Mother God, womb of the world, thank you for mothers, who gave us life from their bodies. Life is the gift that makes all other gifts possible, so we say “Thank you, mom, for life.” A mother’s love can be so intimate as to be overlooked. We repent taking our mothers’ love for granted. A mother’s absence can be so painful as to leave us forever scarred. Give us the grace to embrace our own mothering, as imperfect as it may be. Give us the wisdom to honor our mothers in their full humanity. Give us the will as a nation to pay mothers more than just lip service. We pray for equal pay for equal work. We pray for paid maternity leave. We pray for access to health care and housing and education and all of the tools mothers need to flourish. Amen!
Dad used to say to me, “You’re just like your mother.” It was not meant as a compliment. Mom and Dad didn’t get along very well. He saw her as weak and indecisive while at the same time claiming she was scheming and manipulative. In reality, my mother is none of these things. After his death, I gained access to Dad’s medical records which included a diagnosis of “narcissistic personality with a histrionic flair.” This meant that he had a tendency to view himself as persecuted. Dad was gay, and he did have deeply wounding experiences of homophobia. But it was as if he had persecution goggles welded to his face. No matter how much Mom or any of us tried to love him, he had a very difficult time accepting it. The point is, Dad’s accusations weren’t personal. It was the mental illness talking.
It’s also possible that Dad heard the words “you’re just like your mother” said to him when he was a boy. He shared with me that in his mind he was “special” and his mother’s “favorite.” In Dad’s time as in ours, the accusation of being a “momma’s boy” often meant bullying was on the way. Clearly, Dad enjoyed the attention he got from his mother. And he was very close to her. But the relationship between mothers and sons can be complicated. This is due in no small part to sexism and discomfort in the wider culture with males who display “female” qualities (the premise of which I reject all together, by the way. There are no essentially “male” or “female” qualities, only human ones.)
Dad’s accusations often had no basis in reality, but I hope he was right that I am just like my mother. She is strong. She is good. She is an adventurer. And she has never stopped growing and changing in all of the time I’ve known her. She is a happily retired minister and chaplain who has traveled the world and blessed countless lives–not least, mine.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the third week of Lent! We’re haflway through our season of fasting and prayer that ends Easter Sunday! How’s your practice been going? Last Sunday Connecticut shifted to Daylight Savings Time, so now when I get up for my 35 minutes of meditation-prayer, it’s not only quiet but also dark in the house. The pets scamper and wag until I fill their bowls with breakfast. Then I sit on my cushion while morning light slowly fills the sunporch. It sounds lovely. And it is lovely. But while the universe simply does it’s thing without anxiety or self-centered thought, I’m faced with my racing mind. I rehearse conversations I had the night before: “I should have said this!” I write sermons. I add to my to do list. Part of the value of sitting still in silence is accepting the mess that is my own mind. This is important because accepting my own mess is the first step in taking responsibility for it.
While I sit as still as possible I bring my attention to the breath. (Remember: “breath” and “spirit” are the same word in the Bible’s original languages!) My mind inevitably scampers away like a puppy that isn’t yet housebroken, but that’s OK. Puppies scamper. Minds wander. That’s just the nature of puppies and minds. Nevertheless, eventually attention returns to the breath. The longer I remain still, the longer attention remains on the breath. Mind stills. The puppy settles down. I notice a clear, calm space near my heart center. Not everything’s a mess after all. A pure, unchanging oasis exists. I can access it. And so can you.
When my youngest daughter, Olivia, was old enough, Nicole and I invited her to take responsibility for tidying up her own bedroom. Mostly this meant putting her toys in the toybox and books on the bookshelf. Nicole and I did this not because we were trying to be mean, horrible parents, but because we believed (and still believe) that learning to take responsibility for your own mess is a key piece of becoming a mature adult. Nevertheless, Olivia spent hours sitting in the middle of her mess screaming and crying and yelling, “I can’t do it, daddy.” Hoping that Nicole or I would relent and clean up her mess for her. It was tempting. Who wants to listen to a child scream for hours on end?
Instead, I would sit with her in her mess, point to a toy, and say, “Pick up that toy and put it in the box.” When she was truly and finally convinced that I would not clean up her mess for her, Olivia might venture to put a toy in the toybox. Then I’d point to another and repeat the process. It was excruciating and time consuming. No doubt it would have been quicker for me to clean her room for her. But I loved her, and I wanted her to grow into an adult that could take care of herself, so I persisted.
