“Who is the oldest mom in the room? How old are you, Helen? 76? How about you, Marge? 83! Marge is the oldest mother with us today. Stand up, Marge!” Beaming, Marge rises from her pew. As the congregation applauds, she reaches out a weathered hand to accept the red carnation from one of the teenagers.
“Now, who has the most children? Betty, I know you have five. Any other woman here today have more than five children? Who is that in the back? Audrey? SEVEN kids, you say? Wow! Audrey, please stand up.” An exhausted looking woman with a baby bouncing on her hip slowly stands up, blushing, as people clap and smile in her direction.
“Historically, the church embedded within women the notion that our greatest purpose in life is to bear children.”
“How about our newest mom? Holly, it looks like it could be any day for you, right?” Holly nods wearily while shifting uncomfortably against the wooden pew and rubs her hands over her pregnant belly. A woman on the other side of the sanctuary waves to catch the pastor’s attention. “Oh, my goodness! Natalie, I did not expect to see you here two days after delivery. Everyone, Natalie is here with her 2-day-old son, Micah.” People sitting nearby peer into the face of tiny Micah as Natalie soaks in this experience of her first Mother’s Day.
“Before the choir leads us, I’d like for all the mothers to please stand.” Around the room, women rise up from their pews as those seated applaud. Red carnations are gifted to each woman standing and the familiar tune of “Just as I Am” fills the room.
I lean over and smell my mom’s carnation and give her a hug. The pride I felt as a young girl watching the church honor her is only matched by the gratitude I feel, increasingly today, at what a lovely woman I am privileged to call Mom.
But is Sunday morning worship the place for this? Mother’s Day…. It’s complicated.
Historically, the church embedded within women the belief that our greatest purpose in life is to bear children. Martin Luther wrote, “Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring us children. If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing, she is there to do it.” Thanks for nothing, Martin.
Surely, this sounds absurd to many (hopefully all) who read it today, but these teachings are woven into the DNA of many of our pulpits. That frustrates me, because I am much more than my womb. But there is another profound effect on women that too often goes unnoticed.
As I reflect on those Mother’s Days of red carnations, applause and celebration during Sunday morning worship, I wonder which woman in the room had been trying the longest to get pregnant and sat in her pew with a flat stomach and empty arms. Which woman in the room had most recently buried her own mother, and would add her red carnation to the artificial arrangement in her trunk when she visited the cemetery later that afternoon. How many women in the room had children but would receive no calls, no cards, no flowers because relationships are difficult and sometimes, despite our love and best intentions, our children turn away from us. How many women were wrestling with the abuse their mothers heaped upon them.
In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans said it well: “… the teaching that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling can be painful and isolating for women who remain unmarried or childless.” On this cultural holiday that is marked by grief for so many women in our midst, church should be a healing balm, not salt rubbed into open wounds.
“Flowers, applause and honoring mothers in the sanctuary leads me to wonder what or whom exactly we are worshipping.”
This Sunday, as women around the country are celebrated for their motherhood amidst family and friends, what is the role of the church? Flowers, applause and honoring mothers in the sanctuary leads me to wonder what or whom exactly we are worshipping.
Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful for my mother, for my children and for thankfulness passed among friends and families. Just not at the expense of my friends who have suffered years from the debilitating grief of infertility. Or the mothers I know whose children have died leaving holes in their souls that may never fully heal. Or the friend I have who does her best just to ignore Mother’s Day every year because the pain of missing her own mother makes it difficult to breathe that day.
When the church doors open on Mother’s Day, may those who enter feeling joyful find the Jesus who is rejoicing with them. And may those who enter blinking back tears and yearning for what is not to be experience the compassion of Christ weeping alongside them in their pain. Embodying this loving Jesus can be as simple as an intentional prayer that recognizes the multitude of emotions and experiences within the room.
Would all women please stand?
If you have children, long for children, are unable to get pregnant, have buried a child, have cremated a mother, chose not to raise children… you are loved, and I honor you.
And, so does Jesus. Just as you are.