Adventus

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day 2013

So I came across this about today (although it's 3 years old):

I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. Even the turn-off-your-cellphone announcer is going to open by saying, “Happy Mother’s Day!” You could always hide in a nice seedy bar, I suppose. Or an ER.
And my first thought was how uncomfortable I was folding "Mother's Day" into the worship service on that Sunday morning in May.  It wasn't as bad as "Scout Sunday," when the colors were trooped down the main aisle of the nave and everyone all but saluted (false idols!).  It was worse than Father's Day, which wasn't much fun either (and, full disclosure, I actively dissuade my daughter from observing Father's Day in my own home; I always have, I always will.  I am not worthy.)

Mostly I didn't like it because it had no place on the liturgical calendar, and no real place in liturgical worship.  I wasn't a purist about worship, but worship is for contemplating and praising and seeking the presence of, God.  And Mother's Day is for...well, Hallmark and See's.

And it's not for people who aren't mothers; or who lost children in childbirth; or whose own mothers were horrors out of a badly written Gothic novel.  And no, that's not an idle statement:  I had a church member in the church I served as a student pastor whose history of family abuse made her not want to call God "Father," as in "Our Father, who art in heaven."  And I couldn't exactly disagree with her.

I'm sure she hated Father's Day like poison.

Not that the rest of us have to "suffer" because of one such unfortunate individual history; but then, excluding Mother's or Father's Day from the worship service isn't exactly my idea of suffering.  We don't have to put it on the back of someone else; we can just say it really has no place in public worship, and give people who do feel excluded on the day (especially from restaurants.  We took the Lovely Wife to lunch on Mother's Day once, a long time ago; we've never made the same mistake again.) a place to feel comfortably included.

Which, after all, is the purpose of the church; at least, in my ecclesiology.  I know that means welcoming the unbaptized and the unrepentant, and maybe even the unbelieving, but...so be it.

Here's hoping you don't feel the need to hide from the day, and that you understand those who might wish to.  And above all: don't misbehave!

ADDING:

Let me sharpen the irony by using this pre-publication update to note the history of Mother's Day, per Diana Butler Bass:

In May 1907, Anna Jarvis, a member of a Methodist congregation in Grafton, West Virginia, passed out 500 white carnations in church to commemorate the life of her mother. One year later, the same Methodist church created a special service to honor mothers. Many progressive and liberal Christian organizations--like the YMCA and the World Sunday School Association--picked up the cause and lobbied Congress to make Mother's Day a national holiday. And, in 1914, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made it official and signed Mother's Day into law. Thus began the modern celebration of Mother's Day in the United States.

For some years, radical Protestant women had been agitating for a national Mother's Day hoping that it would further a progressive political agenda that favored issues related to women's lives. In the late 19th century, Julia Ward Howe (better know for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic") expressed this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, "A Mother's Day Proclamation" calling women to pacifism and political resistance....
 Now, if we could use Mother's Day for that purpose, or to further the kind of social justice Ann Jarvis favored:

...Anna Reeves Jarvis organized poor women in West Virginia into "Mothers' Work Day Clubs" to raise the issue of clean water and sanitation in relation to the lives of women and children. She also worked for universal access to medicine for the poor. Reeves Jarvis was also a pacifist who served both sides in the Civil War by working for camp sanitation and medical care for soldiers of the North and the South. 
 That would be an observance worthy of a church service.  But I can do without the hearts and flowers and schmaltz, thank you very much.

11 Comments:

Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Rmj, I so agree about liturgical celebrations of Mother's Day. A day to honor all those who care for others, no matter their gender and no matter the age of those who require care, would be more fitting to include in church services.

9:43 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

On the other hand, it wasn't Hallmark that first said, "Honor your father and your mother."

Most churches I've attended take a minute on Mother's Day to have the mothers stand, and there's a little applause, and that's it. Given the life-long committment that motherhood entails, it doesn't seem exactly excessive to me.

And since most of the saints in the calendar, I would guess, were childless, it's not like there's some kind of Christian conspiracy to make all the childless people feel bad about themselves.

It's funny, though, isn't it, how we all look at the same thing, and some see it one way and some the other?

For myself, I always like it when Father's Day rolls around. We've never made that big a deal of it. It often consists of my kids saying, "Oh, sorry dad, I forgot." But then they usually say something like, "Come to think of it, though, thanks." Which is always nice to hear.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Most churches I've attended take a minute on Mother's Day to have the mothers stand, and there's a little applause, and that's it. Given the life-long committment that motherhood entails, it doesn't seem exactly excessive to me.

If that's all I'd ever done, I'd have been ridden out of the pulpit on rails.

Oh, wait, that is what happened.....

Anyway, I've seen it get flowerier and flowerier (metaphorically) over time, and not just in churches where I lead the worship. Or maybe it's because I came to feel too many worship services were about the participants and not the object of worship.

Like I say, not as bad as "Scout Sunday." But it's all YMMV.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And since most of the saints in the calendar, I would guess, were childless, it's not like there's some kind of Christian conspiracy to make all the childless people feel bad about themselves.

