God: The Noble Mother

imagesIn a society embroiled with conflicting ideas about gender roles and sexual identity, writing about the feminine nature of a masculine God feels like gardening in a minefield. But to neglect or abandon this aspect of Scripture would be to deny a significant part of who God reveals Himself to be, effectively putting Him in the box of our own culturally conditioned “image.” As much as I shy away from the political and social agenda that drive similar conversations, Scripture itself compels me to take a deeper look at the maternal character of God.

A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

For years now I have read and reflected on Psalm 103 as an exposition on the fatherhood of God. It doesn’t take long to notice the judicial oversight and compassionate leadership of a father relating with his children in its underlying narrative. But only lately has it struck me that Psalm 104 is just as much an exposition of God’s motherhood, especially when laid side by side with Proverbs 31. The parallel imagery and language are so tight that I can’t help but think they were intended to be read comparatively.

…you are clothed with splendor and majesty. He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, … they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psalm 104:1-8

Like the wife of noble character in Proverbs 31, God is described as a fastidious homemaker. He takes care to dress Himself gloriously and to decorate His home beautifully. Light is His favorite garment and sky-blue the color He chooses to paint His downstairs ceilings. He employs the elements (wind, fire, and water) as His domestic help. And although He initially carpeted the whole downstairs with water, He decided to rearrange the floor plan to include large patches of dry land, too.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart…
You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away… Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
Psalm 104:10-23

Like that industrious Proverbs 31 woman, God’s lamp never goes out at night. He works all day watering His garden, feeding His household, and making sure that each member of His brood is well looked after in body and spirit. And while the rest of the family sleeps, He keeps vigil over the prowling “night owls” to make sure they get their tummy full, too. Around the clock He keeps up His work of tender nurture, creative provision, and loving care.

How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number–living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psalm 104:24-26

His motherly ingenuity and domain are anything but small in scope. Just as the woman of noble character engaged in global commerce, buying from and supplying ships that crisscrossed the seas, He fills the earth with His handiworks, too. In fact, He repurposes the oceans as playgrounds for His “little ones” and as sidewalks for His children to ride their boats around on.

These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:27-30

But beyond being a cosmic homemaker, universal food supplier, and global nanny, God meets His offspring’s greatest need through the gift of His presence. He doesn’t simply bring them into the world and then abandon them. As long as He is nearby, His dependents learn and play and grow in peace, assured that all is well with their world. But the second they can’t see His face, they have every cause to panic. Their lives are utterly contingent on His.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.
Psalm 91:1, 4; 131:2

And so like the children of the Proverbs 31 woman, God’s children rise up with blessing and praise for all He is and all He does. We approach Him confidently when we need something, snuggle under His sheltering wings when we are scared or overwhelmed, and rest peacefully against His chest when we simply desire the reassuring comfort of His presence.

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:28-31

The point is that God is not only the perfect father: He is also unapologetically the ideal mother. This is no cause for confusing gender or reinterpreting the divine, but it does liberate us to relate to Him with the same intimacy and security we experience with a mother. It also sheds a new light on the significance of human mothers as image bearers of God’s maternal attributes. A woman who patterns her motherhood after God’s example is worthy of honor and praise, because she has shown us God.

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Redistributing God’s Wealth

attachmentSpending last week with a northern Nigerian bishop felt surprisingly like riding around with a mafia godfather.

Wherever we turned there was another person waiting to tell him their troubles and ask him for help. Again and again, I watched him reach into his pocket and peel off a few more layers from his rapidly shrinking wad of well-worn bills. And again and again, I watched another person walk away, relieved of the heavy burden they had been carrying.

What inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

I confess I had to repeatedly suppress the urge to stop him. I knew that, unlike a mafia don, this “godfather” had a very limited supply with which to meet the overwhelming demand. My forward-thinking mind started fretting about how he would pay his own bills, both current and upcoming. With two kids in college and a mortgage to pay off, he had his own share of financial troubles to worry about.

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.

