Monday, May 14, 2012

“Showing Up for Mother’s Day”
         I want to start out this sermon by sharing with you something that several of us read in a recent book discussion. It comes from the book, “A House for Hope.” In this particular section, the author is quoting feminist theologian Charlotte Perkins Gilman as she talks about the potential for reimaging God. What if women’s experience of birth-giving had been the source of religion instead of men’s experience of killing? She writes:

Birth based religion… would tell no story of old sins, of anguish and despair, of passionate pleading for forgiveness for the mischief we have made, but would offer always the sunrise and fresh hope: “Here is a new baby. Begin again!” To the mother comes the apprehension of God as something coming; she sees [God’s] work, the newborn child, as visibly unfinished and calling for continuous service… As the great Power would have been apprehended as the Life-giver, the Teacher, the Provider, the Protector – not the proud, angry jealous, vengeful deity men have imagined. She would have seen a God of Service, not a God of Battles.

         This book argues, and I agree, that whether or not you believe in God, the traditionally masculine concept of God has shaped much of our culture and our lives. The way we imagine our highest ideals, the words we use to name what is most important to us shapes our lives in profound ways.
         If you didn’t notice last week, I hope you will this week. The words of our closing song are slightly different from how we have sung it in the past. In “Let There Be Peace on Peace,” rather that singing, “With God as our father, brothers all are we,” we will sing, “With God our creator, we are family.” And instead of “Let me walk with my brother…” We will sing “Let us walk with each other in perfect hormony…” It’s a very minor change, but important way of looking at our underlying assumptions.

         Whether we believe in them or not, we have more than enough images of God as masculine in our lives. Western art is replete with these images. We have more than enough examples of what it means to have power over someone else. We learn on the news that power is military, it is money, it wears a uniform, it is authority. Power is coercive. But, today we pause to celebrate a different kind of power. Today as we celebrate Mothers Day, we celebrate the live giving and life sustaining power of nurturing. It’s a critically important day. Just one day for celebrating the necessity of nurturing.
         Because what we set our sights on matters. Whether it is the gender that we use to talk about God, or the roles in society that receive recognition and praise, what we set our sights on matters. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so beautifully puts it, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” Today we pause to celebrate not just the women who have raise children, but everyone, women and men, who have taken it upon themselves to nurture and support the world around them. And the opportunities for that are endless.

         You may have heard that a couple of weeks ago was the national day of prayer. I attended the Laguna Beach Interfaith Council’s prayer breakfast that morning. You should check it out next year. We had a delicious breakfast at Mission Hospital and the guest speakers were really captivating. The speaker that really stuck with me was talking about the volunteer work that she and her husband had done with lepers in India. It was absolutely amazing. She and her husband had spent a couple of years in a non-denominational leper colony, getting to know people there, raising money for their cause, even tending to their wounds.
         But it was what she said about the children in her faith tradition that really struck me. She said that she knew when they said their morning prayers, they asked for an opportunity to be of service in some way during that day. That is so powerful to me. I love the idea of asking for an opportunity to help others. In our wish list, in our prayer lives, in our bucket list, we have endless things we would like to learn and experience, and own. But the simple sentiment, to start the day with an intention to have the opportunity to help someone seems revolutionary to me.
         What would it do to our lives to begin each day with the intention to have the chance to offer service to another being. One opportunity, big or small every day. I think the difference could be truly revolutionary. I’m going to hold on to that one for a while and I’ll get back to you about it.
         After all, that is what celebrating Mother’s Day is about. Not necessarily celebrating your own mother, though that’s important to. We celebrate the people who set themselves up to help, in the best way they know how, every day.
         The minister and writer Robert Fulghum has a great essay called, “My Son is a Great Mother.” It is in part a celebration of the role that his son plays in parenting, and fulfilling all the roles that in generations past had been traditionally a mother’s duty. As Unitarian Universalists, that blending of gender roles is not really news to us. The women of our own congregation have pushed the envelope as psychotherapists, academics, mayors, attorneys, and a long list of other careers that weren’t women’s business. And similarly, the men in our congregation have stepped forward to be pretty amazing nurtures as school teachers, social workers, and parents.

         It’s pretty easy for us to understand that the phenomenon of nurturing isn’t confined to the lives of women, or mothers in particular. We all have the capacity to fill such a role when the time comes.  But as I was saying. Fulghum writes this great essay about his son’s parenting. It’s also about the dangers of giving advice to mothers about mothering, so he artfully gives some advice to his son, about mothering. He gives 10 tips.         

