Growing Up

I’m 29 right now.  I have a PhD (just earned!), a tenure-track teaching job for the fall, a husband, two kids, and a dog. But often, especially when my kids are concerned, I feel myself growing up…still.

Recently, our cat, barely 9 months old, got critically ill. It was my job to tell our 3-year-old.

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“Sweet Debbie,” I told her. “We need to say goodbye to Minerva. She’s really sick. We aren’t going to see her anymore. She’s going to be at peace, and she’s going home to be with Jesus.”

[Interior monologue: Oh God, let me be ANYWHERE ELSE right now. Let ANYONE ELSE do this.]

Debbie looked up from the Bible she’s reading and points to the page. Jesus is helping the woman with the issue of the blood. “Oh, Mommy, don’t worry, my sweet love. Jesus is going to heal Minerva.”

[Interior monologue: Kid, you’re killing ME right now.]

“Debbie, you’re so right that Jesus is a healer,” I told her. “Sometimes he heals people and animals by bringing us home to him in heaven.”

“Oh,” Debbie said. She seemed untroubled. “Bye-bye, Minerva! I love you!”

[Interior monologue: Is that really it?  Somehow, I don’t think so.]

Minerva died in my arms at the vet that day.

Exactly one week later, my heart still felt like a badly-scabbed knee of a five-year-old who fell off a bike. But Debbie’s journey was just beginning.

Debbie says, “Mommy, I’m worried about Minerva. I don’t see her anymore. When is she coming back?”

I could only reply, “We don’t have to worry about her anymore, Debbie. She’s all safe in heaven with Jesus. He can hold her for us. We won’t see her again until we go to heaven, too.”

Debbie is too smart for that. “But…if she’s not sick…can’t she come back?”

I can only hold it together for so long. “She’s not coming back, Debbie. I’m so sorry. We can feel sad because we miss her.”

Debbie tears up, too. “Can I bring you a new cat, Mommy? So you won’t be sad?”

This gets a little smile from me. “My heart isn’t ready for a new cat, Debbie. I’ll let you know when it is.”

Debbie nods, wisely, beyond her years. “We can still love Minerva. Even though she’s getting pats from Jesus, not us.”

Parenting has made me realize that age doesn’t have a premium on wisdom.  I’ve also come to discover that my philosophy (theology?) of parenting—and believe me, I’m making this stuff up as I go along—is grounded in being real with my kids. I’m not hiding my emotions from them, but instead naming them and taking responsibility for them. It’s messy, humbling, and I have no idea if it works.

But I think I’m growing up…alongside them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turning 3

Dear Debbie Joy,

This part of your letter is about you:


You are finally three. The last year of your life has included a move to rural Tennessee, the birth of imaginative play, a growing awareness of worship and theology, and a professed vocation of Princess-Professorship.  It also included an awful head injury, the flu, and several incidents of racial bias.  You have been mistaken for age 5 because of your impressive verbal abilities and for “Oriental” because of the color of your skin.

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You love Disney movies, reading the Bible and every other book we own, and busting some moves on the dance floor.  You have become tentative among strangers, but once someone shows you they’re not “rude” (as you say), you talk up a storm. When a classmate behaves unfairly, you are the first to show just indignation. You plan to marry your classmate, H., but tell me that Lucas, our good friend from Brazil, is your “handsome prince.”

You call me “my love,” “sweetie,” and “baby.” You make me take off my socks because you tell me I’m going to slip. You read my emotions like the books you love so much, even when they go unspoken.  You (Cinderella/Ariel/Tiana) conscript Gabby into the role of the prince, and together you go to the ball. You hold her hands and spin slowly in a circle, singing, “So this is love…Mmmhhhmmm…My heart has wings…Mmmhhhmmm.”  You save the rough-and-tumble games for your daddy, always asking, “Can I tackle you ONE MORE TIME?”

This part of your letter is about me:

Before you were born, I didn’t know the fierceness of my determination to protect another human.  I didn’t know the heat of my anger towards racism or exploitation of children.  I didn’t know the strength it would take to bear a child, once through my body, but every day through life.  I didn’t know the extent of my commitment to give you the best life I know how.

Surprised Debbie

Before you were born, I didn’t know what it would feel like to love, unconditionally, another human.

I am so extraordinary grateful for you, Deborah Joy. Your life has marked mine in the best way possible. Happy 3rd Birthday, my beautiful, brilliant, brave girl.
Love,
Mama

Thuribles, Faculty Meetings, and Classes…OH MY!

