by Ken Sehested
Some of you share my childhood church experiences of Mother’s Day. During the service, the oldest and youngest mothers present were recognized. All women were offered carnations to wear, pink if your mother was living, white if deceased. And of course, families took Moms out to eat lunch after church, so she wouldn’t have to cook that Sunday(!).
This was in a time—long ago in a galaxy far, far away—when restaurant visits among my social strata were rare. In my rearing, the only eating out was occasional trips to the Dairy Queen for burgers, a few times on vacations (which were still burger events for me), and Mother’s Day. (Nowadays, the average American consumes 4.2 commercially prepared meals per week.)
A brief anecdote by Maralee McKee illustrates how unintentionally brutal those Mother’s Day observances could be.
“I once suffered a miscarriage shortly before Mother’s Day,” she writes. “When I entered the sanctuary that Sunday, an usher carrying a basket of carnations greeted me. ‘Happy Mother’s Day, pretty lady!’ He innocently beamed. ‘I know you must be a mom! Here’s a flower.’ In a sudden daze I accepted the flower from his hand and rushed to the bathroom crying.”
In the early years of our congregation’s life, we pastoral leaders put special effort in planning Mother’s (and Father’s) Day—though without the sentimental trappings—to highlight and honor the work of parenting. Typically, in place of a sermon, we asked selected members to speak of their own mother’s and father’s enduring influence on their lives.
We heard some extraordinary stories of steadfast strength, and encouragement, and tenderness, and gratitude in those testimonies. But afterwards, to our genuine surprise, we got more than a little pushback.
The initial complaint came from one of our members who very much wanted to have a child but was biologically unable to do so. She experienced the emphasis on mothering as a torment. Others resisted the emphasis because of their history of parental discord, abuse or abandonment. Others were still grieving the loss of a mother or father, and the liturgical attention stirred more pain than appreciation.
We eventually stopped marking these days—something I still regret.
In Scripture’s cultural background, the inability to have children was a profound source both of social shame and an economic hazard—which is why the reversal of barrenness was a lucid metaphor of God’s saving work (as with Sarai in Genesis 11:30 and Elizabeth in Luke 1:7). Vividly, the author of Proverbs compares Sheol to “the barren womb, the earth ever thirsty for water, and the fire that never says ‘Enough’” (30:16).*
In his final hours as he bore the cross to his place of execution, Jesus says to women grieving his fate: “For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.'" The context of his statement is a warning against the destruction to come, basically saying “thank God you don’t have children who will suffer this fate.” But by implication, in the age to come, such as these will have their shame turned to fecund praise (Luke 23:29).
Parenting is a profound responsibility, not to mention a perilous duty, and communities of faith need to learn how to recognize, support and enrich this calling, without stigmatizing those who don’t have children, or traumatizing those who have lost children, or reifying inherited gender roles.
If your congregation practices one or more means of doing this, I would very much like to know the details. Send me a note at email@example.com.
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*Other texts that speak of the work of God’s redemptive power illustrated as the reversal of “barren” (childless) status include: Genesis 11:30, 25:21, 29:31; Exodus 23:26; Judges 13:3; 1 Samuel 2:5; Psalm 113:9; Isaiah 49:21, 54:1; Luke 1:7, 1:36; Hebrews 11:11. It is not only the human community which risks barrenness in refusing the terms of God’s covenant. Every part of creation eventually suffers at the hands of human faithlessness. For more on that, see “The earth is the Lord’s: A collection of texts (which reveal the non-human parts of creation responding to God’s presence, provision and purpose).”
This being graduation season, and for some a leave-taking, see “On the flow of tears: For my daughters,” on the occasion of their transitions.