Dear siblings in Christ,
We take comfort, often, in what is familiar, especially when it comes to our images for God.
The rich naming of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit holds a central place in our Trinitarian descriptions. “Fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvation” is another naming of God, which, while newer to our liturgical life, is a collection of ancient biblical images. But even language that startles us into a new understanding of who God is,language that is initially fresh and new, can become language that no longer surprises us. On the one hand that’s good – it tells us we’ve incorporated it into our thinking. On the other hand, I still really enjoy having my eyes opened to new ways of understanding God.
I’m finding lots of such fresh language in a book that I’m still working my way through: Wearing God by Lauren F. Winner. She explores biblical names and metaphors like God as clothing and the one who clothes us, a fresh and vibrant description of God as bread and vine, and the one that has most captured my imagination lately – God as laboring woman. In sharing with you what has so captured my attention in this image, I want to be careful as someone whose body was not designed to bear children into the world. But I found the image immensely helpful so I would still like to share it with you, relying on her words as much as possible.
She starts from God’s words in Isaiah 42: “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” This is not a generic woman-in-labor image but specifically pointing to her breathing. Winner suggests that in particular the kind of breathing that accompanies labor is a means of “manag[ing] the pain of childbirth.”: “The groans of labor signal the woman’s active participation in the birthing process, a participation that does not fight the pain…Isaiah gives us this groaning woman as a picture of the sovereign God, the God who is in control of redemption: God chooses to participate in the work of new creation with bellowing and panting.God chooses a participation that does not fight the pain, but that works from inside the pain” (p.140). That God feels the pain of a new creation coming into being and chooses to work inside that pain of our current reality is a powerful image.
She goes on to describe the groans of labor as both another way to lean into the pain and as a way to call out for help. Among many other things that help, studies have shown music to reduce pain for many people including women in labor, so Winner takes this thought and spins it out further: “The next time you’re belting out a hymn in church, consider that the hymn is the music that helps the laboring mother God focus on delivery. Perhaps our music, our new song, helps God in birthing. God is redeeming us, yet we are the singers encouraging God in the work of delivering a renewed creation” (p. 146).
She then describes, with the help of a friend who has herself given birth, what she hears in nearly every birthing story she has collected: “there comes a point in nearly every birth story when the woman does not believe she can keep going…and she says to her midwife or doula or husband, ‘I cannot do this anymore’” (p. 147). Winner and her friend draw the connection to Jesus in the garden, praying “Lord, take this cup from me” before turning to the cross. Redemption, like labor, is not easy for God – it requires both an ultimate show of strength and power (no matter the birth plan or circumstances) and simultaneously an ultimate show of vulnerability: “God groaning in pain, God bleeding, God’s body uncontrollably shaking, God exhausted. The image of God as a laboring woman puts together strength and vulnerability in a way that tells us something about God and how God works…If our picture of strength is a laboring woman, strength entails enduring, receiving help and support, being open to pain and risk…Strength entails giving yourself over to the possibility of death” (p.151).
I am grateful to Lauren Winner and her imagery for reminding me in a fresh way of God’s struggle and God’s profound strength in vulnerability. I am grateful for the many women who have embodied this aspect of God generation after generation. And in this time in our world in particular, when it feels as if many things are a struggle and there is more pain that we can bear,
I am grateful for a God who is actively laboring for a new creation with ultimate strength and ultimate vulnerability.
*Quotations from Wearing God by Lauren F. Winner (Harper Collins: New York, 2015).