My lack of posts recently has everything to do with the season of life in which I’ve found myself over the last 3 months.  As many of my readers already know, this year, I’m externing as a visiting lecturer at the School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South, while I finish my PhD at Vanderbilt.  In other words, I’m living on top of a beautiful and remote mountain, serving as a faculty member for seminarians who, by and large, are preparing for priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

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Gabby has really grown up during our time in Sewanee!  Photo by Erin Cassell Photography.

This shift from grad school living in Nashville (easy by comparison) has brought big changes. I’m essentially teaching a full load of classes. Debbie and Gabby are going to preschool/daycare three days a week, which has been wonderful for both of them.  After pickup time, though, I’m invested in letting them know that Mommy is still Mommy, even when I wear nice clothes that they aren’t supposed to smear applesauce on.  In addition to teaching, I’m deep into dissertation revision and plan to submit the darn thing (ahem, my magnum opus…) by Christmas.  At the same time, I’m applying for faculty positions for after May, when I will graduate from Vanderbilt with my PhD (bye-bye, stipend) and my time in Sewanee end.  I’ve been doing a lot of teaching and preaching at regional churches, which never fails to inspire my academic work. Add in publishing some projects, and, well…Blogging hasn’t happened.

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In search of the ever-elusive “work/life balance”…  Photo by Erin Cassell Photography

Excuses aside, I’ve loved many aspects of my experience at the School of Theology.  Among these:

  • Faculty meetings and committee work:  I think I may be the only academic I know who loves going to faculty meetings and serving on an academic committee.  I am fascinated to learn about the inner workings of the School of Theology. Hearing discussions about the future building plans for the seminary, the admissions strategies of the university as a whole, and curriculum revisions for the seminary really gets me excited.  Strangely enough, it has been this aspect of my experience that has confirmed for me that I was born to do this.  I have no idea whether I’ll end up teaching in a seminary or a liberal arts college, but regardless, I love this work.
  • Patterns of community worship and preaching: This aspect of my experience at Sewanee was initially a source of much confusion and anxiety for me.  My early days attending chapel at Sewanee were filled with seminarians frantically whispering advice in my ear about how I was doing everything wrong, from their learned liturgical perspectives. In fact, one well-meaning male seminarian let me know that the way I was sitting when preaching in chapel (cross-legged), would be considered “immodest.”  Before coming to Sewanee, I’d never received communion from a shared chalice, and, despite the health advisory information helpfully printed in the worship bulletin, was a little horrified by the prospect.  However, I’ve come to love the shared worship, and I treasure the chance to help facilitate the experience for the students, faculty, and staff in attendance through preaching.
  • Teaching: My favorite teaching experience this year has been a directed study on Feminist Theology and Biblical Interpretation.  We are an odd bunch in this class–a man in his 40s, a woman in her 60s, and myself (very fleetingly still in my 20s).  The gentleman in the class initiated the study because he “wanted to know and understand more” about feminist thought, as he realized that he, like each of us, was running into the blind spots of his own social location.  Each class session, the students greet me with challenging questions about the reading, having carefully digested the material, and then we disagree and share to our hearts’ content.  It’s been one of those magical teaching experiences I know I’ll always remember. Joshua, if you’re reading this…I still think you’re selling Phyllis Trible short. 😉
  • Impact on the girls: Debbie, my 2-year-old, proudly proclaims that she is a “professor at the School of Theology” and that she has to go to work “to teach [her] students about God.”  Even little Gabby (14 months) has started grabbing my work bag and announcing, “Bye-bye! Go, go, go!” I have struggled mightily over the tension between my professional calling and my maternal one, feeling, at times, that I am letting my girls down by having them in child care instead of staying at home with them full-time, as my mom did with my siblings and me. However, I believe that seeing me in this role also offers unique empowerment to my daughters.  They know that they can go and be anything…even a professor at the School of Theology.
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Women belong in the academy. Photo by Erin Cassell Photography.

There’s a lot more that I could say about our time on the mountain. In particular, being an interracial family here has been difficult and painful at times.  (Let me tell you about Debbie’s response to the woman who called her “cinnamon colored,” or the hospital administrator who asked, knowing that the girls are biracial, if she could write down Gabby’s race as “oriental”…the list goes on.). But even these difficulties haven’t taken away what’s been great about our time here.  

