The Mothering Spirit

What is your favorite memory of your mom? Maybe it had something to do with baking cookies, or nighttime prayers, or a time you really made her laugh. One of my sweetest, happiest memories with my mom is just a little snapshot in my mind, as she and I walked together in downtown Indianapolis one winter evening while my brother was at Junior Achievement. I don’t remember us saying anything to each other, but I was quite small, maybe 4 or 5 years old. I was holding my mom’s hand as we walked along, looking at the store windows. We stood outside L. S. Ayres for a long time because I was just mesmerized by the colorful moving characters—they had their Christmas displays up: elves in Santa’s workshop and children being tucked into bed so Santa could come. It all seemed so magical to me. The whole memory is special–special because of the wonder and beauty I felt, special that Mom and I had that time together, and special that we were holding hands.

Love can be so simple, can’t it? And 55 years later, I can tell you: it lasts.

Chances are that your best memories of your mom have something to do with love too. The way she took care of you or brushed your hair out of your eyes. Maybe it was the fact that she could always see the good in you, even when you couldn’t, or she encouraged your dreams and somehow smoothed away your doubts. There are as many moms in our world as there are children who hug them, and each mother and child relationship is completely unique, fresh and new, never to be repeated. We all have ups and downs in our relationships, things we regret and things we hope to improve in the future, and there are always bumps and bruises on the way to growing up, but no matter how long we have them with us, our biological, adopted, or moms by choice are some of our most powerful teachers. They show us what love is. They teach us trust. They model compassion, intelligence, courage. They help us se why it matters to tell the truth, to be true to who we are, to do the right thing and be kind to others.

In our Old Testament reading today, we heard about Hannah, a good and faithful woman who is desperately grieving the fact that she hasn’t been able to have a child. Her husband Elkanah has another wife—that was allowed in that day and age—and his other wife has had several children already, a fact she lords that over Hannah, which increases Hannah’s grief. But Hannah’s husband loves her dearly and does his best to care for her needs and encourage her outlook. “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” he asked, when he found her grieving. But it didn’t help; God had placed a yearning in Hannah’s heart that couldn’t be met by anything else. One day when they had all gone to the temple, she prayed in great anguish to God and Eli the priest saw her and thought from her behavior she’d been drinking. He made a comment to that effect, and she told him she was simply praying silently, pleading, sorrowing to God, pouring out her heartache. The priest understood and quietly blessed her, saying, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” And something changed in Hannah’s heart in that moment because the scripture says she went her way and ate something, and “her face was no longer downcast.”

Hannah’s prayer that day was answered and soon she gave birth to a son that they named Samuel, meaning “I asked him of the Lord.” She had promised that if she were given the gift of a son, she would dedicate him to God’s service. So soon after Samuel was born, she took him to the temple as she’d promised, and Samuel grew up to be a good and devout man and a great prophet, leader, judge, and priest. In fact Samuel is known as an important prophet in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hannah went with her husband to visit him regularly, and each year she made him a new linen robe and gave it to him at the time of the annual sacrifice. As Samuel grew, he prayed that his mother would be blessed with more children to reward her for her faithfulness to God. And that prayer was answered too: Hannah had three more sons and two daughters, and her mother’s heart felt full and complete.

If you have been a mom or had a mom, you know that mothering, and parenting, and all love, for that matter, involves what may appear to be some degree of sacrifice. The very nature of love asks us to put someone else’s needs and interests ahead of our own. We care for their well-being. We want their safety, their happiness, their health, their peace. It may seem, for a time, like we put our own wants and needs on the back burner. But sooner or later we learn that in God’s economy, we never lose anything when we love because love blesses everyone involved, always. Love is the Great Invitation of our lives, the best use of our time, the purpose behind all our waking hours, and the lasting legacy each of us leaves, after uniquely, indelibly, loving our world and those in it, in a million seen and unseen ways. And it lasts.

It’s what our mothers did, and what we continue to experience of them even now, here or not, as they continue to make us smile or scratch our heads or laugh about something they said or did. Their long-ago voices remind us of things we need to remember; their memory comes to visit us—like Hannah going to see Samuel at the temple—when we need direction or we’re struggling and need comfort, reassurance, or encouragement.

The sense of nurturance God plants in the heart is found in not only humans but in species the world over. Spring in the northern hemisphere means this is the time for new birth—lambs, calves, piglets, and more are making their first appearances, and their parents know instinctively how to care for them and keep them safe. In fact, a source of stress for me this week was a family of ten freshly hatched Canadian goslings that live in the marshy field behind our office. Several times I saw the parents shepherding the toddlers across the road—waddling first to the median, eating some grass, and then jumping down into the street again to cross on the other side. It was so anxiety provoking! They were so tiny and innocent and vulnerable. I’m fighting the impulse to get a crossing guard vest and a stop sign so I can warn drivers to slow down when the babies are crossing. Of course, they don’t really need my protection;  the parents do a good job on their own, one leading the group and one following after, honking loudly the whole way.

