Opening Words, from Song of the Open Road, Walt Whitman
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens, I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go, I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them. I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
I am larger, better than I thought. I did not know I held so much goodness.
As I was trying to finalize what I would say in this sermon, not feeling adequate to the task, someone sent me the following statement attributed to a ‘Hindu sage.’
“I have to let go of the need to know so much. What we can know is so small–the holiness around is so large. Now I trust in simplicity, simplicity and love.”
We know more about love than we’re able to express. It’s Mother’s Day, and I want to say something more about love. It’s all part of our ongoing conversation. Every Sunday we say, “Love is the spirit of this church…” Such a statement is an expression of our hope, and a reminder of our highest aspirations.
It’s appropriate for us to think about love on Mother’s Day, and it’s appropriate that we have services of dedication for parents and children. We introduce that service by saying, in part:
“We strive to build a … world where each child is conceived in love, by parents who are prepared to nurture their child with a mature love that combines with wisdom and understanding of the needs of that child. We dream of a world where children born in other circumstances may be adopted by those who are ready to become loving and caring parents.”
So let’s talk about mature love; and about the wisdom that is mature love’s prerequisite.
First, though, some personal reflections:
I remember going out in search of wild flowers to make a bouquet to give to my mother on Mother’s Day, and making a card using my big box of 32 Crayola crayons.
It was important to do something to help make Mother’s Day special for her, even if I couldn’t tell a weed from a wild flower—and I never was much good at designing and drawing and a card, even with the big box of 32 Crayola crayons. But we all wanted to make Mother’s Day special for her. Her seventh child was born on my 8th birthday. Two more came later. She was always in the midst of doing the wash, with the old ringer washing machine, and cooking, and cleaning, and so forth. So we tried to express our appreciation on Mother’s Day.
Years later, when my own children were very young, I remember helping them to make Mother’s Day cards, and helping them find something to make Mother’s Day special.
My mother has been gone for a few years, the children and grandchildren have grown; now I’m trying to make Mother’s Day special for Lory, as Carlyn moves through her teenage years. And I want to do something to make it special for you by putting thoughts into sentences, like little bouquets to be delivered from the pulpit and the website.
Mothers come in all shapes and sizes. Not everyone’s thoughts bubble over with wonderful memories of mother. Mother’s Day can be difficult, for lots of reasons.
The history of Mother’s Day isn’t as sentimental as it is today. Mother’s Day was initiated by Julia Ward Howe, an active Unitarian, who wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Then, in 1870, in the aftermath of a devastatingly destructive Civil War, she initiated what has become our Mother’s Day, which she would hardly recognize. Her Mother’s Day Proclamation for Peace said, in part:
“Arise all women who have hearts . . . our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.”
Her Mother’s Day slogan was more like, “Mothers of the world unite!”
It was a day for women of the world to come together to commit to finding peaceful resolutions to conflict—an end to war, that tears so many sons and daughters from heart-broken mothers. So she proposed that a day be set aside for mothers to connect with other mothers in the best interests of the children of the world, to work for peace.
Mother’s Day today tends to be sentimental—and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the expression of deep feelings. In modern times, however, Mother’s Day is a time for children (of all ages) to honor their mothers.
It’s a complicated holiday. It raises a complex set of thoughts as well as emotions—sentiments.
Families are complex. Complicated. Some more so than others. (Many of us would say, “My family is more complicated than most.”) While its important to hold up and recognize love as often as possible, its also important to recognize the wholeness of family life and the complexity of emotions this day can bring.
It can be a day of missing a mother who died; it can bring up feelings of disappointment in one’s mother, even anger and rage at a mother who was abusive or who abandoned her children. So it can be a day of regret for mothers who feel like they failed.
It’s complex. We’re given to simplistic notions about love, including mothers’ love.
It can be a difficult day for a son or daughter whose mother was not able to accept her child’s sexual preference; it can be a difficult day for a mother who would have preferred that her son or daughter stayed in the closet!
The various complexities of the day are deep enough to give pause—fool’s rush in where angels fear to tread!
But we’re here to try to sort through all the complexities so we can find resolutions to unresolved problems, and a sense of direction to the next chapter of our lives, so we don’t drag all that old baggage into every Mother’s Day, every birthday, every holiday that reminds us of all the problems of the past.