Surprised Debbie
Debbie’s “astonished” face. She uses it often in response to silly questions about race. Photo by Erin Cassell Photography.

 

 

 

 

A Prayer for My Daughter, On Her 1st Birthday

Lord,

You entrusted me with Gabby, and you know her inside and out.  There was no mystery hidden from you when you wove her inside of me, fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139).

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For all the strength and empowerment I’ve found through being this girl’s mama–even during her birth–I praise you, God.

Thank you for Gabby.  Thank you for all that she has already been to us–a daughter, a sister, a friend.  Thank you for her sweet disposition, her goofy laugh, and her determination to go places as of yet uncharted by babies (probably for good reasons). Thank you for using my relationship with her for my sanctification and your glory in my life.

Thank you for the moments we’ve shared already.  For ever hour I’ve worked from home while snuggling her, for all the “firsts” we’ve witnessed (words, crawling, standing, steps, and more!).  For even the many sleepless nights we’ve soldiered through this year, holding our precious child, I am so thankful.

There are so many things I want for my daughter, God.  It seems like a lot to ask, especially considering that Gabby is, by virtue of her birth, more privileged than many children of the world. But these are, I think, the things that all children, all people, need and deserve. And I believe no request is too big or small for you.

Gabby and Mommy pic

Let her know her strength, God.  As her name, “Gabrielle,” implies, the source of all her strength is you, and so, even when her mortal flesh is failing, she can fall upon the Rock that is Christ and let his arms hold her. Let her know that, regardless of size or social status or office, she is great through the power that raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8:11).

Let her know her beauty, God.  It’s more than clear to me that my daughter is beautiful on the inside and the outside, too, but sometimes distortions can start to feel like reality . Let her know that she is created in your image, and that any messages contrary to that are flat-out lies (Gen. 1:27).

Let her find family, God.  I believe that one of the worst things we can do is walk through life alone–or believe that we are alone.  I trust that our family, our immediate family, will always be there for her, but I want her also to find “chosen family”–the people she can call at 3 AM on a Thursday night just because she needs a chat.

Help her be brave, God.  Let her be a person who sits by the one everyone else is leaving out. Let her be a person who speaks out of principle, not popularity.  Let her fearlessly tell of who she is and why her story matters.

Gabby happy scream

Let her be heard and seen, God, for who she really is. Remove the sicknesses of racism and sexism that have poisoned so many and kept them from witnessing the truth of those who are like my child.

And while she’s doing all that, being strong and beautiful and known and brave and heard and seen, just keep her safe, God. We do not live in a safe country for children, especially not ones like Gabby.  I worry for her with a mother’s heart, and yet I trust you, God.

Gabby pretty picture

In your powerful, strong name–which Gabby carries in her own name, in the fabric of her being–I pray.

Amen.

 

 

 

Peace Between Polarities

I often myself in the crossfires of dueling polarities.  Here are a few.

  • I’m a working mother who stays at home with her kids as much as humanly possible.
  • I’m a feminist, LGBT-inclusive biblical scholar who usually worships at evangelical, nondenominational churches.
  • I’m a white suburbanite who has often found herself visiting family in an inner-city, black neighborhood.
  • I’m an academic who thinks first with her heart.
  • I’m a Democrat who’s deeply unnerved by the rhetoric that most of my party leaders have about abortion.
  • I’m a Christian whose piety has been deeply informed by time in the Muslim world.
  • I’m an introvert who often functions as an extrovert.
  • I’m a white mother to two little brown girls.
  • I’m a self-respecting woman who has also been known to watch The Bachelor(ette). (SHAME.)
  • I have strong and passionate opinions about many issues, but I hate debating.

Because I live within the crossfires of these polarities, sometimes I feel like a bit of a chameleon. For example, I’ve often avoided talking about my church attendance to my academic friends.  And I’ve often avoided explaining my academic work to my church friends. I think I’m pretty good at “passing” in whatever context I’m in.  I often internally cringe at myself in my chameleon moments, willing myself into a more “don’t-give-two-cents” stage of existence.

Sometimes, in my bolder moments, I feel like a bit of an interpreter.  I try to explain to my secular friends why I love the Bible and worship Jesus. I try to explain to my church friends why feminism helps me love Jesus and read the Bible.  I try to explain to my politically conservative friends why I oppose the death penalty.  I try to explain to my politically liberal friends why my views on abortion policy are complex.  I try to explain how I can relate to folks whose life experiences have led them to quite different positions than my own. Mostly, these efforts fall flat (as in the last point in the bulleted list, I really don’t enjoy debate).

