Understanding Joy And Grief On Mother’s Day

pregnant

This Sunday, May 8th, is Mother’s Day. Over the past few weeks, I have gathered cards and gifts for the mothers, grandmothers, and godmothers who I love so much. I look forward to spending the day celebrating the amazing women who have been my caregivers and role models throughout my life.

While Mother’s Day is a beautiful day of celebration for so many women, I can also think of the faces of many women who struggle on Mother’s Day. From women who want to be mothers, but struggle with infertility or who have lost a child, to women who may be facing another Mother’s Day after having lost their own mom. Mother’s Day is a complex day to feel joy for the moms we have in our lives, and also to recognize the struggle, sacrifice, and often grief that accompanies motherhood as well.

In Genesis 21, we meet two very different mothers facing very different circumstances. Back in Genesis 16, we saw the first fruits of conflict between Sarai and Hagar (read: When God Meets Us In Our Grief). We start with Sarah, who gives birth to Isaac and laughs that she has birthed a son at such an old age. God has fulfilled His promise to her, and she now has a healthy baby after years and years of barrenness. We see the blessing and joy of motherhood in the person of Sarah.

Shortly thereafter, in verses 8-21, we learn that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, laughed (presumably at Sarah), and offended her deeply. Sarah then instructs Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.

To Abraham’s credit, he takes the matter to God. God tells Abraham to follow Sarah’s instructions, and promises to care for Hagar and Ishamael in the wilderness. So Abraham gives Hagar a bit of bread and water, and sends her and Ishamael away. After wandering for some time, she runs out of food and water, and believes that Ishmael is going to die, so she sets him under a bush because she’s too grieved to watch. Hagar cries out to God, and God comes to meet her. In the midst of her grief, God offers her comfort, a well, and the promise of His faithful presence with her and her son throughout the rest of their lives.

Hagar experiences a different type of motherhood than Sarah. For the second time, Hagar found herself in the wilderness with a child (once in her womb, once in a sling she carried), wondering how she would ever survive her circumstances, let alone save her child. Motherhood causes her pain and suffering, and I think that’s perhaps why God meets her so often and in such a personal way.

Motherhood is a sacred gift. We are meant to treasure the mothers in our lives, and the precious roles we play as parents, grandparents, aunts, godmothers, and friends. As we approach this Mother’s Day, may we feel gratitude, joy, and love for those influential women in our lives, and may we also be cognizant of those who may carry a heavier burden on that day. Whether you identify more with Sarah or Hagar, may you know that you are loved and appreciated as a beautiful, strong woman of God. And may we all remember that God promised both Sarah and Hagar that He would never leave them nor forsake them, especially in their moments of greatest struggle and greatest joy.

When God Meets Us In Our Grief

grief image

Yesterday, in the post Waiting On God, we looked at Genesis 15, in which God informs Abram very clearly that Abram will have an heir that will develop into a very large nation. We discussed Abram’s subsequent decision in Genesis 16 to take his wife’s servant, Hagar, and impregnate her, in an effort to bring about the promise God made to him.

Today I want us to focus on Hagar. People often have a very negative view of Hagar, regarding her as the subpar-Sarai who birthed the “wrong son.” If we look closer at the life of Hagar, though, we see a far different picture.

At the beginning of Genesis 16, we learn that Sarai is unable to have children, so she instructs Abram to take her servant, Hagar, and see if she will provide him children. I should note here that having a servant bear children on behalf of a couple was not abnormal at the time; in fact, we see the same scenario with Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s servant Bilhah in Genesis 30. Abram also takes Hagar as his “wife” (ishah), which was common as well. Sarai then remains the principal wife, and Hagar becomes a second-tier wife.

Abram impregnates Hagar, and we learn that Hagar begins snubbing or “no longer respecting” Sarai. Sarai confronts Abram about Hagar’s behavior, and Abram tells her to treat Hagar however she wishes. And this is where the text gets violent: Sarai acts so harshly toward Hagar that Hagar runs away, into the desert.

Imagine that: Hagar is a pregnant servant with nowhere to go, and Sarai treats her so harshly that she decides running away into the wilderness is safer than staying in her home. Her treatment was that unbearable.

And then, when Hagar is as lost and abandoned as she’s ever been, God shows up. “Hagar! Sarai’s servant! Where did you come from and where are you going?” The Lord visits her and asks the questions that all of us need to ponder when we’re feeling lost and afraid: Where did you come from? Where are you going?

She explains her predicament, and God tells her to return to Sarai’s house, promising to give her innumerable heirs.

God then discusses Ishmael. He says, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You will name him Ishmael because the Lord has heard about your harsh treatment.” The name Ishamel (yishmael) means “God hears.” It’s as though Ishmael, who God describes as being “a wild mule of a man,” will also testify to God’s witness of Hagar’s harsh treatment simply with his name. The trials of Hagar will never be forgotten, so long as Ishmael’s name is known.

Hagar then calls God “El Roi,” meaning “God who sees” or “God whom I’ve seen.” Frankly, both translations work: God saw her torment and struggle, and Hagar also saw God while in the wilderness. She then returns to Sarai and Abram, and births Ishmael.

I don’t know why we so often brush over this story. The encounter between Hagar, a lower class servant who is hurt and afraid, and God happens in such an intimate and powerful way. God sees and hears her pain, witnesses all of it, and in the end extends promises and hope to her while she is lost in the wilderness. 

God finds Hagar, the lowly servant of Abram and Sarai, in the midst of her deepest moments of pain and sorrow, which gives us hope that God can find us as well. God doesn’t only care for those with status, fame, perfection, and chosenness — God cares for all of us. He witnesses our struggles and frustration, knows when others treat us harshly, and is willing to sit with us when we’re hurting.

So may we turn to God today. May we bring our burdens before Him, knowing that He already sees them and hears them. May we know that God is powerful enough and compassionate enough to hold all of sadness and grief. And may we let Him sit with us today.

Sinners In The Hands Of A Heartbroken God

flood image

Last year my church began reevaluating the images we used to decorate the children’s department. I remember specifically debating whether illustrations of Noah’s Ark should remain on the walls. It’s an easy Bible story to use as decoration — there’s a boat, water, and animals — all very fun images for children’s ministry.

Reading the actual text of The Flood narrative caused us all to pause. We even asked at what age we found it appropriate to teach children the story of Noah’s Ark.

There’s no denying that The Flood narrative is a violent story — just look at Genesis 7:21-23: “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth.”

So God sweeps the earth of all of its inhabitants, leaving only Noah, his family, and a few of each of the animals. The root question here is “Why?”

I have heard a number of pastors use this particular text to describe the anger of God. They claim that the world had fallen so far away from what God originally envisioned that God essentially entered into a rage and destroyed the world. Not only that, but some religious leaders even associate floods that happen today with God’s judgment and wrath.

Here are two of the biggest issues with reading The Flood narrative in that particular way:

  1. God never expresses anger during The Flood — He expresses heartbreak. Before the Flood ever takes place, we know that God “regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved (atsav) him to his heart” (v. 6). God isn’t angry; He feels betrayed and abandoned. And the flood follows out of those feelings of hurt and sadness.
  2. It’s easy to impose anger as an attribute of God in this text, because one of the most prominent heresies still in the Christian waters is that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and violent, while the Jesus of the New Testament is peaceful and loving. In a subtle effort to maintain this binary, we read over the verses describing how God was in a state of grief before the flood ever happened (Gen. 6:6), and that afterward He promised to never flood the earth again (Gen. 8:20-22). Those statements don’t override the harsh realities detailed in chapter 7; rather, they give us a fuller picture of the complex God we worship.

