamation that disrupts a peaceful night of tending sheep. Stunned and afraid, these poor men somehow manage to overcome their shock, drop everything and go in search of the child.

The shepherds find the baby in the manger––it’s that scene portrayed on so many Christmas cards, an iridescent star beaming a ray of silver light down over a humble stable, and from within the stable a warm glow casts everyone in a soft-focus dreamscape.

I have my doubts about the warm glow. I grew up among stables, and I knew since before I could speak that fire and hay don’t mix. It’s not likely fire or candles were nearby. So I imagine that as the shepherds approached, the holy family was not really bathed in warm light. It was likely dark, and likely cold.

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With a twinge of anxiety, Mary and Joseph would have heard the slow approach of strangers in the darkness, footsteps in the gravel. They might have smelled the shepherds before they saw them; smells of earth and sweat, and of the sheep they tended.

The shepherds were likely weather beaten, scraggly, with rough hands and soiled clothes. Has anyone here seen the movie The Nativity Story?  It portrays this scene: a shepherd approaches the manger tentatively, aware of his lowly station, painfully aware he is intruding.

He wants to reach out it to the baby Jesus, but in his humility, he hesitates. Perceiving this, Mary lifts the baby Jesus to him, and says, “He came for all mankind.” He came for ALL mankind. For all HUMANKIND.

In scripture, the placid innocence of nativity scene is soon shattered. As Herod launches has brutal reign of terror, an angel forewarns Joseph in a dream. A distraught Mary and Joseph bundle up Jesus in a rush and flee to Egypt. Let’s unpack that.

Fearing for the life of their child, they find themselves as refugees, vulnerable and alone in a foreign land, with foreign customs, estranged from their homeland and their families until the danger passes. Imagine their isolation. Their loneliness. Their homesickness.

The Biblical Christmas story of Jesus’ birth unfolds in tension–– tension between joy and fear, safety and threat, life and death.

As Christians, we sit in the pews today, carrying within us these tensions: we carry those things for which we are grateful, along with those things that cause us anxiety and fear and even dread.

In our broader world, some may find Christmas joy difficult to access: for the homeless, for those whose budget doesn’t quite cover both rent AND food, let alone presents, for people living in regions of military conflict.

The Christmas story answers the question of where God is in our suffering. The entire narrative of Jesus’ life, from his conception to his crucifixion, is the story of GOD WITH US.

God has surrendered his omnipotence and omniscience to descend into the womb of Mary, to be born into human life in all its precariousness, to be bound up in swaddling clothes, literally unable to move in a feed trough, set in a violent scene where the evil of the world is trying to eradicate the light of the world. God becomes acquainted with utter helplessness.

God CHOSE this. He CHOSE to be subject to all that we are subject to, to be with us in the fullness of our humanity.

The shepherds in the fields, blinded by the blazing glory of the Lord, could not have fully understood what the angel was saying to them. They could not have understood that some thirty years later, this same Jesus would pass through the darkest of human endeavors, enduring a painful, ignoble death and then, would rise from the dead, conquering the power of death and sin over human life.

These are glad tidings of great joy: the Incarnation of God in Christ, his birth, life, death and resurrection, has won for us eternal, present access to supernatural joy.

I Peter 8 reads, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

The eternal light of the world has broken into time as a little baby. His is a light which no darkness can overcome. Here is the LOVE of God, who sanctified our humanity, even its most hidden and difficult parts, every fear, discomfort, INSECURITY and uncertainty.

Our God is with us.

Come, let us adore him.