He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.
Proverbs 19:17; 28:27

But the fact was that he did have the cash in hand. His bills for this month were covered, and other peoples’ were not. As he continued to distribute his meager resources, he explained his economic reasoning to me. “If I hold this back for my own future need when someone else needs it today, I am not being a faithful steward of God’s resources. If God has supplied enough for me today, He will also be faithful to supply again tomorrow.”

In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.

A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.
Proverbs 21:20; 13:22

Humbled, I still wanted to reason with him. What about wise financial planning for your family’s future? What about ensuring that you don’t run short and then become a burden to others? Wasn’t his simply a non-Western, communally focused approach to resources as opposed to our equally valid (and perhaps economically superior) approach to investing in the future?

But the truth is, something about his childlike faith appeals to me deeply. God took His people through forty years of wilderness economy to train them in the same approach. Each day He supplied enough goods for that day only. There were no viable “leftovers” that could be saved and invested as capital for the next day. And as a result, no one could begin to trust in his own hard work or careful planning. Their only reliable resource was the Lord of the manna.

Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

Still, my capitalist mind wants to argue, those were exceptional circumstances. Once they settled in the land, were they not responsible to plan wisely and invest accordingly? Weren’t they right to hold back enough seed for next year’s planting?

He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Luke 10:27-28

And again I know that I am avoiding the real issue. Of course it is godly and right to save for future needs. But how often do I use that as a trump card to avoid giving to today’s needs. Ultimately, what inhibits my generous giving is not my responsibility to plan wisely, but rather my lack of responsibility to care for my neighbor.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
Luke 10:29-32

And this is where my problem lies. Who is my neighbor? For whom am I financially responsible? Like the Pharisees, I want to erect relational boundaries to protect myself from having to sacrifice my resources to meet other people’s needs. This is why I am tempted to avoid eye contact with the beggar on the street, or to back-peddle on those conversations in which an acquaintance starts to talk about her financial need. I’m afraid of getting caught in a situation where I will feel guilty for not giving.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Luke 10:33-35

But Jesus rips those walls down with His answer: my neighbor is the person I encounter. My responsibility is to redistribute whatever resources God has entrusted to me, first in the care of my immediate family, but also in the care of my extended “family.” And if ensuring tomorrows’ provision is more important to me that sharing todays’, then I may find myself in the same position as the rich man who refused to take responsibility for his neighbor, Lazarus. Being fiscally responsible is no excuse for being communally irresponsible.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36-37

Watching a third-world bishop in action has convicted this first-world lay person. My economically advanced reasons for not loving my neighbor as myself have been unmasked for what they truly are: a self-reliant lack of faith. Of course allowing my time and money to be drained by other people’s needs makes no sense in a godless, survival-of-the-fittest world. But if God really reigns over seed and harvest, investment and returns, will He not look after all my needs?

I am left with no recourse but to go and do likewise.

The Suffering Credential

IMG_0307I’m sitting alone in an urbane, international airport, but my mind is still with the rural, northern Nigerian pastors whom I’ve been with all week. Something about these men—their lives, their testimony, and the zeal with which they serve God despite all the odds—commands my respect.

Ironically, one of the themes of our time together was the role of suffering in the life of a believer and, in particular, in the life of a minister. I felt grossly inadequate teaching this particular audience about the spiritually developmental benefits of suffering. Unlike when I present this message to a western Christian audience, my point became less of an exhortation to embrace suffering and more of an affirmation to those who already have. These pastors face the daily threat of their daughters being kidnapped as prize-brides for Muslim men and of their newly converted church members being assaulted or killed by their former communities. Diocesan meetings often concern how they can hide their at-risk daughters or members in each others’ homes as they bear together their heavy financial and safety risks.

Pastor's children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
Pastor’s children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
My affirmation fell on parched soil. Compared to their colleagues in the widely popular prosperity churches (who generally avoid rural, predominantly Muslim areas for their ministry contexts), these humble servants of God feel like losers. Their trousers are ripped from repeated attempts to kick-start their decrepit motor bikes, their wives have to make soap and sell whatever they can to keep food in the childrens’ mouths, and their success rates in church growth have hardly put them on the map.

