The prayer bear

This article was first published at the Episcopal Café

A hundred years ago, or so, when they took my tonsils out, hospitals didn’t let families stay with their small patients. And they kept you for months (okay, maybe a week). As luck would have it, my mother worked next door to the hospital and could visit on her lunch breaks. In the meantime, I became quite attached to a rather worn, rather bald, brown teddy bear. When they finally released me into the wilds, the nurses very kindly let me take the ragged old thing with me. I do not know if they knew how generous they were being. The stuffed animal still sits in my entrance way at home, greeting me at the front door.

This month, during our irregular education hour at church, we talked about expansive and alternative images for God, in the Bible and in our prayers. It was interesting to stretch our imaginations, and to find out where the stiffness of our necks and our prayer muscles pulled us back.

Male and female pronouns were fine, we found, in their place; but when we messed with their assigned gender roles – letting Mother rule almighty and Father tenderly nurture – some of us were in danger of straining something.

Nonhuman images seemed safer: a soft-winged hen was less of a leap than a birthing, nursing human mother to describe God. Lions were easy. Pillars of fire, anonymous and impassive pillars of cloud and dust presented few problems. The lamb – that one gets complicated. We are not sure about making God cute.

God as the she-bear protecting her cubs kept coming back around to haunt us. The image comes from Hosea 13:8: the prophet threatens the enemies of God’s people with the ravening wrath of a mama bear. It could certainly be considered less than comforting; yet it was an image that encapsulated our awe, even our caution, while inviting us to trust in the faithful protection and fearsome love of a God beyond our strength to reckon with.

Eventually, I was reminded me of my bear back home, the one who has been with me since one of my first dips into that valley of shadows. It reminds me of the pain, both physical and spiritual, of that time of separation, as well as of the comfort that was available. It speaks to me of a simple and profound generosity which goes beyond the logical understanding of an eight-year-old, or of an adult taught to measure out gifts given and received; which entered my heart without touching the sides on its way into my soul.

Great God
if I am fearfully and wonderfully made
you are more fearsome and wonderful
since I am a pale image of your essence
yet you let me take you in my hands
I am lost to the mystery of your body
wounded and whole, dangerous, untame
but soft as bread on the tongue, speaking
in the wild, unintelligible language of love.

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