I have never been retiring
Fearful before courage comes
But never retiring
Even in that brief year
When I was technically retired.
The prophet Jeremiah
Spent much of his life
At the bottom of a well
I have been much luckier.
Silence does not equal
An old house knows
What time can do
And how to survive
The storms, the rain, the wind
The roof is patched
Termites have nibbled where they would
Ah, but in basement
Memories are stored
Wisdom is in the attic
And courage waits
Behind a closet door
The banshees scream
In rage and despair
Talons ready to rend
Wings open in the night
Turning dreams to fear
Love the banshees
It is not their fault
But keep your distance
There are other hills
A quick flash in the sky
A shooting star, a dream
Blink and it is gone
The vision carried away
Somewhere else, beyond
Meteors hit the earth
Carving a place
So our dreams can
When they land
When we take them home
Ministers can refuse to be martyrs. They can refuse to sacrifice themselves on behalf of people or institutions who either ignore them or who toss their help rather rudely back into their faces.
I am not talking about social justice work. There, although the odds of success may be low, the effort has its own rewards. Without many peoples’ efforts, the arc of the universe will never roll the way we all need it to go. It is an arc, not a wheel, and it often needs a push to bend it toward justice.
Throughout the centuries, many people of faith have been martyrs. They have put their bodies and their lives on the line for what they believed. From Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake by John Calvin in 1553 to the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Luizzo who were murdered in Selma, Alabama in 1965 , more than a few Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have given their lives and their livelihoods for this faith. Today, Unitarian Universalists have stood and marched for justice wherever human dignity has been at stake, risking beatings, arrest, prison, deportation, and also death.
I am not talking about that kind of martyrdom. That kind of martyrdom makes a difference. It is a risk well worth taking if you have the courage.
No, I am talking about the more mundane martyrdom of sticking too long with congregations that use ministers as punching bags, launching personal attacks with regularity. There are reasons congregations get that way, and it isn’t because the people are inherently evil. They often have a lived history of boundary violations, sometimes committed by religious professionals. They haven’t learned how to set their own healthy boundaries, and rarely limit the destructive activities of church bullies. They fear authority of all kinds and don’t really understand congregational polity and representative democracy. It is a sad system, and like in all forms of healing, they have to understand that they have a problem before they can even begin to heal.
All congregations are not like that, of course. All groups of people have issues, and all behave badly at times, but the truly problematic congregations have long established behavior patterns and are well known for being difficult. Thankfully they also are relatively rare.
Ministers go to such congregations for a variety of reasons. Some are fresh out of seminary, geographically limited, and desperate for a job. Many a promising career in ministry has been cut short for the new ministers that make that unwise choice. Many ministers also think they can do what no one else has been able to do. That is simply hubris, and even strong egos will wind up taking a beating as old patterns simply continue to play out.
Ministers also stay too long in those congregations because they see some improvement. They think things will get better, and in fact, sometimes they do, but how much better is really good enough? They also get attached to the people, ministry is about love after all, and their heartstrings wrap firmly around the tender souls of the majority of the membership. “How can I leave these people?”
But in the end, the other question must be asked, as Mary Oliver did, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
There are other places to serve, other people to love, other ministries to do, and other places where it will be easier to make an actual difference. As Kenny Rodgers sang, “You got to know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.”
There comes a time when even ministers need to walk away.
And not that we need scriptural permission, but even the Bible advises us to do so.
“Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.”
The grass is not always greener
On the other side of right now
Plants and people
Under an unforgiving sun
Starved for water
The difference is only
Who is aware
Who is not in denial
Who has the courage to cry
The tears that might
Spill into the rivers
Flowing and quenching
The soul’s deepest thirst.
And one betrayal
Is all it takes
They’ve put you on a cross.
Don’t forsake yourself
Resurrection calls you
Climb down and answer
The wind blows
But the rains do not come
The heart aches
But the tears do not fall
There is a season
Beyond all reason
Plant a seed
Wait for the rain.
“Speaking words of wisdom, Let it be.”
Paul McCartney wrote that song for his Mom who died of breast cancer when he was a young teenager. He also wrote it during the breakup of the Beatles. I have been singing it in my head all week.
It is a good song for a time of transition and for Mother’s day
And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be
Bobbie McFerrin wrote our prelude, also for his mom.
Both songs have religious messages, but they are also about very human women.
Mothers Day sermons can be tricky. It is a complicated one for ministers because people’s emotions tend to be all over the map on this holiday. How can we make this time sweet but not overly saccharine? How can we honor the mothers among us and still be respectful of those who may be carrying deep scars that this holiday can rip open?
Our reading this morning addressed some of those issues, but not all of them.
When it first began, Mother’s day was much simpler and perhaps even more controversial. Julia Howe wrote her Mother’s Day Proclamation, which we read earlier, in 1870 as part of a “Mother’s Day for Peace.” Howe was an abolitionist, a feminist, and a Unitarian. She also wrote the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Howe’s Mother’s Day for Peace was the beginning of what has evolved into our current Mother’s Day. I don’t think she would recognize it, however. It has really changed.
Mother’s Day is complicated because being a mother, or a parent of any gender, is complicated. Most mothers, myself included, love their children deeply and want to do their very best for them. They want to be the absolutely perfect Mom or Dad and to be acknowledged as such by their child or children. Parenting is hard work, and it is nice to get a thank you at least once a year.
Poetry and flowers, candy and breakfast in bed, all of that can be fun and good.
But does anyone really measure up to all of that perfection, to the ideal that is the cultural sentiment on this day? Sweet mothers, saintly mothers, always-patient mothers, anyone really like that here? Anyone have a mother like that?
