My husband, Dan, and I have been married for about 13 years. A little over five years ago we moved into a very family-friendly neighborhood, complete with kids, dogs, parks, and even a jungle gym right in our backyard. We couldn't help but see that weather-beaten swing set as a sign of a family to come. But after a couple years of trying, nothing happened. So we kicked it up a notch with charting, temperature taking, and ovulation tests. Still nothing. After years of praying, stressing, and pure frustration, we've felt that we were hearing a clear "no." During this struggle, we haven't been to church at all on Mother's Day. When I look back to past Mother's Days when I did attend, I've been so disenchanted with the way the services have been handled. There always seemed to be an over the top celebration, with flowers and prizes and even brunch, that left me thinking, "Wow, this is IT. This is the pinnacle of a woman's success." Of course, I didn't really believe that, but it was hard not to wonder if that's what the church was thinking or trying to convey.
I'm starting to realize and trying to accept that motherhood is never going to happen for me. I've had such hope in the past that "something will happen," but I'm trying to come to a place of acceptance. But it's still hard. Every day I see countless baby announcements, sonograms, and newborn pictures on social media, and I try to smile and see the joy in a new, precious life (and I do). But right now, there are certain things that are too difficult for me, and going to church on Mother's Day is one of them.That is how Margot Starbuck, author of Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God, puts it. After preaching nearly 20 Mother’s Day sermons now, I tend to agree. Those who had wonderful mothers: Women who are mothers and who love motherhood, they love today! Rightly so! They want to celebrate. They want to honor their mothers. They want to be honored as mothers! But, church, Mother’s Day is…tricky.
There are many women in churches today across our nation who do not get to wear a red rose on their lapels or stand to be recognized. Some women would love to be moms…but aren’t. Some women are unable to conceive. Some women have had abortions. Some women never married. Some moms are “invisible.” Some adoptive moms may offer prayers for the women they never met this morning. The women who gave birth to their children. There are also mothers in our pews who were shuttled away to homes for unwed mothers in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They gave birth and returned home with empty arms. They were assured they would forget and move on, but these mothers never forgot. When mothers are asked to stand today, the child they’ll be thinking of, as their pew neighbors are clapping, will be the ones they never held.
Many women will stay home today because Mother’s Day—not matter how well we try to handle it in worship is…tricky. So, what should the church do on Mother’s Day? I think the most important thing we should do is be real. We should acknowledge the messiness of life on this planet. We should acknowledge that families, too, are messy! As much as we’d like to gloss over that messiness on Mother’s Day, or, on Father’s Day. I think the Gospel calls us to resist that temptation. The Gospel is the story of a God who came here to be near us because life on this planet is messy. The Gospel is the story of a God who came here to redeem us because there is no such thing as a perfect family. Praise God, the Bible does not gloss over those imperfections.
Consider Motherhood in the Bible. In Genesis 16-17, we find the troubling story of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar. Abram (who became Abraham) was married to Sarai (who became Sarah), but she could not have children. So, Sarai gave her husband permission to sleep with her slave girl, Hagar. Hagar bore Abram a son, who was named Ishmael. Now, does Genesis 16:4-5 surprise anyone?
He [Abram] slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when she realized that she was pregnant, she no longer respected her mistress. Sarai said to Abram, “This harassment is your fault! I allowed you to embrace my servant, but when she realized she was pregnant, I lost her respect. Let the LORD decide who is right, you or me.” -Genesis 16:4-5, CEBMother’s Day was invented until 1914, when Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day. But suppose Mother’s Day existed in the days of Abram and Sarai and Hagar. Imagine what that Sunday morning would have looked like! But the familial dysfunction does not stop there. Two more women from this same family, Rebekah and Rachel, were also unable to have children initially. Once again, other women were brought into the picture to “make things right.” But in the end, they were not made right. They were only made more complicated and messy.
Another woman, Jochebed, was the mother of Moses. Interestingly, we do not even learn her name in the narrative! Her name appears twice in the Bible—both in a long genealogical list. For all that happened to her, the story doesn’t even mention her name! She gives birth to Moses, but quickly has to give him up. Pharaoh issued an edict to kill all male Hebrew children. She puts him in a basket, and places that basket in the river. Pharaoh’s daughter finds that basket and raises Moses as her own son. Jochebed was brought in to nurse Moses. Everyone around her thought she and this baby were perfect strangers to one another. Only she knew she was holding her son! What must that have been like day after day after day? Finally, when she had to leave him for the last time? You know, this was not the picture of a perfect mother/child relationship.
