Happy Mother’s Day! Whether you are a mother or you have or had a mother—which should pretty much cover us all—I hope you feel especially loved and appreciated—and grateful–on this day that is set aside to recognize the gifts of love, nurturance, and care that have been part of all our lives.
If you’re on social media, you know this week has been full of posts about mothers—old pictures, old stories, lots of thank yous, lots of love. As I was thinking about my topic for this week’s message, I found several examples of household rules that moms had posted. Maybe some of these will sound familiar to you. One sign I found said:
- If I cook it…you eat it.
- If I buy it…you wear it.
- If I wash it…you put it away.
- If I clean it…you keep it clean.
- If I say bedtime…you say goodnight.
- If I say get off the phone…you hang up.
- If I say no…you don’t ask why. Because I’m the mom, that’s why.
Another sign said:
- #1 Mom’s the Boss
- #2 See Rule #1
But the one I liked best was this one:
Mom’s Rules for a Happy House:
- Be kind.
- Forgive quickly.
- Tell the truth.
- Love each other.
- Have fun.
That just about covers it, doesn’t it? The law and the prophets, as Jesus might say.
Chances are, when you were a kid, you had these kinds of practical rules to abide by too. Maybe you were expected to make your bed in the morning, turn your bedroom light off before school (I seemed to have a mental block about that one). It might have been your job to set the table for supper and dry the dishes afterward. I always wanted to be the one to wash, but they made me dry instead because when I was little I had developed a reputation for eating the Ivory liquid soap suds. They tasted good!
Maybe your rules had more to do with things like being in before dark, finishing your homework before you went out to play, or where in your neighborhood you were free to roam.
But in addition to these kinds of expectations, which keep a household running, there are also bigger, life rules in play as we grow up. Rules that have something to do with the character and tradition of our families, the way we treat other people, and the living out of our faith. These types of rules involve both a looking back and a looking forward: Looking back, we honor what’s been important in our family—who we are, what we value–we recognize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. And looking forward, we are the ones carrying our families into a new day, in a new time, adding new people.
In our scripture readings today, we heard parents being reminded to both look back and look forward as they care for their children and help them grow. In Deuteronomy, Moses is reminding the people of Israel to never forget how God brought them out of bondage and led them to a better land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses told parents to tell their children and their children’s children—to guard their hearts and minds and preserve their memories so this legacy of God would live on in their souls and in their community.
In the New Testament reading, Jesus is speaking to a huge crowd on the mountainside, and in the passage Sherry read for us, he tells those gathered something about how creation works in God’s realm, how attentive God is to our cares and concerns. We are heard, Jesus says. We are answered. When we ask, or search, or knock, God himself is responding, moment by moment. Jesus tries to help those listening understand the depths and breadth of God’s divine, all-encompassing care for us by appealing to the love parents in the crowd have for their own children. “Who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? If a child asks for fish, would you give a snake?” The answer is that no one would do that, if they love their children. And that’s what comes from our limited human love for one another. How much more, Jesus asks, how much greater—how infinitely tender is the love of God?
Jesus goes on to offer what we typically refer to as the Golden Rule, a tenet that exists in similar forms in all the world’s great religions. Jesus says, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” That sums it all up, Jesus says. If we can do that one thing well, we will recognize “that of God” within and among us, leading and guiding, and bringing peace.
The Golden Rule was something my mom taught early and used often. It was her answer to misunderstandings with friends, how to react when a teacher is mean, how to relate to new people that were different from me. “Treat other people as you want to be treated” was a kind of compass I could steer by in my interactions with others.
“Don’t cry wolf” was another important rule I learned young. One evening when I was in first or second grade, mom and I were washing and drying the dishes after supper. She asked me if I’d ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf. I said I hadn’t. She told me the story and explained the moral: Be honest or people might not believe you when you really need them to. It seems the school nurse had called her at work that day and asked her to come pick me up early because I’d complained of a stomachache. After watching me all afternoon—and seeing me eat a big dinner—she was convinced my illness was at least partly fabrication. She wasn’t wrong about that, I’m still a little embarrassed to admit. Her well-timed, “Don’t cry wolf” story made me think twice about exaggerating my symptoms after that.
