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Bible Study

Dear Mother God, your wings are warm around us by Janet Wootton

Read the song that Moses sang to the people of Israel as they stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. You can find it in Deuteronomy 32. It is quite a challenging piece of Scripture, expressing God’s frustration and sorrow at a perverse generation.

As in many other passages, the love and steadfastness of God is contrasted with the corruption and ingratitude of the people. Verses 6b-14 rehearse the story of God’s love. The words are tender and loving, and contain some very moving images. If you like, make a list of the images of God’s love that are contained in this passage. You might set it out like this:

V7 father child
creator made and established

and so on. If you are using this Bible Study in a group, you could write this up on a flip chart or board.

I wonder whether, in the list, you have included, ‘mother’, or more strictly, ‘mother eagle’, and the relationship for the people as ‘eagle-chick’ or ‘egret’ (verse 11). This is the image from which the hymn, ‘Dear Mother God’ begins.

As in the similar passage, Hosea 11:1-7, God’s parenting does not make the child dependent, but rather teaches the child to develop. Hosea says that God taught Ephraim to walk. Moses’ song has the lovely picture of the mother bird teaching the chicks to fly, and that is at the heart of the hymn.

The whole hymn is written from the point of view of one of the young eagles in the nest. At that point, we want the parent-child relationship to go on forever. It is warm and comforting. In the original version of the hymn, the line, ‘your wings are warm around me’ was full of liquid sounds, semi-vowels in a drowsy half-life. When the hymn was converted from the first person singular to the first person plural, its accessibility was much improved, and the line acquired a harsher ending.

The verse ends with the recognition of God’s promise – God is always there. But the mother bird is not! God as parent intends to enable us to mature, and the image in Moses’ song is of the bird out, away from the nest, bearing up the young eagles on her wings so that they will get used to the empty air, and learn to use their own wings, learn to fly.

There come moments in every spiritual life, when God is no longer with us in whatever cosy world we have built up. We look around, and the nest is cold and bare. It happens when individuals are challenged by doubts, or go through experiences that question their easy faith. It happens to churches and Christian organisations when they are forced by falling numbers or financial crises to look outwards, beyond their walls.

It happened to my church, Union Chapel, when we started our drop-in centre for homeless people. These were not easy people to deal with. All our notions of generosity and gratitude were turned on their heads. We could not proceed in the gently paternalistic way in which we had started. When violence flared and staffing problems raised their heads, we looked around, and God seemed far from this hostile world – we’ve written another hymn about that.

But God is not gone. God is high overhead calling us onwards. God soars beyond our doubts, calling us to new trust and truth. God beckons from the dangerous world outside our churches and organisations. And, in the case of Union Chapel, God looked us straight in the eye through the challenging gaze of the homeless people.

So we can learn to fly. The hymn moves on from Deuteronomy to Isaiah – some say, from the same kind of tradition. The temptation is for strong fliers to look down on those who are weaker – a mistake, anyway, because all of us are weak in some area of life. Flying gives freedom to move beyond our earthbound itineraries to explore the empty air that seemed so terrifying from the warmth of the nest. But our duty is to encourage other nestlings, not to scorn those who have not left that particular nest, dared that particular venture.

The aim – God’s aim – is maturity for all people. Isaiah 40 builds to a crescendo with God high above all things, looking down on the world that he has made – Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not understood?

But the high God has a care for those who wait on him. They will regain their strength. They will mount up wings like eagles. God’s aim and ours is that all should be strong and all have eagles wings.

The thing is, that the hymn itself goes beyond what some people are comfortable with. I have had incredibly hostile reactions to the first three words, or, to be more precise, the second word – ‘mother’. There are only a few, but very precious images of God as a mother in scripture. You can use any other biblical image without raising an eyebrow or anybody’s blood pressure. God is my Rock, a Shepherd, even a Lion, but pick up the biblical image of a mother and people walk out, and people write to the authorities.

I picture God riding on the wind above these people’s strange linguistic nests, and I remind myself to long for the day when all have eagles wings!

© 2001 Janet Wootton. Copying facilities provided are limited to local use by owners of HymnQuest. Wider or commercial use needs negotiation with the copyright holder.

The copyright in this bible study vests in the author. Permission is given for them to be reproduced by HymnQuest purchasers for local use. Wider or commercial use requires their consent.

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