A curious command and promise opens Isaiah 54:1-3. While Isaiah is speaking directly of the little post-exilic community in Judea, he is also speaking more broadly of the future glory of True Israel. We just saw the anguished victory of the Suffering Servant in the passage before; now the Servant’s task is seen as fulfilled, and the prophet breaks into a hymn and shouts of praise from the “barren, childless woman,” welcoming the dawn of the New Age.
Hold up… did we read that right? What reason could a childless woman possibly have to rejoice? It’s ironic that Isaiah uses a childless woman to illustrate Christ’s eternal covenant of peace for his Bride. In Old Testament culture, being childless was a shameful state, yet this was the culture into which Christ would come. When God spoke through the prophet of a “redeemed barrenness”, he spoke directly against Israelite culture. It’s one thing to glorify motherhood, yet another entirely to idolize it.
Some of the greatest recorded blessings of God came through barren women; women who were tormented and marginalized by their own culture – even by those in their own households. We need look no further than Elizabeth, Sarah, and Hannah; motherhood in each of their cases was a supernatural act of God, for God’s purposes alone. Even barren places birthed great fulfillment – after all, can anything good come from Nazareth? Yes, and amen! Christ himself didn’t come into Israel at a time of the great kings, or after a great victory in battle; he was born into Israel when there was no fruit on the fig tree; true to the words of Isaiah, he came to Israel after a lengthy silence from God, “like a root out of dry ground.”
In God’s economy, the barren woman so often receives a double portion; temporal blessing, as well as eternal. Sarah became the mother of nations, Hannah nursed the prophet who would anoint a king after God’s own heart, and Elizabeth reared the herald of the coming Christ. All provided symbols of supernatural Kingdom fruitfulness and expectant hope beyond the temporal into the eternal.
Yet the fruit-bearing in view in Isaiah 54 shows an even greater miracle – fruitfulness in glory is promised from no birth process whatsoever, either natural or supernatural. This is truly worth noting then, as God specializes in creating ex nihilo – in bringing something from absolutely nothing.
Christ, the Greater Legacy
According to the 2010 US Census, the number of single fathers in 2010 was 1.8 million, compared to 600,000 in 1982. About 46% were divorced, 30% were never married, 19% were separated, and 6% were widowed. This means at the very least that 1.8 million children are growing up perhaps never having known “mother” in a functional sense. Add this to the number of young men and women who have never rightly known “father”, and the social and spiritual opportunity grows in proportion to the crisis.
My husband raised two young children to adulthood as a single father. Today, they are beautiful and Godly people, making their own way yet still in need of occasional ‘parenting’, guidance and mentorship. I often wish that I had known them as little people, privy first-hand to the stories that now live fondly as exaggerated legends around our kitchen table! The addition of our daughter-in-law has brought our number of children to three, increasing our joy exponentially. There’s a depth to their acceptance, love, respect, and care for me that I deeply appreciate, in part because I do not know what it is to have children of my own. It is beyond precious, indeed.
“Reaching”, Ruth Naomi Floyd Images © 2013.
I feel a similar depth of love to the numerous and diverse young people who stream through our home on a regular basis. They don’t look like me, and do not carry my name. I am learning their histories rather than having experienced them. Yet when we who have known no children open our hearts to those who are seeking ‘mother’ or ‘father’, absence meets absence, longing meets longing, and love is born … ex nihilo.
Many of us will come to fulfillment in motherhood somewhat akin to the way that Christ met Paul, as to one “untimely born.” Paul didn’t meet Christ in the natural manner of the apostles, walking alongside him on the crowded roads during his earthly ministry; yet his comparatively unconventional encounter with the glorified Christ on the dusty road to Damascus held no less value, meaning, or impact than that of the other apostles. Such is it with spiritual motherhood, “untimely born.”
Spiritual motherhood offers an opportunity to become a wise and compassionate influence to our current “social orphans,” adults who have been left with a parental void of wise counsel, compassion, and/or love. When the Church steps in to address their spiritual and life issues, she speaks against a long line of opportunists offering an endless supply of false identities to while away their hours, days and years.
As spiritual parents, we anticipate Christ in glory as he gathers in the nations under his Name alone, the only Name by which we are eternally known. We are able to enlarge God’s tent and ours far beyond parameters restricted by our own name or blood. By intimately ushering the motherless through the practical and spiritual aspects of life, the “never-married” and the childless all participate in the redemptive Kingdom building process, and foretaste this joy that Isaiah has in view.
Children are a memorial, biologically and spiritually. Naturally, my husband and I want see the name of Ellis continue after we are gone, but our desire is far greater to see the name of Christ magnified through subsequent generations. The question then is, whose name will our children memorialize? Our personal one which is temporal and will one day pass away, or the Name that is eternal and above all?
The Cause for Praise
Once one has borne children, one can’t know what it is like not to have borne them; bearing children and not bearing children are two different existential frames of reference. Of course, the woman who has borne children can know what it is to mother one not of her own blood, if not through adoption then certainly through mentorship. Conversely, the barren woman may never know the joy of bearing children, yet the joy in view in Isaiah 54 is apparently one that can only be known in the absence of natural child-bearing. Through spiritual motherhood, the barren woman experiences a cause for praise that the natural mother will never know, receiving blessing in the temporal and storing up treasure in the eternal.
