Saturday, May 7, 2011

Third Sunday in Easter: Mothers and Other Women of Faith

Scripture readings for this week (off-lectionary): Judges 4:1-10, Psalm 63:1-8, Romans 16:1-16, Luke 24:1-12

This week, I changed my facebook profile picture to one of Mom and my mother-in-law, Shirley.  The picture from Tristyn’s baptism showed grandmamas sitting on a love seat, Mom holding baby Tristyn.  Of the many pictures taken that day, it holds a special place in my heart.  Not just because it’s a picture of our mothers holding our daughter.  But because it’s one of the last pictures I have of Mom.  Six months later, Mom lost her battle with cancer.
I remember the morning we buried Mom.  Shirley pulled me aside and said, “I want you to know that you are not motherless.  You became my daughter when you married Tim.”  
You know, I don’t think we ever really outgrow our need for our mothers.  Here I was - 32 two years old, married, with a child of my own.  But at that moment, I realized just how important mothers are.  I realized how blessed I was to have someone like Shirley to mother me when my mother no longer could.
Sixteen months later, Shirley also lost her battle with cancer.  I miss her as much as I miss Mom.  I posted that picture on FaceBook to honor Mom and Shirley because they are two of the strongest, most courageous women I know. 
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about mothers, those who mother, and women in general.  I’ve been thinking about all those women who touch our lives, who have helped make us who we are.  Not all are called “mother,” yet they have provided mothering.  They have been role models of courage and strength and surpassing love.

This week my thoughts have also turned to those women I have never met, yet have shaped my life and my faith.  Those biblical women who lived and mothered and loved with passion and courage - our mothers in the faith.
·         Sarah who laughed when God promised her a son, even though she was past 90!  About how she struggled with God’s promise and her long wait for a child – over 30 years from God’s promise to Isaac’s birth1.[i]
·         Hannah who longed for a child so passionately that she promised to dedicate her child to God[ii].  God blessed her with Samuel, who became a great prophet.
·         Naomi was dealt the bitter hand of widowhood and the death of her sons. But she loved her son’s wives, Orpah and Ruth, as if they were her own daughters. So close was the bond between Naomi and Ruth that Ruth chose to leave her home to go back to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law.[iii]
I thought about the 5 women with a unique place in scripture – they are the only women listed an otherwise male only genealogy of Jesus[iv]
·         Twice–widowed, childless Tamar, denied her rights by her father-in-law Judah.  She outwitted him and became the mother of Perez and Zerah.[v]  Judah declared her more righteous than he.
·         Rahab the prostitute, who protected the Israelite spies, helping them escape from Jericho because of her faith in God.  She was saved from the destruction of Jericho[vi] and became the mother of Boaz.
·         Ruth, who followed Naomi to a strange land.  Her hard work to provide and care for Naomi, caught the attention of Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz.  He married her and she became the mother of Obed and great-grandmother to King David.
·         Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, who found herself called to King David’s chambers.  Seduced and pregnant by the King, she suffered the heartbreaking loss of her child.  But God remembered her and she became the mother of King Solomon.[vii]
·         Mary, awed by the angel Gabriel, astounded by the news that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah, replied, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[viii]  She faced the shame and danger of an unwed teen-age pregnancy in first century Palestine. She raised the Son of God to manhood, “pondering in her heart” praise and prophecy.[ix]  She stood at the foot of the cross, feeling a ‘sword piercing her own soul,”, as she watched her son die. 
These were mothers who trusted God.  Who loved deeply. Who would do what was necessary to shelter and nurture those they called “child.”  One aspect of God’s love for us is revealed in their love for their children.
We heard today how the Psalmist sings in the shadow of God’s wings.[x]  God’s wings – those are the wings of mother hen protecting her chicks, sheltering them, keeping them warm.  It’s a familiar biblical image – God gathering or protecting us under God’s wings.  Jesus longs to gather Jerusalem as a mother hen gathers her chicks.[xi]  Mothering comes from God, is part of the nature of God. 
It’s that loving, generous, nurturing part of God in which we live and move and have our being.  And that mothering part of God cannot be contained.  It spills over, beyond mother and child, beyond women and children, to women and the world.
Today’s readings are about some strong women through whom God’s love overflows to the world around them: 
·         Deborah, who judged all of Israel, who was a prophet of God, who went into battle with Barak and defeated the armies of Canaan, who was called the mother of Israel.[xii] 
·         Rufus’ mother, who acted as mother to Paul. Like Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois,[xiii] she has passed her strong faith on to her son.  Her mothering extends from her son to Paul, and probably to her congregation, and her neighbors.  Women who stand in as mothers to the motherless can’t help it – their love overflows from the heart of God to everyone around them.
·         Mary Magdalene, along with a few other women, discovered the empty tomb and was the first to proclaim the good news that Jesus has risen.[xiv]
o      Those other women?  Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Suzanna and others[xv], travelled with Jesus throughout his ministry and gave of their resources to provide for the group.  Like Mary of Bethany,[xvi] they were disciples who sat at Jesus’ feet and learned from him. 
o    We know that Mary the wife of Clopas,[xvii] Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, Salome,[xviii] the mother of James and John (sons of Zebedee),[xix] also followed Jesus and were there at the cross, and the burial and some of them were in the garden that first Easter morning.  These women were among those in the upper Room at Pentecost.  They became mothers of the church.
We learn about more mothers of the early church from Paul’s letters.  He greets them as his partners in ministry.  We heard today Paul’s greetings to the church in Rome[xx].  In addition to Rufus’ mother, Paul greets nine other women:
·         Phoebe, a deacon – or minister - was a leader in her church, as well as one of its patrons. 
·         Prisca (also called Priscilla) and her husband were missionaries with Paul,[xxi] traveling with him and risking their lives for him.
·         Junia and her husband were imprisoned with Paul.  Paul calls her ‘apostle’ – his equal in ministry.
·         Mary, Tryphrena, Tryphosa, and Persis – Paul’s “co-workers in Christ”.  Paul uses this term for men and women who were spiritually mature, leaders in the faith, active in missionary work, building churches, and teaching other leaders.
·         Julia and Nereus’ sister are leaders in one of the house churches in Rome. 
These were women of faith.  Women who loved beyond the bonds of family, Women’s whose hearts were large enough to embrace all whom God loves.  Women who gave all, sometimes even risking their lives to further the kingdom of God.  Women who did this, not for glory or honor – often they labored behind the scenes and our scriptures give us only a few, brief passages about them – but for the glory of God.
From these mothers of our faith, we learn courage.  We learn generosity.  We learn trust.  We learn that we have worth because we are created in God’s image, because Jesus died for us.  By their example, we learn to live in ways that reveal God’s love to a motherless world.
Their legacy lives on in the lives of women of faith –
·         in our mothers and grandmothers and all those who mother,
·         in women who cook for the hungry, sew for the cold, tend the sick,
·          in women who give their time and resources so people they will never meet have flood buckets, sewing kits, health kits, baby layettes and all sorts of other necessary items,
·         in women who teach, and preach, and sing God’s word,
·         in women who create hospitality in worship spaces and in homes,
·         in women who stand up for the weak and speak for the voiceless, in women who pray for peace,
·         in all those women who touch the lives of everyone around them with the overflowing love of God.

