God as Gendered

Years ago, a book called The Shack was released and stirred a great deal of controversy within the evangelical Christian world, in part because of its portrayal of God the Father as a large Black woman. Interested in what it was really all about, I picked up a copy of the book and actually enjoyed it a great deal. No, I don’t picture God the Father as a large Black woman – but neither do I picture Him as an old white dude with a flowing, snow-white beard, XY chromosomes, and a penis. The God who exists outside of space and time, who spoke the universe into being, creating it ex nihilo, who created us in His image – I don’t think He can be reduced to either of those human-like representations.

I liked what the God character said in the book, when asked why She was showing up as a woman – “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you…Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?” The main character, “knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange and painful and maybe even a little bit wonderful.”

Isn’t that who and what God is? Showing up in ways we don’t expect? Looking different than what we thought? Demonstrating compassion and kindness? Working in our lives in ways that are strange and painful and wonderful?

I just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s latest book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and one of the most encouraging parts of it was her description of her thought process in imagining God mothering her.

She writes, “Most of us identify God in parental terms as a father – and that is deeply meaningful to me as well…But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression…I find that the older I get, the more I care for the ones I love and for the world, the more I need both – I need both the energy of the mother and of the father. I need the fullness of the expression of God, not a lopsided caricature of either. And in times of suffering or loss or exhaustion, it has turned out that I needed a mother” (p. 172-173).

And she tells of how this has played out in her life recently, saying, “This has been the question God has given to me as a practice of spiritual discernment during my life with chronic pain: How would God like to mother me today? If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today? It’s a great question to ask in prayer when I feel scattered and exhausted and empty” (p. 172). She notes, in her discussion of self-comfort versus self-care that, “Perhaps self-care is simply joining with God to care for ourselves as a mother would care for us” (p. 170).

I am well aware that this idea of God as Mother – or, really, as anything other than an old white dude – can be controversial among Christians. One of Rachel Held Evans’s last tweets before she died was, “I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog posts, and dozens of articles, and only once have I used a feminine pronoun for God. People still point to that as a reason I should be killed in order to quicken my eternal torment in hell. No joke.”

And yet, there is imagery of God as a mother in multiple Bible passages. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

I’m finding myself comforted tonight, thinking about God as both Father and Mother. I am encouraged as I think about the difference between self-comfort and self-care and how this image that Sarah Bessey sets forth of, ” If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today?” can be a guide for me as I move forward. And I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before me, who are reflecting back for us the wildness, the nurture, and the utterly-beyond-gendered-ness of the Living God.

What I’m Reading

It’s an icy, wintry day here in Missouri – perfect for curling up on the couch and reading!

I’m actually working my way through a large number of books right now – this is the stack of books in which I’m currently spending my reading time.

One thing I’ve loved over the past years has been building relationships via book discussions. One Thanksgiving, our whole family read and talked about a book. Matt and I have read books together for years. And I’ve loved talking about books with friends – and it is one of the great joys of motherhood for me that my children also love reading and discussing books.

I ordered Mary Oliver’s Devotions for Christmas, and Matt and I have been reading through it together. Her poetry is challenging and inspires contemplation but is also a peaceful resting place for my soul. We’re also reading All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung, a memoir by an Asian-American adoptee, and we’re finding ourselves encouraged to think about what it means to raise our children, particularly our Asian-American daughters, well.

My mom gave Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson, to Miranda for Christmas, and the older girls and I have started reading through it together as our bedtime reading book. Already it has prompted some interesting conversations about friendship, immigration policy, and intelligence.

Madeleine CaiQun received the first five books of the Wings of Fire series from my brother and sister-in-law for Christmas, and both she and Miranda are devouring them. They love them so much that they pleaded with me to read them, too, so I’ve been spending time in the world of Pyrrhia, reading about dragons and their adventures! I’m only on book two so far (Miranda is in book four, and Madeleine CaiQun is reading book seven), but they’re an enjoyable light read. The girls are delighted to have me participating in this reading with them, and I so enjoy that they want to bond with me over our shared experience of books.

My friend Courtney and I are currently reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, a fascinating and thought-provoking story interspersed with philosophical observations. It’s been the springboard for some interesting conversations!

And though these books I’m reading with others are absorbing most of my reading time, I’m also slowly making my way through Suffering and the Heart of God, by Diane Langberg. The question of how an all-sovereign, all-good God co-exists with a world filled with tremendous suffering has long been one with which I’ve wrestled, and I’m appreciating this book’s insights, as well as its counsel on how to love those who are suffering.

I’m enjoying these books – but also looking forward to what I can dive into next! Here are a few of the books currently waiting on my bedside table – gifts from my mom and my friend Marisa and my brother David.

And if anyone else has any great book recommendations – I’d love to have them! I’m always looking for more good reading material.