Can we unlearn things we absorbed from our parents and care-givers during those earliest years? We’re learning what to think, believe and even what to ‘feel,’ from day one. Robert Fulghum (Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten) commented: “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”
Many mothers try to avoid being the kind of mother to their kids that their mother was to them. But we learn how to be parents the same way we learn language—we absorb it without thinking a lot about it while we’re in the midst of learning.
Mothers come in all sizes and shapes: Some women choose not to have children; some adopt; some want to have a child and can’t. It makes talking about Mother’s Day a bit awkward—even a little risky.
Many mothers combine careers outside the home with the process of parenting. Some mothers are married to stay-at-home dads.
Some mothers are single, never married, others are divorced and have to figure out how to share parenting through joint custody arrangements. It’s all tricky business.
Some mothers, like Sara and Kathy, whose daughter Sophia was dedicated today, share the mothering role—the two-mom family. Mothers come in all sizes and shapes.
There’s one thing that all mothers have in common: Mothering is about loving—and there are no easy rules to this thing we call love; love in all its forms is a challenge.
Loving an infant is fairly straight-forward. It’s not easy, in the usual sense of that word, since infants are high maintenance. But it’s easy in the sense that the rules are clear—feed and clothe them, keep them clean and safe; hold them and play with them—help them to laugh. Play peek-a-boo.
Then they start to crawl—then they walk and soon they run, eager to explore their world, tending especially to make an adventure out of every hour, looking for the forbidden fruit, going where they were told not to go, doing what they were told not to do. As soon as your back is turned, bango! They’re off tasting some new forbidden fruit.
This is where parenting gets more complicated—it’s about setting boundaries, and deciding how the child can be restricted without having her enthusiasm stifled.
Every day seems to present some new challenge as they take on their own personality, and make their own demands, and resist the boundaries you’ve set for them.
Discipline is intended to produce certain character traits, especially things like politeness, respect and compassion.
But there’s something about disciplining a child in our culture that seems somehow counter-intuitive—the need to set limits and to discipline a child bumps up against the earliest form of loving—the soft cuddling crashes into conflicts with the child, and the need to come to terms with issues like control, obedience, submission to authority…and, God forbid, punishment.
In our child-centered culture there’s a tendency to indulge the children, and to over-indulge them, and new concerns raise their head: will this child develop a sense of appreciation…what does it mean to ‘spoil’ a child? Will this child develop a sense of self-control? And so forth.
Permissiveness becomes pathological…the fear so many mothers have that their children won’t like them.
When they are infants we love ‘love’ into them; as they get older we love them by setting limits, and as they get even older we begin to loosen the limit-setting aspect to allow for a healthy ‘letting go.’
The bottom line is that love is a challenge at age, from infant to toddler, from pre-adolescent to young adult, and from being a good parent to our adult children to finding ways to be a good parent to our middle-aged children.
Florida Scott-Mawell, in her delightful memoir, The Measure of My Days, says:
“A mother’s love for her children, even her inability to let them be, is because she is under a painful law that the life that passed through her must be brought to fruition…
“No matter how old a mother is she watches her middle-aged children for signs of improvement…She never outgrows the burden of love, and to the end she carries the weight of hope for those she bore.” (pp 16 – 17)
She refers to love as a burden. (Like Whitman’s phrase: ‘my old delicious burdens.) Her choice of the word burden sent me to my American Heritage Dictionary. The root of burden is bher: “…to carry; to bear children; birth…something that is carried; something that is emotionally difficult to bear; a source of great worry or stress…a responsibility…a duty.”
Love is a challenge at any age—a burden we gladly bear.
What do we need to know about love? How do we ‘learn’ how to love?
Erich Fromm calls love an art. (The Art of Loving) Like all other arts, it requires knowledge and effort; skill, technique…gifts.
From says there are four ingredients to love: care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.
He says, “Mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality.”
“Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love.”
“Care and concern imply another aspect of love; that of responsibility…(which) is an entirely voluntary act; it is my response to the needs, expressed or unexpressed, of another human being. To be ‘responsible’ means to be able and ready to ‘respond.’”
“Responsibility could easily deteriorate into domination and possessiveness, were it not for a third component of love, respect.
“Respect is not fear and awe; it denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere = to look at), the ability to see a person as he hs, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect means concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation.”
“To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern.”
Loving is a delicious burden…a challenge…an ordeal. Mothers are often given more credit than they think they deserve–most mothers are aware of their own faults, failures and limitations, even if they are among the unmentionables.
Our hope as a religious community is that we find ways to share the burden of loving—to help one another, and to realize the ultimate joy and depth of meaning love brings into our lives.