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Unless you were living under a rock this summer, you have probably heard of the movie and book The Help. Kathryn Stockett spun this tale of African American women in the 1960s and the families they served. The Help is a compelling story as it examines the sometimes loving and sometimes strained relationships between society women of Jackson, Mississippi and their household staffs. The story generated quite a bit of controversy. The inequality between the two classes of women still stings and the way in which Kathryn Stockett portrayed the African American characters in her book rankled many people.
The most heart breaking and fascinating part of the book was the relationship between white children and their African American caretakers. As portrayed in the book, those relationships were often extremely tender and formative. I believe a large part of the wild success of the book and movie was because of how powerful the relationship is between a hired caretaker and a child and how many people have strong, if complicated feelings, about those relationships.
This type of caretaker or nursemaid relationship was not new to the American South of the 1960s. Nursemaids and even wet nurses have been used to look after children for thousands of years. We have different names for them now. We call them nannies, au pairs, day care centers, but the relationship remains. Those of us who have the income, or those of us who need to work, hire another person, usually a woman, to look after our children in our absence. We hope the woman or women we choose are tender and kind. We hope our children will love them and feel safe with them, but not love them more than us, of course.
During the time the Apostle Paul was writing his letter to the Thessalonians, the nurse was a common figure. Wet nurses were used not only for wealthy women who did not want to nurse their own children, but were used for slave women as well if their owners did not want them to stop working after the birth of their children. At times mothers and children would be separated entirely, so nurses would be the only loving caretaker a child would know. Infants, mothers, and nurses would have been an integral part of the house churches of early Christianity, so the imagery of the nurse would be very familiar to the community.
We think of many images when we think of the Apostle Paul. We think of the murderous Saul, persecuting Christians. We think of the powerful leader, developing churches throughout the Middle East. We think of the strong man who survived shipwrecks and imprisonment. Have you ever imagined the Apostle Paul walking a screaming baby back and forth all night or changing a stinky diaper?
In the second chapter of First Thessalonians, Paul describes himself and the other Apostles as someone who would do just that. Not only that, he also mixes his metaphors and describes himself as the infant. While the NRSV translates the Greek as “gentle”, many New Testament scholars, including my mother-in-law, believe that use of the word gentle is an error caused by similar spelling of the original Greek word for infant. The original sentence should read “we were infants among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children”.
Paul claims two images for himself that the Thessalonians would never expect. Paul tries to sell them on this new Christianity and instructs them in how to live their lives, so maybe they expect him to come and lord over them, acting like a king or military commander. Instead, he packages himself in the helpless image of a baby and the incredibly nurturing image of the nurse. He is not a threat to the Thessalonians. He wants to take care of them. In fact, in the metaphor, he is not a nurse taking care of someone else’s children. He is a nurse taking care of her own children. The level of affection and warmth is as high as it can get.
What do these images tell us about our own ministry? What does it mean for us to strike a balance between being as vulnerable as an infant and as careful as a nurse?
Based on six months of research in my own home, I can tell you that to an infant everything is brand new. For the first few weeks of Charlie’s life, he did not understand that he had hands. His flailed around and hit himself. When he saw his hands he cried because he did not know what they were. Six months later, I still catch him staring at his hands as if they were the most fascinating object he has ever seen.
And anyone who has spent more than an hour with an infant knows that taking care of a baby requires more than snuggles and coos. The caretaking of an infant is an ongoing wrestling match in which a tiny person manages to dominate an adult over and over again. A baby’s nurse must be prepared for long bouts of inconsolable screaming, projectile bodily fluids, and insatiable hunger. And the nurse is expected to deal with all these challenges with warmth and affection. Sounds like ministry to me!
Paul lived in the tension of these two images. For Paul and his fellow believers everything about being a Christian was new. Paul had not attended Christian theology classes. He took no leadership courses. He was figuring out what it meant to guide the Christian communities at Thessalonica, Rome, and Philippi as he went along. He said his prayers and studied the Scriptures, but every day was a brand new day of understanding what Jesus meant to the world. Paul and all the Christians of their time were infants in understanding of their new faith.
However, at the same time, Paul and fellow leaders in the church were called on to be caretakers of these new Christians. And Paul loved the members of these communities. When you read his letters, they are filled with affection, even when he is clearly frustrated with the churches’ antics. But like a nurse, Paul sets clear boundaries about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior for the church. He is kind, yet firm.
This model of ministry has powerful implications for us. First, what if we viewed the world through the eyes of an infant? What if every Sunday, the liturgy felt brand new to us? What if we encountered theological ideas with fresh minds? What if we really felt the wonder of Advent and the sorrow of Lent this year as if we had never heard the old stories?
What if we approached the world with curiosity, rather than judgment? What if we were able to marvel at the sound of leaves crunching under our feet and be as trusting of God as infants are of their caretakers? What if we allowed ourselves to fuss and whine honestly in our prayers, sharing our true heart with God?
The world is filled with wonder. From the slow moving glaciers of New Zealand, to the improbable structures of Stonehenge, to the majestic national parks of Utah even our rocks are breathtaking. Think of the millions of different plants and bugs and animals that you’ve never seen. Think of the all the muscles and neurons that have to fire for you to look to your left. We live in a miraculous world, but we’ve lost the eyes to see it. We can regain the wonder by putting on the eyes of an infant. And that wonder continues on to our understanding of the Gospel. The Creator God, who created us in the first place, chooses to become the created himself—to come experience the limitations of our rocks and plants and muscles and bones. He dies so that we can live for eternity. That is an amazing, wonderful gift!
If we combined a sense of wonder with the patience, warmth, and fun of our favorite nanny or babysitter, church would be the most popular place in Princeton! I have said it before and I will say it again. We are called to treat one another with kindness and patience. Even when the Apostle Paul was frustrated with a community, he treated the community with care and respect. He was patient and loving. When we are frustrated with each other, let’s just remember that we all used to be infants. We all deserve to be treated with the care and tenderness we give our youngest members.
Wonder and kindness. Maybe these are not the first qualities one thinks of when considering the Apostle Paul, but he claims them for himself, and we could do much worse than to embody them ourselves.
For more about feminine imagery in Paul’s letters, read Our Mother, Saint Paul by Beverly Gaventa.