Our Scripture for this coming Sunday comes from Exodus 17. It is one of many “complaint” stories from the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Compared to the reliably brutal structure of Egyptian slavery, freedom in the wilderness was messy and anxiety provoking. The Israelites complained against Moses saying they would rather go back to Egypt than continue through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God’s response to the people’s complaints varied from providing for them to punishing them for their lack of faith.
A key to successful transition is handling anxiety and the resulting complaints. Some complaints express legitimate needs of the community. Even though Olivia was old enough to clean her room, she was not old enough to make her own supper. The need for supper was a legitimate need, so Nicole and I fed her supper, of course. Sometimes, however, complaints arise from emotional or spiritual immaturity. In this case, it is incredibly important for leadership NOT to give in to complaints. Rather, compassionate leadership will equip individuals with the tools to tend to their own mess. Just like each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe space in church by taking responsibility for washing our own hands and managing our own health, each of us has a role to play in maintaining a safe emotional space by finding effective ways to manage our own anxiety.
As a kid I loved adventure. I would spend hours playing outdoors either with friends or by myself. It didn’t matter. As long as there was a hill to be climbed, a trail to be followed, insects to catch, flowers to pick, game to track, berries to harvest, a fort to build it didn’t matter to me whether I was alone or accompanied. I loved to explore.
When it got too dark to play outside, I followed the street lights home, where mom ususally had a casserole in the oven. Soon it was time to set the table for supper. Afterwards it was dishes and homework and lying in bed reading about adventures: Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Just writing it down makes it all seem like a quaint, distant world.
Nevertheless, what I realize now is that safe-enough space to explore on my own, use my imagination, and create adventures with minimal parental supervision was key to who I have become. I still love adventure. I’m happiest when I’m facing the joy and fear of the unknown over the horizon. I didn’t realize it at the time but the safe-enough space I experienced as a child gave me the mix of confidence and caution that has made bigger and bigger adult adventures surviveable, enjoyable, and transformative.
Two weeks ago First Congregational Church of Granby did a worship and workshop around the theme “Know Your ‘Why?’” We explored both our personal “whys” and our “why” as a congregation, that is, what is our purpose? First we had to slog through what turned out to be a series of items that we thought were “whys” but turned out to be “whats.” For example, “To feed the hungry.” That turned about to be “what” we do. The question is why feed the hungry? Finally, after hours of deep conversation, tears, and several attempts at articulating powerful, inarticulate longings of the heart, we came up with “A safe place to explore who you truly are and who God is calling you to be.”
I would say a “safe-enough” place or space is key to all spiritual development. A part of my kid adventures was the possibility of injury, discomfort, getting lost and then reoriented. My vision for First Congregational Church is that we create a spiritual container large enough for each of us to experiment, fail, make mistakes, repent, bactine and bandage our boo-boos, and develop our own sense of self-confidence and self-worth that is not overly dependent on others’ approval. The abundant life Jesus promised is rooted in the declaration at Jesus’ baptism and ours: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well-pleased.” Rev. William Sloane Coffin said, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” Foundational trust in the boundless love of God makes every adventure possible.
This Advent season we’ve explored ways to cultivate hope, peace, joy, and love in our lives. The cultivation of these qualities creates an optimal environment for the Spirit of Christ to be born in our lives. That’s the idea, anyway. This, of course, isn’t a one time or even an annual process. The cultivation of hope, peace, joy, and love is a practice we as Christians are invited to continue every day because our circumstances are continually changing and every day is an opportunity to refresh these qualities in our lives.
Nevertheless, as I prepare for Christmas Eve services, I’m faced with the question, What is this “Christ-event”–as some theologians call it–anyway? What am I preparing for?
Jesus the Christ was a real, historical person who was born some two millennia ago around 6 A.D., most scholars think. Only two of the four gospels contain birth narratives. Both birth narratives contain a mix of historical and mythological details told not primarily for the purpose of documenting historical “truth” in the modern sense but for the purpose of expressing theological truth rooted in human experience that we can access today, in this very moment, in fact.
For me, the theological truth of Jesus’ birth is that God is being born each and every moment in my experience. Each moment is a precious gift to be welcomed, nurtured, attented to, prized, and shared.
