Mother’s Day, 2016
Delight, Worry, Connection, Legacy
Hosea 11:1-4; 8, 9 I John 4:7, 12
I love the line in Luke when Mary finds out she is pregnant. She says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has regard for my lowly estate; henceforth all generations will call me blessed. God has done great things for me.”
Pregnancy is almost always more complicated than that. Many of them do not come at particularly convenient times, nor in particularly stable situations of life. And even in the best of circumstances, with the best of husbands, we usually have problems that we are working through with our spouse, and he is usually growing up slowly when all his children are born. Even in the best of circumstances it is complicated. And even in the worst of circumstances, there is still this pronounced sense of blessing ‘in spite of’ the circumstances.
I was on the train this week and a young mother sat across from me with her baby who was just standing. Her child was smiling at her, standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down… And the mother had that youthful look of unadorned delight that children can bring us. It was like she had just waded into the unbearable lightness of being. It is an infectious joy.
And who would have imagined that you would have ever taken such deep and abiding pleasure in the appearance of a first tooth but after a week of irritable crying, there you are smiling. Who would have figured you could have such joy at the first real time that your daughter used the potty. But there you are clapping like seal at a circus.
For all of you this morning who awoke to presents that were made with finger paint on colored construction paper. For all of you that had to delicately handle a fragile stick person made out of popsicle sticks, glued together with Elmer’s glue. For all of you who had to relish the smothering of strawberry jam that you toddler managed to schmear on your English muffin for this special day, our hats off to all that you do and all that you are. I would only remind you that you are actually living the ‘good old days’ right now. I hope you can drink them in, even if you can’t hold on to them, particularly if your resources are thin- and it feels like quite a challenge just to pay the bills, particularly if you are working so hard, you just wish you could get a day off, particularly if you are raising your child alone.
I hope you can feel the love, rest in the delight of the day, and receive the genuine gratitude that you have earned. It is a wonderful thing. You’ve been lucky enough to have shared a deeper joy, a deeper delight.
And if you are really blessed, you will live for those you are in charge of with all of your spiritual energy and your moral force. I remember one of our relatives going through all the pregnancy tests, then the mountain of paperwork at the adoption agency, the battery of interviews, the waiting on the bureaucracy in Viet Nam, then rushing at the drop of a hat on a 20 hour flight, more red tape snafu’s, finally out to a village, more hassles, a flight back to Hong Kong, then another 18 hours to Newark on a packed flight with a crying infant you can’t nurse, she gets into Newark at 5 a.m.
This was before the security at the airports, so we met them, a surprise. Mother and child were so exhausted- they endured a marathon as difficult as any labor- I just remember her running towards us with that baby in her arms, tears of sleeplessness, long and difficult journey, tears of joy. So moving to see how Mother’s pour themselves into the next generation, how much love they invest in the next generation before they even know it. What a blessing.
I think of those mothers we see in the papers this week, fleeing the bombing in Aleppo, children in tow risking their lives without thinking about it to get their kids to safety. If you are blessed, you get to invest yourself in your kids, to worry about them, sacrifice whatever you have to for their wellbeing. I was in the pediatric wing at Sloane Kettering or at Children’s Specialized here in Mountainside. Children with life threatening illnesses that cause you to stop your normal living altogether and pivot in a whole different direction.
It is so moving to see those Mother’s by their children’s side. They are hooked up to IV’s, hooked up to monitors, hooked up to chemo drips. I’m astonished by how much normalcy those Mothers are able to create, how much burden they take on without even thinking about it, how much love they invest in their people- healing, comforting, passion.
The Prophet Hosea, says that God loves us like that. God has a fierce love for us and wants the life force to flourish within us. God holds us close like a mother blessing us when we are ill, when we need protection. God’s self-giving compassion is pretty much like the Mother’s that you see up late at night until the fever breaks, however long it takes.
God’s love for us is like our Mom’s love who will not give up on us, no matter how long the odds are. She is just there, pouring her concern and her compassion into us, come what may. That kind of love is divine. And despite the fact that you could actually expend yourself almost completely absorbing your child’s distress, assuming their burden, it is deep blessing to be able to love like that. It is a privilege and you don’t think twice about doing it.
And if you are really, really blessed, after many years, and another generation born, you live to see your legacy, the faint imprint that you leave down the generations because you have loved yourself into the next generation.
