by Rev. Dr. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister
When my oldest son was born I saw myself entering into the forest of motherhood, a completely unknown territory for me. It became clear pretty swiftly that being a mother was going to take all of my energy, intelligence, imagination and love — and that I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Yet, I was certain God had called me to this adventure and I knew the journey of being a mother would color everything else I would do the rest of my life.
Now my two sons are wonderful, indomitable twenty some-things. The trees have thinned and I am very grateful for all the lessons I’ve learned along the way. In my eyes, they are lessons that also have meaningful application in the church today. Perhaps the church in our time could remedy some of our most serious flaws by becoming a good mother for our family of faith. See if you think so too.
1. The Goal as a Mother: Be Good Enough
I had learned as a child, from home, school and church that my goal was to be perfect. But from a lot of failures and false starts I learned that perfection is impossible, especially for a mother. It’s also undesirable. As mothers, we are the world to our infant children — their experience of us set their expectations for the world in a way that would be difficult and painful for them to change later in life. I realized that since the world is far from perfect, showing my children that what the world does offer is perfectly good enough was important. It also made me realize that being good enough as mother was a worthy goal for me.
I see that the church and our leaders also feel deeply this burden to be perfect — perfectly loving, perfectly attentive, perfectly present. But this is no more possible than it was for me to be a perfect mother. And it is just as undesirable. We cannot transcend being of this world. We are beautifully flawed humans with weaknesses as well as strengths. What is most important is being good enough; nurturing our faith community and sustaining mission in service to our neighbors beyond us. Our present burden of perfection is too much to bear — Good enough is what God expects of us.
2. Say “Yes” More
It took me some time to recognize that my visceral response to everything as mother was “No.” Perhaps this came from an ingrained sensitivity to what could go wrong. Whatever its source, I came to see how withering this was to the spirits of my children. Out of my love for them, I committed myself to saying “Yes” if at all possible (and often enough it was not, like “No, homework comes before that Nintendo game”). They came to expect more, “Yes” than “No” which I believe contributes mightily to their willingness now to explore the unknown. In time, they heard enough “Yes’s” to expect the world to say “Yes” to them and they came to say “Yes” most of the time to their own ideas, as well.
In church, think about how often we hear phrases like this: “We tried that before and it didn’t work,” or “We don’t have the budget for that,” or “The rules say you can’t do that,” or “Wait a little while longer” with the hope that you will forget about it. Simply put, these answers all say one thing: “No.” How can we wonder that people wander away or get discouraged when the answer routinely is “No”? What might the church landscape come to be if we cultivated a presumption of saying, “Yes”?
3. Mothers Don’t Hold All the Power
Perhaps other mothers out there will relate to this: There was a pretty distinct moment in both of my pregnancies when I felt that the growing being inside my body changed from an extension of myself to something different from me that was nestled inside me. It may have been when each reached a certain size. Whatever caused the change, from that moment on it was clear to me that eventually this being would be on its own in the world. When I look back, this was the moment when my children started to exert their power over our relationship.
This was startling to me. It may be common sense to many but I never thought that my children would bring considerable power to the process of parenting. From the very beginning, they had feelings, opinions, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, insights — in other words, they were real people. My younger son resisted taking a nap and having a regular bedtime from two weeks old and to this day his preferred routine with late nights and late waking mystifies me. He taught me very early that he had his own mind and brought it to our relationship with amazing power.
We say in the church that each one of us is a beloved child of God. It would help us to accept one huge consequence of this truth: each one of us has power to bring to the church family. All of us are unique and important and filled with gifts to bring to blessed transformation in the church.
4. Children Grow… and So Do Mothers
Change is inherent to being human, but I quickly learned that children grow and change at a speed beyond anything I had imagined. And it was not enough for me to simply hold on for dear life on this wild ride. A mother needs to change in her own unique ways in order to keep pace with the change in her children. The growing edges of the mother and of the child are entwined, but distinct. Both are on their own journey, sometimes easily forgotten as the mother struggles to simply keep up with the daily tasks at hand. I found that nurturing my own growth was crucial so that I could keep up with my children as they inevitably changed, that is, grew up.
When my oldest son was in high school, he asked me if he could join a group that planned to visit the Heifer Project sites in Cambodia and Vietnam. Though I knew it was a trip that could be a great opportunity for growth, it took all I had to summon the courage to say “Yes” to my child traveling across the world with strangers. In doing so I had to step up and develop whole new skills — registering him for the trip, getting visas from foreign embassies, getting the right immunizations, let alone learning how to let go. I could only do this because I had already been changing — growing as a person. I had seized opportunities for my own transformation each year and so was more open to adjusting to the change in my child.
Absorbing this lesson from motherhood could be so wonderfully transforming for the church. Our parishioners — our children — are changing, especially if we are doing a good job of making the connections between God and their daily lives. It is then utterly crucial that the church be committed to changing in a way that accommodates the change of the members of the church family. I am blessed to be in the Reformed tradition whose hallmark is “Reformed, always Being Reformed” so that we understand the way our change is inevitable and good. A great deal of conflict within the church would disappear were we to learn this from mothering.
5. It Really Does Take a Village
I was extremely possessive as a new mother. At neighborhood parties, I was not the mom who was comfortable having my infant passed around among the adults. I think about this now and it embarrasses me! It took me some time, but the longer I was a mother the more I realized that it did, indeed, take a village to raise a child. For one thing, it is a basic way in which your child’s connection with the world expands beyond you. It is a very good thing for your child to be in loving contact with a variety of adults from the very start to introduce him or her to the big, wide world.
It is also good for a mother to disappear and come back from her child’s earliest age. At the very least her child learns to trust that she will return when she disappears. And at the same time, her child learns that there are other adults who love him or her and can care for them well. For me, as a mother, I also learned that my love for my child was not in the attachment — the physical being with my child — my love was a deep spiritual truth that was constant whether I was with my children or separate from them. It is a blessing for us all to know and trust this love wherever we are in any one moment.
The church needs to see that it takes the whole village to nurture faith in each one of us; that we need everyone in our faith communities for us to love and serve Jesus Christ together. It worries me how often in the church today our love for one another lacks the motherly quality of deep constancy that abides through attachment and separation, through disagreement or conflict, through good days and bad days among us. God loves us all in this way. I look for the day the church lives out the same motherly love.
160 Birch Street
Redwood City, CA
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