Today, we remember mothers, those who mother, those women who have touched our lives, those women in whom God’s love spills out to the world. 
What better way to honor the women of faith in our lives but to let that love flow through us?

[i] Sarah’s story is told with Abraham’s in Genesis 12-18:15 and continues in Genesis chapters 20-23.
[ii] 1 Samuel 1-2:11.
[iii] Naomi and Ruth’s story is found in the book of Ruth.
[iv] Matthew 1.
[v] Genesis 38.
[vi] Joshua 2, 6:20-25.
[vii] 2 Samuel 11:2-12:25.
[viii] Luke 1:26-38.
[ix] Luke 2:21-52.
[x] Psalms 63 gives us images of God as a nourishing mother, calming a child in the night and protecting in the shadow of God’s wings. 
[xi] Matthew 23:37.
[xii] Judges 4 and 5.
[xiii] 1 Tim 1:5.
[xiv] Luke stated the ‘women who came with him from Galilee’ went to the tomb (“They” in Luke 21:1 refers to Luke 23:55), Matthew had Mary M and “the other Mary”; Mark has Mary M, Mary the mother of James and Salome: and John has Mary M going alone.
[xv] Luke 8:3.
[xvi] Luke 10:38-42.
[xvii] John19:25.
[xviii] Mark 15:40-41.
[xix] Matthew 27:55-56.
[xx] Romans 16:1:17.
[xxi] Acts 18:18-20.

