Download the program: Service Program, 5-09-10
© Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
The Gathering is nothing if not a wonderfully unique and different church. Indeed, our friends within our parent denomination, the UCC, marvel at how we march to the beat of a different drummer. Our diversity and our willingness to claim our own distinctive identity keeps us vital and strong. We might say we are Christian but non-Christian and traditional but non-traditional. And we are a church that is not a church. We cannot be easily explained and I think we like it that way.
And so today, on a day that is traditionally celebrated in churches and homes all around the world as Mother’s Day, we too will think about it and honor it in our own way. I hope that we can redefine and understand this day in a way that transcends the cultural norms of tradition. It is certainly not my intention to have this time today be yet another episode in what some call the “mommy wars”. For many people, this is a day we honor women who are mothers but, in doing so, we neglect the many women who are not mothers and the many people who have no desire to celebrate their own mother or even the concept of motherhood. One famous man, the actor Jack Nicholson, even said in that regard that “my mother never saw the irony in calling me a son-of-a-“blank” – the word rhymes with “witch”. Those who have been deeply hurt by their moms and those women who are not mothers feel somehow guilty or put upon in celebrating this day. And, on any other day of the year, the mommy wars are engaged from the other side. Moms are often conflicted and torn because our contemporary culture tells them that in order to be a complete woman worthy of respect, she must be or have been engaged in a productive and paying career. These moms are then guilt ridden because they either choose to stay home and tend a family – and thus see themselves as non-productive members of society – or else they try and do it all. They work outside and inside the home and feel guilty for shortchanging both their career and their home life. Neither gets their full attention.
This mommy war has casualties on both sides and this day, of all days, seems to only increase the tension and the guilt. Women who are not mothers understandably feel left out and those women who are moms still feel like they are less than whole. This clash of thinking, this war of stereotypes, this perfect storm of a situation where no woman feels perfectly comfortable, could only have been created and furthered by………men!
And, lest I instigate a riot here from all of the men in the room, this same problem also touches and affects them. We too are caught in the mommy wars for as much as some men endeavor to pick up the slack and be equal partners in the role of parenting and homemaking or even be the sole nurturer in a home, our culture often looks down upon and does not value men who act and serve in traditionally maternal ways. A real man should not nurture nor be sensitive nor stay at home and raise kids.
We have a situation where too many people feel wounded and misunderstood – all because of confusing standards set by our culture. So, now that I have thoroughly made everyone feel either upset or depressed, “Happy Mother’s Day Everybody!”
If I am even slightly successful by the end of this message, though, I hope that such a phrase will not seem so ironic to many of you. I propose a new vision for mothers and women and a new way of looking at and celebrating Mother’s Day. And, forgive me, for I am just a man who is not trying to tell women how to think but hopefully encouraging everyone to consider this topic from a different perspective.
In the Biblical book of Proverbs, there is a well-known passage that discusses the role of a mother and a wife. Far from being a celebration of a traditional woman who cooks and cleans and serves the whims and needs of her husband and children, the passage praises attributes that are normally considered masculine. While the role of women at that time – in that excessively patriarchal culture – was to solely work within the home, this Biblical writer envisioned women who would transcend their subservient and second class status. The passage, Proverbs 31, states in part, “Who can find a capable woman? She is more precious than rubies. She is like a merchant’s ship, bringing her food from afar. She goes to inspect a field and buys it; with her earnings she plants a vineyard. She is energetic and strong, a hard worker. She makes sure her dealings are profitable; her lamp burns late into the night. She extends a helping hand to the poor and opens her arms to the needy. She has no fear of winter for her household, for everyone has warm clothes. She makes belted linen garments and sashes to sell to the merchants. She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. When she speaks, her words are wise, and she gives instructions with kindness. She carefully watches everything in her household. Her children stand and bless her. Her husband praises her. There are many virtuous and capable women in the world…”
A number of historians claim that the first major currents of feminism emerged from early Christianity and, indeed, from Jesus himself. We cannot read the gospels without noting the strong and important role that women played in the life of Jesus. Mary, his mother, is granted almost co-equal status in terms of being uniquely chosen by God to serve humanity. Many of his followers were women and it is clear that he both appreciated their value and how they were mistreated by men and a patriarchal culture. Prostitutes were not sinners but victims of men. The woman caught in adultery was contrasted against the angry mob of male hypocrites who wanted to stone her. And, it is frequently noted that women were the only followers who stayed with Jesus when he died – unlike the cowardly men who had run away or denied knowing him. Women were then the first ones, in the Bible stories, who discovered the empty tomb and testified to his resurrection. In Paul’s life, the person who was most responsible for the spread of early Christianity, women also played major roles. Women like Lydia, Phoebe and Priscilla were leaders in the early church and even served as some of the first Christian teachers. Indeed, it was Paul who wrote that in the Christian religion there are neither males nor females – only human beings.