2018 Goals

I spent a lot of time toward the end of 2017 thinking about what I wanted my goals for 2018 to be. 2017 was a crazy intense year. I’ve told a few people recently that I felt like I had about 800 balls in the air, and I dropped almost all of them at least once, and I’m slowly trying to pick up what is important. As we – hopefully – move toward a time of less necessary intensity, I’ve been wanting to be intentional about what my priorities and goals are, and I’ve come up with a few things.

  1. I want to try to cultivate peace and joy, both in my heart and in my home. First and foremost, I think this is a spiritual battle. I want to be more intentional about spending good time in my Bible and in prayer. I’ve started getting up earlier and doing a Beth Moore Bible study – just on my own – to help me stay in a pattern of doing that. Beyond that, I need to take some practical steps to enable peace and joy to flourish (like not over-committing myself to too many things). And I need to commit myself to examining my own heart throughout the day, practicing mindfulness and prayer and self-regulation, and I need to establish more patterns of treating every member of my family with respect, not yelling or expressing myself with sarcasm, even in my most frustrated moments. I think this is key to my growth as a person and as a wife and mom this year. 
  2. I want to rebuild our emergency savings fund. We basically wiped ourselves out financially to complete FangFang’s adoption at the end of 2016, and 2017 was such a crazy year with medical and travel expenses and just not having the mental or emotional energy to buckle down and commit to spending less money, so we pretty much just held steady financially. In 2018 we’d like to get back to a place of more financial security.
  3. I’d like to read 12 non-fiction books. I’ve been doing really well with keeping up with and enjoying some good fiction books lately. I read them on the Kindle app on my phone, which allows me to spend 2 minutes here or 5 minutes there reading as I’m able, which I so enjoy. But with non-fiction, I find that I am more thoughtful about what I’m reading if I read it in a paper copy, not a Kindle book, and I want to devote time and mental energy toward really integrating what I’m reading into my mind. That means I can’t just read it anywhere and everywhere and in 2-minute increments. But I am, at heart, a student and an intellectual. Matt and I are dorky people – it’s one reason we love homeschooling so much. I find that I feel more myself when I’m engaging with ideas, when I’m growing and learning. I want to make that a priority, reading and thinking on my own, and to that end, I’m making a goal of reading approximately 1 non-fiction book per month in 2018. And oh my goodness, I cannot wait to dig into this pile of books. I’ve started the first already, and it has been such an encouragement to my soul. 
  4. I’d like to get healthier. Exercise was sporadic, at best, for me in 2017, and I think my body feels the effects of that. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that my metabolism isn’t what it used to be, and I’m needing to adjust to that. We remain committed to our pescetarian lifestyle and try to follow a fairly healthy, whole-foods, plant-based diet, but I think toward the end of the year, our meals tended more toward whole wheat carbohydrates and less toward vegetables, and I’d like to flip that around again. I’d also like to get a healthier amount of sleep – always a challenge with young kids 🙂 Overall, I’d just like to make progress toward being healthier.

Those are my top 4 personal goals for 2018. I’ll try to keep you posted here about how I’m doing in working on those, and I’d love to hear what your 2018 goals are!

Book Thoughts: Siblings Without Rivalry

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sibling relationships – how to cultivate good relationships among all 4 of my children. There has been a lot of discussion about sibling relationships within the China adoption community lately (I wrote this guest post last month for a popular China adoption blog), and, more personally, Matt and I have been working on addressing some concerns we have about ways we’ve seen our kids interacting with each other . We have a lot of different dynamics going on in our family that complicate our kids’ sibling relationships – we have both biological and adopted children; we’ve virtual twinned and adopted out of birth order; and we have 4 kids with the age difference between our oldest and youngest being only 4.5 years. We have girls and boys; introverts and extroverts; sensory seekers and sensory avoiders.

As a researcher, my instinct whenever I encounter a situation in which I’m not certain how to proceed, is to find a book 🙂 The book Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish came well recommended, and I’d appreciated another book they’d written, so I dived into this one last month.

I found it often helpful but also sometimes not incredibly practical, at least for my crew.

The book begins with encouragement to understand our children’s perspectives. They are individuals with individual preferences, and they may not always get along perfectly or appreciate one another, and we as parents need to understand that and give them good, healthy ways to express their feelings honestly.

It then discusses the dangers of comparisons, which, to me, tied in closely with their discussion of placing children into roles. Making comparisons includes things that are, to me, obviously problematic, like making a statement to a child like, “Your sister always gets her math homework right; why can’t you?!?” But it also includes interactions that have a bit more subtlety – any discussion a child’s accomplishments relative to those of another child; labeling children as “the athletic one” and “the funny one;” and only allowing children to pursue interests at which they are the best in the family. This section forced me to ask myself some questions, in particular about the strategies I use to parent my oldest two children, who are less than a year apart in age and spend much of their time together but who are also very different.