Sometimes I wish that it were a little simpler to place myself in a box.  My fellow box-mates would be my people, and the people outside the box would be those people.  But I believe that there’s a gift to nuance, to being, at times, a flesh-and-blood contradiction to those polarities.  There’s a freedom in resistance to simple definition. There’s a freedom outside the box.

Maybe there’s a peace between the polarities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“She Looks Just Like You.”

“She looks just like you.”

In nearly 2.5 years of motherhood, I had never heard those words before from a stranger.  Most people don’t see the resemblance.  They notice first the fact that my girls’ brown skin is many shades darker than my white skin.  And then the comments and questions often come. As I’ve written about before, they ask things like, “Is that baby yours?” “What is she mixed with?” “What’s her daddy?”  “Is she Indian?” or other queries, which run along the spectrum of simply tactless to downright offensive.

But never, never has a stranger (and only very rarely a friend or family member) said the words, “She looks just like you.” Until today.

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The source was unexpected. We’ve been visiting a pretty small nondenominational church (I hail from Presbyterian origins, Will from African American Baptist traditions, and by mutual agreement, nondenominational churches with an orientation towards diversity have been where we have landed as a family) that is about 5 minutes from our new home.  It’s in a small town, and going in, I admit I was more than skeptical about the reception our interracial family–along with our political affiliation, perspectives on certain social issues, and educational backgrounds–would receive. But the comment of an older lady in her 70s undid my prejudices.  As Will and I carried our daughters out of the service, she stopped me and said something that changed everything:

“She looks just like you, doesn’t she?”

I thought for sure she must be talking to Will, who was holding Debbie (our older daughter). But no, she was looking straight at me as I held Gabby (our younger daughter) in my arms.  And she was still talking:

“I didn’t notice at first. But then I saw Baby’s face as you were holding her hands to help her walk. Her expressions are just like yours…big ole smile. Big sister looks like Daddy, though. That’s fair…you each have one who looks like you.”

Frankly, I was floored. I didn’t know how much I’d wanted, need to hear those words until I heard them coming from the mouth of a white, rural, Southern person I’d honestly had expected to judge the heck out of us. Someone who, statistically, potentially might have voted for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

“Thank you so much,” I told her. “That means so much to me. No one has told me that before.”

Since church this morning, I’ve been trying to figure out why I was so moved by the comment.  Here’s what I’ve concluded. Hearing those words for me is an external affirmation of what I inwardly know to be true, that I “go with” my daughters, that I don’t have to share their skin color to be the mommy that God chose for them. That the beauty that shines through them originates partly from me, too. My soul had been aching to hear those words.

God, in the form of a person whom I now realize I have unfairly stereotyped, provided.

“Brown Like Me”

Recently, 2-year-old Debbie has gotten very interested in skin color.  Standing at the bathroom mirror, she’s liable to make the declaration, “I am brown!!!” This is used followed by observations about her parents: “Daddy, you are brown, too!  Mommy, are you white? I think you’re white! Are you sure?”

We never told Debbie that she is “brown” or that I’m “white.”  To avoid pinning labels on her that she didn’t need or want, when she initially asked, “What color is Debbie Joy? What color is Daddy? What color is Mommy?”  we responded, “What do you think?” She’s always been very certain she was “brown! Yay, Debbie Joy!” but she was very tentative in ascribing a color to me.  While she told us that she and Will were “brown,” she then announced, “Mommy, your name is Susannah!” instead of telling us what color I am.  Then, she suggested that my whiteness was “an accident, a mistake?”  to which I replied that God doesn’t make mistakes when he’s making people.  Finally, she concluded, “I think you’re white, Mommy!” but qualified, “It’s okay, Mommy.  One day you be brown like Debbie Joy.”

I may be reading too much into her toddler-speak, but it seemed like she was reluctant to label my color because she didn’t want to acknowledge any difference between her and myself.  Over the course of her life, she has identified primarily with me.  Much of her play imitates the housework and childcare that I do daily.  I think she was hesitant to introduce language to describe me that introduced any sense of gap, even if just semantic, between us.

