Motherhood is a "two-way street" says Nancy Ortberg, a former teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, who was the guest speaker on Mother's Day at the church.
It was her three children – two girls, Laura and Mallory, and a boy, Johnny – "who made me a mom," said Ortberg, wife of teaching pastor John Ortberg at Willow. It was 18 years ago that she gave her first Mother's Day message at Willow, she recalled.
She shared a story to introduce the theme of her message for Mother's Day 18 years later.
A few weeks ago in her Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, an 8-year-old boy walked into the Sunday school, wearing a suit. The teacher went over to him, squatted down and introduced herself. She asked if he got his suit for Easter. The little boy said her mother died two weeks ago, and this is the suit his dad bought him.
The teacher squatted down further, looked into his eyes, held his hands, and said to him, "You know what, my mom died when I was about your age too." In that moment what happened "so utterly unexpectedly" is that "while we expect teaching to flow from a woman of my age to an 8-year-old boy, there was a kind of mutuality and reciprocity that happened. It was absolutely memorable... It became a two-way street."
What motherhood taught her, Ortberg said, can be shared in three words.
The first is a word that is "clichéd but true," and that is "love." "I had absolutely no idea what that word event meant," she said, adding she had never experienced the love she felt after seeing her first daughter for the first time – someone she had never met before, and someone who had only given her physical pain.
"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you," Ortberg quoted Isaiah 49:15. "God has used motherhood to shape me in some of the most significant and profound ways ever," she said.
The flip side of love is vulnerability and pain, she added, explaining that the one you love has the power to wound and destroy you.
It is unbearable for parents if they lose their child. Ortberg experienced the pain for a few minutes when one of her daughters went missing in Disneyland years ago. Even after she was found, that pain made continues to make her realize how God feels about those who are lost in this world.
"But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him," she quoted 2 Samuel 14:14. God sacrificed His one and only Son to bridge the gap between Him and us.
Ortberg said God seemed distant, and at time disappointing, to her before she became a parent. But after having children, she recognized how deeply God loves and delights in her.
The second word is "future self," she shared. "The kind of person… the Nancy I always believed I could be but wasn't yet, that vision of the person God intended me to be... I didn't know how I would ever get there."
"Although I like for a magic wand or a simple series of defining moments to be the stepping stone for me to be that person, what I found is that often growth is found in the mundane things of life and in the incremental steps that you take to shape yourself with God into the image of Christ," she said.
Dallas Willard, the famed Christian philosopher who died recently, had a tremendous influence in her and John's life, she said, and quoted him: "God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being 'right,' we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life."
God used the reality of her looking after her children to shape her into her future self, she said.
The third word is surrender. It "always starts off small," Ortberg said.
From the moment the baby comes out of you and they clip the umbilical cord, it becomes a space between you and the baby, a space that gives your child the opportunity to become his or her own self, she added. And allowing your children to become who they are "requires on our part a very deep surrender."
"Do you trust God with what you love the most?" Ortberg asked the congregation.
"There is no promise of certainty in surrender; it may lead to difficult times. That's what surrender is. But there is always the realization that God is, and He is good," she said.