That comes through traditions ordinary and profound. My mother had two coffee table books when I was a child. One of them was the collected works of Michaelangelo and the other was the collected works of Leonardo Da Vinci. She would let me read them when I was in time out… I spent a lot of time in time out as a child.
My mother wanted a learned child. She respected scholars and didn’t feel herself educated like she wanted to be. I eventually studied philosophy and political theory, read the great canon of the Western Tradition. I would tell her that I was reading “In Praise of Folly” by Erasmus and she would buy it and read it too. St. Augustine, Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes, Petrarch, Socrates. I’d come home and see her stack of books underlined, pages turned down.
Eventually, I embraced religion but not the religion of the conservative South of my childhood. I was shaped by the humanism of the Renaissance, the spiritual demeanor that pervades the work of Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Since the first time I set foot in the Louvre in Paris, in the Prado in Spain, The Academia gallery in Venice where, I am aware that I’m growing the aesthetic part of my soul that she would have loved to develop in herself, and I know that she is so very happy that I’m doing what I’m doing, brave enough to go places she never went herself. And I know that she is glad that I became learned, even if she doesn’t really understand me herself. But a Mother’s love, her legacy, are like that.
Sometimes your legacy comes through in things small that aren’t so small. I heard my grandchildren praying at meal, “Come Lord Jesus our guest to be and bless these gifts bestowed by thee and bless our loved ones everywhere and keep them in our tender care.” It is a prayer their mother taught them. Her mother taught her. And my mother-in-law taught her and it comes from the Quaker part of the family. Sometimes when the wee ones say it, I can imagine this unbroken chain of legacy that is handed down from generation to generation, a trusted spiritual guide that stands us up in good seasons and difficult seasons.
Often, it is those seemingly simple values that are passed on from one generation to another that actually shape us for the better, sometimes profoundly so.
Francine Christoph, now 93, remembers just such a simple act.[i] “I was born in 1933” she says, “The year Hitler took power. I wore this yellow star, like all Jewish children. At 8 years old, I was taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with my mother.
At the beginning of the war, we were privileged to bring 2 or 3 things with us from France in a small bag. My Mother packed me two pieces of French chocolates. She said, “We’ll keep this for the day when you’ve collapsed and you really need help. Then I’ll give you the chocolate and you will feel better.”
One of the women at the camp was pregnant. You couldn’t tell. She was such a skinny thing. But the day came for her to give birth. They took her to the camp hospital with my mother. Before she left, my mother said to me, “How do you feel?”
“I am fine, Mama. I will be okay.”
“Okay” said Mama. Then she said, “With your permission, I would like to give a piece of the chocolate to this woman who is about to give birth. It will be very hard for her to give birth in this place and she may die. But if I give her the chocolate. It may help her.”
“Yes, Mother, give her the chocolate.”
Helene gave birth to her baby. A tiny little thing. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks with us.
And you know what? That baby never cried once, never wailed. 6 months later, the camp was liberated. They pulled the rags off that baby and that baby cried out loud. That was the day that baby was born. We took the baby back to France with all of us, puny as could be.
Recently, one of my daughters said to me, “Mama, if you had seen psychiatrists or psychologist when you returned from the concentration camps, do you think you would have been better off?”
I said, “Undoubtedly, we didn’t think about psychotherapy back then… But you’ve given me a good idea. We’ll have a conference on the subject.”
I organized a lecture on the topic “If the survivors of the concentration camps had been able to go to counseling in 1945, what would have happened”.
The lecture was well attended. We had people in medicine, psychiatrists and psychologist, historians and the like all exchanging ideas on the subject and many good responses developed from people that were at the lecture. It was excellent.
Then a woman took the podium. She said, “I live in Marseilles, where I am a psychiatrist. Before I give my talk, I have something for the woman that organized this lecture, Francine Christoph. In other words, me. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to me, put it in my hand and said, “I am the baby.”
May love so flow through you. And may the compassion you show other create a legacy of goodness that you watch reverberate down the generations. And may it come back to bless you in ways you least expect. The blessed Spirit of Mother’s Day on all of you, not least on that woman most in need of liberation on our planet, the mother in every man. Amen.
[i] This Video can be found on the Human website. The Youtube video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXGfngjmwLA