Saturday, May 12, 2007

Mother's Day Sermon

During the season my husband and I were trying to conceive our first child, we had occasion to visit Washington D.C. for my cousin’s wedding. He had never been there before, and we had some time, so we did a bit of sightseeing. One spot we chose to visit was the Vietnam memorial, designed by Maya Lin. He and I had studied this memorial in an art history class, and I was excited to see this important, relatively new, piece of public art.

I didn’t expect to cry there.

But walking about a hundred feet ahead of us, I watched a mother and her son, a boy who looked about eight or nine. I noticed that the farther along the memorial they walked, the tighter her hold around his shoulders became. I could read her thoughts as clearly as I could read the many names inscribed in that wall: "Please don’t let this happen to my boy." And that moment gave me just a tiny glimpse of what to expect of parenthood.

Mother’s Day, despite what Hallmark and FTD and Godiva might tell us, was not conceived as a day to celebrate mothers. On the contrary. It was originally envisioned by Julia Ward Howe (who penned "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"). Valarie Ziegler, a former Presbyterian minister who also was one of my religion professors at Rhodes, has written a biography of Howe and says that "Howe was very interested in the Women's Suffrage Movement, in particular, and the Franco-Prussian War – it’s not a war that most Americans or probably even most Europeans think too much about. But in 1870, she looked at this war and she began asking herself, why is it that nations do this to one another? And in particular, she began thinking about what might be possible for women to do on behalf of humanity. And women in this day and age were supposed to be confined to the home. They weren't supposed to be out making speeches or working for political change. And Howe really wanted to find a way for women to express what she thought was an innate nature of love for God and love for humans. She thought that being a mother really was a powerful experience and that after having been a mother, no one could willingly see their sons go off to war to be slaughtered, so she began to organize on behalf of women for peace, basically. And again, her theory was men just seem to be innately aggressive, and the only hope for civilization is for women to speak a different kind of voice. So, she held peace conferences both in the United States and in Britain, and by 1872, she began proclaiming that June 2 every year would be a Mother's Day for Peace. And so, Mother's Day originally was not a day when dad cooked and you went to church, and the ladies got applause and everything. It was really a day for women to come together and to call men and the world to see the necessity for living in peace, rather than giving into the ravages and aggressions of war. So, yeah, Mother's Day is really a day of activism."

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Howe’s assertion that men were "innately aggressive" or that women naturally have a "different kind of voice," but I do agree that the experience of parenthood is indeed powerful and transforming. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life that I could envision sending anybody off to war, but that deep, deep belief that we must find nonviolent ways to solve the world’s problems was certainly cemented once I became a mother. And cemented tenfold when I had a son.

As a young mother, I was fortunate to learn early that motherhood is not something to be done alone. Parents need that village of helpers as much as the children do. My village was filled with women with all kinds of skills and experience, all kinds of interests and talents.

That village is here, in this church. It is here, in Memphis. It is here, in the United States. And yes, it is here, in the world. Those children way over there, across the sea? Those children are part of my village.

Newspaper columnist and author Ina Hughes wrote a poem years ago that has been read during UNICEF’s World Summit for Children and has been reproduced in numerous magazines and journals about religion, education, public policy, and human service groups. You may have already seen it or heard it. But if you haven’t, here’s your chance.

A Prayer for Children

We pray for children
Who give us sticky kisses,
Who hop rocks and chase butterflies,
Who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,
Who sneak Popsicles before supper,
Who erase holes in math workbooks,
Who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those
Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
Who’ve never squeaked across the floor in new sneakers,
Who’ve never "counted potatoes,"
Who are born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead,
Who never go to the circus,
Who live in an x-rated world.

We pray for children
Who bring us fistfuls of dandelions and sing off-key,
Who have goldfish funerals, build card-table forts,
Who slurp their cereal on purpose
Who get gum in their hair, put sugar in their milk,
Who spit toothpaste all over the sink,
Who hug us for no reason, who bless us each night.

And we pray for those
Who never get dessert,
Who watch their parents watch them die,
Who have no safe blanket to drag behind,
Who can’t find any bread to steal,
Who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
Whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
Whose monsters are real.

We pray for children
Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store
And pick at their food
Who like ghost stories,
Who shove dirty clothes under the bed
And never rinse out the tub
Who get quarters from the tooth fairy
Who don’t like to be kissed in front of the car pool
Who squirm in church and scream in the phone
Whose tears we sometimes laugh at
And whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren’t spoiled by anybody
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
Who live and move, but have no being.

We pray for children
Who want to be carried
And for those who must.
For those we never give up on,
And for those who don’t have a chance.
For those we smother,
And for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer.

Here in Memphis, we are blessed to have material evidence that dreams can become real. When Danny Thomas founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, he did so with the dream that no child should die in the dawn of life. Through his, and the organization he founded, ALSAC’s, efforts, St. Jude has become one of the most well-funded non-profit organizations in the world. It’s an easy sell, really. Children with cancer tug just about everyone’s heartstrings.

But just across Auction Avenue is another non-profit, which has an awful lot in common with St. Jude. BRIDGES strives to provide experiential, hands-on learning for youth and adults to be leaders in fighting racism, poverty and educational challenges. While I see that BRIDGES is a thriving organization in its own right, I also know that fundraising in the shadow of St. Jude is difficult.

But why is it more difficult for a group which serves a much larger population to raise money? Why are we, as a society, less willing to help children who are healthy but poor? Why don’t these groups get the support of celebrities and radio stations? Now, I’m not telling you that you should stop giving to St. Jude. Heck, that’s my paycheck! But I do think we need to support the children who don’t have world-class public relations departments advocating for them. Those children are in our village.

Hugh and Gayle Prather, in their book "Spiritual Parenting," say it better than I can.

"If the world wanted to feed starving children, it could do so easily. If the world wanted to outlaw acts of war against children, it could do so easily. If the world wanted to provide homeless children with shelter, it could do so easily. But children are not a priority in the world, and they never have been. Experience shows that we can’t look to our world leaders or our religious leaders to cleanse our collective soul and redirect our energies toward children. That leaves you and me… We must simply begin – today – to cherish and protect the children in our own homes, our own schools, and our personal lives. Within a world that has done very little for children, that is at least something."


Mom said...

You have demonstrated that you are a "thinking" blogger. Good job.

Anonymous said...

Inspirational. I heard your voice with every word.

I appreciate the reminder about the origin of Mother's Day, but the prayer for children especially got my attention.