Monday, March 7, 2011

sinners in the hands of a nursing God

(With apologies to Jonathan Edwards for the title.)

At my church, we follow the lectionary for the Sunday readings.  If you are not a church person, or not a mainline-Protestant church person, the lectionary is a three-year cycle of biblical readings used by lots of churches around the world.  It follows an ancient pattern of seasons - Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost - and assigns four passages for each Sunday: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading.  It  prevents me from just preaching on the stories I like, which is good.  It forces me to face up to a lot of the weird, complex, difficult, contradictory, and sometimes harsh stuff in the bible which I usually wish was not there and would prefer to ignore.

Like any system, it's imperfect, so it also tends to leave out a lot of stuff.  It also tends to include some things which aren't all that exciting.  So sometimes you read the assigned passages for the week and think, "good night, I have absofreakinglutely NOTHING to say about this," and you have to practically beat a sermon out of your computer and you are barely done with it when you climb into the pulpit and say a quick prayer that God will not smite you for the half-assed piece of crap you are about to unleash unto God's unsuspecting people.

Not that I have ever done that.  No.  Not me.

Anyway, because Easter is so late this year, we've been reading some passages we don't normally get to.  Like last Sunday, when we read this amazing passage from Isaiah 49:15

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I [God] will not forget you.

And it was paired with this, from Psalm 131:

I have calmed and quieted my soul like a nursing child with its mother.

There are actually quite a few female images for God in the bible, not that this gets a lot of press, but the 'nursing mother' image is not one I've focused on much.  Until now.  I wasn't preaching the day of these texts, which was probably good since it would have been a bit too personal to address this idea at the moment (I love my congregation, but I don't really want them thinking about my boobs).

I suppose we are primarily meant to think of ourselves as the children, and God as the mother.  But I found myself identifying more with God this time around.  I think about the cost to be a nursing mother - not money (well, apart from the vat of lanolin and the buy-in-bulk nursing pads I now own), but time, and physical effort, and lack of sleep, and the fact that you can't leave this child for any length of time before your body reminds you that you are, indeed, a nursing mom.

That you can't forget your child, even if you wanted to, because your breasts won't let you.  That you love being the only one who can provide this nourishment for your child, even as you sometimes curse the tie that binds you so closely together when you just want to have a few hours to yourself.

Does God ever have sore nipples? Or get weary of waking up at the slightest cry?  Does God leak all over when any child cries?  Does God sit quietly at night, in what often feels like a holy moment, when the house is quiet and it is still dark and everyone else is sleeping and the baby is happily sucking away?

[Sidebar: Does God ever say, "For the love of Me, please learn to take a freaking nap"?]

Literally, of course not.  This is where being a biblical literalist gets you in trouble, and means you miss out on a lot.  Because it's such a beautiful image.  Real and messy and complex and life-giving and imperfect.  Being a nursing mom is hard.  And wonderful.  And all-consuming.  And frustrating.  And painful.  And exhilarating.

And it's pretty clear that the author of that Psalm is a guy, because half the time my child, at least, is not exactly "quieted" when she nurses - more like squirming, pulling, and yanking my nipple half off before looking up at me with a big smile on her face.

God as a nursing mother.  A new one for me.  And something different to think about next time she latches on.


  1. I love this post and all it gives me to think about - in all my years as a Christian, I have never thought (or perhaps read) these verses and thought about God in this way. Thanks for the great food for thought.

  2. This is beautiful and brilliant!!! Real food for thought ( pun intended!) I see a sermon for some other congregation ( for boundaries sake ) in your future!!

  3. This is such a beautiful post. Our pastor used Psalm 131 recently as well, and it really stuck with me. Thank you for bringing it back to light in this way.

  4. Such a good post, thanks for sharing. While I'm not a religious person, I love the thought of God as a nursing mom - She certainly learned her patience through motherhood. And nursing.

  5. I love this -- and how timely that these readings would pop up for you this year!!!

  6. Long-time lurker here to tell you how much I love your blog and this post. Very thought-provoking.

  7. hey you! i read this psalm for the first time ever a few weeks ago in an effort to do morning devotions of some sort. and my translation read- But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

    And I thought about that verse all. day. long. It suggests, to me, that the Psalmist is a woman, a nursing mom. Or a mom who nursed a child until they did not need to nurse anymore, but retained the close connection that is fostered from all those long hours at the breast. There is a textual variant on it... but... this way... wow! One of the few times I've felt there's evidence for claiming female authorship of a passage of scripture. So cool. And I probably would have glossed right over it and missed it were I not still nursing my toddler and wondering when she'll be a weaned child with me. (And for that matter, when my soul will be that calm and that sated.)