Mother’s Day is this Sunday. Now you know. Our churches usually celebrate in similar ways; sometimes we organize a Mother’s Day breakfast or hand out flowers to the mothers. You know how it goes. But this morning I overheard a conversation in passing that was concerned for the other women who desperately desire to be mothers, but, for various reasons, are not. One person commented that in his congregation there were some mothers whose children had died and some women who could not conceive. That was all I heard before I had to leave, but the conversation stuck with me.
Yes, what about the women in those situations?
As far as Mother’s Day services and activities go, I’m sure each careful congregation will consider their own context and hopefully make the most thoughtful decision they can. But as a pastor, I wondered how I would try to speak to the hearts of ladies in such situations. What can one say to those whose gift of motherhood has been painfully pried away by a child’s death, or those who continually see the gift of motherhood as an unreachable tease? Two characters in Scripture came to my mind, whose stories may help navigate such pain.
Naomi had it hard. First, her family moved away to a foreign land because of a famine at home in Judah. Then her husband and provider died. Her two sons married foreign women, but then her sons died. Widowed and childless, Naomi was left to fend, not just for herself, but for her two daughters-in-law, who she instructed to leave her, “for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me.”
She decided to return to Judah, to try and get in on some of the LORD’s recent provision upon the land. When she returned to Bethlehem, the old wives club there greeted her with surprise, but she told them “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant); call me Mara (bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”
Whatever pleasant person Naomi might have been when she left Judah was no longer the case. Life (and God she figured) had left her battered and broken, an empty shell of a now bitter woman. But despite her woeful circumstances, there was a silver lining: one of her daughters-in-law had returned with her; despite Naomi’s protests, Ruth was adamantly devoted to her. She dedicated herself to Naomi and her God, attended her, and scavenged for food in the fields for them both. If you’ve read the whole story, you know the silver lining of Ruth rose into a full-fledged shining sun. The field owner, Boaz, turned out to be a relative of Naomi’s who married Ruth and redeemed Naomi’s husband’s family line and inheritance. Ruth eventually bore a son and Naomi became his grandmother and nurse. What did the old wives club say to her then? “Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
I can’t imagine the pain and loss Naomi and others like her have had to endure. No words can soothe such sorrow. But I have experienced friendship in painful moments. Ruth choosing to be there for Naomi made all the difference and became the opening through which God worked his redemptive and refreshing blessing into Naomi’s life. With a little devotion and time, friends can become like family.
If you are a mother who has endured Naomi’s pain, I hope you have a friend or a few to be with; to talk with, laugh with, cry with, scream with, pray with. If you do not, please remember Naomi and Ruth also started off as strange foreigners to each other. Start looking within your congregation; just a thought if you don’t know or trust them: sometimes the trust comes later.
And if you, dear reader, are in a congregation with women who have endured Naomi’s bitter pain, I hereby make you responsible for being a “Ruth”, a Christian brother or sister who becomes a silver lining; one whose love reveals and displays God’s love at work. It could be coffee, it could be dinner, it could be a fun night out for her, but what it definitely will be is a refreshing redemptive love poured into a dry soul.
In “Shadowlands”, a film about the relationship between C.S. Lewis and his terminally ill wife, she prepares him for her impending death by saying “The happiness now is a part of the pain then.” I would gently suggest that, in your moments of grief and pain, let your mind wander to the moments of joy and happiness you shared with your children, and let those joyful memories be a guiding light that leads you to gratitude for having been able to experience and embody such love; perhaps such memories can eventually strengthen you to again share your love with those around you. Grace, peace, and power of Christ to you.
Now what about the wives who have tried so hard to have kids but have been unable to?
Hannah knew their pain. Her husband had two wives; though he loved her more, she was barren. And the other wife who already had children would occasionally irritate her, possibly with a verbal jab alluding to her “cursed situation”. As time continued, Hannah’s bitterness burned and imbued her soul. What Hannah chose to do with her bitterness, however, is exemplary. While everyone worshipped the LORD together and celebrated at a yearly feast, Hannah’s bitterness reached its climax. She rose up out of her sorrow, went to the LORD’s tabernacle, and poured her bitterness out to the LORD: “O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.”
Most mothers have children to hold up as the apple of their eye or center of their joy. Since Hannah did not, she instead elevates the sovereign LORD and his glorious high honor as the centering focus of her heart. Addressing the God of creation (hosts), she vows that if he gives her a child, she will make her child’s life all about God.
While she is praying, Eli the priest watches her, mistakenly thinking she’s drunk. Not drunk, she explains her distressed situation and how she has been pouring her soul out to the LORD. He told her to go in peace and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of Him.”
She returned to her tent, ate with her family, “and her face was no longer sad”.
What happens after is contextually pertinent to Hannah’s story, but the bitterness Hannah struggled with is universal—“Am I cursed?” “Have I been abandoned?”
Hannah’s story shows us that, despite definite pain, God’s good, sovereign presence is also definite. A heart focused on God’s glorious honor inserts into the pain a hope that sees beyond the pain; such sight is given to us when high honor is given to God. Making God’s high honor our center of focus renews how we perceive ourselves, where we are in life, and how we can move forward.
I imagine not being able to have children (yet?) might feel like a piece of you is missing; a piece you may never actually get to include in the puzzle of your life. I’m not sure what to say to that, but my mind returns to that last line in v18: “no longer sad”. All things considered, isn’t that another significant piece of what we’re after? Hannah found that piece of peace in God’s presence as she chose to honor him in her heart. The child you’re hoping to have, I hope God allows you to have that child. I also hope that as you seek and honor the LORD in your heart and everyday faithfulness, may the peace of his presence wrap around you like the warm blanket of a loving Father.
To you whose precious hearts ponder motherhood, grace and peace of Christ to you.