“I am so vast…”

I realize I haven’t posted anything in this space for about a year….eeek. I have been busy with preparing for comprehensive exams, working on a couple other writing projects, and – like everyone else – surviving a pandemic. So I thought I would share this very short poem that I wrote tonight. It is inspired in part by a 13th century mystic and poet named Hadewijch II who wrote, “All things are too small to hold me, I am so vast…” May we learn to hold space for one another in all the vastness of our being.

I’m not sure which is harder:

that you do not love me as what I am—

       a vast, uncontained, living thing—

or that I do not love you that way either

love always hopes

Change scares me. And this summer has been a season of change, with the prospect of some big transitions on the horizon, as well as some transitions going on inside of me, as I try to face some of my demons and grow into new ways of being. But as much as change scares me, sometimes an even scarier thought is that I’ll never change—that I’m incapable of breaking out of old patterns.

A couple weeks ago, I visited one of my closest friends, someone who has already walked with me through a lot of life. As I was heading home, I realized that the best gift she had given me on this particular visit was a renewed sense of hope. If encouragement is the act of giving another courage, perhaps en-hoping is the gift of giving someone else hope. It wasn’t so much anything that she said… it was just her love for me. Somehow, I knew that she had hope for me, and that gave me courage to have more hope for myself.

It made me think about how love and hope might work together. It’s not a connection that I think about very often, despite the fact that St. Paul’s famous description of love in his first letter to the Corinthians states that love “always hopes” (1 Cor 13:7). Drawing on this verse, nineteenth century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard writes about “hoping for others” as a work of love. It is the act of continually holding possibility open for another—and not just any possibility, but the possibility of the good. “[B]oth the one who hopes and the one who fears are expecting,”[1] he writes. But the one who hopes expects the good. For Kierkegaard, hope is always anchored in “the eternal,” with God. To lovingly hope for another is not to casually wish her well; it is to affirm the truth that regardless of the circumstances she is in right now, or what kind of person she is right now, the possibility of the good is not closed to her. Because of the possibility of the eternal, the loving one “dares to hope.”[2]

Kierkegaard reminds us of a peculiar quality of love and all of its works: “What love does, that it is; what it is, that it does—at one and the same moment.”[3] The outward work of love doubles back into the one who loves. When I hope for another, I also hope for myself, because I am making room in myself for love. Love always hopes, and hope always loves; “without love, no hope for oneself; with love, hope for all others.”[4]

Although it might sound easy, hoping for others in love is sometimes really hard. It is so easy to fear for others or despair over them instead. And it’s easy to fear or despair for myself, too. I am so thankful for those who have loved me through my worst moments, who continue to hold the door of possibility open for me when I am least able to see it, and who hope for me when I struggle to choose that hope for myself. I hope that I can learn to give that same kind of encouraging, en-hoping love to others.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995, 249.

[2] Works of Love, 259.

[3] Works of Love, 280.

[4] Works of Love, 260.

the God who sees me

Perhaps it is my age, geographic location, and walk of life (I am an over-35 single woman pursuing a PhD in an urban centre), but sometimes it seems like I know more women who don’t have children than those who do. The circumstances range widely: women in long-term relationships who desire children but are unable to conceive, women (like me) who would like to have children but haven’t yet found a partner for such an enterprise (and are constantly aware of biological deadlines), women who are childless by choice, women whose life/finances/relational situations haven’t yet allowed for children, and so on. The variety of emotions that accompany each of these circumstances can shift from year to year or even hour to hour.   

The Bible is full of stories about mothers, but none of them takes the form of an irenic depiction of a great mom raising her children in the ways of God. Common elements of biblical motherhood stories are jealousy, shame, and desperation. And almost all of them begin as stories of “barren women”—women who are past menopause, women whose wombs are “closed” and unable to conceive, women who pray fervently for a child. These stories rarely conclude with a perfect happy ending, but at some point in the narrative, the impossible happens and God gives a child. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Samson’s mother, the Shunammite woman, Elizabeth… the stories pile upon each other, each gathering up the previous story and carrying it forward as a trope emerges. The prophet Isaiah turns to this trope to show the greatest possible contrast between grief and joy: “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD (Isaiah 54:1). Many of the stories include an “annunciation narrative,” in which one or both of the parents receives some kind of angelic or prophetic announcement of the coming birth, foreshadowing the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary of her role in the birthing of God among us.

For women who are childless by circumstance rather than choice, these barren women narratives can offer either comfort or pain—or perhaps a mixture of both. There is comfort in the unabashed acknowledgment of the pain of barrenness, and in the text’s acknowledgment that part of the suffering is caused by the expectations of the cultural script the women inhabit. But each of these women is given a child in the end. What about the women and men who will always wait in vain?  

Of all the annunciation narratives, the one that most clearly parallels the Annunciation of Mary is the story of Hagar, the slave that Sarai offers to her husband Abram as a kind of forced surrogate mother to conceive a child for her. Hagar’s is not the story of a barren woman, but that of a single mother who is essentially abandoned by the man who impregnated her and mistreated by his wife. Hagar runs away into the desert, where she is “found” by the angel of the Lord. “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son,” she is told, in phrases that the angel Gabriel will echo centuries later. Hagar is to name the child Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because, as the angel tells her, “the Lord has given heed to your affliction” (Genesis 16:11). The encounter closes with Hagar naming God. She gives God the name El-roi, which means the God who sees me.”

On this Mother’s Day, whatever the feelings you face it with: joy and thankfulness for the children you are nurturing or the woman who raised you, tension as you negotiate expectations that aren’t met or relationships that aren’t picture-perfect, grief as you remember a child or parent or grandparent who is no longer here, anxiety as you watch the child of your womb face a world that is unwelcoming… whatever the feelings, may you find comfort in the God who heard Hagar’s affliction and who hears yours, as well. Your pain, your joy, your anxiety, or your thankfulness may not be seen by others, but it is seen by the God who sees. May we who seek to follow this God grow in our ability to see and hear those around us.

15 years late to the party

Years ago, when blogging was cool, all my friends from college started blogging, and I would read their posts to keep up on what they were doing and thinking, but I was too stubborn to join in something that everyone else was doing. Now that blogging has been relegated to the domain of lifestyle experts and up and coming journalists, and everyone else has forgotten that they might still have pictures of their cat and poetry from their “early period” floating in a remote corner of cyberspace, I am finally ready to take up my place in the abandoned terrain. Welcome, dear reader.