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Motherhood and God

This was published in the October issue of The Melbourne Anglican, in a column called 'A book that changed me'

A friend sent me a copy of Margaret Hebblethwaite’s book Motherhood and God in the post. It was the beginning of 1988; we had two children under two, and I read it with fascination and wonder. Some time in the next year or so, I preached my first sermon at the country congregation where we worshipped at the time. It was Mothers’ Day; my husband, the minister, organised for mothers to lead the entire service. Afterwards he said to me, ‘Well, I think some people were expecting Motherhood and Apple Pie, but you gave them Motherhood and God’.

It changed me, that book and I recently reread it, reflecting on how and why it had.

Hebblethwaite, an academic and theologian, had recently had her third baby when she wrote this, which is impressive in itself. I would be interested to read what she might write all these decades later, now that she has endured early widowhood and the inevitable ups and downs of parenting teenagers and young adults.

The book changed me because, although I had been a devoted Christian all my life, I had felt, if I ever thought about it at all, that theology should be left to professional theologians who tended to be people who had spent long years in academia, and were mainly white, privileged and male.

Motherhood and God showed me that any believer can do theology, which is simply reflecting on our experience in the light of what we know about God and reflecting on God in the light of our experience. It showed me that my utterly ordinary lot of being a mother could teach me about God just as surely as could undertaking a degree in theological college. It also made me think seriously about how the mother metaphor for God, rather than the traditional father one, might be a whole lot more useful for a whole lot of people.

Hebblethwaite’s reflections on parenting have power because she is brutally realistic about how demanding it is, even for people like her and me who had children by choice with a loved and supportive partner. After a euphoric and blissful time with her first child, following the birth of her second the older became so difficult that she simply could not take him anywhere. Her account is harrowing, as is an unforgettable six-page passage in which she describes, detail by torrid detail, a fairly ordinary evening with two small children. Nothing too terrible happens – no one dies, no one is maimed, but when I read this, I am catapulted back into the frequent tedium and exhaustion of parenting little ones, the overwhelming knowledge that their very survival depends on my vigilance.

It was Hebblethwaite who introduced me to the feminine images of God in the Bible. Prompted by her observations, I started perceiving God-ness in what I did every day. When I became pregnant with our third child, I thought of the little stranger inside me, living, moving and having his being in the utter safety of my womb. When I was feeling vulnerable and desperate, I started to visualise myself in God’s womb – all my needs met, surrounded by sustaining love - even when I was unaware of it. After he was born, I was sitting in church one Sunday, breast feeding him when the elders came around with the Eucharist and the extraordinary words, ‘This is the body of Christ, feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving’. There was I with my son feeding on me, as I was feeding on Christ. The language of broken body and spilled blood that ultimately gives life put me in mind of what happened to me every time I birthed a baby.

It was eleven years after I read Motherhood and God that I had my first article published. My second was a faith column about how I loved going to stay at monasteries, and that was it for me. I discovered something I felt deeply called to, a vocation, which was writing about ordinary life in the light of what I had learned – through worship, learning, tradition, conversations and also from my own lived experience – about God. The hundreds of pieces I have written in the years since (the majority of which are not ostensibly religious but which I hope are shot through with a sense of wonder and mystery) have given me the most joy and satisfaction in my life apart from the love I have forged with my husband and our now adult offspring.

I am grateful to Hebblethwaite for giving me a vivid picture of the motherhood of God. I am profoundly in her debt for planting the seed of the idea in my mind and heart that an ordinary person could do theology, thus helping others in their relationship with God.



Beyond words

My dad was a scholar, so words were his thing. He knew them, loved them, understood their history, realised their power.

He was also a man of profound faith, and he lived on the opposite side of the globe from me.

Not so long ago I visited him and his wife for two weeks and we had a whale of a time, travelling, eating, drinking, seeing family, revelling in the magnificence of a northern spring, celebrating his 94th birthday. The night before I flew back to Australia, my step-mum asked if there was a reading from the Bible that our family traditionally used on such occasions.

