This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
The first reading this morning is half of a very short story by Grace Paley, titled “Mother”:
One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long To See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.
Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.
At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?
Then she died.
Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places — in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block,… in the living room with my father….
The second reading this morning is from a poem by Lucille Clifton titled “the mother’s story”:
a line of women i don’t know,
came in and whispered over you
each one fierce word
she said, each word
more powerful than the one before.
and i thought what is this to bring
to one black girl from buffalo
until the last one came and smiled,
and filled your ear with light
and that, she said, has been the one,
the last one, that last one.
Sermon — “Mothering”
Mother’s Day is a perfect day for us religious liberals to reflect on mothering from our theological viewpoint. We know that motherhood and feminism are perfectly compatible. We know that same-sex couples can serve as both mothers and fathers to their children. We know that gender roles are far more fluid than the religious right admits. We know that love is a central value of our religion. Given all that, I’d like to reflect with you on what mothering means to us religious liberals.
1. Now I don’t know about you, but I find that I have a pretty clear idea of the stereotypical perfect mother. The perfect mother, according to the stereotype that I know best, is warm and welcoming; she is always dressed in an understated but attractive manner; she dispenses freshly-baked cookies at the drop of the proverbial hat; and she also dispenses kind and heartfelt wisdom whenever you need it. I suspect that my stereotype of the perfect mother comes pretty much directly from the television programs I used to watch as a child.
That is the stereotype of the perfect mother that I find lodged in my consciousness, but I know perfectly well that real mothers do not correspond to this stereotype. Take my mother, for example. My mother was a New England Yankee, and by the standards of Yankee culture she was within the norm of warm and welcoming, by any other standards she appeared cool and even a little standoffish; she was more on the prickly end of the mothering spectrum than the cuddly end of the spectrum. My mother was always sensibly dressed, but she did not dress like those mothers on the television, she dressed like the sensible New England Yankee that she was. She did bake cookies; but she was far more likely to dispense high ambitions for her children than to dispense cookies. As for dispensing kind and heartfelt wisdom, this was not something my mother did; her wisdom was thoughtful, stark, true, occasionally painful, and nearly always right.
My mother was not the stereotypical television mother that we are all supposed to dream of. But then, whose mother is? Maybe some of us here this morning had stereotypical television mothers, and if you did I would love to hear about your perfect mom during social hour. Or maybe some of you here were in fact the perfect wise and warm cookie-baking mom, in which case I would also love to hear from you, and maybe even borrow some of your warmth and wisdom — Lord knows, I could use some. But every mother is first and foremost a unique human being. Some mothers might be able to be a stereotypical warm, welcoming, cookie-baking mom. But all mothers are first and foremost their own selves, unique individuals with unique personal and cultural characteristics that may or may not allow them to fit into the stereotype of the perfect mom.
It seems to me that real-life mothers rarely fit the idealized stereotype. I sometimes find real people who seem to fit most of the characteristics of the idealized stereotypical mom, but not quite all those characteristics. I know someone who has five kids, all adopted from difficult settings, and all the kids are dearly loved and go off to school and come home, and he’s there to fix them a snack and help them with homework. Yes, I said “he’s there to fix them a snack,” because this is a family with two dads. He’s far closer to the ideal of the stereotypical mom than my own mother was. Or let me give you another example: I used to work with a guy named Larry, and his mother died when he was quite small (this was back in the Great Depression). Larry’s father realized that he was “a one-woman man” (those were his terms, according to Larry), and so he raised Larry and Larry’s brothers and sisters all by himself, serving as both mother and father to the children. Mothering and fathering blended together in that family; for Larry, his father was really the only mother he remembered.
Maybe we can begin to come up with a better definition of “mothering.” Maybe we want to say something like this: “Mothering” is a human activity where a caring adult makes sure you’re going to survive until adulthood, and while most mothers are women, there are plenty of men who serve as mothers too. Of course we know that under a strict technical definition, motherhood is a biological fact related to human beings who can bear children, but remember that some biological women are not able to bear children, yet they too can be mothers. Mothering is a human activity that transcends the biological equipment that an individual may happen to have.
So we can say this about mothering as a human activity: Mothering is when a caring adult makes sure a child survives until adulthood. Mothering is most often done by women, but it can be done by men. Mothering and fathering may blend together at times. And there are very few people who are perfect at mothering; even those moms we see on television make mistakes sometimes.
2. In recent years, I have begun to realize that mothering is not limited to adults who have children in their immediate family. I began to realize that every once in a while I got mothered by people to whom I was not related. For example, I was at some political meeting, and I got mothered by someone who is no relation to me. This woman, who is both a mother and a grandmother, greeted me with a big hug, welcomed me, made sure I was comfortable, and then went on to mother someone else.
Human beings are essentially social, tribal animals. Under the leadership of the religious conservatives, contemporary American society tries to tell us that the nuclear family, with a mom and dad and 2.5 children, is the only place where “real” mothering can take place, but of course that’s complete nonsense. There are many other family structures where good mothering takes place: extended families where several generations live together; blended families; families with two dads or two moms; and so on. And indeed, because we are social, tribal animals, mothering can go on in other human institutions, not just in families. I already told you how I got mothered at a political meeting. But what I’d particularly like to talk about is how good mothering can go on in churches.
When I was the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington, the assistant minister there, a woman named Ellen Spero, decided to hold a Sunday evening vespers service, and she got me to help out, and we held these vespers service for the next year and a half, until we both left that church to go on to other churches.