Nor, frankly, would I say the critique is based on signs of a "conspiracy." But some pains are deep, and very real; and sensitivity to them is not the same as submission to the lowest common denominator.

One excess doesn't wipe away another. And perhaps that "Commitment to motherhood" should be made more communal, and less individual, like: "the issue of clean water and sanitation in relation to the lives of women and children."

Recognizing mothers qua mothers is one thing; recognizing mothers as a symbol and metaphor for our relationship to, and responsibility for, each other, is quite another. The latter, it seems to me, has more place in the worship service.

The former could be done at a church luncheon immediately following....

12:02 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Honor your mother and father throughout their lives as best you can. I'm pleased the priest did not ask mothers to stand today. During the announcements after the service, he wished mothers a Happy Mother's Day.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

What I've said is not due to any personal hurt that I would feel, but what Rmj says is true.

But some pains are deep, and very real; and sensitivity to them is not the same as submission to the lowest common denominator.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more about Mother's Day, for all of the stated reasons. And thanks for including the story of its origins, I had no idea. Fascinating!

Windhorse

5:02 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"Recognizing mothers qua mothers is one thing; recognizing mothers as a symbol and metaphor for our relationship to, and responsibility for, each other, is quite another."

Those are two different things. And my question would be, why would we have any issue with honoring the first--simple, literal motherhood?

For the record, I would probably support all of the political and humanitarian causes you suggest as embodying a metaphorical motherhood. That said, literal motherhood is not those things. Nothing could be more irrelevant to me than that my mother's politics were not those that became my own. And it doesn't strike me as too cloyingly sentimental to note that our mothers literally give us our life, care for us when we are most vulnerable, feed us, hold us, get us through sickness after sickness, to mention just a few. These things they do, not metaphorically, but literally, and they certainly seem to me worthy of the little public honor we pay them.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Had a friend today tell me about attending a Leonard Cohen concert. He said everyone who attended should have earned a MDiv by the time it was over.

I know what he meant; but I suspect non-MDiv students wouldn't.

Mothers qua mothers is different because it is not necessarily communal to honor them as "Mother's Day" does in popular sentiment. Honoring them as part of a communal effort to honor all who struggle, whether it be politically or simply to be good people, would be, as I said, to recognize the importance of relationship. "Mother's Day" is less about relationship than sentiment. Sentiment is fine, but it's a replacement for real feelings, the way adaptations for movies are replacements for the real art of the source (esp. where the movie adds a "happy ending" that the original would never allow).

So, yes: two different things.

And, as I say, one is appropriate for communal worship; the other appropriate for a gathering of the faithful. The former should, as I said, be open to all; and even motherhood (my example about "fatherhood" was quite real) may not be a happy memory for everyone (as a Pastor I learned that all too well). To make the communal worship "safe" for all is a small price to pay, and does nothing to diminish the public honor due to all who care for others.

Now, how much controversy will we engender if the pulpit recognizes all who claim motherhood, even when there are two mommies in the family....?

6:56 PM  
Anonymous DAS said...

Or maybe it's because I came to feel too many worship services were about the participants and not the object of worship.

But isn't that, to some degree, the way it should be?

I remember a (Hasidic, I think) response to the "why do we pray" question comparing prayer to a night watchman who regularly says "it's 1:00 AM and all is well", "it's 2:00 AM and all is well", etc. even if no-one else is awake to hear him. He's saying it not for our benefit, but for his own benefit to focus himself on his tasks.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

DAS--

Excellent point, and, as always, there are two different interpretations of my sentiment, and I meant the other one.

I've always said, consistent with your observation, that prayer was for us, not God. I've never been comfortable with the idea of prayer as petition which God must answer (whether you pray for a pony or for God's peace for someone in mourning). God is not a cosmic slot machine, was the image I usually invoked.

Prayer is to make us mindful of God's presence, rather than to give us access to God's hotline; to put it crudely.

So worship is for us, not for God; who doesn't need it (the other critique of religion, especially Xianity: what kind of "god" needs to be worshipped?). But Annie Dillard (I have to make this short and sweet) notes that being in the presence of God is a perilous business, and not one to be undertaken lightly; to her, worship should acknowledge the tightrope we walk, daring to enter the presence of the Creator of the Universe.

My own metaphor was to reverse the "filling station" version of worship I usually encountered: i.e., Sunday morning "refueled" believers for the week ahead. I preferred to turn that around: the challenge of the encounter with the Creator of the Universe put the rest of the week in proper perspective. The former model says worship is for you, in the world; my model says worship is for you, to see again clearly your place in the world, and with respect to the world.

Still an unsatisfactory way of putting it, but worship that is all about what pleases me, soon becomes worship as entertainment or a pastime; and becomes worship not even in name only. In that case, it's about having a comfortable hour doing what doesn't challenge me at all, but reassures me that my needs are paramount. Not done, in your example, even to focus us on our tasks, but only to focus us on ourselves.

3:18 PM  

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