We are designed, hard-wired, even, to help each other and look after one another. It’s what love does—it cheers on and nurtures other life. Yes, this is true for our very own kin in our very own species. But it’s also the basis for all kindness and connection across the world. Life cares about life. God has designed that into every atom, every cell, every fiber of our being. And when open our hearts to that deep reverence and appreciation for life, we discover not only our responsibility to one another but how good it feels when we share the love that it is in us. It is the mothering spirit, the phenomena of life reaching out to itself in each one of us, imprinted with the love and goodness of God.

That’s what was going on in our New Testament story for today. It’s just a short and often-overlooked snippet from the eighth chapter of Luke.

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

The women Luke mentions play a vital but quiet part in Jesus’ teaching ministry. They were among his first and most devoted followers. Their lives had been forever changed—and in some cases, healed—by their personal encounter with the love of Christ. They weren’t looking for fame or recognition, because women at that time generally didn’t hold positions of power in the court or synagogue. They traveled along with this group of motley disciples by their own choice, caring for the people, probably cooking meals and providing what comfort and care they could. Luke says they supported the growing effort “out of their own means.” Life supporting life. It’s possible some were women of wealth—in particular Joanna, whose husband managed Herod’s household. But their involvement was all their own choosing. They were drawn to Jesus’s message and ministry and the love it ignited inspired them to do what they could to help the movement live and grow and flourish.

It’s that Mothering Spirit, nurturing the idea of goodness, the possibility of love, the long-range dream and hope of a better future for all God’s children.

In a fascinating and well-written book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, author, researcher, and professor Suzanne Simard writes about what makes forests thrive. As a student in forestry school, she’d been taught that individual trees compete for resources—for sunlight, nutrients, and room to grow. But a few years later, when she was working to reforest areas cleared by logging companies, she discovered clues that led her to a different conclusion. Simard writes,

“…the old and young are perceiving, communicating, and responding to one another by emitting chemical signals. Chemicals identical to our own neurotransmitters…The older trees nurture the young ones and provide them food and water just as we do with our own children. It is enough to make one pause, take a deep breath, and contemplate the social nature of the forest and how this is critical for evolution…These old trees are mothering their children.
When Mother Trees—the majestic hubs at the center of the forest communication, protection, and sentience—die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape. It’s what all parents do.”

Instead of the forest being a collection of independent trees and life forms most concerned with their own survival, she discovered that the forest is a whole, interconnected and complex system of life. All life—from microorganisms to the tallest ancient trees—cooperates to sustain and help the whole system flourish over time. Healthy and sustainable life is not about creating strong, surviving individuals but about nurturing cooperative communities that care.

Jesus was telling us this same thing, in different words. The kingdom of God is within us, he said—but not in any one of us, individually; all of us together. We are to love each other as we love ourselves. We are asked to get the boards out of our own eyes so we can help someone else remove the speck from her own. Jesus’ teachings taught us to care about other people’s needs and forgive one another and make hard choices in the hopes that we all might discover the kingdom together, family members and strangers alike.

It’s that caring, nurturing, protecting quality—the Mothering spirit—that does the loving, connecting work in our whole global neighborhood. We are wired for it, and it feels good and right to us when we do it. In an article, entitled, “Kindness,” the writer John Aske says, “Kindness is the space in the heart that grows larger and larger until it can encompass the world.” He tells the story of a time, not long after his mother passed away, when he was trying to sell her car, which was in very good condition and had low mileage. But dealerships wouldn’t give him much for it—not what it was worth—and it left him feeling frustrated and out-of-sorts. A wise friend said, “Trying to sell it is just making you angry—you’d be better off giving it away.” He soon discovered that his God-daughter needed a car and after he gave it to her, he wrote, “I was amazed at the delight this gave me. I found that as emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Kindness is [our] greatest delight.” He also includes this quote:

“Once you put kindness back in the picture, there can be no such thing as the isolated self…once we allow [kindness] as a pleasure, it makes us more porous, less insulated and separated from others.”

That’s how we nurture the kingdom of God around us and within us, right now. The Mothering spirit, caring for all life, with kindness, tenderness, nurturance as our guide. Perhaps this Mother’s Day, as we think of and appreciate our own mothers, we can also rededicate ourselves to nurturing the seeds of kindness and care God has planted in the heart of every person the whole world over. The result could be peace and beauty and harmony surpassing anything we can imagine. And because kindness is our delight, it will fill our days with joy.

Happy Mother’s Day, Friends.

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