As I reconcile my own infertility and search for meaning and purpose within it, I begin to recognize the great Kingdom potential that lies within me. Spiritually speaking, we are all barren apart from the regenerative power of Christ to draw us to Himself and make us new. Motherhood – indeed parenthood in any form – should be life-changing for all involved as we share joys and sorrows, disappointments and victories, and find meaning in them from God’s perspective.
Through the influence of older and wiser spiritual mothers in my life, my question has changed from “How does God fit into my infertility,” to “How does my infertility fit in with God? Isaiah 54 takes me beyond wanting comfort for “what has not been”, and helps me resist those who treat my “untimely motherhood” as a mere consolation prize. When I see the nations stream through my front door hungry for “mother” and Godly counsel, I realize that even my infertility may have a great and exalted impact on the Kingdom.
Truly, to be regarded as “mother” when one technically and biologically is not so is a simultaneously exquisite and humbling experience – in fact, it brings a surprising and unspeakable joy. Quite frankly, it makes me want to shout…
International flights always provide the opportunity to gaze through an airplane’s window, lost in thought.
Given Dennis Rodman’s widely publicized trip to North Korea, I am hoping that as he wings his way home he will take considerable time to think.
For Mr. Rodman, the necessary apologies have been made, and for the duration of his flight he is away from scrutiny. However, he returns home facing a new patina of tarnish on his reputation; once he lands, he must confront the ramifications of playing a modern-day “Marilyn Monroe” to Kim Jong Un’s “John F. Kennedy”.
If I were Rodman gazing out of that window, I would no doubt marvel at my ability to travel to distant lands, and stand among the leaders of nations; as African Americans, this was not always so easy for us to do.
If I were Mr. Rodman, these words penned by Frederick Douglas would drown out the airplane’s hum:
I suffered bodily as well as mentally. I had neither sufficient time in which to eat, or to sleep, except on Sundays. The overwork, and the brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever-gnawing and soul-devouring thought – “I am a slave – and a slave for life – a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom” – rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness.[i]
What better and more ironic descriptive for the plight of North Koreans, as we understand it to be?
If I were Rodman, I would consider the irony that the route to escape from North Korea is called the “Underground Railroad.” I could not ignore its similarities to my own people’s underground to freedom, with its conductors who operated at times out of compassion and at other times in the interest of financial gain, but always at great risk to life and property. Our people’s stories of peril and flight to freedom all-too-closely parallel the accounts documented extensively by those who survived escape from the “Democratic Republic” of North Korea.
If I were in his shoes, I would begin to see the connection between notions such as “goin’ North”, and the similar freedom that lies for North Koreans just south of the 38th parallel, and in similar places of refuge. For the one who is captive, “freedom” is something never before experienced; it is only known conceptually. It holds meaning only in antithesis to what is already painfully familiar.
To the captive, this thing called “freedom” that lay “up North” or anywhere else, though unknown, had to be better than the status quo; enough to risk life and recapture to grasp at it, the way one who is suffocating gasps for air.
My thoughts would wander to the underground Church in North Korea. Like my own people hundreds of years before, to worship they must “Steal Away” … sometimes to church, sometimes to Jesus, sometimes to the aforementioned freedom “up North.” I would imagine the open-air churches where plantation slaves found respite and, by the grace of God, could hear the true Gospel that corrected the abused, redacted one that supported their captivity. I would then be forced to consider that for the twelfth year in a row, the international Christian community has declared North Korea the greatest persecutor of Christians.
I could not help but see the political “repatriation” of escaped North Koreans as an act of “re-enslavement,” and see the interchangeability of the roles of secret police and slave-catcher.
I would have to consider that North Korea’s economy is dependent on forced labor, as the economy of the Southern United States once was.
If I were Rodman flying effortlessly through the air, I would take note that I am free to come and go as I choose – and more importantly, free to choose where I go.
I would begin to understand why the caged bird sings:
… The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own;
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing… [ii]
Rodman’s escapades hold a cautionary tale for all who understand suffering and value freedom. Those of us who have insight into suffering should carry special concern for those who likewise suffer in recognizable ways. This is true empathy – to share in the suffering of another. Empathy is perhaps most comforting when it says, “I have been where you are, I am with you now; let me show you hope, let us hope together.”
Further, how much more so for those who bear the name of Jesus Christ, who believe in a sovereign God capable of redemption? Our Savior’s suffering on our behalf was both identificational and total; we are called to model him in all things. And though it is mystery to us, somehow in God’s economy, as we identify with others in their suffering, we find our own oppression redeemed.
Mysterious dynamics, indeed.
The Christian is able to see that there are recognizable patterns among the world’s systems of oppression, particularly as they violate the image of God. This should not surprise us; God is unlimited in his creativity, and He has limited Satan in his. Though the political, economic, and social landscapes that birthed these two systems of oppression may be vastly different, the methods of subjugation remain startlingly the same.
