Teaching the Gentle Art of Nurturing

(A Mother's Day Sermon)

May 12, 2002

"Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee all thro' the night...."
-Ancient Welsh Lullaby

The second Sunday in May has been regarded since the year 1914 as a time of "Public expression and reverence for the mothers of our country." So read the proclamation made in that same year by President Woodrow Wilson.

Actually, the very first Mother's Day observance was celebrated on May 10, 1908 in a Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. The person responsible for making it happen had attended the Grafton church with her mother who had taught Sunday School there for over 20 years. Other services were conducted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on that same day. The idea quickly took root. By 1911, every state in the Union was celebrating Mother's Day. As in other issues, however, please note that the United States government's realization of a widespread custom lagged far behind that of the people for a number of years.

On investigation, I was able to shed a little more light on the event's beginnings. The idea started because a forty-year-old spinster became concerned with the treatment of mothers by their adult children. Her mother had recently died and she realized more and more how much her mother's gentle presence in her life had meant. The spinster's name was Anna Jarvis. Anna began a letter-writing campaign. She sent her missives to ministers, to members of Congress and to various business men in the hope of gaining support for her project.

There was some disillusionment experienced by Ms. Jarvis. Her original idea was that honoring the nation's mothers would be a religious observance. But the idea's rapid rise to popularity quickly led it to becoming a more secular event. New customs sprang up such as giving flowers, cards and gifts. With that, flower sales blossomed! (Forgive the pun!) One would wear a red carnation if one's mother was still living and a white one if she were deceased. This is still practiced in some parts of our country today.

Thus, Mother's Day is still with us and we honor it. At the same time, though, it is probably more realistic to speak in more general terms about the matter of what is involved in the care of children. The word I have in mind is the word "nurturing". Sustaining and expanding the lives and horizons of small children involves more than simple feeding, clothing and educating them. I think of examples in my own life:

–I remember seeing my mother wave to me through the little glass window in the kindergarten classroom door. There she was, pride and concern wreathing her face, but smiling and waving courageously. I remember waving back - courageously - but with not a small amount of trepidation. It was my first time away from the nest - away from home.

–I recall those early years when I struggled with asthma. The inability to breathe deeply always seemed to come in the night time. And I remember my father carrying me in his arms, humming a tune, patting my shoulder as I slowly relaxed and fell asleep again.

–Two people brought me into life and assisted me through my early days. The commonality they shared was to nurture me. It is mostly a shared human activity. And we should remember that on this day. This, notwithstanding the ways single parents often find it necessary to bear the same responsibility alone.

Speaking in idealistic terms, then, "parenting", whether it be birth parents, foster or fostive (as we have so often heard) is giving children the roots of family stability in which to grow up....and wings to lift them into adult life. It is keeping one's serenity without becoming overly dependent upon one's offspring. It is a matter of holding close and of letting go. From the time in which our parents begin to expect our arrival as newborns to the moment of birth and beyond, life becomes a series of separations - all mostly anticipated. Here is a poem by Nicola Holm which speaks to that poignancy:

"This morning I found a box of your old baby clothes,
and in a moment's passion I hugged them to my breast
and cried a long time
because they were empty and I didn't know how
to fill them;
I even felt the tickle on my neck
as when your hair would brush me there;
I remember my kisses on soft, cool baby cheeks,
and the kisses in return that were always
a bit sticky.

The she-dog does it better,
when one day she doesn't recognize
her pups or even miss them,
for she has no dreams to realize,
no hopes to bind her to them,
and she can let them go,
and doesn't even know
that one day they were her own,
but are to be no more.

For a moment I felt the weight of you again
in my arms;
I looked down and could almost see your smile
which was missing some of its teeth,
and felt again a warm little hand
that could just close over one of my fingers;
it was so much easier then;
I could cure your hurts with a hug,
and protect you from the hazards of the world
by closing the gate at the stairs.