To be honest, I’ve felt much the same way. Sometimes being the white mother of a brown child feels like a daunting task.  There’s so much that Will and I have to teach our daughter of which I have no personal experience.  How am I supposed to explain to her how to act if/when she gets pulled over by the police to increase the odds she’ll survive the encounter?  How am I am supposed to tell her what to do if someone yells the N-word at her from a car window?  Truth is, I can only teach her, in so far as I know, how to be a good person, fair, compassionate, brave, wise, and strong.  There are lessons that others will have teach her from their experience. Sometimes, that makes me feel a little inadequate.

Yesterday, we took a family trip to Bicentennial Park in downtown Nashville, where in the summer there’s a lovely splash pad where children shriek and romp.  While we were there, a pre-teen girl approached Debbie. “You mixed?” she asked Debbie, holding out her arm beside Debbie’s to compare their brown skin tones. “YOU’RE BROWN LIKE ME!” Debbie yelled, delighted.  She was so excited to have a “big friend” who shared her skin color.  The two girls played together for almost an hour. Debbie’s friend taught her how to jump clean through the fountains without getting scared.

This beautiful interaction reminded me the importance of finding mentors for Debbie, big sisters, really, who can model for her life as a woman of color, who can teach her the lessons where I will certainly fall far short.

And yet the interaction also reminded me that I don’t have to be afraid of being “found out” as a fraudulent mother for her because I am white.  At one point when the girls were playing together, Debbie slipped on the slick pavement and hit her head, hard. “MOMMY!!!” she yelled, and I came to her rescue.  Through God’s grace and mercy, he has seen fit to make me mother to children of a different skin color than my own, and I believe that, in spite of my personal limitations, I am enough for the path that is ahead of us.

Nashville.

In the Hebrew Bible, seven is a number of completion and/or perfection. For example, in the Yahwistic creation narrative of Genesis 1, creation takes place over seven days (6 days of God’s work making something, and 1 day of rest).  This week, my last (at least for the foreseeable future) as a resident of Nashville, I’ve thought about the perfection of seven a lot.

You see, I moved to Nashville just about 7 years ago.  I had a newly minted Bachelor of Arts degree and was about to start what would become my first masters degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  I thought I was a grown up then…but I wasn’t. At all. I was barely dipping a toe into the tumultuous waters we call adulthood.

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Back in 2014 when we were dating. We were a lot younger and less sleep-deprived then.

Seven years later, I dare to call myself a grown up. I’ve learned what loss, parenthood, and marriage are like–kind of all at once.  The best moments and the worst moments of my life have all taken place here.  I’ve experienced exhilarating victories and painful rejections…all lumped together.  Death and birth have walked hand in hand.

In Nashville, I made far more friends than I’d ever hadbefore.  For the first time, ever, through a conglomeration of university and church communities, I felt like I met my people. I felt known and appreciated– by people who were in no way obligated to love me–in a way I never had by communities before.

When I moved here, I hadn’t met my family.  I was dating someone whom I would not ultimately marry.  A year later, I met Will, and it was pretty apparent instantly that he and I had something incomparable to any relationship I’d ever had. Just a few years after that, Debbie came along, and then Gabby.  They were both born just a moment’s drive away from the library where Will and I met.

I’m leaving Nashville heavily laden with the gifts these seven years have given me.  And yet I feel that this chapter of our story here is done.  Seven really is the perfect number for me.

 

 

“What’s Your Dissertation About?” (In 400 words or Less)

The book of Lamentations is one of the most interesting but least talked about books in the Old Testament. It’s a series of poems that encapsulates the fear, trauma, and despair of warfare, of seeing one’s home completely destroyed by invaders and being taken into exile. In the first two chapters of Lamentations, the poem is written as if a woman named Daughter Zion is speaking it. She’s a personification of the city of Jerusalem and its people. She poignantly describes how she is raped, her children are murdered, and her people are dragged away. She insists that God must notice her suffering and answer for it, challenging the conventional notion that people suffer because they have sinned.

I’d never read Lamentations before I went to seminary, even though I’m a lifelong church-goer. And I’d never heard the voice of Daughter Zion remembered, even though I’m a feminist. My dissertation asks, “Why not? Why aren’t we all talking about Daughter Zion, given the ways her protest against injustice and against facile theology speaks to the pain of today’s world?”

