“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted in Jerusalem“.
My mother was called to ministry when my father passed away. Suddenly I had new things in common with her. When I told her that I was going to attend a theology conference in St. Andrews, Scotland, she answered, “Great. I love Scotland. I’d love to go, too.” So we traveled there together. At the opening lecture my mother raised her hand and identified who we were. Each morning for the next week the professor began the lecture with, “Now, where is that little boy with his mother?” Finally I went to him and asked him not to point us out, and he answered, “Why would you be ashamed of your mother? She loves you.”
On mother’s day we realize that honoring our mothers is a wonderfully complex task. After all, mothers are the only ones who can make us feel that we are special and that we aren’t living up to our potential at the same time. But they deserve all the honor we can bestow. Theologian Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty said, “The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral – a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body. The angels have not been blessed with such a grace. They cannot share in God’s creative miracle to bring new saints to heaven. Only a human mother can. Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature; God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation….What on God’s good earth is more glorious than this: to be a mother?”
President Theodore Roosevelt’s quote about mothers is just as strong: “The good mother, the wise mother, is more important to the community than even the ablest person; her career is more worthy of honor and is more useful to the community than the career of any other person, no matter how successful.”
Being a mother is within the important job of parenting. There is no vocation higher than parent. The vows we take as a congregation during a baptism remind us that an entire community of faith participates in raising a child. People who are empty nesters or single are not devalued on mother’s day. They have a parenting task as well. Maybe you grew up in a small town, like I did. I grew up in Livingston, Alabama, where my brother, sister, and I knew that many people were keeping their eyes on us, reporting things back to our mother and father. They knew things that we didn’t even remember we did. This church sees one of its main roles as nurturing the children we have been given.
Today I am focusing upon your biological mother, or the woman who raised you to be the person you are today. That person has had a lot of attention from psychologists for many years. Any problems in your life could immediately be traced back to your relationship with your mother. Heinz Kohut linked narcissism to parents’ issues. Most of Freud’s theories originated in ideas regarding motherhood. Carl Jung thought we spent our lives seeking an archetypal mother to fulfill a primal need to be mothered. Mothers have a unique biological connection. Some Jewish mystics, such as Martin Buber, argued that the relationship between the fetus and the womb are analogous to the spiritual relationship of humanity to God. No one will deny that a relationship unlike any other exists during pregnancy, so it is understandable that following birth a complex drama begins. As a mother continues to create a healthy, emotionally stable human being, that child begins to define itself. As the love and affection build and mold the body and spirit of a child, the development promotes and encourages greater independence. This leads to a paradox of holding the child close versus letting the child go. The battle begins as the child and mother must decide what to eat and drink, what clothes to wear, how to act, who to associate with, what to do. Mothers have to make rules that inevitably collide with the child’s individuality. Mothers have to teach the hard lessons. And that is tough love.
I am so grateful for the mothering of my wife Christine. She teaches our children every day. I can almost hear her sweet voice right now teaching them about prayer: “You better pray that comes out of the carpet.” She teaches them about imagination: “Don’t do that again, or else!” She teaches them to anticipate: “Just wait until your father gets home.” And about genetics: “You’re just like your father.” She teaches them about self-control when they go into a store: “Don’t touch anything…” and then she often combines self-control with imagination: “or else….” She teaches them about contradictions: “Close your mouth and eat your dinner!”
It’s tough love that children need, and children can give mothers their highest highs, but also their lowest lows. In the end, hopefully adults look back and realize the necessity for tough love. A mother hopes for the day that her child looks back and recognizes the sacrifices that were made. Then the adult truly appreciates the mother’s love. When Jesus was on the cross, at the depth of his suffering, he looked down and told one of his disciples to care for his mother. Jesus teaches compassion for our mothers. We are amazed at how he considered his mother with such love, appreciation, and respect. Even in that great despair, his mother must have felt somewhat proud of that. It teaches us how faith can be passed down and kept in reserve during the toughest challenges of life.