It was during the many hundreds of later years that the life of Jesus was rewritten and women were once again relegated to the roles of biological mother, maid and second class citizen. Most world religious institutions allowed women to serve in only servant roles if they were even allowed to serve at all. When we read passages like the one I read earlier from Proverbs and when we examine the gospels for how Jesus related with women, we see, however, a full celebration of women as complete people. They were valued and employed within the full context of human abilities and not just in stereotypical feminine roles. My appeal is that we recapture the essence of how I believe Jesus and many early Bible writers saw all women – as capable, confident and actualized individuals.
Anne Roiphe, a feminist psychologist and author of the book Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World asserts that our thinking must move away from traditional views of women as either weak and servile mothers or as feminist warriors competing with men. She appeals for what we might call humanist feminism in which the choices and decisions of ALL women are celebrated and appreciated. No woman, she claims, should be judged or devalued for her own personal choices in life. She asks why women who are mothers and choose to work in the home cannot be advocates for their sisters who choose to pursue careers and not have children. She also asks why career women cannot equally promote and honor women who stay at home? The implicit question she poses is why do we as a culture and society dishonor the choice of any person in determining who they are and how she or he can best serve the world? Our goal must be to encourage the power and ability of all persons to be fully enriched and fully engaged. This is not a feminist or male chauvinist perspective. It is humanist and all encompassing.
Amy Richards, the author of a book entitled Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself, argues that our society must promote the idea of feminist mothers – those women who seemingly choose to follow a traditional path of motherhood and work in the home – but who are nevertheless strong, intelligent and capable in their own right. Indeed, she says that by only encouraging women to aspire to careers and so-called masculine characteristics of independence and power, we are devaluing the so-called feminine characteristics like nurture and compassion. That attitude diminishes women who freely choose a mother’s path in life and it makes it more difficult for men to also participate in home life and child rearing. We must equally value and celebrate nurture AND strength. Neither should be seen as feminine and weak or as masculine and powerful.
A famous quote by William Wallace says that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”. And that is a point we should keep in mind. We need mothers and fathers who will raise their children without the cultural biases of the past – that girls must wear pink and play with dolls or that boys must not cry or show vulnerability. How many women who are achieving and working at the heights of corporations or government or academia owe their confidence and their abilities to a mom or dad who raised them to be all that they can become?
On another level, we should honor not only our current President, no matter our political views of him, but also the two women who raised him – his mother and his grandmother. They did so in the absence of his dad. What abilities, strengths and ideals did they place in him that now help to influence our own lives and those of the world? We can see their invisible hands touching us…
This argument in behalf of women who choose to be mothers does not negate an argument in behalf of women who are not mothers or who choose other pathways in life. My appeal is to elevate as a hero the one who is not forced into any role but who can by strength, ability and confidence choose what is right for her or him in life. To once again quote from the Bible and the apostle Paul, there should neither be male nor female in our perspectives on roles, abilities and sexualities. There are only people who each yearn to be self-actualized and self-fulfilled. We praise, this Mother’s Day, all women regardless of what they do or have done in life. Indeed, we must not even diminish the roles of our own mothers or grandmothers who lived and worked within a more traditional culture. They are and were, for the most part, women who acted in ways like the Proverbs 31 woman – with intelligence, compassion, hard work, confidence and shrewd business instincts. I think of my own mom who has labored for years under the impression that as a mother and housewife she has not contributed to the world or to life in general. For her friends, for those she serves at hospice, for her own children and grandchildren, she is a person of grace, goodwill and great ability. She has helped shape who I am and thus whatever I contribute to what we do here at the Gathering.
My proposal this morning is to reorient our thinking. Some of us might still cling to the warm and fuzzy appeal of a traditional Mother’s Day. Others of us might cringe at that notion. To those hurt by their own mothers – past or present, we all extend our love and understanding to you. My humble and gentle appeal is that those women, too, be extended as much grace and forgiveness as we seek for ourselves.
Is there, then, another way to celebrate this day? Is there another way to remember and celebrate the very ideals of this congregation and church – to honor the free expression of all people in choosing their own way to live? I look out and see devoted moms who dedicated decades to teaching, guiding and enlightening their children and families to be engaged and compassionate human beings. I see women who fight for social justice and counsel others to seek growth and inner peace. I see women who are business leaders, teachers and persons who influence the world for the better. I also see men who have partnered equally in the raising of families, or who worked in their support or who engaged the world in ways to make it better. In the same manner that I hope we can teach our girls to feel value and confidence in whatever they choose in life, to be a rocket scientist or a caring mom, I hope we will also enable our boys to be a football quarterback, a lawyer or a stay at home dad who cooks and changes diapers. There is heroism in each and every endeavor. There is humanity and dignity in each. We do not necessarily celebrate Mother’s Day today. All of the flowers and pictures and warm feelings are not exclusively for them. They are for women, for strong and capable people, for heroes who work and seek and envision a world at peace for all humanity and all creation.