Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Midrash for Mother's Day


Today is the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the next to last Sunday of the Easter season, the Great Fifty Days. Thursday upcoming is Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, when we remember how Christ, after “showing himself alive to his disciples by many proofs,” led them out to the Mount of Olives and, after giving them some last instructions, “was taken up into heaven.” You remember. His disciples stood there, looking up, till an angel fussed at them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come the same way as you saw him go…”

Since most Christians do not, won’t come back to church on Thursday to read those Ascension scriptures and mark that Ascension day, some preachers, today, will preach those texts, will acknowledge that Christ is indeed exalted, ascended, at the right hand of the Father in heaven, but they will also perhaps bark at their people the way the angels barked: we cannot long stand looking up into heaven; we must look down and around us, see here on earth the work we have to do, the gospel we have to preach, the disciples we have to make till Jesus comes again, however it is and whenever it is that he does come back.


Today is also Mother’s Day—as it is the second Sunday in May every year.

A daughter of Methodism, Anna Jarvis, started this tradition in 1907 at the small Methodist Episcopal Church she attended in Grafton, WV. She wanted to memorialize her mother, who had died two years before on May 9, 1905—May 9 being the Tuesday after the second Sunday in May that year.

Already there was a tradition in England called Mothering Sunday, celebrated in the middle of Lent—when churches called to all children to come home during that season and honor their mothers.

And in 1872, soon after the Civil War, a Boston woman named Julia Ward Howe began the Mothers’ Day for Peace, a national day of prayer if you will, when mothers were summoned to pray, for the sake of their sons, especially, for peace at home and abroad.

But what Anna Jarvis did was different, and by 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church itself had officially adopted the day as a tribute to all mothers. Leaders of the church began to call for a national observance, and President Woodrow Wilson answered their call by proclaiming May 9, 1914—the ninth anniversary of the elder Ms. Jarvis’ death—as the first nationally recognized Mother’s Day.

And so, today, all over the nation, as has been the case for not quite a hundred years now, sons and daughters, grandchildren and others, will take time to look down—away from the scoreboards or TV screens—to look back or look around, to acknowledge, to remember or see, to pay compliment or tribute to the women who gave us birth, who also gave of themselves, many of them, selflessly and lovingly.

“Every good and perfect gift comes from God,” the brother of our Lord writes, and if for many mothers a child is the surest proof of that scripture, for some children it is the other way round: their mothers who are the proof. “God could not be everywhere so he gave us mothers”—Jo cross-stitched that for her own saintly and sainted mother years ago, and for some children, indeed, the love of a mother is the surest sign, the abiding presence, the almost incarnated reality of God’s love.

When these blessed mothers’ blessed children read the famous text in I Corinthians 13—“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not jealous or self-absorbed or abusive. Love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice when things go wrong—if only to say I told you so—but rejoices always in the good things, the truth”; when they read, “Loves bears every burden and never piles on another ounce. Love believes, even when all the evidence seems stacked the other way. Loves hopes. Loves endures. Love never ends—does not, even when by any other standard but God’s it might should”—they read those verses and remember, they hear those texts and they see the face of their own mother.

And so today, here, there are some of us who are so thankful, so appreciative and happy to be able to do a little something for their mothers by way of small tokens—cards, flowers, candy, dinner. At our house tonight (don’t tell Jo I told you!) we are going to cook out and play cards. It was the kids’ idea, and it may not sound like much to you, but ask Jo. She will tell you. That is her favorite thing for us to do—all of us there in the family circle, face to face, smiling and laughing and each one doing their best to beat the living tar out of the others.

For some children, today is the best day of all, truly celebrating the women who gave us life.


It is not so for everyone, however. For some, in fact, today is the worst—maybe because they lost their own mother too early. Maybe because they have no children of their own to celebrate them, to buy them dinner or send a card or candy.

