If I were to turn on a random radio station right now, there would be a good chance that I would hear this song - indeed I have heard it many times before switching to WQXR or WNYC. Any pop station will inevitably have you listening to one song over and over right now, “Rock a bye”. It’s catchy, but I’ve also found myself wondering what in particular about this song has made it so terribly popular right now. The tune isn’t anything particularly special, though I’ve found the refrain stays with you; it is the voice of a single mother singing to her child as she struggles to take care of him against poverty. “Rock a bye baby,” she croons, “rock a bye. Somebody’s got you. Rock a bye baby, don’t you cry somebody loves you…” How interesting it is to me that one of the most popular songs right now is a mother telling their child everything will be alright, this particular quality of being held and told someone’s got you, so often associated with mothering, this many are literally tuning into right now.
Mother’s Day is something of a landmine for preachers. On the one hand, it is an opportunity to talk about this kind of “rock a bye” beauty that can be mothering, and celebrate a God that we associate with that mothering. On the other hand, not everyone has known a beautiful relationship to their mother, or maybe their father held the primary role of nurturing, or a sibling, or other person in their lives. Sometimes this is a painful day for those who miss a mother who showed them great love, or for those who struggle with feeling like they have never had or will not be a biological mother. I want to recognize all of these and remind us at the get-go that God holds space for all of this today. Rather than merely extolling the virtues of motherhood as a status today, I want to offer a mothering that Christ delivers, one that is joyful, rebirths us into new growth, and available to all.
(Paul, as he writes to his various churches around the Mediterranean, is really beginning to feel the burden of birthing these communities. There is now pressure from other leaders in the movement who disagree with Paul. Paul is experiencing persecution both from the leaders in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire. He knows the walls of a prison cell, he knows what it is like to be called nasty names, he is learning to empty himself more and more for this belief in Christ. He knows these communities also feel these pressures, if in different ways. 2 Corinthians, as one scholar puts it, shows Paul having a series of bad days. The poor guy is having a rough time. )
I have two close girlfriends who are both working mothers, one of them a single mother, and having our last Skype conversation in tandem with re-reading this letter really helped it hit home for me. One of them her child came in the room on 3 separate occasions throughout the call, and the poor lady is at her wit’s end having just come back from working late. It reminded me of the YouTube video that went viral not too long ago of the gentleman who was on a conference call and his children came in the middle. His wife is scrambling to get all three children out who are roaming around the room as he’s trying to explain an economic meltdown somewhere. So at one point my girlfriend goes, “I’m running on empty.” That’s incredibly accurate it seems, the intense care that we often associate with mothering is a kind of emptying of the self. We put a human being ahead of our own needs and desires, and empty out.
There is a word for this self-emptying in Christianity, we call it “kenosis.” Often it’s used to talk about the incarnation, to talk about Christ emptying the divine self to become human. This is how Paul describes it in his letter to the Philippians. I think it’s heartening that Paul, we can see, has this letter, too, one written around the same time as 2 Corinthians. We can know that his bad days were broken through with days of hope and perseverance and joy. And some of that in part seems to come from this kenosis, this pouring out, this emptying, he sees in Christ. For he does not just make mention of it, but he talks about it as such a way to mimic it. And with kenosis, you don’t run on empty, so to speak. You empty yourself, and fill up with God.
Gorgeously, if we look to the way in which Christ poured out the divine self, Paul intimates that we can see, too that Christ was filled back up again with that divinity once his human life was emptied into death. In this season of Easter, we celebrate that Christ resurrected - following Paul’s discussion in Philippians, was filled up once again with his divine. If God filled up Christ when Christ emptied himself, so too could Paul and the Philippian community be filled up by God when their tanks were on empty, when they had given of themselves.
The popular call these days is for self-care. Take care of yourself. And it is true that we are not called to live lives poisoned by anxiety and stress. Relationship does not flourish in that environment, and God wants us to flourish in loving relationship. However, it seems that we miss a crucial step with self-care. Self-care means take care of yourself - it’s all on you, and it will once again be your fault for not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, which is scheduling a pedicure or playing golf or what-have-you. Christ offers us, not self-care, but God-care. Christ invites us to rely on someone who is not ourselves, not our egos, not our individual selves. We are called to empty ourselves, our egos, those things that insist on shame and fear. We are called to let go, and then rely on God to fill us up with God’s self.
When we do this we are far less likely to be running on empty in the first place. When our egos are not quite as tied up in it, we have an easier time being honest about what we really need. We also tend to be more conscious and playful with the way we empty, with how we pour ourselves out. We are better able to be creative with letting go of ourselves, to let joy into the process because it’s not bound up in fear. It’s not a mere emptying. It’s more like breathing out intentionally so you can feel your lungs fill with even fresher air.
What is Christ inviting us into? If we empty ourselves of the fear and anxiety that is how we think we must be, how can we creatively take part in a process of growing into something even more God-filled? When we can empty ourselves out and make space for God to fill us up, we make space to grow into God, to grow into true righteousness. It is a practice. It is why Christianity is way of becoming more than a being. We are ever learning how to give up our egos and all the fears attached to those to grow and expand into God. We’re all working on it, and we can see from Paul’s letters, have been since the beginning. We have the opportunity to grow, and Christ offers to deliver us. The kenosis can be difficult, sometimes painful, but ultimately, like a mother birthing us, God has given us to each other for which to joyously pour out ourselves and be filled in with God’s loving growth.
Photo by Arteida MjESHTRI on Unsplash