Pre-Mother's Day Ponderings

Tomorrow we honor mothers. In churches all over America, mothers will receive carnations, perhaps applause.  Sometimes the oldest mother is asked to stand.  Sometimes the mother with the most children is acknowledged.  Our congregations will celebrate the roles mothers play in our lives.
It seems a simple thing to honor mothers.  As a mother myself, I know that a day of recognition and honor is welcome.  Being a mother is hard work and often thankless work.  Sure, there are the rewards, such as the impromptu, clumsy hug my 15 year old son will bestow on my out of the blue and the sweetness of hearing my 18 year old daughter actually ask for my advice.  Mothers need a day when people (especially their children) say “Thank You.”
It seems a simple thing to honor mothers.  But Mother’s Day in church is a giant step into all sorts of dangerous territory.  What about those women who for reasons of biology, circumstance and sometimes choice, never become mothers?  Mother’s Day can seem a cruel joke to a woman struggling with fertility or who has just buried that baby perfect in every way but not strong enough to survive birth.
One Mother’s Day at church, I was scanning the bulletin when the altar flowers caught my attention.  That morning, the altar flowers were given by a couple who had just brought a new baby into the family.  Those flower were in honor of that child’s biological mother and her older brother’s biological mother.  I thought about those two women, spending Mother’s Day without their children.  How hard must it be to be a mother whose arms will never hold their child again?
It should be a simple thing to honor mothers.  After all, each and every one of us has a mother.  And most of us were fortunate to have mothers who love us, who nurtured us – the kind of mothers we easily can honor.  But what about those who are not so lucky, whose mothers are unable for some reason to give the love each child craves? 
I have had the privilege to walk with some women whose children are battling severe mental illness.  Among the various heartbreaking stories shared are those of grandmothers, who watch as grandchildren become pawns in the games their children play against them. The grandmothers worry how their child’s mental illness will impact their grandchildren.  They worry about social services placing their grandchildren in another home, and sometimes they wish social services would step in and help them protect the little ones.
It should be a simple thing to honor mothers.  But as it turns out, Mother’s Day is a complicated thing.  If we take this day too lightly, if we stop at the syrupy sweet Hallmark sentiment that this day has become, our recognition of mothers serves as a painful reminder to those who do not have: mothers, children, or relationship.  What does Mother’s Day mean to those whose families are not the stereotypical Dad, Mom and 2.5 children?
What is motherhood anyway?  Is it just having a baby?  Is it just raising a child as a parent, step parent or foster parent?  Or is motherhood deeper than biology?  Is motherhood spiritual, sacred?
I think mothering is way beyond just biology.  I think mothering flows from the very heart of God.
I posted pictures of my mother and mother in law on facebook.  But if there was room, I could have posted other pictures – pictures of strong, courageous, godly women who stood as mothers to me.  I think of Karen, only 6 years older than me, who in those early days after Mom and Shirley died, stood in their places.  Karen was the one I turned to as a new mother, and a new wife for advice on what to do for teething, on how to fight with my husband.  Karen was also the leader of our Stephen’s Ministries and I learned from her how to balance marriage, motherhood and ministry. 
Then there’s Sharon, who guided me through the learning phases of my new job as Christian Ed director.  She became a trusted confident, with motherly wisdom to guide me through the middle stages of motherhood.  She encouraged me as I began to explore more fully God’s call on my life.  She became the cheerleader in my corner as I went to seminary.
And Wanda, who became grandmother to my children.  I mourned my children’s loss of grandmothers.  Wanda eased my sorrow and brought such joy to the kids – they now had someone to make that special art project for, someone to invite for Grandparents day at school.
There are teachers, and scout leaders, and friends, and co-workers and assorted ladies at church who have at one time or another filled the role of ‘mother’ in my life.  There have even been a couple of guys who provided nurturing and support that could be called mothering. 
There are mothers and then there are those who mother. 
I was reading a book by Becky Garrison this week and the importance of those who stand in the place of mothers became so clear to me.  She honestly talks about her own family’s dysfunction – most of the adults in her family struggled with alcoholism.  And she says, “In my 20’s, some Christians entered my life who gave me the love and guidance that my alcoholic parents could not give…I didn’t realize how blessed I was to have these people come into my life.”[i]  When her own mother could not mother, a strong, courageous, godly woman stood in her mother’s place.
Who are those people been in your life who have provided you with mothering love straight from the heart of God?  Who do you know that may find Mother’s Day to be a painful reminder of something lost, or something they’ve never had?
A preacher/blogger friend of mine wrote the following prayer while she was in seminary.  It has become my prayer for Mother’s Day:
We remember Sarai who was taunted by others in the household because of her inability to have children.
All-encompassing God we pray for those who feel excluded when we emphasis one kind of family as normal.