Oh, I should have protested
when the surgeon cut the cord,
and thought of a way to try to stay
his hand so I could hoard
you in your infancy,
you in your dependency,
and tried to put off forever
your growing apart from me.

I suppose I knew all along
that this is the way it would be ;
that one day for the things you needed
you'd no longer be coming to me;
but still in all the knowing
it's been no easier to bear,
and I certainly never suspected
that it was I who need you there.

The human adult activity we call nurturing contains these ambivalent emotions. When we raise our children, we aid them in the same way we plant a seed or tend a beautiful garden. And, more wonderfully, when we reach out to a friend or partner, we also engage in the act of nurturing. But we have to continue steadfast in realizing that we will eventually have to let go.

Nurturing, then, is an art form. It takes on many faces - like teaching, writing, creating works of art, making music or crafts. Who has not held a piece of fine art, touched the grain of a beautiful piece of hand-made furniture or regarded the loveliness of a well-tended garden - and not felt the thrill of its creation? Shaker furniture fairly shouts the quiet, simple faith of its makers. We recall gardens we've tended or those of our friends that we have admired.
The art of nurturing expands to other ways; to the exchange of warm, knowing smiles; the embrace of lover; the engagement in work or play; the joy of singing or conversing - these human activities feed our souls.

What I am talking about is the simple, yet complex matter of becoming more fully human. I am talking about acting with loving intent. I am talking about engaging others; assisting others, when asked at the time of pain or sorrow. There is cost here. But there is joy as well in realizing the gratitude we receive for reaching out; for giving ourselves. The words of the hymn with which we will close this service say it well:

"Sleep, my child and peace attend you
all through the night.
I who love you shall be near you
all through the night;
soft and drowsy hours are creeping,
hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
all through the night."

Over the years, I can recall times when I was asked to be a professional nurturer. A friend of mine, a Rabbi in Summit, New Jersey often said that ours as professional religious leaders is "to teach the fragile art of living." This topic cannot be found in textbooks, but such expectations come with the job.

Admit it, folks. As you walk through life, you, too, encounter people at times whom you know are struggling, questioning. There are those who sit quietly in depression or loneliness. There are those who are full of good cheer. There are those who lack energy and purpose at all.

I recall the time back in the mid-1980's in San Antonio, Texas. My neighbor invited me to play the Lackland Airforce Base country club. Suddenly, in the company of two Air Force captains and one lieutenant, I made a hole in one. We finished the 18 holes and I remember rushing into the lounge where a lot of retired Air Force officers were sort of sitting around watching television. With pride, I announced that "I had made a hole-in-one today! The drinks are on me!" And do you know, there were no takers! Talk about folks who needed nurturing! But they weren't church members so I just sort of shrugged and ordered a Manhattan.

Isn't it true, though? In the bleakest of situations, folks somehow discover the ability to find that inner strength in order to "be there" for someone else. What better place to realize our responsibility as human beings than in a voluntary religious community such as ours? We've all witnessed it over the years and it's a wonderful thing to behold.

Erma Bombeck observed that one of the stories she used on the lecture circuit was about the "Supermom" who was known as "Perfection, Itself". She did everything right; kept a spotless home; attended church; being a Roman Catholic, she always had a copy of Bishop Fulton Sheen's latest book on the coffee table. One day Erma asked her friend how she did it. And she replied, "I emulate the Blessed Virgin Mary." Erma replied, "Marge....it's a little late for that!"

Then she said, "Very well, I'll tell you. Every evening when the children are bathed and tucked into their clean little beds and the lunches are lined up and labeled and packed away in the ‘frig and the little shoes are paired up and polished and I've heard all the prayers of my children, I go into my bedroom and I fall on my knees and say, "Thank you God, for not letting me kill one of them today!"

A good resource on the topic of parenting was written by Shirley Radl. She titled it Mother's Day Is Over. In it, she admits that her two

"...beautiful, wanted and planned children were capable of arousing within her resentment, hostility and rage..."

