Pure and Noble Motherhood

May 8, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: 2Timothy 1: 3-7; I Corinthians 13: 4-7


In his 1974 book, Like it is, Howard Cosell, asks, “Why are you so critical of baseball? … something pure and noble like the American flag, motherhood and apple pie.” Across all cultures, motherhood is considered pure and noble. In fact, there are so many virtues attributed to motherhood and they are so lofty that not even the best mother can measure up.

Motherhood involves meeting children’s needs in three general areas: bringing forth life, nurturing growth, and training for social acceptability. Let’s look at these together.

Bringing forth life: An understanding of this aspect of motherhood has changed throughout history, and of course, varies from culture to culture.  In the time of Aristotle, for example it was widely believed that it was male semen gave rise to an embryo, and that the female was only an incubator, and simply provided a place for the embryo to develop. Despite this belief, women always seem to have been expected to provide a healthy environment for their unborn children to develop, and have traditionally been blamed if the child born was not the right gender, or in some way, less than perfect. As the field of medicine has advanced we have not only gained an understanding of what  both men and women contribute to creating new life, we also have learned that such things as what  a woman eats, her emotional state and whether  she gets bitten by an infected Aedes mosquito can affect the health and development of her child. So from the time of conception, every future mother is held accountable for making healthy choices that will positively impact her child.  Though this is a very reasonable expectation, it can be another way that unrealistic burdens are placed on women. Just was we are seeing a resurgence of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, misogyny lies just under the surface in much of society. From Eve being blamed for bringing evil into the world, to women being burnt as witches, to assertive women being labeled negatively while men acting the same way are viewed in a positive light, there has been throughout history, and there exists even today harsh and exacting standards about what is considered acceptable behavior for women in general and mothers in particular.   One example is that for almost twenty years law enforcement personnel, judges, and elected officials nationwide have sought to punish women for their actions that could negatively impact the fetus they’re carrying.  Pregnant women with substance abuse problems have been a particular target.  Rather than provide adequate treatment for them, thirty states have prosecuted women with addictions for “fetal” abuse.  If we really believe that the unborn should have all of the protection and support that they need to develop into healthy infants, then we as a society need to provide the resources for that to happen and not simply place the burden and blame on women.  We need to act on our belief that we are truly one body.

Nurturing growth involves a myriad of caring behaviors, not the least of which calls for a mother routinely placing her child’s needs before her own. In today’s reading from I Corinthians Paul is speaking to all Christians as he lists many of the loving actions involved in nurturing others.  Despite this message to all of us, it does read like a list of expectations most of us have of mothers.  Mother-love is expected to be patient, kind, not rude and not irritable. Mothers are expected to bear all things and have a love that never ends. These are wonderful goals, no question. The problem is that as mothers we tend to take it for granted when we nurture in this way and we feel terrible about ourselves when we fail to measure up to what are really very high standards. Despite a lifetime of self-giving, mothers can suffer from guilt, shame and inadequacy for not always living up to these mores. We need to live the virtues listed in I Corinthians not only in our care of others, but also, apply them to ourselves.  Let us be patient with ourselves, and kind to ourselves and not irritable with ourselves. Let us bear our imperfections with grace and not stop loving ourselves when we fall short of our ideals.

The Anglo- American painter, Benjamin West often told the story of how he became a distinguished artist. One day, Benjamin was left at home to watch his baby sister. He took out his art supplies and painted a rather unique picture of her. In the process, he made a mess of the whole house. When his mother returned home and saw the awful mess and the portrait, Benjamin said that what she did next completely surprised him. She picked up his painting and said, “My, what a beautiful picture of your sister.  Then she gave him a kiss on the cheek and walked away.  With that kiss, Benjamin said, he became a painter. Nurturing can take only a few seconds.  It often involves knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

Maternal virtues and nurturance often are portrayed as soft qualities; the things that we read in the Hallmark cards. But sometimes motherhood takes strength. We raised our children in China, Maine, a beautiful little town built around China Lake.  We lived on the Neck Road, a four-mile peninsula in the middle of the lake.  In the winter our road was usually icy and when we had snow, the Neck Road got dumped on.  It also was a hilly road with numerous blind curves.   Our children went to Waterville High School, thirteen miles away. One winter day, school was canceled because of a winter storm. Christopher, a junior in high school at the time and an inexperienced driver was ecstatic, because he saw the school cancelation as an opportunity to go skiing at Sugarloaf, seventy miles away through country roads.  Tom had left for work so I got the job of delivering the bad news.  He was not going to drive at least ninety minutes in a snow storm to go skiing.  They had cancelled school because driving in this weather was unsafe.  Let it be said that our long interaction on this subject that followed would not have been selected for a training film on ideal conflict management techniques. He was a big strong athlete, determined to go, and was just as determined; to the point that if I had to swallow the car keys and lie down in the driveway, he was not going.  Finally, when he realized that the outcome of our debate would not end in him getting his way, he looked at me and yelled, “When you get old I’m going to find the cheapest nursing home that I can find and put you in it!” To which I replied, “If we both live that long, I’ll gladly go.”  Sometimes we need to love our children enough to tolerate them not liking us for a while.

The third role of child-rearing, preparing our children to become good citizens of the world, involves communicating our values through modeling, teaching, rewarding and sometimes having our children experience the consequences of their bad choices. In other words, with the mother functioning as both a moral anchor and a liaison between her child and the community; being a moral agent.  Sometimes this role requires us to be a counter-cultural voice. Last week I quoted Marcus Borg who states that, “The current central values of American culture are comprised of . . . achievement, affluence, and appearance.”  Being an effective moral agent necessitates being skeptical of our culture. Reflecting on the gospel values and weighing them against societal messages helps us to live as genuine Christians ourselves and prepares us to be effective models to others.

