Reflection for Mothering Sunday 2020
I was two thirds through this reflection when the email came from the Archbishop urging us to cancel worship this Sunday if possible, and in the foreseeable future. A bit like having the rug pulled out from under you – I’m sure you know the feeling! So I have deleted my introduction which was making a case for delighting in worship, cake and flowers on Mothering Sunday as a respite from stressing out about coronavirus. Sorry, I don’t think I can come up with a written substitute for cake and flowers, but I do want to thank those who had already prepared to offer those gifts! I want to say: “God bless you, and bless us, and may our care for one another find different pathways of expression!” Perhaps one point I was trying to make in my original introduction might be even more valid now: in this context of temporary loss and isolation, we are even more aware of how much we value the nurturing relationships of family and church communities. Perhaps we are being challenged by the absence of worship, cake and flowers to let the Spirit move us towards spiritual care, nurture and flourishing by different means, spurred on by our awareness of how we miss our normal togetherness in the joy of worship.
So where to now? We do need to continue to find refreshment in Sunday prayer and reflection to give us respite from the all-pervasive anxiety. However, anxiety leads to protectiveness of those we love, and Mother Church is being protective of us in deciding to pause worship. The over-riding concern is to keep the family well and safe, and our church family has many who might be particularly vulnerable. As a mother, I feel empathy for the Archbishop and the pastoral leadership team as they make hard decisions to care for the health not only of the church community but of the wider community as well. Now the mothering role of all clergy and lay leaders will need to be extended in creative ways to care for the psychological and spiritual health of people in these challenging times. We are being challenged to see the potential in the crisis, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Where might reflection on mothering take us at a time when many need spiritual resources and caring relationships to support them? Are there meaningful connections to be made between human mothering, God as Mother, and the Church as Spiritual mother? Let me reflect on this through the lens of my own experience of mothering and ministry. I came late to mothering, and I found it to be a challenge to who I was, and to who I wanted to be, but certainly it prepared me to be who I am now. I was a chorus singer in opera and I wanted to be a soloist, and motherhood swept all that away. For a long while, I felt lost in the unrelenting demands of mothering, demands of service to another while setting aside my own dreams. In grieving my losses, I was aware of some significant gains, especially the passionate love I had for my child, and the beautiful experience of reconnecting with my own inner child by sharing the developmental stages of my son, and by being drawn into the generous delight, openness and affection of a young child. How might my experience help me to understand God and the choice of God to share our lives in the incarnation of Jesus? Perhaps God accepts all the losses of having a parental relationship with human beings because of the supreme joy of loving and being loved in return. Although a patriarchal society and church emphasized the fatherly nature of God, there are motherly and feminine images of God in Scripture. One of the myriad names of God in Hebrew Scripture was God of a thousand breasts. There’s a beautiful image in Isaiah 49:15, portraying God in comparison to a human mother: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” In Matthew 23: 37b, there’s the motherly image of Jesus in his lament over Jerusalem: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” Then there are the lovely images of the Spirit as mother in the hymn we would have sung today if we had been at church:
“she sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.”
“she nests in the womb, welcoming each wonder,
nourishing potential hidden from our eyes.”
“she weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.”
Thanks to John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona community for those vivid mothering images of the Spirit.
As for the Church as spiritual mother, we are in a time of uncertainty and struggle as church communities, but the gain of loving each other and loving God counterbalances the demands of service despite the time and effort involved. Our Vestry reports celebrate that service and show the love that empowers us to live up to the demands. I have often reflected on the connections between mother and priest. How did mothering prepare me for ministry? I have never wanted to be called Mother Barbara, even though some male priests from a similar worship style call themselves Father. The whole “Father knows best” style of leadership is not congenial to me, and I don’t think “Mother knows best” is any more life-giving. I have come to that conclusion from my own failed attempts to know best and to impose that knowing on my son. Now I aim for collaborative leadership where decision-making and responsibility are shared. I think we are very fortunate in this parish that we have a respectful and collaborative leadership team.
Turning to our Scripture stories today, there are relationships between parents and offspring portrayed in the story of Samuel anointing David, and in the story of the blind man whom Jesus healed. Are there any lessons to be learnt from those stories about relationships in church and home? When Samuel came to Jesse seeking to anoint one of his sons as future king, the sons paraded before Samuel in order of age, and the father almost ignored the youngest who was out keeping the sheep, but it was the boy David who was chosen by the Spirit. The lesson I take from this story and apply to family relationships and ministry is to give due value to children who are important in God’s eyes. David and Jeremiah were both children when commissioned for their roles, and Jesus valued children, welcoming them and making them an example to adults of how to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the story of the blind man who was healed, Jesus made an important theological point at the beginning of the story, that the man’s blindness is not a punishment from God either for his own sin or that of his parents. Therefore, perhaps we ought not to blame ourselves or our children for physical or psychological ailments that might afflict them, nor blame Mother Church for the blindness of institutional religion at times. Jesus said the man was blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Can we apply that to the affliction of the coronavirus, or the temporary loss of worship gatherings? God does not inflict illness or loss or disaster as a punishment for sin, as some Christians have arrogantly claimed about AIDS or the tsunami. Rather when afflictions happen, we can look for God’s works to be revealed even in tragic or difficult circumstances. In the incarnation of Jesus and in his death and resurrection, we see that God is with us in all the circumstances of our mortal life, including suffering and death, and God brings new life when all seems lost.