Today is Mother’s Day. Somehow, Mother’s Day tends to make me feel my failure…. Hear me out for a moment. I have three beautiful, amazing adult children, of whom I am very proud. I enjoy them immensely, and I have a good relationship with them all. That is not what I mean.
What I am talking about is that I have not been able to be that always-available, stay-at-home mom, who baked cookies every week and fixed breakfast for her children every morning. I could not even get my twins out of bed in the morning for kindergarten. I think they set a school record for number of tardies – being late for kindergarten every single day of the school year – and we lived only two houses away from the school. I simply could not get them out of bed! Failure as a mom. I worked out of town in order to keep our family afloat and could not get home by the time they were out of school, so they were enrolled in after-school care for their entire school lives! Failure as a mom. I remember Christmas and birthdays, but I always have a terrible time knowing what to get as gifts, so I ask for lists. Good moms intuitively know just what their children want. Failure as a mom. As preschoolers, they were confused during my cancer treatment. The girls couldn’t read until they were half-way through second grade. We had numerous parent interviews due to our son’s school behavior. And then there was the divorce. Failure as a mom.
There is something about mother’s day which seems to call up images of a perfect “Ozzie and Harriet” life, which I did not have. And maybe that is the problem – that we have an over-blown expectation of what life is supposed to be like. Paul was one of the most impactful followers of Jesus, yet he had no “Ozzie and Harriet” life. In fact, he himself says that it was his weakness, not his perfection which gave him strength. Because it was in the weakness that he could let the mother love of God take over.
Paul’s life with Jesus started the hard way. He hated the Way (the earliest name for the followers of Jesus) and became its most passionate enemy. He became obsessed with stamping it out. He traveled around the region arresting, imprisoning, and executing women and men in the name of God and the Scriptures. After a few years of this behavior, Jesus himself stepped in – knocked him off of his horse and off of his hateful mission. Saul (his Hebrew name) heard the voice say: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was as if Jesus was saying: No more! Jesus had some “mama bear” in him at this point. ‘Now, you listen here. Go to Damascus and wait. I’ll let you know what comes next when I’m good and ready!’ Then the vision was gone and Paul was blind. They took him to Damascus. He sat in the blackness of his life and soul for three days, while Jesus was preparing his healing.
Just imagine what those three days of darkness must have been like. Imagine what they would be like for you. Will I ever see again? The deep yearning for the beauty of the world, the faces of loved ones. The fear that goes with not being able to watch out for oneself. And the guilt – the guilt and confusion of being so sure, and maybe, being so wrong!
Jesus had a lot of work to do getting the healing ready for Paul as well. Jesus went to Ananias to tell him to go and be Jesus’ healing hands for Saul of Tarsus! But Ananias was a little like Moses, making excuses and trying to get out of it. Again, you can see Jesus, the mama bear, putting his hands on his hips and saying, ‘Do what I tell you! I am especially fond of this one, Saul. And I want you to be fond of him as well. He has a job to do.’
Ananias could have killed his blind and defenseless enemy. But instead he spoke words of kindness to him. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you sent me to you so your sight could be restored and so you could be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Ananias put his hands on Saul and prayed.
When Saul opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the face of the man, who had been the hands of Jesus for him. When he opened his eyes, he was a different Saul. But this is no “happily ever after” ending. Immediately Ananias told Saul that the way ahead would be full of struggle and pain, as it was for all the followers of the Way.
Later, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul gave a whole laundry list of disasters and traumas that wracked his life. He was familiar with pain and fear! Time after time, life could have been over for Paul, but he learned to let go of the outcomes. To rely on Jesus, who had given him the gift of blindness to do its work. The gift of blindness.
Hardships make us bitter…, or better. They lead us to breakdown…, or to breakthrough. If we don’t give up at the breaking point when we feel we’ve reached the end of our own resources, we find a new aliveness, the life of the risen Christ rising within us. Paul says it like this: “I have been crucified with Christ. So it is no longer my prideful self who lives. Now it is Christ, alive in me.”