The obvious answer is, “PATRIARCHY!!!” But I want to give a more nuanced account than that. Daughter Zion’s voice has disappeared because the tradition of Lamentations interpretation has stopped giving her credit for it. From the erasure of Daughter Zion’s protest in inner-biblical allusions to Lamentations, to the attribution of Lamentations’ authorship to the prophet Jeremiah, to the slut-shaming of Daughter Zion in commentaries, millennia of interpreters have done their best, consciously or unconsciously, to make sure she’s forgotten. Her protest goes unheard. Lamentations, which is set up dialogically, has become a one-sided conversation. The condemnatory voice within it that blames victims, especially women, for their suffering is the only voice that gets heard.

Without the courageous voice of Daughter Zion insisting that women’s rape isn’t a function of their sinfulness, and that helpless children don’t deserve to die for powerful adults’ sins, Lamentations just becomes another painful tract that falsely claims, “Bad things don’t happen to good people.” Lamentations becomes the last place people want to look for hope and encouragement when they’re suffering.
I want to change that. I want to give Daughter Zion’s voice back to her. And by doing that, I want to give Lamentations back to the world.

God Remembers: A Mother’s Day Sermon

My good friend Seonwoong invited me to preach a Mother’s Day sermon for the youth he pastors at Nashville Korean United Methodist Church. My texts were Isaiah 49:13-16 and Luke 23:39-43.