Even if you don’t count the really terrible mothers, and there are too many of those in this world, most of us just do the best we can. It may be good enough; it may be just fine.
We may be sweet in general, but we are not really made of the saccharine sappy stuff we read on greeting cards.
Sometimes the images expressed around Mother’s Day remind me of that old nursery rhyme I heard rather a lot growing up.
It goes something like this:
What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of
That’s pretty sexist isn’t it? Little girls are made of much more than sugar and spice and so are adult women. We all have a few puppy dog tails in us too.
Most of you have heard that some of the girls who were kidnapped from their schools by terrorists in Nigeria have now been freed. They were held for almost an entire year before they were rescued. It wasn’t an accident that the girls were taken from a school. The group, a religiously fundamentalist one, believes that educating girls is sinful.
They think women should just get married and have children and that motherhood is not only the highest calling for women, but the only calling that is even acceptable. This particular group happens to also be Muslim, but there are many Christian denominations that do not believe in giving girls and women equality with men. It is all just a matter of degree.
So Mother’s Day is making me a little more thoughtful this year as I think of those girls, the very brightest from their villages, who were held captive and others who were sold as child brides.
Being a mother is special, but it should not be sum total of any woman’s life or sense of self worth. It is often said that a mother would die for her children, and that is true in my experience for most of us. The love can be that deep. It does not mean, however, even if you would leap in front of a speeding car to save your child, that your own life has no meaning beyond your role as a mother.
Those of you in this room know that, it is the kind of life you lead and have led. Even if you never worked outside of your home, you have a sense of who you are that is separate from your children.
So can we say that motherhood is great, that it is a calling, but it is not one that all women must choose in order to be seen as having a worthwhile life? I think we can say that.
Another nursery rhyme:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
What do you think about that one? Does it give you a good Mother’s Day feeling?
There is some reality there. If you have a lot of children, sometimes you don’t know what to do. I only had three and really can’t imagine having 5 or 8.
It is hard to take care of children, to have the resources to feed and clothe them. So the old women fed them broth and no bread.
I am not very fond of the line about whipping them and sending them to bed. I frankly don’t think physical punishment works well for children. There are better methods of discipline. I do understand the urge to spank a child, however.
A story from my own life:
As I said, I have three children. Two of them were very easy and cooperative when they were young. (I am not going to talk about what they were like as teenagers). One son, however, was difficult. His twin sister had a bald spot when they were about two, because he kept pulling her hair. We tried time outs. We tried taking away things.
We always put him in the front of the stroller so he couldn’t reach his sister’s hair.
He also hit his older brother, who never hit him back. Once, while traveling he ran over, for no reason that we could figure out, and slugged his 8 year-old brother hard in the face. He was about 4 years old.
I lost it. I grabbed him and spanked him. He was enraged and would not say why he had done what he had done.
Did the spanking work? No, not really, although I do think it made his siblings feel like I would protect them.
What actually worked happened a couple of years later. Maybe it was partly just growing up. He was in the first grade and he really wanted a file cabinet. He grew up to be a CPA so it makes some sense now, although we thought it a bit odd then.
We made a deal with him. If he could go for a full 30 days without hitting his sister or brother, we would buy him a filing cabinet. He went a few days, and then he hit one of them. Uh oh, he then had another 30 days to wait.
He got his file cabinet eventually and in the process learned that hitting should never be the first reaction.
I tell that story, because our kids had two mothers, and both of us did the best we could, but in reality we were just muddling through.
I spanked him that time because nothing else seemed to work. That didn’t work either. It wasn’t a good thing to do, but I learned from it. You just have to keep on keeping on with the parenting thing, doing the best you can. Don’t feel too bad if you make mistakes. It is also OK to apologize to your children when you do. They need to learn that their parents are human too.
Love can be fierce, my friends.
It is not always the sentimental, self-sacrificing, self-effacing, love that is portrayed on greetings cards. Love, deep love, is bold and courageous. It isn’t saccharine but it has a rich sweetness.
There is mama bear love and papa bear love. It is protective. It doesn’t stand by when someone is suffering. It doesn’t look away when there is injustice. It nurtures, it cherishes the uniqueness of other human souls, treating them with the dignity and respect we all deserve.
You don’t have to be a parent to practice this kind of love, although many parents feel this way about their children.
There is another thing that is often left out of the traditional messages delivered on Mother’s Day.
Yes, it is a blessing to have a mother, a parent, an older friend or relative who loves and cares for you when you are vulnerable, when you feel afraid and alone. It is a blessing we should be grateful for if it is something we have or have had in our lives.
The relatively unspoken side of this equation is that it is also a blessing to be the giver of that kind of love. We should also be thanking our children for the privilege of parenting them.
So now, let us all say a big thank you in our hearts. Thank you to all who have loved and cared for us and another thank you to all who have allowed us to love and care for them. Love is a circle, without beginning or end.
We can love all the precious children, no matter where they live in this troubled world. We can try to care for them, to help them grow up strong, smart, and tall and without fear.
We can love all of our elders: we can care for them and appreciate the wisdom they still have to offer. We can love and care for our Mother Earth. We can love and nurture the mother spirit that lives within us all, that heals us and makes us whole.
So whatever your feelings are today try and accept them for what they are. You might be missing a mother who has died. You might feel sorrow because the mother you had was not able to be the one you needed. You might have regrets about the kind of mother you have been. Mother’s day is complicated. Take in the sweetness of it as well as what is bittersweet. Most of all, try to love and accept who you are and what your life has been like. Celebrate the fact that we are all human. We all have that very human gift that is the ability to change and to grow. And if you are going out to for a Mother’s Day brunch, have a wonderful time. Namaste and let it be.