In the face of hardship, Paul admits getting depressed at times. But he tells us that it is only through hardship, through discouragement, through exhaustion, that we learn to draw on the power of God’s Spirit within us. It is only when we come to the end of our own strength, and even then refuse to give up, that we discover God’s strength. “When we are weak, then we are strong,” he says.
Henri Nouwen wrote a book about the spirituality of the desert, The Way of the Heart, which introduced me to the early Christian fathers and mothers who left Roman culture to live in the desert in the early centuries of the Jesus movement. They understand the truth that strength comes in weakness, being filled with God comes with emptying the self. Nouwen observes that “they saw solitude as a place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.” When everything else is stripped away, when one is blind inside and out, we have the opportunity for a courageous encounter with our naked, most raw and real self, in the presence of pure love.
This is what happened inside Saul, through his blindness. He was changed. In our places of blindness, confusion, failure, we have the same opportunity. To strip away all the “Ozzie and Harriet” images we portray to the community around us, and to be held in pure love. We don’t need to be the Mother of the Year, we just need to let ourselves be mothered by pure love, which is God. That is what does the healing we need.
I think Anne Lamott is insightful in her rant about Mother’s Day on Salon.com. Listen to her for a moment:
…Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. Ha! Every woman’s path is difficult, and many mothers were as equipped to raise children as wire monkey mothers. I say that without judgment: It is, sadly, true. An unhealthy mother’s love is withering….
But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men.
Lamott makes a helpful distinction between being a mother and mothering. God mothers us, in a way which provides both freedom and a safety net. That last phrase from Amy Young – “providing both freedom and a safety net” – speaks to me. And it may have been what was provided for Paul on the road to Damascus – he had both freedom to follow the path he chose, and the mama bear Jesus stepped in with a safety net. It didn’t look like a safety net to him at first. It looked like a disaster and the end of his life. But it was the only thing that would strip away what his mind was telling him, and take him into his heart, where pure love could heal.
So Paul had to have his body stopped by blindness in order to stop the hamster wheel of hate that was energizing his life. When he was finally stopped, the scales fell off his eyes,… actually his heart. And he could see with eyes of love.
Did he ever get angry and crotchety again?! Read his letters and you will know that he did. That may be why he had to have so many opportunities for his body to be stopped short, to get him out of his head and into his heart. The beautiful thing about Paul is that he wrote about it all – the mess, the pain, the failure…, and the joy.
Hardships not only teach us to live in dependence upon God, but they also teach us interdependence with others. So through hardship, we are forced to depend on each other. And in the face of death, we are faced with the truth that it is not about us. We are not irreplaceable. Others can carry on. We are free to pass the torch to the next hand. It won’t look like what I would do.
I am proud of my children. And they do not live their lives like I do. I delight in this generation we are raising. They are inspired, creative and hopeful. They will not do things as I have done them, nor as I ‘should’ have done them. They will do it their way. And in the process of our life together now, if all we do is experience love together, that will be enough to trust them with the way forward.
At the end of his life, sitting in house arrest in Rome, Paul knew that he had loved well. His friends came to him daily. They talked and hugged and sang. And he knew that was enough. The Jesus way is strong. It is the way of love. Whether we are talking about Mother’s Day or the way of the faithful follower of Jesus, it is not about getting it right, being on a smooth path. If life is easy, we may have taken a wrong turn, in fact. Know that the mama-bear God trusts us to be divine hands and feet, and to pick us up and hold us in love, whenever we will let go and let ourselves be held.
Failure as a mom? That is the wrong question, I am sure of that. Where did my stumbles and struggles take me or my family? That is perhaps a better question. May it lead to an encounter with the Loving God.
Chapter 39, We Make the Road By Walking, by Brian McLaren
Isaiah 40:27-31; Acts 9:1-25; 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, 11:22-33
1 Nouwen, Henri, The Way of the Heart, (Harper Collins Publishers: 2009), 27.
2 “Why I hate Mother’s Day,” by Anne Lamott, www.salon.com
3 “An open letter to pastors,” by Amy Young at: www.timewarpwife.com