Loaves and Fishes and Mothers

This post has sat in my drafts folder for over a year.

A year ago, I had a newborn and a three-year-old and a five-year-old, and no childcare. A year ago, we were a year deep into the pandemic and I was way past the point of an empty tank. In this metaphor, if the car is me, I had long since broken down on the side of the road. I wasn’t even trying to get somewhere anymore.

Most mornings, not every morning, I turned on Daniel Tiger for my kids and opened up Zoom to join a handful of people from my church in morning prayer. I found a brief respite and comfort in praying for the needs of others, and asking for intercession for my own needs: some variation on the theme of more patience, more sleep, more courage, more love.

I found relief– and hope– in the closing prayer: Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

I wanted so much for God to do infinitely more in me.

On every front, in every direction I looked, I was failing. I wanted to be in the streets, protesting, or helping feed and house neighbors in my city, but I couldn’t even manage to create peace or assuage hunger in my own home. Not significant enough. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, I cried in front of my kids just about every day. Not strong enough. I’d manage to choke back my frustration and respond calmly to one or two sibling squabbles, only to lose it after the third or fourth, making little eyes well and chins quiver in spite of my most desperate efforts. Not patient enough.

Locking myself in the bathroom so I could take a few deep breaths, while the baby wailed from the next room, I’d succumb to self-berating thoughts: Not selfless enough. All day, I looked forward to Lyle’s return from work, only to hear harsh and accusing words come out of my mouth the minute he walked through the door. Not loving enough.

Where is God in all of this? I wondered. What does it mean to have God’s power working in me? When does that kick in?

Any time I could get a break for 20 minutes, I started listening to podcasts on the Way of Love from the Episcopal church website. I’d sit in the big recliner downstairs with my earbuds in and close my eyes. One day I heard Bishop Mariann Budde give a reflection on the General Thanksgiving, another of my favorite parts of the morning prayer liturgy. As part of her encouragement to develop a daily habit of reading a small amount of scripture every day, she gave an example of a time when her daily practice of reading the bible really showed her that this is how God wants to speak to us.

Thirty years ago, when she was an associate priest and a new parent–with all the sleep deprivation and constraints on her time and energy that that entails– she had the opportunity to serve on the board of a local food pantry. She wanted more than anything to be able to volunteer more of her time, to visit the food pantry and be part of its day-to-day operations, but in the end, all she was able to do during her one-year term was to show up at the monthly meetings. She drove to the last meeting with a speech of apology prepared, feeling badly for not having been able to do more, and was left speechless when the board chairwoman gave a speech of her own, praising Mariann effusively for all that she had brought to them during her time. Mariann reflected that the chairwoman’s words “didn’t change my internal assessment of my contribution, but I also didn’t get the sense she was lying.”

The next day during her regular time of prayer and reading, she opened her bible to the story of Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The disciples are anxious at the prospect of feeding a crowd of thousands, and they go to Jesus with their worry. They ask Jesus to feed the thousands, and instead Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” We couldn’t possibly, the disciples reply. We don’t have enough. Jesus asks them, “What do you have?” And with their meager offering of a few fish and a small amount of bread, Jesus calls down blessings on the food, turning it over to God and then asking them to distribute it. You know the rest of the story. How there was more than enough the feed the thousands, and baskets of food remaining.

In her armchair 30 years ago, Bishop Budde reflects, she realized she had experienced that miracle in her own life. By God’s grace, what the people on her board experienced from her– what felt like an meager offering– was more than enough. “What Jesus needed from me was to making my offering, however insufficient it seemed to me,” she says. “Every day, in fact, I am still faced with needs I cannot meet and tasks I cannot manage. I don’t understand how the miracle of abundance works, I’ve only experienced that it does.”

This reflection brought me so much peace and reassurance, during a time of complete overwhelm and disappointment in myself. I’d never before thought about the disciples’ participation in the miracle, how Jesus repeatedly invites his followers into the experience of God’s love and abundance. You give them something to eat. Offer what you have, and turn to me, trusting me with the rest.

That Bishop Budde’s experience of abundance happened right in the midst of motherhood made the message all the more immediate to me. In her beautiful essay “Multiply Me,” Samantha Stephenson writes of the freedom that comes from admitting our own insufficiency, as mothers. “Everyone is crying,” she writes. “It’s need after need, and when do I rest?”

Like Mariann and Samantha, I, too, feel overwhelmed by the needs all around me, and frustrated by my inability to meet them. The miracle and mystery of the loaves and fishes is all about God’s sufficiency, Christ’s mercy– and yet it’s about the disciples’ faith, too. It’s about the heart-change involved in turning over more of your life to God. If I want to experience God’s grace and abundance in my life, I need to keep turning to him, in prayer and in reading and in mothering, too.

Lord, multiply me, I pray,” Samantha writes. “I pray wondering when grace will kick in, until I realize it isn’t coming. It’s already here.”

It’s the not-enoughness that is the gift, she writes. It’s in our insufficiency that we are able to experience God’s grace, in the stretching of our bodies and hearts, in our turning and returning to God in word and prayer.

This essay has sat in my drafts folder for a year. It’s a year later, and I am sitting in a coffee shop in eastern Washington, the first plane flight and first trip I’ve made since March 2020. I’ve just spent a nourishing, cup-filling 48 hours in the company of three other mother-writers, people from different corners of the West whose writing I’ve admired from afar for some time. It’s a rare privilege for each of us to do this, to make the drive or book the flight or arrange childcare. None of us takes it for granted, and most of us won’t have an opportunity like this again for a while. We’ve met here to write, and we’re writing now, but we’ve also met here to talk, to swap stories and ideas and share the frustration that mother-writers know so well: not enough time for writing, not enough of a “platform” to meet the publishing world’s standards. How can it possibly be enough, the weekly two-hour window of babysitting time, the irregularly-shaped margins of the baby’s naptimes, the newsletter or the blog post? Are we doing it right? Should we be doing more?

None of us have come away with answers to those questions, but I think (I hope) we’re each returning home with encouragement to keep going. To keep offering what we’ve been given, what we have, as mothers and as writers, and trusting God to multiply it. To somehow turn our not-enough into more-than-enough. In a way, the conversations we’ve had are the more-than-enough, an experience of God’s provision through friendship and love.

In a few hours, I will get back on the plane and return to my family, to Lyle who’s been solo with all three kids while I’ve been gone. The next few weeks are so full, I’ve printed and reprinted a calendar grid several times to keep track of all the obligations I’ve promised to fulfill: Zoom meetings and errands, dance classes and swim lessons, doctor appointments and clinic shifts. Somewhere in there, I plan to study for the acupuncture school module next weekend, and maybe I’ll find a few scraps of time to read and to write.

I’ll offer what I have, and I’ll fall far short of my own and others’ expectations. I won’t be able to meet the needs all around me in the way I want to. But I’ll make time each day to read just a little bit from the bible, because I know that is where God will continue to speak to me, and give me an experience of his abundance.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

10 thoughts on “Loaves and Fishes and Mothers

  1. I love this so much Melissa! Thank you for putting to words this grace that falls on all of us. I’ve long felt like that little boy bringing the little bits of bread/fish and offering it to God knowing that God will do what God always does -takes our little gifts and multiples them.

  2. The phrase “loaves and fishes” has been quietly whispered to my heart and mind so many times these last months. I have no doubt that experience and miracle was included in scripture specifically for us mothers. Thank you for sharing, and for helping me feel not so alone in my own not-enoughness.

  3. I’m so glad you pushed publish on this one, Melissa. It was an honor to spend those 48 hours with you. I so appreciate your faith, writing, and friendship.

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