One day I was going through boxes at my mother’s house. There were so many boxes because my mother was the kind of person that never threw things away. She was of that old sensibility where everything had to be repurposed, held on to just in case, or else one was being wasteful. I came across an old box of books from when we were young. In it were a number of my favourite children’s stories: ones by Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. Well, one that caught my eye was Robert Munch’s book, Love You Forever. It is a book about a boy and his mother. The story is that the mother, at all stages of the boy’s life, whether a baby or adult, from rambunctious toddler to rebellious teenager, the mother would always hold her son when he was asleep and repeat these words:
I’ll love you forever
I like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be
My mother would read that story to me before bed. She would recite those words to me over and over: “Remember these words, Spencer. Remember them. I’ll love you forever. As long as I am living, my baby you’ll be.” To this day, I cannot read that book without crying (I have also stopped watching movies like Bambi and The Land Before Time with other people in the room as well, just so you know). At that moment, a flood of good memories came to mind: all the times my mother was there when I was sick; the times when we made peanut butter cookies on Saturday afternoons; the way she comforted me after a nightmare; the Sunday afternoons we went hiking; the ways my mother could be so fun and silly. Of course, now I have my own kids, and I am reminded on a daily basis just how much work and sacrifice go into raising kids, and that made me think of all the ways my mother sacrificed for me that I had not considered. I remember praying, “God, my Mother. I know now that all the love from my mother was from you, that you loved me through the gift that was her. Thank you for my mother. Thank you for that loving presence in my life. Sorry, I could not see it till now. Amen.”
I still pray in the conventional “Our Father” pattern. I am not of the sensibility that thinks this is offensive. However, I also see the benefit of other titles, guided and patterned after God’s self-sacrificing love through Christ. Seeing God as a mother helped me realize the gift of love from God in my mother. It, if anything, fleshed out the goodness of the one who is the source of every goodness (a theology that I worked out in my last post).
As I have been saying, how we speak about God is always connected to how we relate to others, in ways we are often so unaware of. In my profession, I speak with people very often who do not have the best relationship with their parents. Often the situation is a bit different from mine (the whole new age cult thing is thankfully not that common). The scenario is that the person has moved on from the beliefs they were raised with, but now they are left with a particularly tense relationship with their parents, who simply cannot accept this change of convictions. They refuse to change their mind on their own views or even listen. I have heard terrible stories of strained relationships. Some I know have even been disowned or estranged by their parents. Some feel like they need to keep their parents at a distance to preserve their own sanity. I totally understand this. I had to do it. I know of stories of abuse and abandonment far worse than anything I encountered. I can’t imagine what that might be like. I am not asking you to disregard that or blindly keep accepting treatment you don’t deserve. You need to do what you need to do. If they are not ready to listen, don’t feel the need to try to convince them. This is something I am finding as a parent: you spend so many years insisting on what your kids need to know out of the simple fact that you know way more. That habit gets engrained over the years as a default setting that is hard to break. It’s a habit you form because you just want the best for your kids, even if--and this for a parent is so hard to admit--you don’t know what is actually best for your kids at all.
But, please, remember that your parents are your parents. Yes, you might find some great people who act as parents for you along the way. I hope you do, but I also hope you find ways of cherishing your parents, finding contentment and enjoyment in them for who they are, even if they never change amidst your journey. In cases where the hurt is real and ongoing, perhaps this might look like something much more modest: a simple peace about the past and who you are now. If even they never change, even if they have said awful things, can you still love them? See, one thing we expect as children are that our parents obviously ought to be the bigger individual, clearly ready to say “I am sorry” or admit they are wrong because that is what they taught us to do. Then, one day we find out our parents are human, imperfect and flawed, that they too struggle to do the very things they tell us we need to do. But it comes down to a simple fact: if you don’t accept them just as they are, how can you expect them to accept you for who you are? That is all to say that I hope you find a way to relate to them so that you don’t feel regret when they are gone. I hope you get the chance to say all that needs to be said, that there would be nothing left unsaid. And, as I have been insisting, this is all connected with how we understand God, who accepts and loves us. We will all realize this sooner or later.
How we speak about God is bound up with how we relate to one another. This series has been thinking about feminine language for God, how contemplating God in feminine ways--which the Bible, despite some arguing the opposite--actually does offer pattern and precedent for. For me, this opened up a way of seeing the goodness of love in a difficult relationship. For you, for your church, this might be a way of confronting deeply imbedded sexism. One Feminist theologian, Mary Daly, rightly noted, "If God is male, the male is god." Of course, most will simply say that God as Father is beyond gender, but that is not the whole story. Looking to the feminine images of God in Scripture can aid in confronting the ways in which we project patriarchy into God or forget that both men and women are in God's image, that both reflect the goodness of God.
If you intend on talking about these images with your church: be warned. I have found that talking about this subject always brings out strange knee jerk reactions. So exasperating is this work that I often encounter folks that just want to ignore theology, seeing it as one big exercise in over-complicating things. I have come to realize that this is why I must talk about this subject all the more: for many, the beliefs are deeply embedded in a knot of biases and sentiments. Human experience is complicated, and learning to bring all of one's life into relationship with God cannot neglect what I call the "deep work" of theology, that difficult process of contemplating God. If you have ever wondered why a church can fight so passionately about silly things like the colour of the carpets (and how this is actually a conversation about what "true" church should look like or how the church "ought" to grow, or , this is why: convictions are interconnected, and so often, talking about something here is attached to an experience of hurt over there. Mention God as feminine to some, and lo and behold, the iceberg of prejudice starts to be seen. This making explicit that which was subterranean begins this process of making whole. So, tread lightly. Remember that you will always, as my father used to say, catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. That is a non-theological way of saying what I have learned through this journey: grace will heal all wounds.
Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.