That was an easy one. Psalm 121, read at mum’s funeral, read each time we were about to part, something we did a lot through my childhood, teens and young adulthood. I jumped up to fetch a Bible, but Dad said he didn’t need one and delivered the Psalm, word perfect, including the killer last line, ‘The Lord will preserve your going out and your coming in, from this time forward and for ever more’. Then he offered a prayer.

Soon after my return to Melbourne, dad had a major stroke. Already somewhat blind and deaf, now the man of words could no longer speak, although for a few days he understood instructions, and his eyes lit up when family visited.

My step-brother arranged for me to call Dad, and held the phone to his ear as through tears I poured out my love for him, my grief at this latest misfortune, my deep gratitude that we had had two wonderful weeks together so recently. In response, I could hear his dear, measured tones, so familiar from hours of childhood story-reading, no longer making any sense but so recognisably his. In his rambling, two sounds emerged repeatedly. They sounded like ‘grateful’ and ‘bless’.

These were his last words to me. I can think of none better to capture how he lived, how he felt about me and what he wished for me.

A week later, the man of words had a peaceful end. The incapacity had been very hard, but he was not afraid of death or whatever lies after. There are no longer words for dad, but what he had at the end transcended words; the love, both human and divine, with which he was surrounded and held, in life and beyond.

This was published in The Melbourne Age on 16 September 2018




Learning to live in the moment, with a bit of help from the footy

‘The moon’s a harsh mistress’ sang the inimitable Joe Cocker. So is sport, which might be one reason sport and I have never exactly been intimate. Sport is a capricious and unreliable love, a heart-breaker, at least if you barrack for the Melbourne Football Club.

My beloved started going for the Dees when he was eight; they were the dominant VFL club and had won three premierships in six years. Since those heady days, however, there has been barely a sniff of success. Last time they made the magic ‘final eight’ was in 2006. As current captain Nathan Jones put it recently, ‘They [our supporters] have had twelve years of misery’.

And now, at last, Melbourne not only made it into the finals, but, to the surprise of many, won their first final against Geelong.

We were there, soaking up the electric atmosphere. The first quarter was a blistering annihilation of the Cats. In the second quarter, Melbourne did not kick a single goal, and my spirits plummeted. ‘Here we go again, bloody Melbourne,’ I might have been heard to mutter under my breath.

But if we were failing to kick straight, so was Geelong and it was our night – a fierce match of attrition with dogged tackling that got us convincingly over the line.

As we stomped and cheered and clapped, jumped up and down and sang ‘It’s a grand old flag’ till we were hoarse, I allowed myself to be carried away with the sheer joy of the moment, rejoicing with the thousands of fans who had waited so long for a night like this.

I didn’t let myself think of next week’s match, which we may not win, and even if we do, the one after that, and then the Grand Final itself if, by some miracle, we get that far. For once, I didn’t look ahead, anxiously, to all the things that might go wrong, I simply revelled in a fine moment, the memory of which will stay with me.

I recall letting my hair down at a cousin’s wedding shortly before my mother died, putting my grief, anxiety and weariness on hold, celebrating a moment of love and joy. Life is fraught, and we do well, when a moment of celebration arrives, to park our worries and dance the night away. Or throw our arms in the air and, even though it’s late and we’re exhausted, and the train at Jolimont will be heaving, singing the Dees song one more time.

 This was published in The Melbourne Age on 11 September


Missing the washing

At the risk of being thought certifiably insane, I am going to come right out and admit that as an empty nester, I miss the washing. Partly, I suspect, because it used to put me in mind of that spiritual classic The practice of the presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.

Twenty-five years ago, we had four children under 71/2 and only ever used cloth nappies. Most mornings involved two loads of washing. Vast quantities of laundry bookended our days, including the folding of nappies which I suspect is a skill that has gone the way of navigating by the stars.

