“Lessons My Mother Taught Me”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
Music & Mother’s Day Sunday
13 May, 2018
My mother is exceptional: I am one of eight children born in ten years, and all of us have grown up to be happy, healthy, thriving adults. She received frequent compliments on how well behaved and respectful we all were—and we were. (Mostly.)
One of the many gifts I received from my mother is a love for singing good hymns. And I know that she received the fondness she passed onto me from her mother: I have memories of my Grandma Holwerda and Mom singing hymns when my grandparents visited. They would encourage my sister and me to sing along, and sometimes they would invite me to accompany with my flute as they sang and played their favorites, like: “Because He Lives, I Can Face Tomorrow”, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, and “It Is Well with My Soul”. I was taught from a young age with the words of the Psalmist to, “sing to the Lord”, to “come into God’s presence with thanksgiving”, and “make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise.”
Another of the gifts I received from her is my deep appreciation for the authority, wisdom, and reliability of the Bible. Even though we disagree about how God intends for us to interpret Scripture (I believe that we need to take the Bible seriously, but not always literally—it was written by human beings who had close relationships with God, but God did not dictate every word; she is a biblical literalist who believes God did dictate every word, and contends that the Bible is inerrant and infallible) . . . despite our differences, I give her credit for instilling deep within me the understanding that this Book is the supreme guidebook for life. For both of us, there is no more influential book on earth.
My mom knows much of the Bible by heart—certainly more of it than I know by rote. I know the Bible pretty well, and the whereabouts to find most of the passages I can refer to, but she will easily quote chapter and verse. And so, as a child, I was periodically treated to certain verses. For example, I heard more than once, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”
Because one of my chief acts of insubordination as an adolescent was back-talk, I once said, “Yes—but it also says, ‘[Parents] do not provoke your children to anger…’” And she promptly completed the verse, “…but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.’ You’re grounded now; go to your room!” You can imagine how much fun it would have been to be a fly on the wall in our house!
When Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” he was rhetorically re-phrasing one of the Ten Commandments. “Honor your father and mother,” Paul starts, but then with his “teacher voice” he interjects the observation that, “—this is the first commandment with a promise:” and then completes the commandment, “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” The instruction to honor father and mother was clearly being emphasized by the Jews in Jesus’ and Paul’s day, because it’s repeated at least eight times in the Bible, including the letter to Ephesians: twice in the Old Testament using exactly the words Paul quoted, and five other times between Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels. Do you suppose they struggled to get their kids to listen and respect them as much in the first century as parents do today?
One of the things I’ve come to understand about honoring people—whether parents or anyone else—is the importance of fully appreciating their complexity, recognizing their humanity, and forgiving their shortcomings, just as we’d like to be forgiven for our own imperfections. It also means acknowledging that we can hold very different points of view regarding how best to navigate our human experience, especially in relationship with God and with others. Another thing I’ve come to understand about honoring people is how important it is to spend time trying to understand the other person from their own context, to imagine the world as best we can through their eyes, learning about their lived experience, and not just pasting our reality onto what we expect of them.
Although I knew my mother loved me, we I did not have an easy relationship when I was growing up. I was grateful, during those years—and I’m sure she was, too—for other women who “mothered” me, who nurtured me in ways that mine could not. And despite the fact that my graduate theological education helped me to understand and become more accepting of the distinctions between her beliefs and mine, it actually took becoming a mother myself for me to be able to really understand, and honor her. Suddenly, I was able to appreciate that one of her greatest gifts to me was her insistence that there ought to be integrity between what we profess to believe, how we interpret Scripture, and how we live our life in relationship to God and others. Her way of interpreting Scripture demands different things from her in order for her to feel she is living with integrity, particularly in the ways that she was attempting to follow the advice of another verse from Proverbs that says, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Proverbs 22:6), and I get that now. So, while I don’t agree with her approach on everything, I’ve come to understand why she did what she did, and honor her and her efforts to be faithful.
It took becoming a mother for me to recognize the truth of a prayer request someone sent to me for this morning’s service—one that I imagine my own mother, and a lot of other mothers here will resonate with. Here’s the prayer request that was written:
There are times when being a mother is hard.
Please may we have a prayer for strength, and for grace in those times.
A prayer, too, for grace from those on the receiving end, when a mother:
Showed anger instead of compassion
Offered advice instead of empathy
Was frustrated instead of kind
Focused on the small things instead of the larger picture
Talked instead of just listening
Grace that recognizes that what you have done as a mother, you have done from a place of fierce and fearsome love for your child—someone you love most in the world. A love that feels so overwhelming that you cannot bear to see something happening to that child, and the emotion comes out wrong.
Grace that says:
You are forgiven. You are human. And, you are loved.
That sort of grace is a blessing—both to receive, and to give. It’s a blessing because it’s divine. When you or I extend that sort of grace, compassion, forgiveness, and loving acceptance to another (not just to mothers or children), we are acting toward others as God acts toward us. And when we receive it, we know the love of God, which gives birth to grace.
One of the most powerful lessons my mother taught me is the importance of counting our blessings. She didn’t tolerate complaining, really—she always reminded my siblings and me of the importance of naming our blessings, of giving thanks for what we DO enjoy rather than focusing on what doesn’t please us at the moment. Another hymn I vividly recall Grandma and Mom singing together is an old tune called “Count Your Blessings” by Johnson Oatman, Jr. Sometimes she would just sing the refrain in response to our complaints: “Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done. Count your blessings, name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
In the lessons my mother has taught me, I have discovered wisdom. The Proverb we heard this morning is true: those who find wisdom are happy—those who obtain wisdom, who get understanding, recognize that her income and profits are better than anything money can buy. Those who have wisdom have peace—another theme expressed throughout the music of this service—and a lasting prosperity that cannot be touched by material possessions.
Wisdom, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is divine—a manifestation of God, not beneath or subservient to a masculine creative power, but in fact an expression of God’s delight. Wisdom—also known as Sophia in the Greek—weaves her way, like breath or Spirit itself, through all creation. We find her hidden in plain sight as we wander through the woods or along the beach or even the city streets, as we contemplate the rhythms and relationship web of everything we observe; we’re hearing her expression in the hymns and songs of this morning, and also in wordless melodies or occasional cacophonies; she’s present in our community’s life and sharing together, and presents herself in our homes if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
There’s enough to say on the subject of Wisdom to merit an entire sermon of its own. But for this morning, as we celebrate and honor mothering, it’s enough to say: in the midst of a text that has long been interpreted to imply that the greatest power of all is male gendered, that divine Wisdom is characterized as feminine is worth highlighting. God is the perfect heavenly Mother—Sophia—who gives wisdom and life to all of us. She embraces and heals those who have felt somehow wounded by motherhood, or by mortal mothers, or by a life that never allowed for motherhood even though it was longed for.
My mother may not have taught me to embrace feminine imagery for God; I think that would be an uncomfortable stretch for her. But it was my mother, and others who mothered me along the way, who taught me indelible lessons about the presence and power of God expressed through women, and especially through mothering women. Lessons I give thanks for and honor today.
What lessons has your mother or “mother-er”/mothering figure taught you, and where have you glimpsed God through her?
 Ephesians 6:1, 4.
 Ephesians 6:2-3.