The demands of motherhood by bringing forth life, nurturing growth, and serving as moral guides, start early and never end, as we who have adult children know.  We always worry, and do what we can to help them be safe, healthy, and happy. At the same time, motherhood holds perhaps the greatest blessings and the deepest joy humanly possible. So today is not only a day to be grateful for being mothers and for our mothers. It is also a day when we may need to forgive them for having been less than perfect. Today is an opportunity to ask God to help us let go of any old resentments towards our mothers that we may be carrying.  It is also a time to forgive ourselves for not having been perfect mothers and to release any residual guilt and shame that may still be wounding us.

Motherhood includes more than biological mothers. Women who have opened their hearts and homes and adopted children, sometimes after years of deep disappointment and pain from not being able to give physical birth themselves or sometimes by intentionally opting to lovingly parent other children in need of a good home also are to be honored today.  Women who have generously given themselves as foster mothers, often raising difficult children, falling in love with them and then selflessly and with aching hearts letting them go to a permanent family are to be praised on Mother’s Day.

In our first reading this morning we heard a section of St. Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Although it is the second letter addressed specifically to Timothy, St. Paul mentions him in six of his epistles.  Paul likely met him in his family home when Timothy was only a teenager.  He took him on, mentored him, and gave him increased responsibility.  Timothy traveled with Paul for about sixteen years learning how to teach the word of God and lead a church, as he helped him to establish churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, and in time, Paul left him on his own to lead the church in Ephesus.

Paul thought of Timothy not only as a very faithful friend but also as his spiritual son. 2 Timothy is the last time Paul wrote to him and it is Paul’s most tender and moving epistle. In the letter Paul recognizes Timothy’s mother, Lois and grandmother, Eunice as responsible for first instilling in him his Christian Faith.  Paul wrote this epistle while he was a prisoner in a Roman Dungeon. He knew that he had only a short time to live, so the letter is his spiritual last will and testament; his “dying wish”, encouraging Timothy and requesting that he join him during his final days. Timothy ended up caring for Paul till his death.

This reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy makes the important point that nurturance is not exclusively a maternal prerogative. Not only Timothy’s mother, but his grandmother and Paul himself were life-giving, nurturing, and spiritual mentors to him. We too can all identify women and men in our lives who were significant in our development; supporting us, encouraging us, and providing us with important life lessons.

Today we honor our mothers and give thanks for all of the life-giving and nurturing people in our lives.  One way to show our gratitude is by imitating them and using our time and our gifts to be co-creators with God to continue to bring forth life, to care for, to encourage and support, to train and educate, to nurture and to mentor others.

Erik Erikson, a German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst is known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings. Although Erikson lacked even a bachelor’s degree, he served as a professor at prominent institutions including Harvard and Yale.   A quick and overly simplified version of his theory is that at each life stage we have a task to accomplish, and if we are successful we attain a particular virtue.  For example, at 0 to one year the task is to resolve the tension between trust and mistrust.  If an infant is consistently well cared for he/she will resolve this tension favorably, and will have a hopeful outlook in life.  If an infant’s care is inconsistent. If it is dropped on its head every few days, it will not be very trusting and see the world as a dangerous place. I present this theory because the second stage of adulthood that Erikson describes is “generativity vs. stagnation”, and I think relates to all of us as potential life-givers and nurturers. Our task as adults is to contribute to the wider community and to the next generation – generativity.  The virtue at stake is care.  If we give of ourselves and work to benefit others, not only do they profit, we grow as persons, as well as experience a sense of purpose.

 The stage that follows, usually addressed by people of retirement age, is labeled asego integrity vs. despair”.  Ego-integrity means the acceptance of life in its fullness: the victories and the defeats, what was accomplished and what was not accomplished. Wisdom is the result of successfully realizing this developmental task. It’s when we look back at our life and hopefully feel that despite our failings, we have made a difference for the good.

A tourist stood on the beach for a long time, facing away from the ocean, holding a seashell against his ear. As the water lapped at his feet, the sun beamed down upon his head and shoulders, and the waves crashed just behind him, he continued pressing the seashell firmly against his ear. He wanted to hear the powerful surge of the ocean as it heaved and rolled. See the picture in your mind’s eye: a man standing with his back to the ocean, attempting to hear the it in a seashell.  Although in the presence of the very thing he was seeking, he was oblivious to the actuality. Some people have difficulty in recognizing that they have caught up to what they have been chasing, or are in the presence of the object of their desire.

In John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples were in the upper room. The Passover meal had been shared, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, and Judas had taken his leave. All things having been accomplished, Jesus informs the 11 that the time has come for his departure. He has very brief dialogues with Simon Peter and Thomas, to which Jesus adds, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”  Apparently Phillip had not given his full attention to what Jesus had said because his response was, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” To this Jesus replied, naturally a little exasperated, “Have I been with you all this time, Phillip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you?  Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?

We know that God is Love.  We have a beautiful banner up front here that we see every week.  “Be the Love”.  When Howard Cosell talked about motherhood as good and noble, I think that he was referring to mothers, being that Love.  When we see mothers being sensitive to the needs of their family and responding generously regardless how tired or busy they are, when we see them forgive, and love their children despite their failings, when we experience their patience, kindness, tenderness, strength and enduring love, we experience God.  We don’t need to close our eyes and seek God out there somewhere. God is present in the love of mothers and life-givers and care-givers all around us.

Today we thank God, creator of life, sustainer, supporter, encourager, teacher; God of undying love present in and around us. May we continue to grow in our union with and imitation of our gracious God. Amen