The Slow Way: Desire and Devotion
Our desires, when offered to the world in love, can lead to the flourishing of all of us.
One week from tomorrow we’ll be celebrating Mother’s Day. I’m one of those moms who milks it for all it’s worth. No way I’m getting out of bed, people, until I’ve been brought coffee and entertained with sweetness, and possibly opened a card from Ace that rhymes mom with song and includes a necklace made of yarn and feathers, thank you very much.
Mother’s Day is lovely for some and hellish for others. In my early years of mothering, I wrote shamelessly about motherhood for other mothers, both because I was in the thick of it and had never attempted anything so challenging before, but also because I rarely pushed myself to see outside of my own experience. As I grew and learned to listen to the voices in my life who were single and/or childless – whether purposefully or by circumstance – I learned how painful days like Mother’s Day can be. But more than that, I learned that the stories our culture tells women about their value are often all wrapped up in scripts around motherhood. Women’s worth has always been tied to culture’s assumptions about motherhood and meaning. And as my friend Erin S. Lane says in her new book, Someone Other Than a Mother, “Questions of meaning are unavoidably questions of faith.”
Erin approaches these mother scripts with the perspective of someone who believes they’re failing not just the non-moms they demean, but also the “conventional moms they esteem.” In other words, when our culture, especially faith culture, tells moms like me that we’re the highest ideal of a woman, it’s failing us as much as it fails those who aren’t moms. We are tied together, and we only thrive when the stories we tell ourselves and each other are true and filled with life. This is what Erin is inviting us to take part in: recognizing the cultural lies we blindly accept, and creating space to write new scripts about a woman’s meaning, purpose, and power.
Erin’s story begins with a firm conviction that her desire not to bear or raise children was true and good, though it took her years to give language to it. “Childless for the common good” was the mantra she and her husband Rush eventually used to describe their family of two, though it didn’t stop others from reassuring them that they should really reconsider. “But you’d make a great mom,” Erin was told repeatedly, as if she’d just been waiting to be reassured. So, as Erin tells the story, it was a shock to her more than anyone, when more than a decade into their relationship, she and her husband Rush became foster parents, and eventually adopted the three sisters who came into their home. Becoming a mother in an unconventional way was clarifying for Erin. Despite all the tales she’d been told of women finally finding their true identity in the role of mother, she found that she was entirely the same person. The mothering-changes-your-life stories so many had tried to sell her on were still vague and surface-level. The scripts were tired, and parenting was not the promised path toward fulfillment Hallmark had assured her it would be.
She says, “This book is about making meaning beyond motherhood,” by which she means that while motherhood is one way women can work toward building a more flourishing world, it is certainly not the only way. When women are encouraged to find purpose and value wherever their gifts and desires lead them, whether toward traditional mothering or outside of it, the world thrives. When women are released from tired scripts about their purpose, they’re able to make meaning in a way that serves us all.
In one scene, Erin stands in her pastor Lisa’s kitchen, cleaning up after a casual dinner with a few other congregants. Lisa, who is Black and childless, talks with Erin about the expectations that are unique to women of color who choose to be childfree. “I remember being afraid when I was younger that people would judge me for not having the thing that other people talk about,” Lisa confessed. “For not having maternal instincts, for being less of a woman. That I must not love or know how to care for children. That I wouldn’t be able to speak into their lives.”
“But, no, I no longer feel like I’m selfish . . . My very vocation binds me to children and families…they don’t have to belong to me in a particular way but I’m saying yes to them.” She goes on to explain a life where she has the ability to care and show up for her community in a way that an exhausted mom just couldn’t have space to give: “I wake up in the morning and I actually have enough energy to stand at the bus stop with the children who live in my neighborhood. And maybe it’s because I’m not sleep-deprived or because I’m not trying to nurse a child. One is not better or worse than the other. It’s just that this is my life…”
As Erin considers what Lisa is able to offer her community particularly because she is childfree, she summarizes Alice Walker: “open your desire like a door and ask how it might, impossibly . . . transform into something like devotion.”
I’m helping lead the youth group at my church, having the best time getting to know the eight kids currently showing up on Sunday mornings, and walking with them through Mark Scandrette’s book The Ninefold Path of Jesus, which those of you who have been reading this newsletter for a while know is one of my favorite books about the Beatitudes. Last Sunday we talked about Jesus’ blessing on the meek, and we considered meekness as power or strength under control. Scandrette says that we find the strength to bow to the dignity of others, to live in humility by knowing our inherent worth. We find that worth through receiving and honoring the love of God in our lives.