We remember Esther, who was adopted and raised by her cousin.
God who embraces us all, we pray for those who cannot be raised by their parents, for a short time or permanently.

We remember the mother of Moses, who placed him into a raft on the river.
Saving God, we pray for parents who struggle to raise their children in oppressive circumstances.

We remember Hannah, who loved her child so much she handed him over to another to raise.
Loving God, we pray for parents who have placed their child in another family.

We remember Naomi, who grieved the death of her sons.
God, who grieves with us, we pray for parents who mourn the death of a child.

We remember Ruth, who gave up her family to be family to another.
Inclusive God, we pray for those who choose to be family to those isolated by culture or language or distance.

We remember Elizabeth, who had a child in old age and we remember Mary, who had a child as a teenager.
Ageless God, we pray that as a community we accept people of varying life stages and responsibilities and relationships.

We remember Rachel, crying for her children
God of justice and hope, we pray for those whose children are killed, and look to a time when children can live safely in their communities.

We remember Lois and Eunice, who taught Timothy faith by example.
Faithful God we pray for those who teach us faith by their lives, may we remember that we also teach about you in the way we live.

We remember other people, not named in the Scriptures, like the mother of the prodigal son.
Companion God, we pray for those who wait for a phone call or a visit,
cut off from family and friends by distance and disagreement.

Nurturing God, we give thanks for those
who enrich our lives by their presence
who teach us about your abundant love
who encourage us to journey in faith.
Thanks to a pearl down under for sharing this prayer!

[i] Becky Garrison, “So Jesus Died for This?” Zondervan Press, page 132.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden and St Francis of Assisi

When I heard the news that Osama bin Laden was dead, my immediate reaction was, "Good.  Now our folks can come home!"

My response puzzled me a bit.  Was I happy that bin Laden was dead, or happy that maybe we could wind up the never-ending war in Afghanistan and our troops could come home?  Surely I wasn't happy that a human being - even someone like bin Laden - had died. 

As I watched the morning news, the video of people celebrating in the streets disturbed me.  I know that we are relieved that this person who had caused the death of so many people all over the world was gone.  We are glad that he will no longer be sponsoring campaigns of hate.  People who lost loved ones in 9/11 understandably have a sense of justice service, and closure.  But somehow active celebration still seemed inappropriate.  I thought about all the video aired showing terrorists and their sympathizers celebrating after successful attacks - and how outraged we feel.  I thought about all the bad press the US gets in the Arab world (remember, terrorists and their sympathizers are only a small part of the Arab world), and wondered how our celebration would be received.

My morning check-in with my friends via facebook showed a variety of responses, ranging from those overtly rejoicing that bin Laden was dead to Proverb's advice: "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall (24:17)."   

The thing is, we want to rejoice.  A force on the side of evil is no longer in this world.  Someone who commanded an attack on us - on American soil - will not longer be able to mastermind such attacks.  Never mind that there are plenty of people out there to take his place.  In the struggle of good and evil, evil always has someone waiting in the wings.  I remember one of the scariest things I ever read in a Stephen King book (I don't remember which one) was at the end, when the hero triumphed, the evil simply slunk away, moving on to bring terror to a new locale.  The talking heads are trying to process just what bin Laden's death means on the war on terror.  It seems that it won't make much difference from a tactical point of view - our pursuit of him had limited his ability to launch terror attacks.  The consensus is that this will have more of a psychological and symbolic effect.  Still, this feels like evil has taken a serious blow today.

And I want to rejoice - one of the bogeymen has been vanquished. The Psalmist has no problem calling for the (sometimes blood and gruesome) defeat of his enemies, and openly rejoices in their destruction.  But then there's Jesus, calling us to love our enemies, to pray for them.  As a Christian who firmly believes every human being is made in God's image and is a loved child of God, I don't want to gloat over the death of another human being.   But there's still a part of me that wants to rejoice with the Psalmist!

I'm having a hard time today knowing just how to respond.  Most of the day, I have spent vacillating between joy at the destruction of an enemy and sorrow over the death of another human being.  Perhaps that's just the way it's supposed to be. As humans, we live in paradox.  Maybe recognizing the tension between joy and sorrow is part of knowing what it means to be human.

While reading today, I came across this prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

In this prayer, I found my answer.  We stand today in the middle of hatred, injury, despair, doubt, sadness and darkness.    We stand today in the middle of joy over defeat of enemies and the ironic hope that violence will actually bring peace.  And the only sane thing to do is to cry out to God with our hopes and fears, and ask to be drawn in to the activity of the Good.