I was at a function last week where it emerged in conversation that I was preaching on Mother’s Day. One of the guys responded, ‘Ah, that’s easy. You just stand up and in your best Italian accent say ‘Love your mother!’
I smiled. It’s a great sentiment and admonition. But having been around a while, and listened to many people, I know that sometimes love can be complicated. There are a swirl of emotions around mothers and love.
One of my colleagues tells me she always preaches on one of the women in the Bible on Mother’s Day. I find that interesting because the ‘love your mother’ or ‘love your child’ sentiment is hard to find in the Bible. The biblical values around mothering are more about hard work, loyalty, family, and survival – and navigating the complexities of all that.
I took a funeral earlier this year of a woman who, as an infant, had been brought out of China by her mother. It was at the time of the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. That mum walked for weeks. She scrounged for food. She avoided the worst of the violence that preys on solitary women. She had two children with her, but the toddler died. Eventually she made it to Hong Kong, and then some time later, to New Zealand where her husband was. They settled in Hokitika. They liked Hokitika.
It’s an amazing story of endurance – and it’s the values of endurance and family loyalty that form the narrative architecture that still sustains this family today.
As people of the Book, we Christians know about narrative architecture. We can look at the framing of a story – like the Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar saga – and see it from one elevation, the common perspective, which pits the two mothers against each other. The lesson: jealousy causes conflict.
But, we can also see it from another elevation – the failure of the patriarch Abraham to give his firstborn son his legitimate status and honour, and the consequences of that not only for that son (Ishmael) and his mother (Hagar), but also for the mother (Sarah) of his second born son (Isaac). Lesson: the failure to give due honour causes conflict.
There are other elevations/perspectives too. Where is love in this Abrahamic saga? It is never mentioned. What is the good of jealousy or honour if love is absent? In this story of survival, of family dysfunction, and the consequences of distrust, love doesn’t get a look in.
Last Sunday the youth group and I spend some time considering happiness. Thinking about what makes us happy is a way of thinking about our deeply held values. When we had to rank those values, money didn’t make it into the top three. The top three were family, inner contentment, and good health.
There is a story told of fifty people attending a seminar. The speaker gave each participant a balloon and asked everyone to write his/her name on their balloon using a marker pen. Then all the balloons were collected and put in another room.
Next all fifty delegates were let into that room and asked to find the balloon which had their name written, within five minutes. Everyone was frantically searching for their name, colliding with each other, pushing around others and there was utter chaos. At the end of five minutes no one had found their own balloon.
Then each person was asked to randomly collect a balloon and give it to the person whose name was written on it. Within minutes everyone had their own balloon.
The speaker explained: “This is what is happening in our lives. Everyone is frantically looking around for their share of happiness, not knowing where it is. Our happiness lies in the happiness of other people. Once we give them theirs, and we will probably get ours. And this is the purpose of human life."
In one of our church windows is Annie James. At age 28, after having learnt the Cantonese language, she left New Zealand to join the Canton Villages Mission. She trained in midwifery, as a Karitane nurse, a maternity nurse, and in child welfare. She opened a hospital in Kaai Hau in 1930 and worked there for most of the next 21 years. She wrote a handbook in Cantonese on the principles of infant feeding and hygiene. She lived through some of the most turbulent times in Chinese history. She never married, but she adopted five children. Annie was a solo mum whose purpose in life was others’ happiness. It was giving to others that gave meaning to her life – and also, I suspect, gave her happiness.
One of the longest biblical texts about mothering is Proverbs 31:10-31. To refresh your memory this is a chapter often titled ‘the capable (or good) wife’. It is sometimes read at weddings where the agenda is to affirm the supposedly innate wisdom of patriarchal marriage. But, the dissonance between the proverbial ‘capable wife’ and the reality of our lives today is huge.
Let me explain: in Proverbs 31 the capable wife buys fields, plants a vineyard, seeks wool, flax and food from afar, checks over the merchandise, orders her household (including the servants), she makes clothes and coverings, she is strong and dignified and kind, and she’s busy! (No kidding!). So ‘the capable wife’ is a business woman, a property developer, a vintner, a seamstress, a manager, a textile merchant, and a cook. She’s a wonder woman!
Although her kids call her ‘happy’ and her husband praises her, there’s nothing in the text about being a soulmate to her husband or caring for or befriending her children. And of course, the ‘love’ word is completely missing. But that’s not to say she didn’t love them.
My guess is that for the author of Proverbs 31 the capable wife’s ‘love’ was manifested by providing for and managing the patriarchal household. This is similar to the narrative scripts that men in the past were raised on: ‘to provide for is to love’. The two words, provide and love, were said to be synonymous. Nowadays we want something more of parents than just being providers. We want a depth of relationship that the word ‘love’ points to.
The Proverbs 31 ‘capable wife’ was ironically far removed from most mothers in the time when the Book of Proverbs was written. She was from a land-owning class, when the vast majority were not. And ironically too, the ‘capable wife’ has some general similarities with mothers in our day who are trying to manage multiple responsibilities and pressures inside and outside the home. Our modern expectations of mothers are huge.
I’m not sure that a Mother’s Day sermon is really an admonition to ‘love your mother’. Nor is it I think appropriating the story of a biblical mother and translating her into the context of today. The gulf from the Bible to today is pretty wide.
Rather I think Mother’s Day is about appreciating your mother and valuing that relationship. It is about appreciating firstly that you were born and are still alive. It’s about appreciating that the circumstances of the time of your mother’s life were different from your own, and she was shaped by those, and made choices that are probably different from the choices you might make today. It’s about appreciating that the word ‘love’ has many faces, and it often takes a lifetime to understand your mother’s. It’s about appreciating, valuing the relationship you have or had, and learning thankfulness.