Seth Patterson May 13, 2018
Scripture selections from Leviticus 19; “This World, My Home” (excerpt) by Kenneth L. Patton
There is likely nothing neutral about the idea of Mother’s Day. While it is a day of joy and thankfulness for some, today can be an uncomfortable and possibly painful day as well. The depth of emotion attached to our own mother may be deeper than any other single thing in our life. Hers was the first voice we ever heard, the first nutrients we ever digested, the first movements we ever felt. She is our very origin. To some this evokes thankfulness or joy or warmth, while to others this is reminiscent of loss or resentment or disappointment or fear. It is likely impossible to speak about the very concept of mother without digging deep into one’s being. For some, this is because of the loss of a mother or a child. For others, it is because of a want to become a mother biologically, and, for whatever reason, they were not able to do so. Possibly it is because of a difficult relationship with a mother in your life. For any of these reasons and more, I will endeavor to be delicate and sensitive. I will attempt to act as an ally.
For this reason I also volunteered to preach this morning. My colleagues are both mothers, and I was hoping to help them have less work to do on this honoring and thanking day. It may be a small thing and seem like a gesture, but I am hoping it is slightly more than that. I am hoping that it is an action. I am hoping that by taking on this piece of our shared responsibility, my actions will carry somewhat more weight than words alone. I can say that I respect them both greatly and am honored to work with them, that they are strong and courageous leaders, that I learn from them as they nurture and foster this place in loving attention. While neither the congregation nor I are their children, their mothering spirit imbues their presence and their actions with love and compassion and an openness to possibilities. I desire to do more than say just these things, but instead (and with permission) to stand with them, to act.
I am attempting to act as an ally. This is delicate to even talk about because ally is not a label that I can just give to myself, but it is an action, something to be done. I can say with words that I ally myself with my colleagues, with mothers, with those who carry forth a mothering spirit all I want, but until I do something—with permission and without co-opting—I cannot say I am acting as an ally. Until I stand with, stand in support of and stand with deference to, I cannot act as an ally.
This morning I am going to speak about mothering and those who act as mothers, and I want to be clear that this includes yet extends beyond those people who are biologically mothers. In this conversation the definition of mother is any woman (which includes any person who identifies as a woman) who has nurtured another, fostered growth in another, acted in love toward another, raised up another from some form of infancy into a metaphorical maturity or acted in a way that has felt mothering. I would like to try and speak about mothering as a concept instead of as a person. This doesn’t mean that the person embodying motherness is any less important but rather that I want to honor both that biological motherness can be as painful as it is joyful and that many women may be mother figures in our lives. I have a biological mother who gives me great joy to talk about—I love her dearly, and we have a wonderful relationship—and I have also been very fortunate to have many other women be mothers to me and act in mothering ways in my life. I have been raised, so to speak, by many mothers.
It is also important to raise up the idea and remind us, today especially, that God can be seen as mother. God, to be sure, is beyond gender and cannot be narrowed by our human understandings of gender. God is neither male nor female. Even though we often use masculine language to describe God, this has much more to do with the limitations of our gender-binary languages than it has to do with God. Ancient Hebrew more often than not refers to Yahweh or Elohim in the masculine—and we can find moments where this is not true as well. In the very beginning, in Genesis 1, it is written that “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” God here is both masculine and feminine and neither male nor female. God is both the mother and father of humanity. God is more infinite than our human conceptions of gender and of this/that.
What does it mean to be mothering? How do we talk about something so broad, deeply seated and potentially fraught without spending an hour listing the caveats and exceptions? I am going to attempt to ground it in the wisdom of the poem (“This World, My Home” by Kenneth L. Patton) that Nina read a bit earlier. To mother is to understand the delicacy, vulnerability and power in the potential. The poem speaks of the child not knowing limits, of when everything is new, of everything being open and possible. To mother, in the best and most ideal of circumstances, is to recognize this situation, however it may appear and at whatever age, and nurture it and help it grow. It can be in the literal situation of childhood when one may act as mother and help the child explore, imagine, learn new abilities and understand the boundaries of safety. This mothering can also be seen in situations in which the person is not a child but instead one who needs abundant love, patience and guidance. To mother is to act with love and hope in the vulnerability of our human situation. To mother is not a call to be perfect or more than what a person can be, but to understand that relationships are delicate and powerful and can help bring forth that which is potential. Mothering—through love and limits, patience and prodding, the unknowns and the unease—is a catalyst to growth.
Then, if God is as much mother as God is father, we can look at the ways in which God has danced in the delicate and powerful relationship with people, the ways in which God has guided us in growth through hope and love. Leviticus is one such place we can begin. Here God, through Moses, lays down a long list of rules and limitations, hopes and expectations. Don’t steal, don’t lie, show respect and deference for those that are hurting or unable, don’t stand idly by when your neighbor is bleeding, judge on the basis of what is right, respect God. And so on and so forth. This expansion—with extra details—of the Ten Commandments begins to define the boundaries of our relationship with God. This is what we are expected to do. God as mother has great hope for us and abundant love and wants us to succeed. Our growth is being nurtured. God as mother is teaching us how to be the people that God hopes we will be, the people that God knows we can become, the people that we know we should be. It is simultaneously the lesson and the constant reminder.
God as mother is our origin. God as mother has given us the gifts of humanity. God as mother has told us what it means to be the people that God wants us to be. God as mother has given us the fertile soil from which to grow and nurtured us from immaturity to some form of maturity. God as mother has great hope and love for our potential and exists with us and within us as a steadying, guiding force. We are abundantly loved by God.
My whole life, from a very young age, likely from the time before memories, my mother would tell me that she loved me without strings attached. “I love you, no strings attached” was a regular phrase in my life. I had no idea what that meant! I had no idea what strings had to do with love, what these invisible strings had to do with me and why, if there were no strings, why they even had to be mentioned at all.
Just because we are taught something doesn’t mean we learn it. Just because we are explicitly told something doesn’t mean we understand it. We have to try to live and thrive in a world that is more complicated than the instructions or explanations we have been given. So, how do we do it? How do we learn what we are taught? Allies. Those who show us what it looks like, those who model the expectations, those who stand up and act on behalf of all that our mothers offer. I learned what love without strings attached looked like because I saw my father act that way. I saw my mother act that way to other people. Other loving and trusted adults in my life showed me what love without strings attached looks like through their actions. I finally learned what I was taught because people in my life showed me through actions—they acted as allies.
One does not need to be the mother to act as an ally. One also don’t always need to get it right to be an ally. I do need to be willing to practice, though. I need to be willing to learn and try again and continue to watch and adapt. I need to be willing to work out the delicate dance of knowing when I am needed to act and when I am needed to stand back. I need to be willing to make it not about me while also be willing to use my own actions to show what it can look like.
To act as an ally is to practice. It’s a spiritual practice. God as mother gives us the instructions; the mothers surrounding us show us how to handle the power and vulnerability of the potential. We who wish to act as allies, along with the mothers we support, show what it may look like. We don’t just stand up against things, we also stand and act for what we want to support. When we come to places like church together, we are not just talking about what it means to be in community, we are putting these hopes into action. We are practicing it so that we may act as better allies, as better community, in the world.
Men, I am speaking with you here. We are called to act as allies to the many women, the many mothers and God as mother who teach us how to be nurtured into potential. We need to watch, we need to listen, we need to pay attention. The ground has been made fertile, so how do we act in a way that promotes the ideals of motherhood? How do we stand up, put our lives into action and help hold the hopes and dreams of the mothers? And then, how do we step back, put our needs and egos on hold and allow the mothers to continue nurturing?
Women act as allies to mothers as well. Those who act as mothers can help each other with holding open the space to allow teaching to turn into learning. Those that act as mothers can support and give guidance. We are all in this together to act in ways that help us all grow into our potential, to live in that delicate and powerful space.
How can you act as an ally in the many places and communities that you inhabit? How can we stand with those who act as mothers in our world: the people of many colors, backgrounds, beliefs, shapes, sizes, hopes and dreams? How can we use our actions to be allies in the abundant love that is possible? How can we be allies to the hopes and dreams of our God as mother and help our children, our people, our communities live into their hopes and potential? How can we be allies to our mothers? How will you try to give the gift of being an ally today?