I was reminded of that this week when a Facebook memory popped up from two years ago:

Madeleine CaiQun – “Mom, if me and JieJie want to be flower girls in Uncle Daniel’s and Sharon’s wedding, we’ll have to practice – it’s a big job for 5-year-old girls!!”
Miranda Grace – “I have practiced enough. I even knew how to do it before I practiced. Watch me.”

It’s easy to box them in, to make assumptions about who they are and who they will be, and not give them space to explore beyond that. It’s a tough line to walk – encouraging each of them in who they are but not pigeonholing them or restricting them. I want them to be free to explore and become exactly who God created them to be, and their relationship with each other is going to be part of that, but I hope it will be an empowering part, as opposed to a limiting part.

Relatedly, there was discussion about treating children uniquely, not equally. We need to give each child what he or she needs, which is not necessarily the same thing that a brother or sister needs. The book encouraged parents to treat our children as we hope they will become and empower them to become that.

The last section of the book focused on conflict. I found a large portion of the conversation helpful, but I also disagreed with parts of it. The authors’ suggestions for helping your children in working through conflict are, essentially, to acknowledge that the situation is complicated and acknowledge your children’s feelings but then to assure them that you are certain they can come to an agreement that works for everyone and leave and allow them to work it out on their own.

Sometimes that works well. I followed their directions almost exactly one morning when we were in Wisconsin and my two big girls were fighting over some toys, and the result was that they worked it out on their own and enjoyed hours of happy play time together.

However, the fact is that our children are often doing as well as they can in the moment. Sometimes a brief interlude in a fight with a sibling, taking time to tell the story to a parent and have their feelings acknowledged, is enough to help them come out of a state of dysregulation, and they can then focus more and work through the conflict themselves – but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes children are children, they’re young, their brains are not fully developed, and they simply do not have the skills to resolve a conflict on their own.

At our house we practice scripts. Probably the earliest one was this –

  • “May I have a turn with that toy when you’re done?”
  • “Yes, you may have a turn when I’m done.”

Do I expect my 7-year-olds to say exactly that to each other every single time one of them wants a toy that the other one has? No. But practicing that script in different situations when they were 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 gave them a framework to understand the dialogue that can occur. It helped them to learn that they were not allowed to take toys from one another but that there was an expectation of sharing. It also helped them to practice working out conflict with each other.

If kids are calm and if they truly have the skills to work through the conflict themselves, I think the book’s recommendations can work – but I don’t think those conditions are always met (and this may be true in particular for kids who have experienced trauma).

In general, I found the book helpful. Though I didn’t agree with every single one of its recommendations, it challenged me to reconsider the ways in which I think about and interact with my kids, and it gave me some new strategies to put into practice. For me it was a worthwhile read!

Cultivating a Love of Reading

One reason we chose to homeschool, and one reason we ultimately chose to purchase most of our curriculum through Sonlight, is that one of my hopes for my children is that they learn to love reading. Part of that is because I recognize its benefits – reading fiction can help develop empathy. It can help you cultivate a deeper spiritual life. But another huge part of it is that I love to read, and I love to connect with and share passions with my kiddos, and I’ve always hoped we’d be able to read and talk about books together.

Within the last year, I’ve been overjoyed to see my big girls developing an increasing love of reading. Madeleine CaiQun can often be found curled up on the couch with her nose in a book, and especially within the last week or so, I’ve started to see Miranda reading more and more on her own, too.

I actually feel myself rebelling and turning into more of an “unschooler” than I ever thought I would be as I realize how ridiculous it would be to pull my child away from reading a book she’s loving in order to insist that she read the exact chapter from the exact book our curriculum has assigned for the day. I’m definitely not actually turning into an unschooler (a perfectionist and a rule follower and a checklist-lover to my core, there’s no way I could actually “unschool”) – but if Miranda wants to spend 3 hours reading The Wizard of Oz, I’m certainly not going to pull her away from that! In fact, I may need to start stocking up more on these early chapter books that my girls can tackle on their own and really enjoy! Readers, what are your favorite third and fourth grade reading level books?

One of my goals for my littles for this school year has been to read more to them, and though they sometimes insist that they’re going to read their books “by myself!” they come running (or scooting) over any time I sit down on the couch and start reading one of their books out loud 🙂

And I absolutely treasure my moments of quiet with the big girls at bedtime – this is one of my favorite times of the day. We save our read-alouds to do together then, and we snuggle together in my bed, and I read to them.

I definitely have moments in parenting of feeling like nothing is going right, and I can do none of the things well, but days when I see my kiddos reading and when I get to read with them are an encouragement to my soul.