It’s always been awkward for me as a pastor to talk about Mother’s Day. Of course I don’t really need to. I have the freedom of the pulpit, which this church has provided and of which I’m very grateful for. And if I had wanted to stick to the church religious calendar versus the Hallmark calendar we’re in the season of Easter, not Mother’s Day, so there is no more reason to raise it than any other day, one would think.
But I keep getting drawn to it, I still feel moved to relate to it. I’ll explore why in a bit. But first, I was in foster care from the age of five to eleven. I’ve never met my birth mother since. Then I was adopted by a single father, so my memories of motherhood are somewhat limited. I also know that not everyone has had a relation with their birth mother that they treasure and so some churches will avoid this day, believing that to raise this issue is to raise all we wish would have been different in our families.
But I think that could be a mistake. If the GLBT movement has taught us anything it has been to re-imagine families. When I was a graduate student I had a professor of mine in philosophy write an article titled “Making the Family Functional”. It was a case for same sex families and the first step that was taken in that piece was to identify the functions of families what do they do? And to move away from the question of what are they, what is their ontology.
In other words, you can identify families within those individuals that do family. That is they provide nurture, support, freedom to grow, security, relations that can last a lifetime. They provide your first moral lessons, indicate what kind of world you live in, pass on memories and traditions. That should be biological families, but it isn’t always. But for any of us to be who we are here today, we had that in some measure from some important people in our lives.
In talking with the Department of Human Services here DHS, I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that most of the folks taking on foster and adoptive children are relatives, others who had to step in, the raising of children. They included grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. In my own birth family I have connected to a birth sister who, being 12 years older than I, performed that task of parenting.
That’s a burden no kid should be asked to take on but I remain grateful nonetheless.
It indicates an inner drive in us that John Cobb calls responsive love that yearns to relate to others in ways of love and support and connection. That doesn’t always work, it can become misdirected or blunted by other drives. Human beings are complex that way. But there is something basic to be found here.
I found it in other people. I had a range of foster mothers and memories that I carry with me in that, but I also had other mothers. Friends I had in high school, I think I spent more time with their mothers, than anyone else. I suspect some of you have been that kind of mother, the one the neighbors’ kids connect with. One that comes to my mind, Nancy Norsby, was also a school teacher and in some measure it was her role in the schools that she provided that role for countless kids.
I found it in the church. I found a safe welcoming environment growing up, cross generational relationships, some of which have lasted to this day. I found it in friendships that in my adult years have defined my sense of self ways of relating to the world. For any who have been in graduate school, academia, this is where a lot of that comes from. You might recognize that in your own experiences of academia. For some, activism has provided that, the relations of those we work with for a more humane and shared world. Now living in OK, and seeing how small and tight the networks are here, you’re bound to find sustaining relations there.
In all this, responsive love happens, it’s not tied to biology or station in life. It’s more fundamental than that. In the Greco Roman world, Aristotle, had a rather rigid system of relations and therefore obligations towards one another. It starts with the biological family, moves to your superiors, then to your city, your state, and outwards. You can think of this as circles of obligation and relation.
It is rigid because the idea of responsive love is circumscribed depending on station in life. In this account, you cannot become friends with the gods, because the gods are your superior. You cannot be friends with women, with children, with slaves because they are your inferior. Compare this with the Gospel of John who writes:
“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
By using the idea of friendship, the Greeks heard, equality, the division we have between each other, our station in life is put aside, instead rather our primary response is of love, to one another. The divisions between each other, between God, and our world have fallen apart. That is my understanding of at-one-ment. It’s a silly play on words but its meaning remains, that in the ministry of Jesus, the early church saw for a moment at least, the ability to be one with each other and with God.
Ultimately that is why I also get drawn to holidays like Mother’s Day. The church calendar is there to recount the stories of the past that God has done. Inevitably these stories are supernatural, they involve a miracle, some suspension of reality as we know it. The resurrection, ascension Sunday, the virgin birth. But I think the secular calendar, allows us to see God in this life and world, here and now.
There appear to be two forms of that. The nature holidays, like Thanksgiving, Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter. Then there are the relational holidays, significant events in the life of people, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, and even OU graduation day. They point to all those people, resources, events, features of our life and relations which sustain the human person, allow us to grow, develop, and to love.
That is my understanding of God in any case. By bringing in these holidays, we announce that the God of the Bible is the God alive now, at work, sustaining, nurturing, and growing us. It was never dependent on biology, on station in life, it was dependent on those who as Rita Nakashima Brock writes, “embrace the eros that empowers human beings as social creatures to seek others – these are spiritual powers that deliver salvation..”
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma