In my recent meditations on the writings of Julian of Norwich, I have relished her prolonged contemplation of Jesus as our Mother: how he gives birth to us twice, in creation and on the cross, and how he tends us day by day.
Julian’s trinitarian theology is clear and sound: the three Persons are One, and what is done by any of them is done by the one God. What one Person is, all three are together. Thus in other places she writes that God is both Father and Mother.
To my sorrow, I remember as a young adult scoffing along with a friend who had visited a “liberal” church where prayers were often addressed to “Father-Mother God.” Now I think such forms of address are true and rich, fully consonant with scripture and various strains of Christian tradition.
In my own prayer life I have tended in the past couple of decades to opt for “God”—usually “dear God”—as a gender-neutral term of address. But I’ve been longing for something warmer, a phrase that expresses more of who God is to me, to us.
Daneen Akers makes an excellent case for switching to “Mother God” and ditching the male terms and pronouns altogether. Of course she’s not the only advocate for this; on the page I’ve linked, you can download a helpful PDF she put together quoting other thoughtful Jesus followers who have made this change.
Somehow my heart has been wanting a term that clashes a little more, calling attention to itself, yet one that could come to feel natural on my tongue. This past weekend I hit upon “Mother Lord,” and it feels just right. Lord has a feudal feel, but it’s what the biblical translators continue to use, and its Aramaic equivalent was what the first disciples called Jesus most often. I like retaining this familiar title because it conveys honor and trust and glory. And I have used it all my life.
As a child I called my mother Mommy, and as a teen I switched to Mom. Mother feels different, larger. It speaks of intimacy and belovedness, respect and dignity. Our Lord is Mother to me and to my mother and father, to all generations of humankind. She is our Source, giving us life, tending us, challenging us, calling us home.
“Mother Lord” makes me chuckle a little, and it seems to hold my whole ongoing journey to know God more.
Giving God names that reflect our awe and affection is a very scriptural thing to do. Have you come up with a special name for God? I would love to read it.
For a few years now I have been pondering the words of Julian of Norwich, the medieval woman who at age 30 received a series of “showings” or revelations of the love of God. She dedicated the rest of her life to praying through these visions, asking God questions about them, deciphering their meaning. In fact after she wrote them down, she began writing them again as she understood more.
Julian moved into a small anchorhold–a monastic cell built against a wall of St. Julian’s Church in the city of Norwich, England. Another woman lived in an adjoining cell and took care of her practical needs so that Julian could live as an anchorite, mostly in solitude for prayer and writing but in the afternoons receiving visitors who came to her porch window to seek her counsel.
I feel a great kinship with Julian, not because I possess comparable wisdom and dazzling intellect but because I too have had deep experiences of God’s love. Julian’s insights speak to my heart. They are carrying me through these years of terrifying climate change and pandemic and war and the violence of white supremacy. Julian is an older sister who holds my hand, grieves with me, and helps persuade my anxious body to rest in love.
The title I chose for this post is from an extended meditation on a brief vision Julian received. A lord (remember, she lived in medieval England) is sitting on a throne with a servant nearby. The lord asks the servant to take care of a certain task, and the young man leaps up to obey–but immediately stumbles and falls. Instead of berating him for his awkwardness, the lord descends from the throne and kindly takes his hand to help him up.
Julian is fascinated by this parable/vision and spends several pages interpreting it. The lord, of course, is God, and the servant is the paradigmatic human being, Adam. The first sin committed by the first humans in the book of Genesis has long been called “the fall.” But Julian is moved and astonished to see how gently God responds to Adam’s offense. This was not the God portrayed in most church sermons in her day.
Julian shares other insights as she digs into this parable–too much to explain here. What I’ve been carrying around in the notes app on my phone is one phrase: within the lord she sees “a great refuge, long and wide and full of endless heavens.”
Every time I read it, I must stop and take a deep, glad breath.
God is some kind of a river, some kind of a sky, some kind of a forest in which every vulnerable created thing is welcomed and protected.
My last post hinted at the wild conversations that can happen with children when bedtime is filled with songs, stories, and prayers. My own kids shared a bedroom for years because of a tight budget, so our bedtime ritual involved them together. Many of our most important conversations happened during those years.
No topic was forbidden. My children’s defenses would be down, and sometimes they’d blurt out rather extraordinary things.
Claire: Why do angels always carry torches?
Mom: I didn’t know they did. Have you seen an angel?
Claire: Yeah, the other day I ran around the corner of Andrew’s house and there was an angel.
Mom: Oh wow, did you talk?
Claire: Yeah. I told him I was sorry for saying bad words.
As a missionary kid and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship alum, I’m stuck for life with an internal theology monitor. My invisible antennas went up as my daughter spoke. Claire’s angelic encounter seemed to pass scriptural tests: it was unexpected and it prompted repentance. I couldn’t recall any Bible story book illustrations of angels carrying torches (for Brits, flaming torches, not flashlights). But the mental image is beautiful, and completely consonant with biblical imagery.
It was at bedtime that my children told me—together—that they’d decided they wanted to be baptized.
It was at bedtime that they told me they’d conferred with each other and agreed that they hoped a family member traveling abroad would die instead of coming home. I held in my shock and did not reproach them but asked why. Their answer was a revelation to me, helping me understand that the family environment needed to be made safer for them.
Some years later, when my kids had their own rooms, Graham and I had a bedtime conversation and prayer very like that in Isaiah and the Worry Pack. It was a God-encounter for both of us. A week or so later, I asked him how his sleep had been. “OK,” he said. “If I’m having trouble sleeping, I just run a mini-version of ‘The Worry Pack’ like a video in my mind.”
That was when the thought came to me that perhaps someday I should make our experience into a book.
Claire was in junior high when she told me at bedtime that some peers at school made fun of a disabled classmate and she had joined in. Later, on her own initiative, she had apologized tearfully to the girl, and they became friends.
Finally, there were the daytime conversations that emerged from our bedtime sharing. One fall afternoon when Claire was three, we were driving in the neighborhood and I called her attention to a small maple tree whose leaves were afire. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” I rhapsodized.
Claire burst out from the backseat, “I love God!”
Bedtime talks and readings had formed her to see the world theologically, as made and sustained by God.
My children were no more creative than the children in your life are; they had no more capacity for entering God’s presence than your children have. So as you wake up to God’s love and learn new, fruitful ways to pray, share your experiences with them. Of course what you share needs to be at their level, and it needs to connect naturally with their lives and struggles.
There’s no telling what new adventures you’ll have together. And sometimes you’ll find your young ones leading the way.
Praying with children is one of the most important things we can do to foster their life with God.
My kids and I prayed before meals throughout their growing-up years, and spontaneously anytime they were hurt, frightened, or sick. But the most important time for prayer was bedtime. After I read a picture book or a middle-grade book chapter to them, and a Bible story, we took turns praying. Then I sang something peaceful as they drifted off to sleep. This practice calmed and nurtured all of us and bore sometimes surprising fruit.
Our routine was modeled on my own experiences growing up in a large family with missionary/teacher parents.
Prayer in the Land of Gorings
Not all those early experiences of prayer were nourishing. Our dad would periodically decide to lead family devotions following breakfast. It always fell flat—I can’t remember a single time that morning devotions didn’t feel awkward and pedantic, with Dad posing schoolroom-type questions that failed to engage our lives or our struggles. The practice always petered out after a few dutiful stabs at this perceived obligation.
Bedtime prayers were a whole other story. For years—beginning in our eldest sister’s infancy—little Gorings gathered in PJs each night for the enchantment of a poem or two read aloud, followed by a story or book chapter, a Bible story, humorous songs and a hymn or two, and finally prayers. It was our warmest time together; it grew our imaginations and helped to form an indelible family culture that keeps my siblings and me deeply bonded to this day. We have all remained in the faith.
Bedtime is best
What makes bedtime a particularly rich time to pray with our little ones? I think there are a couple of reasons.
First, as they become sleepy children’s normal defenses go down. Especially if the parent is unhurried and attentive at bedtime, children may get in touch with tender or sad feelings and blurt out things they’d not say in daylight.
It is a gift just to find words for our feelings and experiences. Then they can be brought to God in prayers of thanksgiving and petition.
Two favorite photos of my kids in childhood
Second, bedtime is a natural time to think back on the day and look forward to what is coming. Cindy Bunch’s Be Kind to Yourself (IVP, 2020) wasn’t around when I was a young mom, but if it had been, I’m pretty sure I would have used its simple examen questions—what’s bugging you? what’s bringing you joy?—to help my kids articulate hardships of the past day and places where they had sensed God’s presence.
Prayer with children can take other forms too. My picture book Isaiah and the Worry Pack (IVP Kids, 2021) models an imaginative way of meeting God through guided imagery. It’s based on an experience my son Graham and I had together one night when he struggled with some big worries. Jared Patrick Boyd suggests ways to pray Scripture imaginatively with children in Imaginative Prayer (IVP, 2017).
Memorized prayers can be helpful too. When I was a child, we often recited “Now I Lay Me.” Its mention of death would make it off-putting to many parents nowadays. But falling asleep is entering another country, mysterious and affording children even less control than they have over their waking hours. Maybe it’s not so bad to provide our kids a prayer that contains their fears within a little rhyme that expects God to hold them in both waking and sleeping, living and dying.
Some lovely prayers to read and perhaps memorize with kids—in daytime as well as at bedtime—can be found in Traci Smith’s Prayers for Faithful Families (Beaming Books, 2020). And a great resource is coming soon from IVP Kids: Little Prayers for Ordinary Days by Tish Harrison Warren, Flo Paris Oakes, and Katy Hutson (2022).
Singing as prayer
Singing can be a prayer practice too, of course. I adopted my daughter Claire at age one after she had suffered serious neglect and starvation in an institution during her first six months of life. As she grew, she became especially fond of the hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father.” For years she requested it practically every night, along with prayers that she wouldn’t have bad dreams.
Years later Claire was at the National Registrar’s office in her birth country, Colombia. She’d entered to apply for her identity card so that her dual citizenship could be recognized. An encounter with the director of the new digital population database led to an amazing bonus: printouts of the birth, ID, and death records of her birth mother!
Holding these documents, Claire wandered out onto Plaza Bolívar toward the national cathedral while waiting for a friend to complete an errand of her own.
Then from inside the huge church she heard music—the organist at this Colombian Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus began playing a Swedish Lutheran hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father.”
Claire told me later that her heart began pounding in surprised awe. But she was also flooded with peace. Even though she’d just learned that she’d never meet her birth mother in this life, she might be able to track down other members of her biological family, now that she had her mom’s documents. And the hymn reminded her that the gentle, attentive Father she had met in bedtime prayers would be with her. All along God had been bearing her, as the hymn says, “in his mighty arms.”
Note: I have many stories of funny and extraordinary conversations about God that arose out of prayers with my kids. Too many to tell in one post! So I welcome you to subscribe (above right, next to the title of this post) if you’d like to read them in the coming weeks.
As Isaiah & the Worry Pack‘s launch day draws near–just 11 days from now!–I’ve been happily busy with writing and interviews about this book, worry/anxiety experienced by children, prayer, and my kids’ books more generally.
I’ve thought again and again of an experience during Lent 1991 in a little church in West Chicago. I had been introduced to guided-imagery meditation before then, through books and a therapist, but on this Wednesday night it changed my life.
My first (sad and abusive) marriage had ended, and I still wondered whether divorce was one of the worst sins, essentially a departure from the faith in which I had grown up. I had moved my kids across the country, and now I was in a church service with a bunch of strangers. The woman at the front invited us to close our eyes and participate in a prayer exercise called Garden of the Heart.
Picture your heart as a garden.
Mine isn’t even full of weeds. It is a patch of dry, hard, absolutely barren dirt.
Where are you in the garden?
Right in the middle, lying prostrate with my face in the dirt.
Now Jesus comes into the garden. What does he do?
I suppose he picks up a hoe and starts poking at the dirt to break it up for planting.
No! I see Jesus. He is right beside me on the ground, face down in the dirt.
I cried and cried that night—healing tears. God had come into my devastation, my life’s failure, and instead of hurrying to fix things was mourning with me.
My inner desert had become a place of intimate encounter—a garden for the sprouting of something beautiful, unforeseen, and utterly wild.
Today The Well, an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship publication for women in the academy & professions, published a poetry essay they’d solicited from me. The editors plan to feature poems by women throughout the summer, as an invitation to slow down & be nourished, & I had the privilege of orienting readers to a process of entering poems contemplatively–that is, approaching them with the same quiet openness they might bring to scripture reading.
My title, “A Quiet Fire,” was inspired by a poem by Luci Shaw that I link at the end of the essay. I also excerpt from poems by Lucille Clifton, Renny Golden, Mary Oliver, & Raúl Zurita to model a simple, openhearted way of approaching poetry.
I guess fire & well together make a very mixed metaphor. But I’ll just go with it. May you find refreshment in poetry & other art this summer, & may it fill you & fuel you.
The world & its plagues have me down right now. But a few minutes ago I stumbled upon this charming non sequitur of a reading of my own picture book (see previous post) in a goat pen, with 8-day-old little goats, & bigger goats climbing around & bumping the recorder, & it has me shaking my head & laughing, & crying just a little. Short video posted by a young woman named Lianna–no surname given. Enjoy! (See below, too, for reveal of full name & more details.)
Edit Sunday March 29, 2020: Lianna Cornally introduced herself to me on Facebook! She is director of kids’ ministry at Sanctuary Community Church in the Iowa City / Cedar Rapids area, & this blog for families has been launched to help people stay connected despite social distancing. Here’s the post in which the Picturing God reading appears. With or without the children in your life, you may want to try the simple gratitude practices it suggests!