In 2 Timothy, Paul writes to his friend Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and now I am sure, lives in you.” Paul writes of a house where values, faith, and stability were taught and passed down to Timothy. Paul doesn’t say
that he had a perfect mother, or that she had mastered discipline. He does say that he saw the faith in Timothy. That is what a mother tries to do- make the stability, the goodness, the heart of the child, shine for all, especially the child, to recognize. A mother has to be so patient to wait for that light to shine sometimes, because there are no guarantees when it comes to parenting. We know children who go their own way and do not follow in the footsteps of their wonderful, loving, caring, faithful parents and grandparents. Since we can’t control our children and we wouldn’t want to, we must trust that each child will turn out all right when we get to the point of doing all that can be done. God has equipped mothers for this job. With classic irony, mothers have a deep sense of empowering a child to find out exactly who they are, and yet the task of pursuing that identity leads a child into its own. It is tough love all the way. Maybe you have read these words of tough love from Erma Bombeck’s If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?:
“You don’t love me!” How many times have your kids laid that one on you? And how many times have you, as a parent, resisted the urge to tell them how much? Someday when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother I’ll tell them. I loved you enough to bug you about where you were going, with whom, and what time you would get home. I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your hand-picked friend was a creep. I loved you enough to make you return a Milky Way with a bite out of it to a drugstore and confess, “I stole this.” I loved you enough to stand over you for two hours while you cleaned your bedroom, a job that would have taken me fifteen minutes. I loved you enough not to make excuses for your lack of respect or your bad manners. I loved you enough to admit that I was wrong and ask your forgiveness. I loved you enough to ignore “what every other mother” did or said. I loved you enough to let you stumble, fall, hurt, and fail. I loved you enough to accept you for what you are, not what I wanted you to be. But most of all, I loved you enough to say no when you hated me for it. That was the hardest part of all.
On the other side of that tough love is how the child feels. Maybe you have heard this essay from that perspective:
“Was your Mom mean? I know mine was. We had the meanest mother in the whole world! While other kids had candy for breakfast, I had to eat my cereal, eggs and toast…As you can guess my supper was different from other kids’ supper too. My mother was so mean that she insisted on knowing where we were at all times. You’d think we were in a prison or something. She had to
know who our friends were and what we were doing. I am ashamed to admit this, but my Mother actually had the nerve to break the child labor laws. She made us work. We had to wash dishes, make the beds and learn how to cook and clean. I think my mother must have stayed awake at night thinking of things for us kids to do. And she insisted that we tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. She never let me get away with anything. By the time we were teenagers my mother was even wiser and our life became even more unbearable. She would embarrass us by insisting that our friends come to the door instead of tooting the car horn for us to come running. And she always insisted that we be home early on school nights and never let us stay out late on weekends like all our other friends. We missed so much fun. Mother was so mean that she refused to let us date at the mature age of 13 or 14, like so many of our friends did. Instead we had to wait until we were 16. She kept telling us that there was a lot of time – and that we needed to grow up a bit first. Because of our mother we missed out on lots of things other kids experienced. Mother really raised a bunch of squares. None of us have ever been caught shoplifting, busted for dope, vandalizing other’s property or ever arrested for any crime. It was all her fault.” Oh, maybe she was not so mean after all.
Children may interpret discipline as being mean, but a mother can withstand that pressure because it is more important to shape a child’s character than it is to be liked. Have you heard that you cannot be a parent and a friend at the same time? I think that you can be, as long as being a parent comes first, and that means following through on rules and making boundaries. That helps kids know that they are cared for. It gives a sense of security and stability. Deep down children are grateful that rules were set in the first place. Rules teach discipline, self-control, and respect for authority.
Are American children more rebellious than other cultures? Maybe so. Leonard Sweet discusses a cross cultural study about mothers that contrasted Turkey and Greece with America and Great Britain, the East and the West. The study asked for a completion to the sentence, “I love my mother, but…” In the West, answers included, “I love my mother, but she isn’t a good cook.” And “but mother’s love is smother love.” And “…but she is too controlling.” What a contrast with the East, whose answers included, “I love my mother, but
…I will never be able to show her how much.
…I can never repay her for what she has done for me.
…I owe her so much, she has sacrificed so much for me.
…She has worked so hard for her family.”
The Western culture’s negative completion is in such contrast to the uplifting, appreciative remarks from the East. There are many theories, but I believe that in the west, especially in America, we are taught to be entrepreneur-minded with rugged independence so much that our emotion of love for our mothers feels
weak because we feel dependent. So we distance ourselves from it. Remember when I shrank down in my chair in Scotland at the conference with my mother? After the professor challenged me, instead of taking her for granted, I realized she, in many ways, was the reason I was there, and proudly introduced her as my mother for the rest of the conference. So if your mother is still around, let her know that you love her and that you really care, and if she has passed, thank God for motherhood. Let us conclude with this poem by Floyd Wood:
Blowers of noses and washers of ears, Smoothers of bumped spots and wipers of tears,
Bathers of babies and umpires of spats, Finders of boots and mittens and hats,
Helpers with lessons and makers of beds, Shakers of dust cloths and combers of heads,
Button-sew-oners and winders of clocks, Menders of dresses and darners of socks.
Tellers of stories and readers of books, Judges and juries of conduct and looks,
Doctors of heartaches and hearers of prayers, Generals directing all family affairs,
Tenders of home fires with hearts open…”
Builders of women and men. Happy Mother’s day. Amen.