Image: Suffer the little children, Lucas Cranach-the-elder
We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through our first hearing our mother’s voice.
John paints Jesus through the power of visual metaphors – Light of the world, Lamb of God, and throughout his 10th chapter, the Good Shepherd. Through these skillfully drawn word pictures John seeks to etch arresting images of Jesus that stick in our imaginations.
Throughout chapter 10, John portrays Jesus playing with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, wolves, hirelings, and sheep pens to offer images through Jesus of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is the true shepherd as contrasted with the hired hand. He is the defender of the sheep against the ravaging wolf. He lies down on the ground to become the gate opening of the sheep pen – through or over which the sheep tramp into the safety of the pen.
In the last section of Chapter 10 John continues to develop his metaphor of Jesus the Good Shepherd in four key statements. The key identity statement – I am the Good Shepherd is amplified by four actions – hearing, knowing, following, and giving.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life.
We hear his voice like a continuous heartbeat, the familiar sound of his voice. We hear his voice, not with our ears but echoing in our minds and beating with the yearning of our hearts. To borrow from T.S. Elliot for a moment – we hear Jesus’ voice as the sound of a voice … not known, because not looked for -but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea. (Little Gidding)
In 2022, the good shepherd imagery of Jesus in John’s Gospel occurs on the second Sunday in May, otherwise known as Mother’s Day. Whether it’s by design or not, it’s an interesting coincidence that begs for a reframing of the good shepherd metaphor.
Jesus says I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them, so they trust me. I give them eternal life. Here, eternal life means life both now and life to come. The life God gives is life that cannot be segmented into past, present, and future. It’s life here, now, and still to come.
Nurture echoes nature – but not always.
Jesus the good shepherd – the image of divine love as the good mother evokes in us the most profound image of the nurturance. We learn to love because we were first, loved. Yet, the process of learning to love through first being loved may encounter many vicissitudes along the way. Many of us enjoy the gift of love and loving because of the indelible memory of first having been loved. Others of us find love and loving to involve a risk – felt to dangerous to take – a lifelong struggle to trust when our experience of early mothering proved untrustworthy.
In a period when as a culture we are struggling to delineate the biological hardwiring of gender from gender identity, something psychologically and culturally softwired and amenable to fluidity and change – it’s important to draw another distinction – that of between birthing and mothering.
In the most usual course of events, being pregnant triggers the instincts of mothering – giving birth ushers woman and infant into the complex and sacred relationship of mothering. We are fortunate if we experienced the nurturance of being loved because the woman who birthed us was also the one who mothered us. Unlike Jesus who is the good (perfect) mother, human mothers only need to be good-enough, not perfect.
The concept of the good enough mother is a psychological one that originated with the great 20th-Century British father of Object Relations – Donald Winnicott. Winnicott combined the rare skills of being both pediatrician and psychoanalyst. By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother-infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough but not perfect, is a reminder for us all that in the arena of love, the quest for the perfect is certainly the enemy of the good.
Good-enough mothering teaches us how to love through the experience of being loved. In the usual course of events, good-enough mothering is found in our early experience with our birthing mothers – but not always so. Good-enough mothering is also a human capacity that need not be gender specific to either birthing women or women in general.
I recognize there’s a great deal of complex and highly contested opinion in this arena and I cannot seek to do justice beyond painting in the broadest of brushstrokes. Human beings are resilient and highly adaptive. Early experience of good enough mothering can be provided by a father who stepping out of the usual supportive role for fathers around the birth of a child -enters the sacred space of mother and infant to compensate for post-partum and other emotional difficulties preventing early bonding between a birthing woman and her infant. Although they do not benefit from the hormonal triggers of pregnancy, at birth a man can enter into what Winnicott termed the relationship of primary mother-infant preoccupation. This will necessarily be the case for one of the partners in male same gendered relationships.
For it is also the case that for some, interruption in the early learning to love through the experience of being loved can be later compensated for in the love of a grandparent or other close relative. Although of a clearly different order, early difficulties can be repaired through the love of a teacher or mentor, through the redeeming love of a spouse or significant other – relationships in which we experience the essential quality of unconditional love.
As a society, we frequently fail the women and men who are responsible for good enough mothering through our failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of family life and child development. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks very low on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports family life and child development.
On Mother’s Day 2022, I’m writing in the days following the leak of a Supreme Court opinion calling for the overturn of 50 years of legal precedent established in Roe vs. Wade. In a recent PBS Newshour interview with the Arkansas Attorney General defending her state’s zero abortion legislation -while fiercely decrying abortion for any reason save that of the medical necessity of saving the mother’s life – note, not an insignificant concession among anti-abortion state officials – she was asked about her state’s child welfare provisions.
Despite her steel magnolia smile honed for the camera, and her peon to the thwarted potential of each unborn life, she struggled to make a convincing defense of child welfare support in Arkansas. Arkansas presents a fairly typical picture of child welfare and family support provision among states seeking to abolish the right to abortion. The KIDS COUNT Date Book of 2021 – is a 50-state source for the most recent childcare information available. Using the key indices of economic well-being, education, health, family and community context, Arkansas ranks 34th,35th, 41st, & 42nd, out of 50, respectively across these indices.
Survey data from the last year add to the story of Arkansas’ children and families in this moment. When viewed through the lens of racial equity an even more dispiriting picture emerges with 39% of Black children and 27% of Hispanic children living in poverty. By comparison, only 16% of Arkansas’ non-Hispanic white children live in poverty.
Jesus said: I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them, so they trust me. I give them eternal life. Here, eternal life means life both now and life to come. Even though the life God gives is life that cannot be segmented into past, present, and future – whatever the joys of the life still to come might be, it’s the quality of life in the here and now that should matter most to us – and by which, Jesus makes clear, we shall be judged.