Nurturing Character - Mother's Day 2008
By Charles Rush
May 11, 2008
Hebrews 12: 1-2
(mp3, 6.5Mb) ]
mebody sent this to me this week. It is entitled ‘You’re Really a Mother When’.
You only have
time to shave one leg at a time.
You hide in the
bathroom to be alone.
You master the
art of placing food on a plate without anything touching.
Your child throws up and you catch it.
kid throws up at the party and you keep on eating
insists on reading ‘Once Upon a Potty’ out loud in the
Doctor’s office and you do it.
You obsess when
you child clings to you parting on his first day at school, and then you obsess
when he skips away the second day without looking back.
You say at least
once a day ‘I’m not cut out for this job’ but you know you wouldn’t trade it
It is a great calling as I’m
appreciating more deeply, watching my daughter with
that frazzled look on her face as she runs around while one baby naps to get a
few things done, the other one in tow.
But just this
week, I’d had one of those days with a fair amount of bad news, and I left the
office a little deflated. I got home and I was asked to baby sit while the
women went for a jog. I walked around the yard with my granddaughter and we
pulled dandelions out of the yard and blew the seeds for the first time in her
life. She gets that belly laugh blowing them that this is the coolest thing in
all of nature.
My grandson Charlie is just 4 months
old. He gets this goofy grin on his face, pukes on me, and grins again, like
‘want to see me do that again?’ We dug up a couple worms, found some rollie pollies. Out of all the
important people I’ve met in the past week and all the important things I’ve
done, none was more important than these new discoveries and nothing more
healing than seeing the wonder on her face. It is grounding and intrinsically
I don’t suppose it really comes as a
surprise that exactly 100 years ago this Sunday, a woman Anna Jarvis, decided
to honor all Mother’s living and dead, in her church in West Virginia. And she
gave them all carnations as those were her Mother’s favorite flower. She wanted
to acknowledge what our National Poet Laurete, Billy
Collins wrote about so winsomely in his poem “The Lanyard”.
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
It is incredibly pathetic, not just retrospectively, as we
can never repay them for bringing us into life and taking care of us all those
years, but also prospectively as we know- deep in our being, even though we
don’t like to think about it- that we have this potential still to break their
hearts like nothing
else in their world.
Parenting is profound for men and women, but it is
bio-chemical for Mother’s… as every young boy finds out watching his girlfriend morph into
pregnancy and natal-Motherhood. I remember calling my son-in-law on the phone
asking him if he was ready for the baby to be born. There was a long silence on
the phone. He said “Yes… as soon as I finish applying the second coat of the 3rd
color on the nursery…” I took that as a big yes to the question, ‘is she
I have the visceral memory of my rude awakening at 22. Kate
was in labor. I was watching John Wayne movies, really enjoying them. She leans
over says she needs drugs. I start to say, “Now honey, don’t you want to wait?”
She grabs my tie pulls me right in her nose… “You did this to
me” like a woman possessed. I’m calling the nurse, “Heroin asap.”
And every young father has one night, when one child is nursing, the other has a fever… Both of them are in bed with
Mom and you are out on the couch realizing that frankly, in the great pecking
order of stuff that really counts, you aren’t worth much of anything.
Mother’s have this built-in bio-chemical connection that
changes them so much that most of the time even they are surprised at who they
have become. And that never really goes away exactly does it? I remember being
at an athletic event when a serious injury happened… the boys must have been
13-14. The Dad’s all jumped up and started walking or jogging to the scene,
especially the Doc’s. Right through the
middle of us- boom- one of those prim and proper ladies, the mother of one of
the boys. Heels went flying off, beating a dead heat across that field like Superwoman.
Us men were all looking at each other like ‘Well, maybe we should pick up
the pace a little here’. Mother’s just have that
connection for better and worse.
And that bio-chemical connection also has spiritual
implications doesn’t it? I love that line in the beginning of the gospels about
Mary. She has had her baby. The Angels come, the wise men come—all this
activity and bustle. The gospel says, “she pondered
all these things in her heart, wondering what they might mean.”
Jesus grows up, becomes wildly popular. He is arrested at
the height of his fame. Suddenly, everyone he knows deserts him. He dies alone
and who is the only person there at the end? His mother and a
couple of her friends. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Sounds
And this is the piece that you probably won’t find on any
Hallmark card today because it isn’t superficial enough. But
the spiritual profundity of Motherhood lies somewhere in this matrix.
Michelangelo captured that image so well in the Pieta. I first saw it at the
New York World’s Fair in 1964 when I was just barely a child. [Slide 1] It is permanently on display at
St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome right as you enter the church on your right.
Michelangelo does a slight of hand. In the first place,
Mary’s lap is the size of huge, but you don’t really notice it because of the
flowing character of her skirts. In the second place, Mary is the same age as
Jesus. I think both are exactly right.
She has this huge lap to symbolize her expansive compassion.
She actually holds Jesus, curiously, in a way that she could hold her baby… in
a way that she could hold her husband… in a way that she could hold her grown
son. And isn’t that the point? There is something expansively humane in her
compassion that is moving to behold, particularly so since Michelangelo was so
adept at transforming the stone into a life-like medium. At
the end of the day, isn’t the profundity of her grief not because she is
holding the Son of God but because she is holding her son? And isn’t
there this deeper dimension that it is not that Jesus is special so much as all
children are special?
She is the same age as Jesus and I think that is right as
well? When Mother’s lose a child, no matter what the actual age that they are
when that child dies, isn’t there this dimension to that loss that harkens back
to when they were young Mother’s cradling their babies? Mother’s cannot help
but touch them and hold them in this way? It is such an awful thing to
contemplate for all of us, the death of children, but the pathos is so great
because the spiritual and physical connection is so profound and grounding
between Mother and child. We all have this identification. There is something
about it that gets right to the heart of the human condition.