Or maybe because their experience of their own mother is so radically different from the ones I have described. Perhaps because their mother one way or the other was like the ones we mentioned in our prayers: unable to be a source of strength to their children or anyone else much either; unresponsive to their children’s needs, which made the children all the more afraid to ask; not sustaining their families in any way. They were nothing at all like the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31. Their love, if you could even call it that, was not patient or kind; they were selfish and abusive; they believed in nothing and in their children least of all. They hoped less than they believed. Their devotion ended almost before it started. They may have been mothers, but only biologically.

Every Mother’s Day I think of the young woman who came to my office, long ago now, to tell me that she dreaded this day most of all days, because for her it was all of it a lie: an empty ritual: sending a card (“To the best Mom in all the world!”) buying flowers, bluffing her way through conversation about the good old days when there was nothing good about those days, or about any of the days since. “There are no cards at the Hallmark store,” she said, “that say what I really want to say, something like, ‘Thanks for the emotional baggage to carry the rest of my life, the great weight of guilt and the feeling I could never quite measure up to what you expected of me, for never knowing, really, what you expected of me. For making me feel like I was the cause of all your problems and grief…’”

“Know where I can find a card like that?” she asked rather sarcastically.

I shook my head.

“Then what am I supposed to do?” She asked. “Besides therapy?”

“Why don’t you start your own company,” I said, “making cards that say what you think they really ought to say. But get a lawyer,” I said. “Print a disclaimer on each one. Tell people to buy them and sign them but for the love of God don’t send them.”

When the laughter died she said, “No, really. What am I supposed to do?”

“Keep at your therapy,” I said. And then I said this: “For the love of God, keep saying what ought to be true. Keep thinking of love in the ways it ought to be given and received. Keep giving it that way, if you can, even if you have not received it that way, if you can.

“Make love your aim,” I said. “Make love your aim.”


When we read I Corinthians 13, we often stop right there at the end of the chapter: “Now faith, hope, love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love.” How well we know those verses. The verse we do not know so well is the next verse, the first verse of I Corinthians 14, where Paul says to all of us just what I said to that young woman in my office, quoting him—it was not original with me—“Make love your aim.”

One of the things I love most about the Bible is how realistic and true to life it is. It is not overly sentimental; it is not hard-hearted, either. When Paul says, “Make love your aim,” I think he is acknowledging that we any of us do not always, some of us do not often experience love—maybe do not often either give or receive love—in all those wonderful ways he has just described. We are not always patient and kind. We do sometimes, and some of us all the time, insist on our own way. We are sometimes very jealous and very selfish. We put up with very little and give up far too easily.

Love as we experience it is rarely how Paul described it. Love as we receive it, as we give it likewise. That is the truth beyond a Hallmark card’s ability to tell it.

And so what do we do with that? Throw up our hands, shut down our hearts, close ourselves off from one another? Repeat the cycle?

Or do we keep aiming? Keep trying? Keep at it?


Today is Mother’s Day, when we look around us and see…many things. And for those of us who rejoice this day, give thanks this day, who think this is the best day of the year: make your mother’s love your aim. Look down, look around, see the work that needs doing, the people that need loving. Remember and acknowledge the way your mother loved you and take aim to be like her: patient, kind, selfless, trusting. Do the same work for others you have seen her do for you. Give love the way you have received it. Make her love your aim.
But for those of you for whom this day is hard, I remind you again of the Ascension, and in spite of the angel’s advice I encourage you to look up: to remember that what Paul describes in I Corinthians, really, is the love of God. Make his love your aim.

Remember, acknowledge the way God has loved you—how patiently, how kindly, how gently. Remember the way Jesus has given himself to you—how selflessly, not insisting on his own way even at the end—pouring himself out in forgiveness and love. Remember how the Spirit has stayed with you every day of your life.

Remember how God’s love for you has never ended and never will—God has never stopped loving you even when, really, he had every right to. If you look around you today or any day and see…well, nothing of the kind of love Paul is describing, keep looking up, to the One who loves as love ought to be and whose Spirit will help you to make love your aim, to love, really love, even those who for whatever reason cannot love you the same.
Make God’s love your aim. Patient. Kind. Selfless. Forgiving. This day and every day.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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