But I couldn’t help mentally making the comparison between these African church leaders and their Western colleagues, too. They lack the academic credentialing and rigorous theological training that the Western church values as a fundamental qualifier for pastoral ministry. This is not to say their hunger for further knowledge is lacking (it’s anything but), but rather that opportunities to acquire it are rare prizes. And yet their opportunities abound for acquiring a very different sort of ministry credential.

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
…the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

When questioned by the Jews about His own ministry credentials, Jesus pointed to His upcoming suffering. He could have bragged about His personal line with the Father or performed a few exciting miracles. But instead He pointed to the greatest miracle of all: His willingness to suffer for a cause that He valued more than His life. Of course the capstone of that miracle was the fact that He would rise from His suffering, but without death there would be no resurrection.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…
2 Corinthians 6:3-7

Paul, too, defended the credibility of his ministry by pointing to his own suffering. The validation of his right to speak so authoritatively was how much he had endured for the sake of his message. Yes, the message was truth whether or not its bearer had been persecuted for it, but the proof of its worth and the depth of his ability to deliver it were forged in the fires of suffering. This minister was able to comfort because he had been comforted. He had the right to call others to persevere under severe trials because he had already done the same. The knowledge of his book learning had taken on a third dimension of messy life experience, and that became his leading credential.

As I consider the massive gap between the church in the West and the church in Africa, I think we have much to offer each other. I’m delighted to be a small part of bringing some of our training in Biblical knowledge and study skills to the Global South, as a number of other Western groups and churches are doing. But I think we also need a good dose of what our African and Asian contemporaries have to offer. Their suffering has earned them a right to be listened to and respected. It has also given them insights into God and His Word that we cannot see until we share similar experiences.

We may have more educational credentials. But they far outrank us in the suffering credential. Perhaps we would do well to request their help in our area of need.

In God’s Kitchen

IMG_0294If you would have told me five years ago that I would be professor and spiritual mentor to Christian leaders across the developing world, I probably would have groaned.

At the time I was firmly entrenched in my life in South Asia, up to my elbows in teaching responsibilities, counseling duties, prayer needs, and ministry demands. I was doing what I loved, but somehow my delight had turned into duty. I began to resent the knocks on the door and the requests at the church, feeling like I was overstretched and underappreciated. I was tired and wanted to be let off the hook.

Sadly, I got my wish.

I think I am not the only one who has struggled with self-important exhaustion. I hear it in those conversations at church when people one up each other with the lists of all they have to do. I read it between the lines of my students’ journal submissions describing how close they are to burn-out and yet how there is no one else whom they can trust to handle some of their ministry responsibilities.

At the heart of all these well-intentioned servants is the false assumption that we are the only ones capable of carrying out God’s all-important work. We feel that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen. Shouldering such an emotionally laden burden on our own leaves us exhausted and (dare I say it) just a bit resentful.

He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:4

Two years ago, I began this blog with an article about Elijah needing some cave time after the intense demands that God had placed on him. Elijah’s condition connected deeply with my own at the time, as did God’s gracious provision of time and space to heal. But as I revisit his story in light of my own, I see a similar dynamic at work.

‪Then Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.‬
‪At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘ Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. ‬
1 Kings 18:22, 36

Elijah had begun to believe that everything hinged on him. God had called him to perform some unbelievable feats: stopping up the heavens, confronting a hostile king, and taking on a high-powered, politically favored god along with its entourage of priests and devotees. Elijah’s special commission had also come with special provisions, but somewhere along the way he started believing that he was special, the only one willing and able to carry out these critical tasks.

‪He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’‬
1 Kings 19:10

Elijah’s bold faith in God’s accomplishments through him began to carry a tinge of assertive self-importance, and with it a note of self-pity. This really came out in the exhausted, post-traumatic laments he made to God.

The Lord said to him, ‘Go back the way you came, … and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. … Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.’‬
1 Kings 19:15-18

God’s first response to him was provision, not exhortation. But with time, God called Elijah back out of the cave with a gentle reminder that he was not the only one, that there were plenty of other arrows in God’s quiver. He sent Elijah back to work, this time with the assignment to mobilize and mentor his successor. Long after Elijah’s ministry was over, Elisha would carry on the same work with an even greater portion of capacity and effectiveness than Elijah had ever had.