Hannah had a child named Samuel. It also had taken her many years to become pregnant. In desperation, she prayed to God. “If you will give me a son, I will give him back to you.” She had a son, and she gave him back. We tend to gloss over this story and move on to Samuel’s great legacy as Israel’s judge and priest. Like so many other times, the mother in this story is forgotten. The Bible tells us that as soon as Samuel was weened, he went to live with Eli the priest in Shiloh. What must life have been like for Hannah? Having to turn over her young son to live with a stranger. Seeing him only during the time of festival when she and her family traveled to Shiloh. If Mother’s Day had existed when Hannah was alive, I wonder what that Sunday would have been like for her.
We could go on and on. We haven’t even mentioned: Samson’s mother, who had to watch her child make mistake after mistake. Or, Naomi, who had to watch both of her sons die at a young age. Or Mary, the mother of Jesus! She became an unwed pregnant teenager. She also had to watch her own son die.
The Bible is clear: family dysfunction is normal. At least, it is normal in our fallen world. That is certainly not the way God intended for this to work.
In the beginning, God created a world where two individuals—male and female—would join together as husband and wife. In God’s design, those two would produce wonderful, obedient, healthy children. In God’s design, those families would stay together forever. But that is not the world we live in. I am thankful that the Bible bears witness to our fallenness.
God reveals to us, through the Bible, this truth: “I know life is not perfect. I know life is messy. I know family is difficult!” Thank you, God, for not painting this picture of perfection on the pages of the Bible! If that were the case, we would spend our lives wondering to ourselves: “Why is my family so different? Why can’t my family be like the ones God talks about in Scripture?” No, God was honest with us about fallenness. Because God blessed us with a picture of reality in the Bible. There is no reason for us sugarcoat the truth here on Mother’s Day.
So, there are many different experiences of women in the room this morning, and I’d like for you all to hear the good news from Jesus. Emily Pastor is a wife, mother, and disciple of Jesus. She recently was asked the question: “What do you need to hear in church on Mother’s Day? What would be a blessing to you?” Here is how she responded to that question:
I need to hear that my role as a mom to young children is hard, valuable, kingdom work. Remind me that my unseen sacrifices and struggles are seen and valued by the Lord. I often feel undervalued, misunderstood and looked over by a culture that applauds outward and visible contributions to society. So much of my work as a mother is hidden away in the unseen moments of grace with my children. As I bend over with my tremendously pregnant body to pick up the thousandth crayon, I receive no applause. When I respond patiently toward a tantrum throwing toddler, no one says "Way to keep your cool!" I sacrifice and struggle because of love, and loving others is kingdom work.To Emily (and the many like her), some in this room. I want you to hear: You are seen. Your work is valued. In many ways your work as a mother is an act of worship to God. You are helping to form and mold your children more into the image of God with your gifts. And to borrow the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:
Your Father sees what you do in secret (when no one else is around) and He will reward you. -Matthew 6:4, CEBTo those who are not mothers, but who would like to be. I do not have words to say that will make your pain go away. The fallenness of the world manifests itself in all sorts of ways, and many of those ways are incredibly painful. But I want you to know that a woman’s worth is not wrapped up in being a mother or not being a mother. You are loved because you are God’s child. You were made in the image of God! God loves you just the way you are. God can use you just the way you are.
To those who had horrible experiences from their mother. Again, no words to take your pain away. But you do not have to let that painful past dictate your future. In fact, you may be able to use that pain to bless someone else. Though it may seem like it sometimes, you are not alone. There are others who have experienced the pain (and ironically) the shame that sometimes comes to us from an abusive parent. Perhaps God can use your experience to help someone else pick up the pieces of her life. There are some things you can offer that someone like me—who did not grow up in an abusive environment—can never offer.
I pray on this Mother’s Day (more than anything else) that God will bring you peace. I pray also that God will make you an instrument to bring peace to others who share parts of your story. God created families. When families work as they were designed to work, they are beautiful things—pictures of God’s nature in fact. But we live in a fallen world.
That is where the church comes in. We are a church that has as its mission to graciously help a fallen world stand up again. “Mothers” are not the only members of our families that are sometimes broken. So are fathers and children. Throughout the New Testament, the church is often referred to as the “family of God.” Hills Church of Christ in Nashville puts that metaphor on their sign: Woodmont Hills Family of God, a Church of Christ.
Two of the best moms I know of are here in this room—my mom and my wife. But both of them would tell you how glad they are that they did not have to raise their children alone. I had many spiritual mothers in my life. My children have many spiritual mothers in their lives.
- Kim Hodges
- Celeste Smith
- Jacqueline Goode