As we look at the repeating patterns of oppression throughout global history, Satan’s effectiveness at violating the image of God in persons lies not in creativity, but rather in re-packaging the same degrading patterns, peddled with skillful “marketing techniques.”
Believers in Christ are able to empathize and hope as no one else can. Our concern for our own immediate issues needn’t be shelved to make room for our brothers and sisters suffering globally. Simultaneously holding our own day-to-day struggles, along with those of the global church, need not be ‘either/or’; rather they must become a ‘both/and’ proposition.
CIVIL RIGHTS CHAMPION: Malala Yousafzai in Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 8, 2012. Yousafzai, won international praise for advocating girls’ education despite Taliban threats. She was shot and wounded by Taliban gunmen in Swat on Oct. 9. (Photo: T. Mughal/Newscom)
It is easy to imagine Malala Yousafzai gracing the cover of TIME magazine as its Person of the Year. Her soft brown eyes peek at us from pictures that have surfaced from the ripples of a sudden plunge into the spotlight. Her story is so dramatic, so much the essence of the human rights struggle that the it continues to fascinate and inspire worldwide. Her hair, side-parted and modestly covered, Miss Yousafzai demonstrates a hunger for peace well beyond her 14 years. In 2011, she was awarded the National Peace Award by the Government of Pakistan for her courage in seeking restoration of peace and education services. In a short span of time, this tiny girl has become a towering figure in her pursuit of justice for herself and 50,000 other schoolgirls who lost the right to education in their Pakistani communities.
Millions more are now familiar with Miss Yousafzai, who was forced off of her school bus, shot in the head, and critically wounded along with two other young schoolgirls at the hands of the Taliban. She continues to heal in the safety of a UK hospital, the government and the world watching over her as if she were the little sister of us all.
Since 2009, when Miss Yousafzai was a mere tween in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, the hope for education has burned in her heart. While other girls in freer societies tweeted their obsessions with fashion and musical heart throbs, Miss Yousafzai dodged daily threats to become internationally known for her blog that promoted the restoration of the education stolen from her and her classmates.
Her opponents brazenly confessed planning her demise for at least a year. This time they were mercifully denied satisfaction, though they threaten further attempts will be made until her voice is silenced. With ironic justice, the public magnification of her courage has likewise magnified her opponent’s cowardice, exposing grown men who will go to such lengths to snuff out any beacon of light that pierces the darkness of their own souls.
Nothing New Under the Sun
As a Christian woman, when I think of the social conditions that were in place when Christ walked the earth, I am forced to see how little a young girl’s plight has changed in many areas of the world. Centuries may have passed, but the fundamental flaws in our human character remain the same, and they are often unavoidably woven into the fabric of our societies, both free and restricted.
MARCHING FOR MALALA: Pakistani students carry placards with photographs of Malala Yousafzai during an Oct. 16 protest in Lahore, Pakistan, against the assassination attempt by the Taliban on Malala. (Photo: Rana Irfan Ali/Newscom)
Knowing this, Christ’s counter-cultural treatment of women stands out in relief. In the first-century Roman Empire, a woman held very little sway on matters political or civil; their social plight two thousand years ago foreshadows the Taliban’s restrictions on a woman’s movements today, be they physical, psychological, political or intellectual.
Converse to these gaping holes in our societal fabric, the Bible’s high esteem for women and girls is recorded throughout its narrative. Indeed, many accounts in the Gospels tell us that Christ’s constant consideration of women was radical indeed for its day — His high view of women is perhaps best displayed and recorded in Luke 24 in the first witness of His resurrection and victory over hell, death and the grave; His greatest triumph was first revealed to a group of women (Luke 24:1-12).
These women gathered at his empty tomb were entrusted with the first knowledge of the risen Savior; an affirmation of God’s high estimation of the word, witness and worth of a woman (Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-10). There is one sole Entity who could first assess, and then restore a woman’s social worth properly as beings who bear the very image of God; that is the Creator of that image, God, Himself (Genesis 1:26-31). These women were divinely commissioned to tell His disciples that Christ had risen, and the news of Hope for all humanity began to spread. “Go, tell the others what you have seen….” What a humbling honor, indeed, to be charged with bearing what has become a life-altering message for so many — including myself.
Today, Miss Yousafzai’s story is known worldwide; it was a proverbial “shot heard ’round the world.” It’s doubtful that life for this young woman will ever be the same, yet she and her family have accomplished more as ordinary citizens than many politicians have been able to do collectively. From her tormentor’s perspective, she must seem as one of the foolish things of the world that has confounded the self-proclaimed “wise.” In her courage, she has shown wisdom that they cannot comprehend. A mere and simple girl, who should have been easily silenced, now heals from her wounds with the protection of the world. She stands defiant in her innocence, large in the power of her perceived weakness.
I salute the courage of Miss Yousafzai and her classmates; they have stirred a passion in the world, and made us consider and confront our own humanity. May they be victorious in their quest not only for education and a just society, but also in their larger quest for recognition and in understanding the fullness of their humanity. May they also receive the full dignity and significance that is their right by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and may they come to know the One in whose majestic image they are made.