The Mission of Mothers Part 2: Sing, O Barren One!

This is the second part of a series on the mission of mothers. In the first section, we reflected on the meaning of motherhood in the person of Eve, the first woman whose name means “life.” Adam gave her that name because he saw that she was to become the mother of all living people.

When I shared with people the vision for Me and My House in Mission to teach about the mission of the family and encourage the family in mission, some people asked “What about unmarried people?” Today’s piece is attempt to begin answering this question.

You don’t need to be married or have children to be a mother. Motherhood is also a matter of the spirit, the capacity to love and care and nurture which is not automatically a result of physically giving birth. One of the well-known, magnanimous women of God who in truth became mother to countless people whom she loved and for whom she cared is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Teresa is one of the famous people who comes to mind, but in my experience, God surrounds us with many others who, quietly, without fanfare or media attention, personify this reality. Over the years I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of friendship with sisters in Christ who did not marry or bear children, but who nevertheless unquestionably became mothers to many people in deep and profound ways.

I think about Elly Fleming. When I became a pastor in 1984 in the Pittsburgh area, Elly was the team leader for our denominational regional body for those of us involved in ministry with children. Elly had a bright, ebullient personality. Her effervescent, infectious laugh could light up a room. She radiated joy and passed it on to others. She drew people to herself by encouraging, coaching and celebrating the presence of each person who joined her little flock of church educators. I met her when I was a brand-new pastor, fresh out of seminary. Although Elly did not have a professional degree to qualify her as a Christian educator, she had both the years of tested experience, as well as the authority of a person who knew her profession. That’s why she was chosen to head up the team for our regional body, to gather and coach younger folks like me who had a degree, but no experience. In meetings she humorously referred to us as her “kids.” Elly didn’t just preside over meetings and organize events. She also came to our home to take part in our family celebrations. (See photo) I can still see her holding our daughter in her arms. She could have been her grandmother. She was certainly a mother to me.

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When Elly retired from the work of training workers in children’s ministry, she became a chaplain at a home for the elderly. There she became a companion and mother to many who were facing the losses that come with aging. Her exuberant joy shone among them.

I think also of my friend and pastor Laurie Jaworski who is at the helm of our church’s mission team. She freely offers her time to listen to the story of every missionary who is introduced to her, whether the missionary is supported by our church or not. She remembers who people are, what they do, and prays for them. She has built a network of personal friendships with hundreds of missionaries, mission leaders and mission advocates both locally and around the world. Whenever she thinks it might be of benefit, she introduces these friends of hers to one another so that they can strengthen one another. She opens her home to missionaries visiting our city. She welcomes them, creating an atmosphere in which they can unwind and cooks for them. She encourages people who desire to serve God by affirming their gifts and setting them loose to serve wherever God is calling them. In her presence people blossom and flourish.

The prophet Isaiah wrote,

“Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in travail!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
Than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.” Isaiah 54:

To be unmarried and childless in ancient Israel was considered a curse from God. A woman without children was a nobody. With the coming of Jesus, what was once considered a curse, was transformed into an elevated calling and golden opportunity to pursue the mission of God.

Jesus did not marry. Jesus announced the potential of a summons to the unmarried to live a high-yielding, generative life for the kingdom of God.

Once Jesus was speaking to a group of people in a house. A crowd of people sat around him so that he could not easily be reached. His mother and his brothers came looking for him. They stood outside the house. From there they sent word to him that he should come outside to talk to them. When Jesus received the message, he said to the crowd sitting around him “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking around at the people he said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-35

Jesus has radically redefined family for us. Marriage and childbearing are not required of those who follow Jesus. There is freedom to serve God in marriage, in bearing and raising children. There is also the right and privilege of remaining single with the autonomy for great dedication to the service of God. Family is no longer defined primarily along the lines of blood and marriage. Family consists of the people joined to us by a common faith in Jesus, by a call to serve the purposes of God’s kingdom which has come and is yet to come in Jesus.

The apostle Paul, like Jesus, was not married. He wrote “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do….The unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.” I Corinthians 7:7,34. The absence of a husband and children becomes an opportunity for deeper adherence and single-hearted fidelity to Christ.

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This is why we affirm the motherhood of the unmarried and childless woman who by faith becomes mother to those whom God gives her. Her benevolent, embracing spirit welcomes them just as a mother receives, affirms and champions her children. She becomes a sister, an aunt, a grandmother to the children of others as well as to peers and the fully-grown around her.

The family of Jesus encompasses and embraces people in ways we often cannot fathom. When we follow Jesus, we are never alone. We are always with him, without exception part of his great household. His relations reach down through the centuries, around the world and across every culture. Jesus has a very big family and he calls us all to serve in it.

Donald Marsden

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