Earlier this year, I was standing in an exhibit about World
War 2. I wrote my dissertation on this time period and so I’ve read so many
thousands of pages on the political mileu that led up
to it from World War 1; I’ve read so many thousands of pages on the
intellectual currents that gave rise to Naziism and
the final solution, the use of ideology in communism and the Gulag; I’ve
reflected throughout my adult life on how all of the current challenges- the
end of the Cold War, the Atom bomb, the Geneva Convention, the Arab league,
Israel, the United Nations, NATO. I’ve thought it up one side and down the
other and I’m standing in the exhibit thinking that there is nothing I have
left hardly to learn of substance. But I was moved by one image. [Slide 2] It is a simple photograph of a
young boy. On his head is a protective hat that he was given by the adults. In
his pack, he is carrying a gas mask. He is in England and he is about to board
a train, leaving one of the major cities that was being bombed by the Germans,
and heading to relative safety in the countryside. Over 3 million children in
Britain alone had to be evacuated.
Of all of the things that I have read and analyzed, at the
end of the day, what sticks with me now, is this humane image of what that
experience must have been like for those young mothers that went through it. [Slide 3] Just think about the logistical
issues with all that gear, all the stuff to think about. And
the hurry of it all at the prospect of being bombed. [Slide 4] And for so many of them, they
had to make rather difficult decisions in a short amount of time, having to
leave their children with distant relatives or in the care of the Civil Defense
teams. And this was war, so we had the grim task of making protection from horror child’s
play. [Slide 5]
The thing that really
strikes me from that era was that this migration of women and children was very nearly
world-wide in the developed countries. [Slide 6] These are Slavic women and children fleeing to Macedonia in advance of
the German armies assault. [Slide 7] These are Chinese women and children trying to get out of
Nanjing in advance of the Japanese army invading their area in what would
become a horror
of human rights abuses. [Slide 8] These are girls in an orphanage
in the Ukraine because one or both parents were caught up in the war. [Slide 9] These boys are from an
orphanage in Spain. [Slide 10] These
are kids in Palestine right at the end of the war whose parents couldn’t be
located. It is a long table. [Slide 11]
These are boys in France who have been fleeing south of Paris when the Nazi’s
invaded early in the war. [Slide 12] These
are Jewish kids being escorted out of school in Berlin also near the beginning
of the war. [Slide 13] This picture if
from the Ghetto in Warsaw at the end of the Ghetto. [Slide 14] This picture is from California. It is Japanese families
that are being sent to War camps. [Slide 15] And this is a completely independent event, the partition of India. And
these are some of the millions of people that fled to Pakistan at the end of
the British occupation right around 1947.
As you know, we have seen these same images continually in
the developing world in the past decade alone. [Slide 16] These are mothers and children fleeing conflict in the
Congo, Rwanda, or the Sudan I can’t honestly remember. [Slide 17] These are children at school in Sederot,
Israel who have endured some 800 rockets fired on them in the past few months
from Gaza. [Slide 18] This is a mother
and children in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. [Slide 19] This is from Kiryat Shemona, in Israel near the border with Lebanon, after a
day of Katusha rocket fire in the last invasion. [Slide 20] These are women and children in
Indonesia recovering from the Tsunami that devastated that area. [Slide 21] And this photo was taken a
couple days ago of a Mother and daughter
in Burma- I can’t call it Myanmar and give the Military Dictators even
accidental legitimacy- a Mother and daughter in Burma whose communities have
probably been completely flattened and won’t be helped because of the political
miasma of their country.
Once again, I would suggest that what makes this image so
moving is not the uniqueness of this child but there is something about
Mother’s and children that speak to every child. It gets right to the heart of
the human condition.
It has spiritual gravitas and therefore it contains within
it moral authority. You may know that Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the ‘Battle
Hymn of the Republic’ called for Mother’s Day to claim
this authority back in 1870. She had lived through the Civil War, up close and
personal, attending to the wounded. And she was intimately acquainted with the
horrors of the Franco-Prussian War. She issued a proclamation that read.
then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!...
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity,
mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
not so sure about the call to outlaw war as such. But, the call to unity out of
shared suffering seems to me the beginning of wisdom. The epic narrative which
looks at the wider drama of our history from the view point of ordinary
children and women has yet to be written. Likewise, the world-wide women’s
movement still seeks leadership and funding. I don’t think you have to be
Thomas Jefferson to see that on the whole, the social order can only become
more humane and stable if we had mother’s adding their input in a serious
manner. That is simply true for almost every country you can imagine.
There is a real spiritual and moral gravitas to Mother’s and
their children. We’ve recognized this implicitly for thousands of years in the
Bible. That is why the prophets in the bible- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel- used to say that God judges our societies based on
how we treat those that are on the margins. How does it play out for ordinary
people trying to patch their lives together? That is the moral question that
the prophets raised. And let’s be clear that in the ancient world, and in most
of our world today, the least of these are women and children.
So, a salute to our Mother’s this day. May you enjoy
celebrating the wonderful and silly toasts that your family will make to you. May we all drink in the safety that our world around us
offers us at the moment and fill this time with a modicum of the higher reasons
for which we live. There is much more to your calling than we will acknowledge
over lunch. Accept our prayers for you such as they are, even as you add your
prayers in solidarity with all those Mother’s around
our world who struggle under oppression. Claim your authority and do not be
afraid to strive for profundity in your time with your people. Amen.
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