1. Children are not pets. 2. The life they actually live and the life you perceive them to be living is not the same. 3. Don’t take what your children do personally. 4. Don’t keep scorecards on them – a short memory is useful. 5. Dirt and mess are the breeding group for well-being. 6. Stay out of their rooms after puberty. 7. Stay out of their friendships and love-life unless invited in. 8. Don’t worry that they never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you. 9. Learn from them; they have much to teach you. 10. Love them long; let them go early.

         Then as a footnote, he adds what I have come to realize is the most important thing for any parent to hear. He writes “You will never really know what kind of parent you were or if you did it right or wrong. Never. And you will worry about this and them as long as you live.”

         I am not a parent. I may be someday, but the verdict is still out on that one. I am not a parent but I have been around enough to realize that parenting isn’t about always having the answer or doing the right thing. In fact, more often than we like to admit, good parenting is about responding when we don’t know the right thing to do.         
         You could read until your eyes fall out of your head and still, it is guaranteed that a moment will come that you are not prepared for. Sometimes there is no answer, no right thing to say or do. Sometimes you have to just show up and let your heart lead the way. Nurturing isn’t not as much about knowing what to do as it is being there to do it.
         Of course some knowledge and skill is helpful, maybe even necessary. My little niece is now two years old. But when she was a newborn it was fascinating to watch my own mother in action as a grandmother. I guess I had never seen her in full baby caring mode. It was seriously amazing. The bathing and changing diapers, achieving the perfect angle to give a bottle and burping in a few perfect pats. She was able to do all these things all while cooking dinner for the rest of us. It was like a finely-tuned machine I was incredibly humbled by.
         There is great skill to mothering and nurturing. But skill is not enough. 90% of success is showing up. I was having serious challenges figuring out how I wanted to describe Mother’s Day and to celebrate it with you this year until I was with my colleagues on Thursday morning. We were talking about serving our congregations and the importance of being present. And someone brought up the famous Woody Allen quote. It is a favorite amongst ministers. Woody Allen said “90 percent of success is showing up.”  “90 percent of success is showing up.”
         And 90% of nurturing is showing up. Nurturing or being a great parent isn’t about having all the answers. Thank God because that is impossible. Being a parent or nurturing another person in need is about showing up, even when you don’t have the answer. I’m not a parent myself. But I know this is part and parcel of the experience of caring for children or loving anyone. Not knowing what to do, but being there anyway, being there and letting your heart lead the way.  

         The truth is, Mother’s Day is a complicated holiday. Not all of us have perfect relationships with our mothers. Not all mothers have glowing experiences of their children. For some of us even the word “Mother” gets tied up in some complicated questions. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Hallmark Mother’s Day misses the mark. It can’t possibly describe the nuances of real human relationships. It misses the mark and quite frankly it’s not helpful.
         The mythical perfect mother is dangerous. Mythical perfect anything or anyone is dangerous. Because it’s a myth. Perfect is simply not what we are. We are real flesh and blood with real human relationships, real complicated messy human relationships that don’t come with an instruction manual.
         From time to time I hear my non-churched friends, or even people in this community talking about Christians in a way that really misses the point. They criticize Christians for not always living up to the values that Jesus espoused. Well, if they were all walking on water, then they wouldn’t need a church would they. Claiming to follow a teaching isn’t claiming to know all that teacher knows. Claiming to follow a religious path isn’t claiming that you have already completed the journey. Perhaps we can use the abundant images of perfect mothers that seem to appear this time of year not as measuring rods, but as reminders, as goals, as a myth to which we might aspire.
         Who wouldn’t like their life to be so lovely and peaceful that it gets encapsulated in a haiku embossed on pink paper? It sounds lovely. It’s something we can aspire to. But any parent in this room can tell you that really caring is more complicated. The time will come when knowing the answer is not enough, because there is no answer that is enough. The only thing that is in fact enough is for you to show up. 90% of nurturing is showing up, being there reliably when you are needed, not with and answer, not with a skill, but simply with your heart.

         Before we leave here I want to do something a little unorthodox. I want you to think of a person, and a particular moment when someone has nurtured you in that way. When has someone stood by you, not with the perfect answer, but just to be there with you in the midst of a challenge. Maybe it was a parent, maybe a friend, maybe someone in this room. Think of a person and a time that someone showed up in your life to nurture you, and tell the person next to you about it.

         Thank you for sharing those memories with one another. The actual stories of caring that have touched your lives are far more powerful than any speculation on the topic that I can offer from up here. Thanks for sharing your stories and thank you for helping us to celebrate Mother’s Day. As we leave this place and return to our homes and brunches, phone calls and memories, may the celebration of Mother’s Day continue. Go home and thank your mother, either in person or in memorial. Thank those who have mothered you in one way or another by having the guts to show up. And thank yourselves for the gifts of compassion that you have undoubtedly given to someone you care for in your life.


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