But I rarely minded. I’ve always enjoyed the morning chore of lugging the heavy wash basket out on one hip, squinting up at the sky, connecting with what the day is doing, inhaling the lemony scent of clean clothes.

I also used the pegging out time to think about whichever little body normally occupied the damp garment I was hanging out. How blessed to have a baby girl to tuck into an adorable pale green jumpsuit. How lucky to have tough little denim overalls and mini flannies for the older girl and the boys. How cute their little socks and jocks.

Okay, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t always idyllic. On many occasions I thought that socks - a dozen a day, inevitably mismatched and with some missing - would be the straw that broke this frazzled mother’s sanity.

But a lot of it was joy – and, now that the pressure of those busy years is long over, I fight my husband for the privilege of hanging out the clothes. Bringing in armfuls of fresh sheets and towels and underwear, folding them in neat piles, filing them away where they belong is a deeply satisfying task.

Brother Lawrence, a French 17th century friar, was mainly a cook and dish-washer and his Practice of the presence of God reads like a Christian version of mindfulness. Cultivating the practice means that in the most mundane task we can find the presence of the Divine and consequently, deep satisfaction and contentment.

Some people seem to do this more easily than others; I have found it a gift that has developed steadily as I age. It is also a skill that can be cultivated; the most effective tool for learning the practice of the presence of God in my experience is contemplative prayer. If I manage to set aside time for wordless prayer most days, I am far more likely to sense the presence of God in each part of my day, whether it is difficult, fabulous or dull. The practise of wordless prayer reminds me that I am here, in this particular situation, so this is where God meets me and can use me as a channel of God’s love. That clear sense can come, as it did for Brother Lawrence, working in the kitchen. It can come cleaning the toilet. It can certainly come hanging out the washing.

This was published in the September issue of The Melbourne Anglican



Wait a minute, who's the PM again?

The last time the highest office in the land changed with bewildering rapidity, my husband had a neurological incident in the middle of the night; blacking out in the bathroom, giving himself a hefty knock on the head on the way down. To be on the safe side, despite having been a nurse myself in a previous life, I rang ‘nurse on call’.

She took me through the familiar drill. No, I didn’t need to rush him to an emergency department at this point. Yes, I should check him through the night; take his pulse, shine a light in his eyes to check his pupils were responding appropriately, ask him who the Prime Minister was. Really?

It’s one of the questions they ask not only of people with possible concussion, but as a tool for diagnosing Alzheimer’s. These days, however, it’s not just those with dementia who forget who is at the wheel in this fine nation of ours. Six PMs in nine years has got to be some kind of record, at least for stable democracies.

On Friday, the family What’sApp group was running hot. Our two older offspring were watching the whole drama unfold, laying bets for who would win. Our oldest, a high school teacher, wrote, ‘I’m watching it with my year 12 class, riveting!’

‘Julie more popular, smarter, and more likely to have a chance at avoiding complete international ridicule’ she continued, to which her brother responded, ‘She’s also a woman though. And these people are absolute dinosaurs.’

Our youngest, who works in a job where you run all day and have less opportunity to tune in to current events, weighed in at this point. ‘By the way. Wtf? I only just started remembering that Turnbull or whatever was Prime Minister. Do we have a new one?’ I’m with her. I’m still stuck in antiquity – whenever I hear the words, ‘Prime Minister Malcolm,’ I expect them to be followed by the name Fraser.

Late afternoon, my other What’sApp group, my step-siblings in the UK, woke up and chipped in.

‘What’s going on in Aus politics?’ was the opening remark, and the final line was ‘What can Australia teach us about how to change a government?’

I guess, thanks to Donald Trump, we won’t be the biggest laughing stock in the democratic world. But it’s a close thing.

Meanwhile, the circus in Canberra continues. And in this county, we really need to devise some new questions to diagnose brain damage.


This was published in The Melbourne Age on 29 August 2018