The book contains some of the results of interviews held with over 200 parents, mostly mothers. But the author became convinced there was a conspiracy of silence which had to be broken. So she reviewed the media myths of clean, obedient children and calm, efficient young parents. As a result she ended upon completely rejecting the social pressures placed upon people in their roles as parents.

Some of the more familiar expectations she listed were the use of children as status symbols; mothers being coerced into volunteering with such things as Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, the PTA, soccer leagues and little leagues, etcetera. Many are unwilling to admit the insidious effect kids have on marriage and sex. Consider the bone-numbing fatigue from constant child care. Or how about one's loss of freedom and privacy; and, that often ignored, but very real specter I can only describe as tedium? Then there's the guilt, the anxiety and the out-and-out boredom and inconvenience of children's constant needs.

After making these irreverent attacks debunking the parenthood mystique, Dr. Radl postulates that the "ideal" mother or the"ideal" parent who is friendly, loving, patient and likes caring for others.....is nevertheless "willing to place the interests of his or her children above any of her own interests without feeling he or she is making sacrifices. Of course, human nature being what it is, in the reviews I read about the book, many readers were not able to buy her theory.

Then another book came along. It was written by Angela McBride and was titled The Growth and Development of Mothers. In this volume, McBride rejects the philosophy outlined in Radl's book. Rather, she describes the real suffering women (and men) encounter. That suffering is usually due to the harmful fantasy that perfection IS possible in parenting. McBride describes it as follows:

"Baby as ultimate fulfillment comes to mean that a woman has very limited possibilities for satisfaction once past child-bearing. Obviously this makes women expect much more of the experience of being a mother than they can ever possibly attain. Fulfillment in parenthood seems a poor substitute for a life that is full."

McBride also takes exception to such sacrosanct experts as Hiam Ginotte, Dr. Benjamin Spock and even Erik Fromm. She writes:

"There is a whole psychiatric tradition which defines the child's problems by the mother's excesses rather than the father's absences."

If anything, this second book deals a fatal blow to "Mother" as the sort of "super-metaphor" of the Parenting ideal. It takes two to make a baby and, under ideal circumstances, it takes two (our more) to raise a child. Again, McBride:

"No one sex and no one person should be responsible for nurturing and encouraging the development of the next generation."

In the last analysis, then, the concept of nurturing transcends the concept of motherhood and even that of parenting. It brings another dimension which instills the wisdom of somehow knowing instinctively or finding out when to hold fast and when to let go. "Roots and Wings".

There really IS no adequate formula, to be sure. When any person begins the process of becoming a parent, they all seem to share the same dilemma. "How can I know that I'm going to be a good parent?" God! How scary it was for me, at least, and I suspect for Lorna to a small extent, to know that we were suddenly GRAND parents! Wow! How to know that and yet to keep quiet when YOUR kids are raising their OWN kids and you discover they have a different philosophy of parenting that you!

So you see, no one is immune from these judgments of adequacy - whether mother, father, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, grand parent or grand aunt or uncle. No one. But one thing brings it all together rather well. And that is the church - if it does its job. The church is one of the places where, for better or worse, we can trust that not only the best interests of the child are taken into account, but it holds the additional responsibility through its members to nurture the adults in the same way in order to create an ongoing and effective religious community.

I want to close this discourse with a favorite poem of mine. It is one I have placed next to the portrait of Lorna Smith Knost. It has stayed there through nearly 42 years of marriage. Written by one Mabel Kelly and first to have appeared in the newsletter of the Community Church of New York, it reads:

"I marvel at what tact, what force,
what wisdom from some hidden source,
what superhuman understanding,
what genius for adroit commanding,
what sympathy, what wit, what prayer,
what saintly patience, selfless care
it takes to bring up, fair and mild,
a wholly ordinary child."

Happy Mother's Day. May we nurture each other....into the days ahead.