Seeing all the Mother's Day greetings on Facebook this morning got me thinking about the meaning of motherhood. What is a mother, anyway? The ideal mother, that icon of patience, virtue, gentleness and sacrificial love who is celebrated in the greeting cards and television commercials today is, of course, nonexistent. Every mother on the planet is nothing more than another wretched sinner in need of salvation. I know that as much as I personally try to be a good wife and mother, every night when I go to bed I have to acknowledge that the day is littered with my failures: my selfishness, my neglect of my loved ones, my bad-temperedness, my impatience, my ungratefulness, my resentment of the ways I am called to serve, my . . . well, you get the picture. Thanks be to God that I don't have to approach sleep burdened by my sinfulness but that, looking to the Cross, I can close my eyes with a clear conscience, knowing that Jesus died for my sins, too--yes, even those.
And yet, even as I acknowledge my own shortcomings and those of my fellow mothers, I must also admit that there are countless women who by the grace of God model many of those characteristic maternal qualities that we honor this day. The thing is, not all of them are mothers. For reasons that are known only to our Heavenly Father, they were not called to the vocation of motherhood through either biology or the choice to be an adoptive or foster parent. Nevertheless, in their generosity of service and affection, they exemplify the ethic of motherhood. Likewise, there are women who are technically mothers but who fail their children in such far-reaching and irreversibly destructive ways--through abortion and abuse and manipulation and willful neglect--that one wonders how they can even be called "Mother."
Today I would like to call to mind a few women I have known who have modeled motherhood for me. Some of them have had their own children; some of them have not. But whether they had children or not, each allowed herself to be used by God for the purpose of mothering the people in her life, and I have been blessed to see the consequences.
I think today of . . .
Aunt Lou, my godmother. She did not have children of her own. Older sister to my father, she was like a grandmother to me, whose grandparents were distant and largely unknown. Her visits always meant lemon meringue pies (which I never had the heart to tell her I didn't much like), eating together around the table (which we rarely did when I was growing up), and praying before eating (which we also never did). Aunt Lou was joyful and irrepressible, and she loved her "dear ones" deeply and unrestrainedly. May she rest in peace.
My friend Phyllis, wife of my pastor, and quiet and humble servant of our congregation. She and Pastor do not have children, but they are godparents to many, including my youngest, Evan. Evan delights in his "Auntie Phyllis" because he senses how much she loves and delights in him. We may not have any extended family in our congregation or even in the area, but Pastor and Phyllis make us feel as though we do.
My cousin Kimberly, whose troubled young mother took her own life when Kimberly was but 8 or 9 years old. Yet Kimberly by the grace of God has managed to turn that horrible tragedy in her life into a reason not to doubt and repudiate the power of love but rather to pursue and welcome it. She is one of the most affectionate, cheerful, loving and life-embracing people I have ever known. And she is one of the few relatives I have who takes an active interest in my own children, championing them and their accomplishments with a mother's passion. Kimberly may have lost her mother far too soon and may not be a mother herself, but she understands motherhood, and she understands the value of family.
I think today of several of my sisters who did not have the strongest foundation for starting out in life and who too young found themselves mothers. From them I learned that no matter the circumstances, a baby is a blessing and a gift, to be received with joy, loved unconditionally and cared for and nurtured no matter what sacrifices one must make to do so.
I think today of the ladies who have stood in as caregivers for my own children, particularly of Kay and Ina, who have children of their own but who when they have cared for mine have treated them as their own, loving, teaching and disciplining them with a mother's heart.
I think today of the many women I have known both up close and at a distance who have taught me that the most important calling a mother has is to raise her children in the fear and love of God.
And I think of my own mother, who herself was not mothered well and who also became a mother before she was ready. She has nine children, seven of whom are still living and two who went to heaven before they were born. She did not have strong parenting help from either of her husbands, and she would be the first to admit that she, like all of us, has sometimes failed in her vocation. But her love for her children, her willingness to work and sacrifice to provide for them, her honesty, her humility, and her deeply held desire for her children to be happy and have the best in life, have never been in question. You know those mothers who lord over their children and try to control them, who expect them to behave in a certain way and who punish them when they don't, and who insist on being the center of attention in the family, getting angry when they are not? You know the kind of woman I'm talking about--the one who will never let you hear the end of it if you forget that today is Mother's Day. Well, my mother is the polar opposite of that woman. She expects little and appreciates what comes her way. Today I would like to thank her for all she has given me and try to impress upon her that it is okay now to be done with giving and to simply receive. To need someone to help and care for you is nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact, what God wants most for each of us is that we might simply acknowledge our dependence on Him and receive the gift of forgiveness and love He offers.
So to my own mom, and to all other mothers who are reading this, I would like to say: you have nothing to prove, nothing to accomplish, nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. Your sins have been paid for. Your failures have been erased. You don't need the forgiveness of the sinners you bore. The only forgiveness you need is that of your Lord, and you already have that, have had it for all time. Jesus loves you as your parents couldn't, as your husbands couldn't, as your friends couldn't, and as your children can't. He loves you, finally, as you cannot love yourself. His love is more than enough, and it comes to you new every day, never to run out. Receive it, and be glad. You are His beloved child, and that is all that matters.