If you attended one of Ellen’s vespers services, the first thing you would notice when you walked in was that all the chairs were in a circle. Once the vespers service started, you would find that it seemed very much like the worship services we have here on Sunday mornings: listening to readings, and singing hymns, and lighting a chalice, and sharing candles of joy and sorrow, and so on. The main difference would be that the sermon might be a sermon, or it might be a short play; or there might be an activity to go along with the sermon, such as drawing with crayons or listening to jazz.
If you were very observant, you might notice some other important things. There was always food at these vespers services. Ellen was a great believer in what she called her “ministry of food,” so she always brought lots of delightful and comforting food. The food was right next to the circle of chairs, and if you arrived early you could have something to eat and drink during the worship service. As a mom and as a feminist, Ellen knew that you have to take care of people’s bodies at the same time you take care of their spirits.
There was always a place for children at these worship services. As the religious educator, I would make sure there was a big rug included in the circle of chairs, with quiet toys and games and crayons and paper. That way, if you wanted to bring your children to the vespers service, they could play quietly on the carpet while you sat next to them. This, too, was an idea that came out of Ellen’s experience as a mom and as a feminist. As a feminist, she knew that many Unitarian Universalist churches have been influenced by the dominant patriarchal culture to think that children are bad, so she fought that by making sure that children were welcomed and seen as good. And as a mom, she wanted to have a worship service that her five-year-old son could attend.
With all the mothering that went on in these vespers services, Ellen was tapping into an old line of Unitarian thought. Back in the 1870s, a group of women Unitarian ministers, mostly based in the Midwest, built vibrant congregations around the idea of the church being like a home. These women, who are often called the Prophetic Sisterhood, felt that when you come into a Unitarian church, it should feel like you’re coming into someone’s house, where you are greeted, and welcomed, where your physical needs are acknowledged, where you can have some cookies. Here in our own church, where we have absolutely no historical connection to the Prophetic Sisterhood, we still live out these ideals. Even here in this room, which is a far more formal architectural space than that used by the Prophetic Sisterhood, we live out these feminist ideals. We acknowledge that people have physical needs: you may notice that lots of people come in late to the worship service, and we don’t mind because we know the reality is that life is complex for many of us, and we get here when we can get here (although I have to say I would prefer to be here early because I would not want to miss Randy’s preludes).
But you can really get a sense of this in our Parish House. When our congregation built the Parish House back in the 1890s, they made it feel like someone’s home. I walk into the Parish House to attend social hour after the worship service, and you see all that warm wood panelling, and the fireplaces, and the kitchen and dining room, and I feel like I’m at home. And because we have been influenced by feminist ideals, we’ve taken that feeling still further. We like to have the children with us during social hour, partly as a feminist manifesto, and partly because it feels more humane, more human, to have children around. And during social hour, we have pretty good food — homemade soup, and sometimes pizza, so if you need to eat, you often can get a pretty good meal here. And the conversations that take place during social hour are sometimes like those conversations you wish you could have had with your mother: touching on the big issues of life, like who we are, and where love comes from, and what we want to do when we grow up.
3. What I think is most important about churches and mothering, though, is that churches can be places that support mothers (and support fathers for that matter). Being a parent is the hardest thing a human being can do. Parents need support. The nuclear family, so beloved of the religious right, does not provide adequate support, and I am not surprised when I hear that the divorce rate among the religious right is higher than among us: they have placed all their eggs in the nuclear family basket, and it’s a pretty fragile basket. Perhaps if you have absolutely the perfect nuclear family with superhumanly talented parents, perhaps then the nuclear family works. But speaking as a pastor, I don’t know of any nuclear families like that; all the nuclear families that I know need far more support than that. We all need lots of other people in our lives.
To me, this is the most important function of our liberal churches today. We exist as religious communities in order to support families — both families with children, and all other families as well. As liberal churches, we do not place restrictions on who is allowed in our religious community — you are welcome no matter what your theology, gender, sexual orientation, family status, gender identity, race or ethnicity, physical or mental ability. We try to live out our highest ideal, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we do this without shoving dogma and creeds down your throat. You can some into a liberal church, bringing your whole self, and feel at home. yes, you may be challenged at times; yes, we have internal fights; yes we make many mistakes. But our ideal is that you can be a part of this community and not have to check part of yourself at the door.
So we welcome all mothers, all those who are engaged in the difficult human activity of mothering. We welcome mothers and their children here. We provide support beyond the over-stressed nuclear family. If you’re a relatively new mother, this is a community where you can be supported by , and learn from, more experienced mothers and grandmothers (some of whom, by the way, might be men). We welcome children, and we provide a safe place for children, hopefully while giving mothers (and fathers) time to take care of their spiritual needs. With ongoing vigilance, we make this congregation an emotionally and physically safe place for children, with many safe and appropriate adult role models.
These represent our bedrock moral values. We value all those involved in mothering. We value all those who mother children; and yes, we also value those people who manage to mother adults too.
In closing, my highest priority for a church is that it should be a place that supports mothering. Freedom of conscience and all that is all very well, but mothering is where it’s at. When I say mothering, I do not mean what the fundamentalists mean. For me, mothering is not restricted by assigned gender, not restricted by sexual orientation, not restricted by traditional gender identity: there are gay men who are good at mothering, and there are men who do not fit into standard gender identity who are good at mothering; similarly, there are women who are better at fathering than at mothering. Nor do I have a stereotyped understanding of mothering: mothering does not need to be cuddly. And given who I am, my sense of mothering is very ambitious for the people being mothered.
But you know, mothering is one of the main reasons I stick with liberal churches.