Holding the Space

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Tina Osterhouse -Holding the Space3

As with all painful seasons that take us by surprise, there were some overwhelmingly beautiful aspects of my time in Chile; but the first year, in particular, was the darkest of my life. It was a year that stripped me of my assumptions about God and my faith in humankind. It nearly swallowed me whole.

For a time, I believed I’d eventually return to life as I had once known it. Instead, I returned home to Seattle with my two children, and within several months filed for divorce—to the shock and disappointment of some important people in my life.

The predominant question that came knocking on my door, or in the subject line of my email inbox and direct messages to my Facebook feed primarily had to do with my children.

What about the kids?

What will become of their lives?

How are they doing?

I was a devout Christian woman who had loved Jesus her entire adult life. This Jesus-love was the most real thing about me. I had a true, authentic love for God. None of this wreckage was supposed to be the outcome of my life. My story and my children’s story was supposed to be different. I spent most of my twenties begging God to break generational patterns and redeem my family, which had divorce and alcoholism, remarriage, and infidelity interlaced throughout its lineage. I wanted my family to be the new thing God was doing. (Isaiah 43:19).

As it turns out, I’m just as ordinary as the rest of them—Man is born to trouble, sure as sparks fly upward. (Job 5:7) No matter how good or safe-guarded I tried to live, I still came face-to-face with the awful parts of our humanity and this broken world we live in. Storms still come to Jesus-lovers, no matter how good or put together we are.

After months of raging at God and sitting quietly bewildered, I finally found my foundational reality. It took me several months to accept, but changed my perspective on life:

I am powerless to give my children the perfect life I believe they deserve. 

The seeming control I attempted to wield over their little lives was all but dust and ash. Harm and hurt, disappointment and loss seemed to be their inheritance just as it had been mine. I could no more save them from the perils of sin and hardship on this planet than I could save myself. This infuriated me.

As mothers this is the great truth we all inevitably reckon with. Women bring forth life. We carry our children’s existence in our deepest parts, in the intimate places of our own bodies, only to watch the winds of life blow and destroy much of what we bring forth.

At the height of my dark night of the soul, I devoured the Psalms from my Book of Common Prayer, and discovered a vocabulary and a place for my grievances. I also spent a considerable amount of time reading the book of Job, which helped on some days, and other days only angered me more. I also read and reread the novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.

John Ames, the novel’s narrator, wisely comments that all of us are forced to send our children into the wilderness.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind while I was praying this morning, and I found a great assurance in it. The story says that it is not only the father of a child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provisions will be made. At that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes—we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind. (pp. 118-119)

I received tender comfort from John Ames when I was near despair. Despite how real those words were becoming, as a mother, something nagged at the back of my head and heart. We may not be able to save our children from the pain of this world, but there must be something we can do? If I cannot hold back the tide of human sorrow, what do I have to offer them in the long run?

I want to raise my children well, to love them with a fierce love, and I long to protect them from as much harm as I can.

* * *

This winter, I read a commentary on the book of Genesis by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg called The Beginning of Desire. The final chapter covers the final days of Jacob’s life. Zornberg looks at the matriarch, Rachel, for whom Jacob worked 14 years. Rachel is the mother of only two sons, and the chosen wife. Rachel died after her son, Benjamin, was born, and they buried her in the middle of nowhere, on a journey toward somewhere.

Zornberg says of Rachel:

This is not a world of perfect love, of pure forms, but rather one of diffracted, partial relationships, of kaleidoscopic, shifting appearances … Rachel is poised at the fulcrum of unity and fragmentation. She personifies total passion—Jacob works for her and only for her; she is the primary and ultimate symbol of integration, the dream mother of the Jewish people. It is she, therefore, who suffers the diffusion and exile of her children … Rachel reflects back to God the split reality of a human being. Exposed, buried in no place (ba-derekh), in the liminal space in which exile begins, she acts as a potent magnet; the very force of her yearning will draw her children back toward coherence. In all the diffusion, they will live with an undertow of desire for oneness. It is this desire, the eternal yearning that Rachel, buried at the border, will restlessly articulate. (pp. 377-378)

Zornberg goes on to write, “For if she could tolerate the diffractions of her experience, Jacob, it seems, cannot. Rachel can hold a position between meaning and meaninglessness.” (p. 378).

Right there, Zornberg’s sacred words staunched my bleeding wound—that infinite chasm I felt between the life I had hoped for and the life I am living—and began to heal me. I see my purpose as a mother differently than I ever anticipated. I no longer experience my role as a mother as one who is supposed to stem the tide of sorrow or hardship in her beloved children’s lives, or who is expected to hold back the reality of pain and longing, of heartache and loss. Of course, we are never supposed to will suffering or intentionally bring harm, I do understand that, but I am finally beginning to see my motherhood as the beginning of a matriarchy.

I am called by God to hold the space, to stand in the place of our exile and become a “potent magnet” for my children and my children’s children as they search for God and wrangle out redemption in their own lives in this terrifying and beautiful world we call home.

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Tina Osterhouse
Tina Osterhouse is passionate about living deeply and authentically. Through fiction, blog posts, and creative essays, she writes about ordinary life and the way God meets us in our everyday circumstances and creatively weaves the sacred into them. She studied ministry and theology at Northwest University, most recently lived on thirty acres in Southern Chile, and finally returned to the Seattle area in June of 2015.
Tina Osterhouse
Tina Osterhouse

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  • John Ames is my favorite fictional pastor! His wisdom got me through a few years when the real thing was hard to come by in real life.

    I’m also at the end of a train wreck of a family line, and it has been my hope to restore and to play a part in redemption, which, of course, is too big a role for me. I’ve taken incredible comfort over the years from Isaiah 58, particularly verse 12:

    And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
    you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

    Now, I know that this is all about Israel, so I don’t arrogate to myself the direct prophetic message, but, in Christ, we see the ultimate fulfillment of reversed exile, and who’s to say that “the restorer of streets to dwell in” can’t be understood as “the rebuilder of paths leading Home?”

    • Thank you, Michele, for your comment. I love Isaiah 58 and so glad you are able to claim those rich verses for your story… and for your family.

      The point I am trying to make, is that I once tried to do the same, and even though I prayed and prayed for God to rebuild the ancient ruins in my family, my story took a turn I did not expect. This is how I’m processing it. This is how I am wrangling redemption in spite of disappointment.

      I’m always grateful for your thoughtful commentary. Blessings, Tina

  • sandyhay

    Amen Tina. My 3 granddaughters live in a divorced family. The past 5 years have been amazing and terrible at the same time. BUT I’ve had to learn to be the stable one .To keep going to God for how He wants me to relate to them. Their parents were missionaries too and ministry fall out is tough on everyone. We cry and laugh and yell and stomp and kiss and love and giggle …and do nails. I MUSt keep God first and tell them that too. 🙂

    • Thank you for understanding. It is tough. Friendships make all the difference. Thankful for yours… Tina

  • Tracy Nelson

    SO good. thank you for your vulnerability.

  • oddznns

    Thank you for this meditation Tina. My heart goes to you. Even in your confusion, you have blessed. I will be holding that nugget about motherhood being a holding place between exile and return for a very long time.

    • I really appreciate how you put this… Motherhood is a holding place between exile and return… beautiful. Xox

  • Andrea Christiansen

    Beautiful. The ache in the release… Of control, of our children. Isn’t Motherhood itself so much bigger than ever we could have made of it? I will be reading this again!

  • Courtney Beck

    This is lovely. Thank you for sharing this. My parents divorced when I was in college. It was heartbreaking and awful on so many levels. but I can see how God used it to show me that I couldn’t put my ultimate hope in people and things that were broken and transient. So there is redemption in the story now too. it appears beauty is coming out of your story as well 🙂 Thank you God.

    • Divorce is ever so painful. Took the life and strength right out of me. I’m so sorry for all you went through, and I’m thankful you’re finding your way to redemption and hope. Much love to you…