Painting God as an angry monster who is out to get the world isn’t a helpful way of conceptualizing this text, nor is it biblically accurate. What we actually have is a God who created us in His image, breathed His spirit into our nostrils, created a perfect partner for us so we would never be alone, and then felt the hurt of us betraying the one command in the garden.

So God attempts to reconcile us again to Himself outside of Eden, and shortly thereafter Cain kills his brother Abel. God sends Cain out of his presence and blesses Eve with another son, Seth. And God continues this cycle of striving over and over again to live in close, intimate relationship with us, while we continue to counter His efforts. We arrive at chapter 6 in Genesis, and God feels such grief and exasperation that He decides to press “restart” on the world, except for the one family who had remained faithful. And afterward God realizes the damage He’s done, and promises never to do that again.

The biblical text continues on with this trend of God craving closer relationship, us betraying Him, and God then trying to work out a new system to reconcile us together again. And each time we leave, God expresses strong emotion, but rarely is it anger — He feels exasperated, even shocked, and ultimately heartbroken and grieved.

So may we reconsider today the ways we envision God. May we contemplate the ways we feel heartbroken, and perhaps the ways that God feels heartbroken as well. And may we draw closer to the One who loves us so deeply, and craves our devotion and love in return.

Grief, Loss, And The “Replacement” Of Abel

trickle photo

My mom and I love watching sad movies together, and Steel Magnolias is one of our favorites. Toward the end of the movie, Sally Fields gives one of the most heartbreaking and powerful speeches about the loss of her daughter. It brings us to heavy tears every time. As I read the text for today, I found a story about a woman processing loss. And it seemed highly important to address what her grief means for us.

We left off yesterday with a recap that led us through most of Genesis 4. In the last verses of Genesis 4, we learn that Eve births Seth. Seth means “to place,” and in this story Seth is “placed” in for Abel, meaning that in this context the word is really, “to replace.” Eve clarifies this meaning for us by stating, “God has given me another child in place of Abel, whom Cain killed” (v. 25).

We must be precise with our reading here: the text is not commanding us to think of new children as replacements to any who we have lost. It simply tells us that Eve specifically considered Seth as a compensation after she lost Abel. 

If you read my post on The Calling of Genesis 3, you’ll remember the distinction between reading the text as descriptive or as prescriptive. That principle applies here as well. We should read these verses as a description of how Eve processed the loss of her son, because if we read them as a prescription for how we should process grief, the outcomes can become pretty ugly.

For example, I have done a lot of pastoral care and grief work with people who experience perinatal loss, and one of the sayings that I have heard family and friends tell the parents is, “You’re still young enough to have another.”

I can’t say this firmly enough: that’s not helpful. If we’re ever with someone who’s facing and processing loss, we must refrain from making these appeasing statements. I know that grief can feel uncomfortable, and out of a very genuine place in our hearts we want to say something to make the others feel better. But please remember: most often silence is more helpful than words in these situations. And if we feel we must say something, we should affirm how much sadness we feel along with them.

These two verses in Genesis 4 give us a picture of Eve, who received Seth as a blessing after having endured great loss, arguably of both sons, since Cain was sent out from God’s presence to a new land as well. She is hurting and pained, and the gift of birthing Seth leads her to praise God for giving her another child in Abel’s place.

Eve came up with that on her own, and from what we can tell it brought her comfort and peace. I worked with many people who came up with incredible ways of framing their loss that made sense to them, that calmed their hearts, and that gave them hope for the future. We can’t create it for them, though. It is most often in our sitting quietly with others that they are able to find ways to grieve and to hope again.

Grief isn’t foreign to any of us — we have all experienced loss in one form or another. The greatest takeaway from how Eve processes the loss of Abel is that we have freedom to create the meaning that brings us the most peace. And in grieving and mourning, we find that perhaps there is still hope after despair, still peace after mourning, and still love after loss. And through bravery and courage, may we offer those gifts to one another in our greatest times of need.