Today I want to share someone else’s writing. My editor for both Adriana’s Angels & Picturing God has blogged about our process with the Picturing God art, which departed from the usual because this art is so concrete & textured. And what she says about how reading/contemplating the book affects her, & how her two-&-a-half-year-old toddler has responded to it, makes me cry: this is how I myself often felt as I was cutting, nipping, stitching, arranging, gluing. As if it was all drawing me into the beautiful mysteries of God. Here, read her lovely words.
Last month in Mampuján, a village in the municipality (county) of María la Baja, Bolívar, Colombia, I met Afro-Colombian women who had suffered terrifying threats & violent displacement by paramilitaries in 2000. In exile they went through a process of art therapy, creating appliqué hangings to tell their story—the displacement, the Middle Passage endured by their ancestors, their vision for peace & healing. The women also went to the river, sang, washed & massaged each other, & wept together.
A Middle Passage quilt they displayed for us.
They call themselves Mujeres Tejiendo Colores y Sabores de Paz (Women Weaving Colors & Flavors of Peace). They now live in Nuevo Mampuján or in their original community; sometimes they travel to other traumatized communities to teach women what they have learned about healing from trauma. In 2015 they were awarded Colombia’s National Peace Prize for the restorative justice they extended to the paramilitary fighters who had done them such grave harm.
We—photographer Michael Bracey, videographers Bobby and David Obermite, and I—spent some beautiful hours with these women, admiring their hangings, learning about their history, traveling to the regional lakes & canals, eating sancocho made over an open fire.
Then on our last afternoon we walked awhile with them in the humid heat & I began to feel faint—something that happens to me occasionally when I’m exercising in hot weather, a drop in blood pressure that leaves me dizzy. My dear friend Juana Ruiz & her companions sat me down while Kevin Coleman, who was interpreting for his friends the Obermites, hurried off to get me a salty snack. The women began fanning me, & Pastor Alexandra prayed powerfully while massaging my neck & shoulders with fragrant oil.
Photos by Michael Bracey.
I began to weep, long deep sobs. I didn’t know where they were coming from—apart from the heat I wasn’t in conscious distress. Maybe it was empathic identification with the suffering my friends had endured. Maybe it was gratitude for their lovingkindness. Maybe it was prophetic weeping for & with Colombia.
Then Pabla, a younger woman, sat down & removed the shoes from my swollen, mosquito-bitten feet. Without flinching she spread some of the fragrant oil on my feet & began massaging it in.
Photo by Michael Bracey.
The weeping, massage & prayers ran their course, the salty snack arrived, my friend Benjamín brought our rented van close by & took me to our little air-conditioned hotel, where I rested & regained my composure. That evening we enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner & then sat out in the María la Baja plaza to enjoy the night air.
With Juana & Benjamín.
This is why I keep returning to Colombia. I’m no kind of savior for its pain. I’m just a grubby human who loves sharing stories & learning from people who have survived immense challenges, & who can comfort me with the comfort they have received in their own distress (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Mamá Carmen is Juana’s mother. Photo by Michael Bracey.
Tiles, fabric, handmade paper, metal pieces . . . to inspire children to contemplate God’s tenderness and power.
My new book will be released September 24, 2019, by Beaming Books. Picturing God is a milestone for me: the first book for which I’ve made the art as well as the text!
Of course there’s no way to create a faithful and complete visual representation of God. We have the stern “no graven image” commandment to protect us from that illusion. But the Bible is full of symbols and metaphors to help us picture and experience God in the depths of ourselves, via our imagination connected to our senses.
In my late twenties, a time of great pain and struggle, I began learning to access these biblical symbols in contemplative prayer and open myself to the healing they can bring—and I’m still learning. God as my Rock. God as an eagle sheltering her chicks under her wings. Jesus as my Shepherd. The Spirit as God’s cleansing breath, filling my lungs. Scriptures and prayers based on these symbols have drawn me into intimacy with God, into awe and wonder at the Love that holds me.
We human beings live by symbols. Strong, beautiful symbols stir us and change us.
Picturing God uses mosaic and collage—tiles, fabric, handmade paper, glass, metal pieces, twine, embroidery floss, paint, and other media—to inspire children and parents to contemplate God’s tenderness and power. Living Water, Bread of Life, Light of the World, Good Shepherd, Father and Mother: these and other biblically rooted metaphors are explored through art and poetic text. The book’s final page is a list of scriptures for each metaphor, so that families can look up and perhaps even memorize some of the related verses.
Making this book has been the most joyful work of my life! Every time I gathered materials and started laying them out on a canvas or square of plywood, I was drawn into a meditative awareness of God’s presence. I hope paging through the book will serve readers in a similar way. This winter I’m making final tweaks to the interior art—and eagerly looking forward to sharing the book far and wide in September!