I had my students draw a water pitcher, and write in it words like: comparison, low self worth, greed, anger. And I had them draw a picture of the pitcher pouring out. It’s a simple image, but if our pitcher is being filled with thoughts of comparison and envy, that’s what will pour out in our everyday lives. If it’s being filled with love, purpose, and the strength that comes from knowing our God-given worth, what comes out will be meekness: humility and strength braided together.
I sensed that kind of meekness in Erin’s book as I read this week. The story of women who no longer needed to find their worth or purpose through our cultural scripts about what makes a woman valuable. It’s Pastor Lisa filled up with her own rest and self-knowledge, able to engage and care for the kids in her neighborhood at the bus stop. It’s Erin, receiving the children who came into her life from a place of wholeness, not lack. And it’s me, a traditional mom, learning to care for the people in my home from a place of wholeness, not scarcity.
It’s that idea that our desire might impossibly transform into devotion.
When I received my copy of Erin’s book in the mail, it came with a card that said, “Happy Someone Other Than a Mother’s Day. Which is, of course, all of us on all the days. Welcome to the everybody club.”
As we move toward Mother’s Day, I hope all of us, men, women, and gender non conforming, mothers and non-mothers, will take the time to ask what desire we are invited to open like a door, and what it might look like to invite God to transform that desire into devotion. Knowing that our God-given worth has nothing to do with the stories our culture tells us about what makes us valuable, but everything to do with the value inherent in us. We are made in the image of God, loved as our unique selves, and our desires, when offered to the world in love, can lead to the flourishing of all of us.
A Slow Practice
How do we live in such a way that our desire transforms into devotion? Is such a thing possible?
Today I want us to think about ourselves as pitchers, the same way I explained to the middle and high school students I taught at church last week. What we fill our minds and hearts with is the very thing that eventually gets poured out. If we’re listening to scripts that tell us we are unworthy, deficient, or incomplete, we will eventually live that out. In other words, what fills our pitcher eventually pours out from our pitcher.
What does it mean to fill your soul with divine truth? To hear from God the actual reality of who you are and what you have to offer to the world?
Often, we confuse the judgements of the world with the voice of God. What if your desire, whether that desire is toward a profession, a relationship, or away from a path that is more socially acceptable, is actually a way God is leading you toward the flourishing of the world? Let’s practice listening to the love of God today, and asking that God help us see our desires in light of the truth about us: that we are loved, made in the image of God, and that we each have unique gifts to offer the world. Or, as Erin says toward the end of her beautiful book, “Resting in love, the scripture says, is the only way to multiply love. . . Whether my life bears fruit – and fruit that will last – is not really up to me. It’s for others, which is also to say God, to prune and to ripen.”
Today let’s practice centering prayer. Centering prayer is a lot like meditation. In the same way in meditation a person might focus on a mantra, centering prayer invites us to hold a word or phrase in our minds as we sit in silence. Sometimes we might focus on an attribute of God, or a word that points us toward God's loving presence.
Today is there a word for a desire of your heart? Something you hope and long for? Something you don’t quite know how to ask for, or something you dream of or don’t dream of, that you would like to hold in the presence of God?
Let’s take three minutes to sit quietly in the presence of the Holy Spirit and allow that word to be central in our mind. (It helps me to set a timer.) If your mind starts to wander just gently bring it back to that desire. If you don’t know what you’re asking God to do with that desire it’s okay. That’s one of the gifts of this sort of prayer. You are simply inviting the Divine to hold that desire with you. You don’t have to know what should be done with it. You only have to hold it up and invite God to receive it.
After three minutes, close with this prayer: You, who knows all things, hold my desire. And lead me toward the flourishing of the world. Amen.
A List of Things
This past week on The Lucky Few Podcast I had the chance to interview Amy Julia Becker, whose new book To Be Made Well was much gushed over around here. Her work is a deeply thoughtful, and I loved getting to talk about disability, wholeness, and what healing means for all of us.
This article in Vox about Frank Peretti’s books and how his view of angels, demons, and the Satanic danger of liberal “new age” ideas has shaped the culture wars of today. Both because it seemed like my entire world was reading This Present Darkness in my childhood (it was published in ‘86), but also because I’m fascinated with how the evangelical world of my childhood became the evangelical world of today.
I adore Kate Bowler and her podcast episode with Susan Cain (who I expect I will adore all the more when I finally read her books) joined her to talk about her book Bittersweet. They talked about compassion, melancholy, and longing. It’s wonderful.