ECCE – Helsinki Talk 3
The hen is a domestic bird. She lives happily around people, is cared for by people, and produces goods wanted by people. The other three birds we have considered, however, are wild birds; they look after themselves; they are independent and wild. In the case of the sparrows and swallows they are small but the eagle is chosen as an image because of its great strength; its ferocious character; its wildness.
B. DOMESTICATING GOD
Our final creature is another wild one; the bear. Specifically the she-bear, the mother and how she is with her cubs. Before reflecting specifically on her, a broader reflection.
God likens himself, and is likened by the writers of Scripture, rather less to domesticated creatures than wild ones. Yes the hen is domestic; so too is the image of ‘take my yoke upon you and learn from me’; the picture is of the domestic ox ploughing the land. The lead ox takes the weight, guides the way and the second ox follows their lead and lets them take the strain. God is like a lead ox with us. But other images like the ones we have considered so far, the she-bear today, and the roaring lion of Amos (Amos 3:8) are wild, unpredictable and in some cases dangerous.
There is always a danger of domesticating God rather than recognising the wildness, the unpredictability, the uncontrollability, the free-spiritedness of God.
We all do it; we try and put boundaries around God. Every theological tradition does it; it domesticates God into its tradition and thus misses all the exciting stuff God might be revealing and doing through other people and in other ways.
Most particularly, do we domesticate God, and the Scriptures, when it comes to children? We make God safe. We reduce what God might be saying to children to rather tame lessons and insights as this wonderful cartoon by Dave Walker illustrates.
We sanitise the Bible. We domesticate God rather than introduce children to the amazing one who is like the soaring eagle; the guiding ox; the mothering hen and the angered she-bear.
C. THE SHE-BEAR
You will know that Walter Breugemman writes of God as she-bear in his chapter “Vulnerable Children, Divine Passion, and Human Obligation” in Marcia Bunge’s ‘The Child in the Bible’.
The key text in which God is likened to a she-bear with her cubs is Hosea 13:8. It is a painful passage because God reminds his people of the way he rescued them from Egypt and cared for them in the wilderness. Yet once in the Promised Land and filled with all its good things they had forgotten God.
In response now God is passionate in his judgement of them. The animal images actually pile up; he is like a devouring lion, a hunting leopard and the she-bear robbed of her cubs. The writer of Lamentations in the time of judgement also feels that God is like “a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding” (Lam 3:10).
David knew the reality of bears as fierce creatures; he fought them as a shepherd boy (1 Sam 17:34, 36 & 37) and in the time of Absalom’s rebellion Hushai describes David as “enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field” (2 Sam 17:8). What is described then is absolute passion for the cubs; the mother bear will do anything she can to protect them. If they are taken away; if she loses them then she becomes enraged, a furious beast which will attack others in response to her loss (cf Prov 17:12). God is passionate over his children and looks to us to reflect and mirror that passion. Where children are being damaged, attacked, taken away from their loving parent then we should be passionately enraged for their well-being.
Where injustice is leading children to be orphans – literally or metaphorically – then we should be like a growling bear in our seeking of justice for them (Isaiah 59:11). Where childhood is being ripped away; where abuse of every kind is damaging children, potentially for life, then we are called to become angry on their behalf. There is a role for the parent, the carer, the adult to protect and care for their young. They are not able to provide for themselves; to defend themselves. They are vulnerable and open to attack – like the lamb with the wolf in John 10. We are to be those who fight fiercely for the well-being of children. We will be, in the best sense of the word, ferocious in their defence.
So we will be hurt by how many children go hungry every day; by the lack of clean water; by the continued scandal of how many needlessly die from preventable diseases. We will cry out for children who have to live on the streets; and once there become caught up in crime, prostitution and drug abuse. We will be concerned and speak out about government policies in the rich Western nations that push more children into relative poverty when we should be lifting them out of it.
We will also weep for the lack of hearing the story of Jesus that is the reality for so many children. We will long that the good news of the one who welcomes children and gives them the Kingdom is told, shared, spoken out to the children of our lands. We will weep when children are not being nurtured in the loving timeless presence of God.
We will mourn when children are not being “dropped from the sky” so that they learn to fly. We will want risky love that lets children adventure, discover, create, mature. We will long for the day when a little child will lead the lion and the fattened calf together. We will be passionate for the day when a nursing child will safely play over a cobra’s hole (Is 11:6-9).
Like God in his deep passion for children, like the she-bear and her cubs, we will be passionate too for the safety, protection, nurture and well-being of all children.