Complicated Mothers' Day
I don’t love Mothers’ Day, but I don’t hate the day. I have a great mother and I’m a fan of the original mother’s day proclamation against war. And I think it’s okay to have days that apply to some people, but not others.
Some of my not-loving of Mathers’ Day comes from the fact that I universally don’t like sweetness and chocolate, flowers and light. Or more accurately I don’t like the simplification of complicated things. If I haven’t appreciated my mom all year, I don’t think Mothers’ Day flowers will fix that. And if I can’t wrestle with what’s wrong with the stereotypes of mothering on the day that’s about mothering, then am I really appreciating it at all?
Mothers’ Day is awful for mothers who don’t have homes. Many have had their children taken from them, some due to abuse, but most simply because they are poor, or black, or brown. Not surprisingly, mothers who have lost their children have a harder time with recovery and a harder time with managing their mental health. That creates a circle, as managing recovery and mental health is necessary to the plan that will perhaps earn them contact with their child. It’s a horrible system we have where we try breaking mothers hearts to see if that will possibly make it better for their children.
Mothers’ Day is complicated for children. Complicated for children who are adopted, children in foster care, children whose parents have hurt them, children whose parents have passed, children whose parents are drunk or high, children whose parents stay too removed, children whose parents are smothering, for children who cannot ever live up to their parents, and for children who cannot let go of their parents expectations. Who is left?
Mothers’ Day enforces a binary that doesn’t exist—a gender binary, a parenting binary, and a good vs. evil binary.
My distaste for the day comes in part from the fact that I am not a mother, and wish that I had had that opportunity. It comes in part from sitting with my sister who has lost a daughter. It comes in part from sitting with unacknowledged trans moms. It comes in part from sitting with so many people with such complicated lives.
But I think it comes mostly from our ability as a culture to sanitize every radical and complicated thing. Julia Ward Howe was not asking for chocolates or a card when she declared “‘Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.’ Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.” Link to the full proclamation. That this holiday was first proposed by a woman who both hated motherhood, and yet stayed with her husband rather than be separated from her children, makes the hallmarkification of the holiday that much worse. Link to book review of The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe.
And yet I loved my chance to chat with my mom on this day, and was jealous of my brother's chance to cook for her. It was a joy when, during worship, someone interrupted my welcome to the mothers present to shout “and aunts”. It pierced my heart when my sister thanked me for the way that I mother/aunt my nieces and nephews.
I don’t love Mothers’ Day, but I don’t hate it, either. It’s complicated.
Liturgy of the Fingernails
I awoke to a shock. I often wake to shocks—my dreams are full of fear and chasing and my first thoughts of the morning are similarly painful, usually a sudden remembering that I have a paper due, that I didn't remember to call someone, that I was supposed to be somewhere early in the morning. Even the more pleasant remembering is sudden and somewhat shocking to me, that I am married, that I own this beautiful house, that I am a pastor—and wait, do I have to preach today? Have I written a sermon?
Thus my mornings generally start with a shock. This morning’s shock was quite different as I raised my hand to adjust the covers and saw bright red—no I’m pretty sure it is coral shrimp—on my normally naked fingernails. My slow morning mind struggled to bring back what has happened.
First I remembered the painting time—the giggling and yet focused energy as each of us slowly realized that the little brush was not going to do what we asked of it. I had red streaks on both sides of my fingers, and when I touched things it spread. Our little gang passed around a cue tip to remove the excess strokes, when what I really needed was a sponge. In bed I look more closely at my thumbs where the polish goes from cuticle to cuticle, and up over and onto the finger, and my pointer where I seem to have forgotten the right half of the nail. The lumps on several fingers, the chip already started on one.
This is not a skill I have developed over time, this painting of one’s own appendages. This is not a skill I want to develop. But it is fun for a small group of women to have a project we do together, marking ourselves as a team. Marking ourselves because….the morning haze is starting to lift and I remember the story that started this pre-ritual ritual.