Is every moment pleasant? No. Absolutely not. I remember early one morning after our second child, Olivia, was born. She woke up screaming to be fed. It was my turn to do the night feeding, so I got up, warmed up some breast milk from the fridge, picked up the screaming child from her crib, and sat down in the rocking chair to feed her. Not thirty seconds later, her older sister, Fiona, who was three at the time, was standing next to me in tears because Olivia had woken her up. Fiona wailed that she wanted me to rock her. Then Olivia started crying again. This routine had been going on for weeks. I was delirious with exhaustion. I distinctly remember having the thought, “This is going to kill me.”
But it didn’t, of course. Somehow I managed to handle the situation by myself. My wife, Nicole, got her sleep. And now those screaming children are beautiful adults.
Can you tend your life like you would a precious infant? Can you welcome the screaming with patience? Can you welcome the smiles with joy? Can you savor that newborn scent even if the air its carried on is bitter cold?
I am so glad to share this one precious life with you. My wish for us this Christmas is greater strength and deeper tenderness to welcome all the moments of 2020, no matter what shape they take, no matter what opportunities they bring.
The origins of Father’s Day are complicated. As our fathers tend to be. If you thought Father’s Day was a response to Mother’s Day, you’d be right. Though it doesn’t seem like a simple reassertion of patriarchy. In fact, a significant number of men resisted it for years. They had seen how Mother’s Day, originally conceived as an opportunity for women’s empowerment in response to the horrors of the Civil War, became commercialized and sentimentalized, and they didn’t want any part of it. Because of this resistance, Father’s Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1972.
62 years earlier, in 1910, Sonora Smart Dodd organized one of the first Father’s Days in honor of her father, a Civil War veteran and widower who had raised his children as a single dad. William Jackson Smart took on parenting roles that were not conventional for men at the time. One of the origins of Father’s Day was a celebration of men who were willing to step out of conventional gender roles to care for their families.
At about the same time, a Father’s Day celebration was organized in West Virginia to honor the 362 men who had died in a coal mining explosion the previous year. This origin of Father’s Day reminds us of others experiences of fatherhood: grief over the fathers who are absent for whatever reason, and the expendability of men’s bodies, particularly the bodies of poor and workingclass men.
My dad was a gay man. He grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Michigan. Though the family wasn’t poor, they didn’t have much. He was the first in his family to receive a college education. He married a woman because that’s what his conservative Christian upbringing told him to do. He raised four children and was grandfather to 11 grandchildren by the time he died of AIDS in 2012. He was a successful businessman with a genius level IQ. He was also an adulterous alcoholic bully with a criminal record who repeatedly put his family in danger. He did provide for us children. He did choose recovery eventually. He did come out and live the most honest version of his life that he could. He did love us with his version of love. Perhaps every human love leave wounds. As I said at the outset, fathers can be complicated.
I am father to two amazing young women. It is the greatest blessing of my life. And if I’m honest, day to day I have no idea what I’m doing. I realize that might make me sound incompetent or irresponsible to some. I do indeed make it my business to learn what I can about best parenting practices. My wife and I spend significant time, energy, and financial resources making the best decisions we can for our children. But I am acutely aware that the models of fatherhood that I have inherited, for better or for worse, too often seem inadequate for the times. Especially as they grow older, my children simply know a lot of things about the world that I don’t. Their experiences are different from mine. Their contexts are different. And in significant ways their futures will be different, once again, for better or for worse, than mine.
What do I fall back on? The things I do know: that deepest love is bare attention, unconditional availability, unwavering presence. Wherever life takes my children, my heart is with them, and I am ready to leap to their aid, if aid is what’s called for. My deepest practice is the practice of letting go. When first Fiona–21 years ago–and then Olivia–17 years ago– were born it was as if my soul or some piece of it separated from me and became enfleshed in another, fragile being over whom I knew my protection would always in some sense be limited and who one day likely would leave my protective care entirely. How can I entrust my precious one’s to this dangerous and difficult world where they will continue to meet both unimagined joy and devastating disappointment?
These days fatherhood for me is calmly sitting in the passenger seat while Olivia learns to drive. Dropping Fiona off at the airport for her summer job in Chicago. Preparing for Olivia’s move to Los Angeles where she will begin her college education. And savoring every moment they are home.