And this is where I now find myself. After taking me through a multi-year attitude adjustment, God has recommissioned me as a mentor to classrooms full of Elishas. I marvel at these African leaders’ insight, maturity, and commitment to the kingdom. I am humbled and delightfully surpassed by their accomplishments and their godliness. With people like them at the helm, there is great hope for the global Church.

I feel as if God has invited me back to help in His kitchen. I used to serve here as if I were doing Him a favor. Now I realize that, like I used to do with my own young children, He is doing me the favor. He is letting me be a part of what He is making of the world. He could do it a lot quicker and easier without me, but out of His great love He is sharing the pleasure.

My response used to be “Must I?” Now it is “Please, may I!”

The Dance of the Eunuchs

attachmentLunchtime conversations in our home are rarely conventional. In response to a series of questions my children had about bisexuals, trans-genders, and eunuchs, I recently found myself telling the story of the time a gang of eunuchs showed up at our house to dance.

In the region of South Asia where we lived, eunuchs held a despised but critical position in society. Whether by birth or by the hands of men, their condition disqualified them from normal family life. Instead, they were raised by fellow eunuchs who dressed like women and made their living by singing and dancing at the birth of each new baby in the community.

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality.

My neighbors had told me stories of these intimidating she-men, how they wielded their power to bless vulnerable infants in order to extract gifts of food, money, and clothes from terrified families. If you didn’t give them what they wanted they could become quite aggressive and even turn their blessing into a curse on your child! So of course when a gang of heavily made up, sari-clad men showed up at our door, I politely but firmly did everything I could to avoid a debacle of dancing eunuchs celebrating the birth of my newborn son.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road–the desert road–that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Acts 8:26-31

But repeating the story these thirteen years later, I’m not so satisfied with my response to them. I’m soberingly reminded of another eunuch who was turned away by people but lovingly pursued by God.

What attracted a sexually-altered Gentile foreigner to even attempt entry into the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is beyond me, especially considering he may have encountered prohibitions against “his kind” in his reading of the Old Testament. Obviously it hadn’t gone well. Far from the soul filling, heart-renewing experience that temple worship was meant to be, this man was leaving frustrated, confused, and empty.

The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
Acts 8:32-34

But he hadn’t quit on his quest. A passage of Scripture had gripped his heart, and even the humiliation of having come so far for nothing did not deter him from pursuing it. Who was this Suffering Servant whose description matched his own so miraculously: someone who had been forced to submit to a humiliating “shearing,” who had been deprived of his dignity and right to justice, and who consequently would never experience the social honor or personal joy of being able to have children?

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied…
Isaiah 53:10-11

If there was hope for such a Man, then there was hope for him. Could it be that God would accept this crushed half-a-man after all and turn his degradation into celebration? Was there some way in which God could transform his dried-up, socially cut-off self into a flourishing, reproducing member of a community?

And the good news that God sent Phillip to share was yes to all the above.

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant–to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
Isaiah 56:3-5

This story makes me weep with relief and joy over the grace God would show to a wounded outcaste. And yet where was that compassion when the band of eunuchs showed up at my door?

Somehow the idea of hurting sexual misfits is easier to embrace than the reality. We have come a long way in raising awareness about the injustice that forces many prostitutes into the sex industry and the shame that keeps them there. But how many of us have invited a prostitute over for tea? Similarly, I think we have a long way to go in compassionately seeking to understand the dynamics at work behind people’s aberrant sexual preferences and in reaching out in genuine love.

I detest the way I allowed my fear and discomfort to stand in the way of loving those whom Jesus came to restore.

The good news that God commissions us to share is yes to all the above.

My children asked me what I would do differently now, if I could. I wish I could go back and invite the eunuchs in for a cup of chai and serve them some of the celebratory sweets essential for all such occasions. I wish I could prepare bags of lentils and rice as a thank you gift for their coming (even if I did decline their services). But most importantly, I wish I could look them in the eye and give them the dignity of being treated like any other person on the planet: a loved sinner for whom grace is available.

I may not get another chance with the dancing eunuchs, but I suspect that more opportunities surround me than my eyes (or heart) have been open to.

May God find me worthy in how I respond.