The stories started with the evaluations we have received about our clothes, our hose, our jewelry, the evaluations of our choices for dress. One of us remembered a liturgics class and an off-hand comment that one of them, was it the professor? One of them would refuse communion hands with inappropriate nail polish. Although I wanted to care for this man's suffering—really, he would deny himself the central element of his faith with such pettiness? How painful his life of faith must be.
But of course we are group of women, and we know that this was not a lecture about his concern for the recipients of the sacrament. His intent was not to be sure that that the full diversity of people experience the fullness of eating together with Jesus.
We know that he would not make the same comment about a man who has an odd ring, or perhaps gnarled fingers, or a dusky voice, or doesn’t hold his hands precisely in the right way, or breaks the bread awkwardly. This was not in fact, about the sacrament, and the liturgical ways of executing the sacrament, at all.
This was about women’s hands, with women’s markings, and the fact that men have used naked fingers for centuries, and so then, why should a woman’s fingers not be naked as well? As if he would also say that no one should wear socks, or ties, or for that matter pants, because our savior himself never wore such things.
There are many ways to react to oppression, even those little tiny oppressions, the micro-aggressions, as we call them today. We can blog and rant and complain to our friends, we can, and we do, ignore them, hide them away, we can, and we do, often, make light of them.
And sometimes we bring them to the light with a group of friends, colleagues, sisters, using laughter, and nail polish, and cue tips to make the point that these hands are qualified to run liturgy, to hold sacrament, these hands can connect us to one another, and these hands connect us to God in the world. Ugly nail polish cannot stop God’s powerful communion.
What a shock.
More Ash Wednesday
We had twelve people for Ash Wednesday service. The sky was gray but the weather was pleasant and the sun poked out a bit behind the clouds. Brian brought another deaf friend, and a friend who can sign. Pablo just happened by and decided to stay. We waited until five after 11 to start and were done by 11:20. My worries about being encouraged to leave by the city did not materialize. It was just nice.
Joel 2 and Psalm 51 were both about the ways that God is looking to pull us back, looking for us to return to the fold. We shared stories of God being there, even when we thought that God was not. A story about how we think God has moved away, but really God is there and we have moved. A story about how we can wander further and further from God’s path, and then, when life seems at its worst, can realize that we’ve had God with us all along. A story about how choosing to follow God doesn’t solve anything, and yet it makes everything better.
And we received our ashes and we blessed one another and we were on our way. A small group of us stayed on the common to hand out ashes to those who were passing by. Right away we figured out that it was awkward to offer: it felt pushy in a way we didn’t like to say we had ashes, but there was no other way for folk to know it was available. Next time we’ll bring a sign! But we fell into a routine of asking “do you want ashes for ash Wednesday?” and then smiling and saying have a good day to those who said no.
And a surprising number of people said yes.
There is debate out in the social media as to whether “Ashes to Go” is a short-cut, an inappropriately simplified offering, a giving in to the non-stop motion of the secular world. I agree with the need to ask whether it is a good thing to offer ashes on the forehead without appropriate liturgy, without prior relationship, without the focus on seeping into the season of lent.
Indeed, at least half of the people who received the ashes on Worcester Common took off their hat, accepted the ashes with a quiet amen, and moved on with their life. It was truly “Ashes to Go”.
But the woman at Worcester Common who turned to me and said "Ashes? I haven't had ashes since I was a kid" and then told me about her life since the last time she'd been to church, and how the church had hurt her, and how she was now thinking about God again for the first time in a long time, that woman? When I put ashes on her, she understood what was happening in that ritual as well anyone who had time to sit inside.
And the young man who said "No, thanks" and then came back and said, "Can I change my mind?" and told the story of the fight he'd had last night and how he was ruminating about that when I offered ashes, and realized that he has to get right with God if he thinks he is going to get right with his girl friend. That young man, he understood enough to accept ashes without going inside.
People really told stories. People really cried. People really reacted like this was an unexpected gift, unexpected because they weren’t sure they deserved it, weren’t sure that the church could offer it, weren’t sure that God was with them. And the ashes said “yes, God is here” and “yes, you are deserving” and “yes, the church is in the world with you”.
Yup, it’s a short cut. It’s a short cut to God available to those willing to take it.
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.