Another big rule—one that’s not so simple today—is “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” We’re living in a time where truth is vitally important, especially when there are wounds to heal and injustices to address. But when my mom spoke those words, back in the late 60s, she was telling me not to complain about things, criticize others, or gossip about people behind their backs. She taught me that my words matter and that a needlessly harsh word can damage the trust in a relationship. Putting people down injures their hearts and bruises their spirits. It reminds me of an old Sufi saying:
“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself, “Is it true?” At the second, ask, “Is it necessary?” At the third gate, ask, “Is it kind?”
Maybe of all Mom’s rules, the one I am most grateful for is, “Go and see for yourself.” This has to do with not simply taking another’s word for something or going along with the pack, but to get a read on things from your own perspective, listening to your own heart. It’s my mom’s way of asking George Fox’s question, “What canst thou say?” In his case, Fox was trying to encourage early Friends to open their hearts and become alive to their own faith. Let Christ teach them himself, drawing them into their own leadings and unique responses to scripture. In my circumstance, Mom was encouraging me to not give up on something too soon—to go and try it and see how I felt before deciding. That turned out to be some of the greatest advice of my life, something I still follow to this day. “What canst thou say?” is the question at the heart of a unique, authentic, well-lived life.
Of course, it was also inevitable that somewhere along the line I would learn that mom wasn’t infallible. I remember the time in fifth grade when I had to give what we called a morning talk, a 10-minute presentation on any topic, complete with visual aids. Mom had driven me to school that day to help me take all my poster boards in, and there had been an ice storm that morning. So we parked in a spot in front of the school, but we discovered quickly that it was on a bit of an incline. As we opened the doors to our old green Chevrolet, she said, “Be careful on the ice! It’s sli—–”
Mid-word, she disappeared. She was down! She had wiped fully out on the ice.
I was dumbfounded, standing there clinging to my door on the other side. I wasn’t sure what to do. For a moment, it was both hilarious and shocking. My mom could fall down? And then of course, it hit me that she might be hurt, and I called her name and half-shuffled, half skated around the car to find her on her hands and knees, using the door to pull herself up. She was okay. She carefully picked up the posters, regained her balance, looked at me out of the side of her eye, and said “Don’t do that,” as we began shuffling together toward the school.
Later in her life, one of my mom’s key messages to me was the reminder, “Be gentle with yourself.” This was a touching and fascinating thing coming from her, because from what I’d seen, as long as I’d known her, mom wasn’t very good at that. She’d always been a perfectionist who did her best to live up to the highest expectations—which she kept raising on herself. And that didn’t always work out well. But as we both got older, I noticed that her counsel to me grew softer. She started urging me to let things go, to take it easy, to remember that things work out. I wondered whether those were things she was learning herself, for herself. Little by little, I did learn how to be more gentle with myself, to give myself a break, and to practice self-care when I felt overwhelmed. Somehow, between the two of us—I guess it took us two lifetimes—Mom and I gradually learned how to accept more grace into our lives. That’s a big win for both of us.
So what rules did your mom’s words, actions, and example plant in your mind and heart? Which ones are you still living by today? Which did you pass along to your own children and grandchildren? In that way, our moms have been helping us look back and move forward, carrying the traditions of our families to future generations. Their love taught us and blessed us and guided us—and guides us still. And even more than that, Jesus says—and this is hard to get our minds around—even more than the love of the person who loved us best in the world, we are loved and attended and cared for by God.
Maybe this Mother’s day, we can feel gratitude for the mothers in our families, stretching all the way back to our very first ancestor in the very first generation. And perhaps we can extend that blessing to all the moms who will come after us, praying that they too will remember to look back and see all that God has done in our family throughout the ages, even while realizing that this loving Mother-Father God, in a very real way, is right by their side, too.
- Deuteronomy 4: 9
- Matthew 7: 7-12