I am mommy to two little girls. Debbie is two years old, and Gabby is eight months old. Being a mom has changed everything about my life. For example, it used to be that using a public restroom was no big deal. Now, that’s a different story. Over Christmas, my family was driving up to Wisconsin. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel for dinner, because they have one of the five foods my daughter Debbie likes to eat—mac and cheese. After dinner, I took her into the women’s restroom with me. I was washing my hands when Debbie darted away from me and poked her head under the door of one of the locked stalls. “Mommy,” she yelled, “People pooping in here!” I wanted to vanish from sheer embarrassment. And then, to make things even worse, a very dignified older lady walked out from the stall, tight-lipped and annoyed. “I can tell that one is a handful,” she said to me about Debbie, who was grinning ear-to-ear, so pleased with herself. Public restrooms will never be the same for me again.
Being a mom has also changed the way I see God. Being a mom—and knowing how I would do absolutely anything to serve my two little girls—has shown me how much God must really love us. I started thinking about how God is like a mother  one night when Debbie was little. You’ve probably heard from your parents or know yourself from having younger siblings that often, babies don’t sleep very well. Debbie had a habit of waking up at about 3 AM and refusing to go back to sleep. She would cry and cry if I set her back down, and often, I would just end up holding her all night. From a certain point of view, that was really not fun, because I love to sleep. On the other hand, though, it in those hours, spent rocking my sweet baby to sleep, that I began to encounter God’s love for me in a new way.
While I was sheltering my little girl in my arms, whispering, “It’s okay, Debbie, I’ve got you. I love you so much, and I’m never going to let you go,” it was like I could hear God whispering as well: “It’s okay, Susannah. I’ve got you. I love you so much, and I’m never going to let you go.”
Now, no mom is perfect. Moms are not the same as God. And sometimes moms are emotionally unhealthy and make bad choices that cause us pain. The Bible tells us that we shall have no other gods before him…and that includes making idols of our parents. Moms aren’t God…but the Bible tells us that there’s something about loving, good moms that can teach us about God’s heart for us. Let’s look again at our reading from the prophet Isaiah to find out more.
14 But Zion [that’s another name for the city of Jerusalem] said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.’
15 Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Isaiah wrote these words during the exile. You might remember that the Israelites were God’s chosen people, bound to him with a covenantal love. But a lot of things happened to mess up that covenant. Long story short, Isaiah’s people ended up being taken over by a big powerful kingdom called Babylon. Many people were killed or taken into exile, away from their homeland, away from the land that God had promised them. It was during that awful, dark time in history that a lot of the books of the Bible were written. That’s because when bad things happen, people start to question everything. Many people asked, “Why is this happening to us? Where is God now?”
Have you ever asked questions like that? I know I have. The Bible is a great place to go when we’re asking those questions. Some biblical writers thought that their people were suffering because they sinned. Some thought that God was being unfair and allowing harm for no good reason. Some even got angry at God. And I want to take a minute here to say, all of those responses to pain are OK. Sometimes the bad choices we’ve made have played into our suffering. For example, if I cheated on a test, I deserve to fail that test, even though that consequence makes me unhappy. If I drive under the influence, I deserve to have my driver’s license taken away. But there are many other times when the suffering we face just doesn’t make sense. Bad things happen to good people. In the 9/11 terrorist attacks, good people died. They didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to them. Jesus himself rejects the idea that suffering just happens to people who sinned. In John, when he sees a man who was suffering from blindness, the disciples ask him whose fault it was that the man was blind…who sinned? Jesus says, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents.”
So sometimes we just don’t know why bad things happen to us. Sometimes the simple answers just don’t make sense. Then, it seems like God has forgotten us. That’s the moment we catch the prophet Isaiah in during our reading for today. Isaiah gives the city of Jerusalem a speaking role in the drama he is writing. The city, speaking like a woman, says, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” In other words, this woman is suffering, and she’s trying to figure out why. She believes that the reason for her pain is that God has forgotten about her. She thinks her struggles don’t matter to God any more.
The way that God responds to her is amazing. God compares himself to a mother. To the accusation that God has forgotten her, God insists that he still remembers because he is like a mother. For Isaiah, a mother is the best example of someone who isn’t going to forget you. I can relate to that. Ever since I became a mom, my children are the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep. You know how they talk about mom-brain? It’s so real. I have mom-brain so bad, and I’m not sure it’s ever going to go away. I lose my car keys basically daily, I can’t remember acquaintances’ names, and I accidently stored the peanut butter in the freezer. But no matter how forgetful or disorganized I’ve gotten with my mom brain, I have never forgotten about my children.
Truthfully, though, I still mess up as a mom. Recently, I was taking my daughter Debbie out for a walk around our apartment complex. There are tons of stairs in the complex, and Debbie loves to go up and down them, over and over. She’s basically like my personal trainer. Now, up until this point, Debbie had gotten very confident going up and down stairs. So I stopped insisting that she hold my hand. On this particular occasion, we were about to walk down some stairs that were particularly steep and a little damp, and the railing was just a little out of her reach. But I wasn’t paying close attention to these things. I was distracted. I absentmindedly said, “Debbie, I think you should hold my hand going down those stairs,” and I reached out my hand to grab hers, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Debbie tripped on the top stair and fell, head over heels, down each one of the 15 concretes stairs. I know her fall probably took less than 3 seconds, but for me, those were probably the longest three seconds of my life. I stood frozen at the top of the stairs while my precious baby girl toppled down. She landed at the bottom of the stairs in a sad little heap. It took a few seconds before she started to cry. Her mouth opened first in a silent scream, and I knew what was coming. When she did start to cry, I felt like the sound was the condemnation of me as a mother. Fortunately and miraculously, Debbie was completely OK. But that’s probably the moment of being a mother that I’m most ashamed of.
The truth is, though, that I’m only human, just like every mother. I’m going to have moments that I wish I could redo. Beating myself up over my shortcomings is neither healthy nor helpful. And even though moms like me are imperfect, God honors us by comparing himself to us in Isaiah. Isaiah chooses mothers as the ultimate example of people who are least likely to forget. That makes sense to me. Imperfect though I am, I can’t forget my children, even when I make mistakes and my human failings show up.
In our Isaiah passage, God is saying that he is the perfect example of all the things that makes moms great—especially their inability to forget about their children. But all the parts of moms that are broken and sinful and imperfect are totally foreign to God. So God can love us perfectly and beautifully even if there are times when our moms fail to do so. As Psalm 27: 10 says, “If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.”
We need a God who remembers us like that, because being a young person is incredibly hard. There can be so much pressure to succeed…to get into the right college, to have the perfect GPA, for the right person to “like” you. And there’s so much crazy, terrible stuff happening in the world. This week in Colorado, there was another school shooting. A brave young man named Kendrick, a high schooler, died because he rushed at one of the shooters. Kendrick was a hero, but he should never have to be. He should have been able to walk at his graduation. He should have been able to go to college or get a job. Get married, have kids, be a father. And you know what? I can’t stop thinking about his mother, because this week, she lost her baby, and Kendrick won’t be able to get her a mother’s day card or make her pancakes for breakfast. That is unfair. It’s all so unfair. I think adults have a tendency to downplay unfairness by saying, “Well, kids, life’s not fair.” That’s true…but saying that doesn’t make it right, or God’s vision for the world. This isn’t the way God wanted things to be when he made this big, beautiful, awesome world. God had better dreams than this nightmare.
Even in this crazy, messed up world, we can be sure that God remembers us. God doesn’t just remember you in a passive, “Oh, I’m so sorry you’re going through that” kind of way. God remembers in an empathetic kind of way. If you break down the word “empathy” into its roots, it literally means “feeling with.” God remembers you by feeling your pain with you—because God himself has experienced it in Jesus Christ. Betrayal by a friend? Peter betrayed Jesus before his death. Total humiliation in from of a crowd of onlookers? Jesus was kicked out of his hometown at the beginning of his ministry, and then later on, he was stripped and beaten. Loneliness? Jesus begged his friends to stay awake with him, but they couldn’t. Watching loved ones get sick and die? Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus died, and Jesus mourned for him. Fear of the future? Jesus asked God if there were any other way than for him to die.
Jesus’s experiences from birth to grave give him empathy for us, the ability to “feel with us.” Jesus remembers us because he’s gone through all the difficult things we go through. But the moment this becomes most clear is when Jesus is dying on the cross in our Gospel reading. He’s being crucified between two thieves. I think we’re so used to hearing the story of Jesus that we stop thinking about how plain unfair this is. Jesus had done nothing wrong; the Bible tells us he lived a completely sinless life, better than anyone else’s in the world. He had knowledge of the will of God in ways that are completely beyond the rest of us. He spent his whole life serving by teaching, healing, including, and breaking bread with the people around him. But it was like none of that mattered…he was still killed, treated like a criminal, and hung on a cross between two of them. All to redeem a bunch of sinners like us. How’s that for unfair?
And yet like the good mother God promises to be, Jesus still remembers us, down to his last dying breath. He even has a conversation with the thieves who are being crucified with him. One of them makes fun of him for being in this terrible situation. But the other thief gets real with Jesus. He’s scared, because he’s about to die, and he doesn’t know what’s coming next. Maybe he’s regretting the decisions that have led him to this point. Maybe if he had a second chance, he’d go back and change things. And so he has a question for Jesus. It’s a humble, embarrassing = question—the kind of question that shows insecurity, like a child asking a mother, “Mom, do you really love me even though I did that bad thing?” The thief pleads with Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
We all want to be remembered. In our last moments, I think we all, even if we haven’t thought about it yet, just to be loved, to be cared for. To have somebody there with us to hold our hands and whisper to us that we want to be loved. In our Gospel reading, that thief is probably pretty feeling pretty lonely, up high on the cross by himself. It’s often in those lonely moments, when we feel like the world has forgotten us, that we’re most open to God…a God who remembers us. And that’s exactly what Jesus promises to the thief to do. Honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed Jesus if he wasn’t in the mood for a Q and A session right then. He was in pain and couldn’t breath well. He was dying. And yet, as happened to Jesus throughout his life, people still wanted things from him. Kind of like a mom who doesn’t even have the privacy to go to the bathroom by herself without the kids banging on the door. If I were Jesus—and thank God I’m not—I might have just closed my eyes and pretended to be dead already, like an opossum playing dead or something, just so I wouldn’t have to waste my breath with talking.
But Jesus still remembered. Even as he was dying, he remembered the thief. The person who had actually done something wrong, something that, according to the law of the Roman empire, had actually earned him that position on the cross. Jesus replies with love to the thief. He says, “I’ll remember you, brother. Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”
Here’s what’s even more miraculous. The thief is like every single one of us in this room. We’ve all made mistakes in our lives. We’ve all done things that we regret. We all have hurts that are too deep for us to heal for ourselves. And just as Jesus saw the whole truth about the thief and loved him even so…Jesus sees us exactly as we are. All the mistakes in our lives that were our fault. All the painful things in our lives that aren’t our fault. And he says, to each one of us, “I remember you, too.”
Maybe today some of us are feeling like the thief who hung on a cross beside Jesus, stuck in a place that seems both hopeless and helpless. Maybe today the words in our Isaiah passage make sense to you: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Maybe today you’re feeling alone. Then today, God has a word of hope for you. God says to you, “I remember you. I have known you and loved you before you were even born. I rejoice over you with singing. You are my beloved, and I delight in you. I remember you.”
Isaiah tells us the truth, a truth that Jesus repeats back to the thief when he promises to remember that man. God hasn’t forgotten us. God remembers us. God has given us Jesus to show that God has never and will never forget us. Because that’s what a good mother does. And God is even more than that.