Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thinking of Mrs. Job on Mothers Day

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Sheepscott Community Church May 10, 2009

1 John 4: 16b-21
John 15: 1-8

Thinking of Mrs. Job on Mothers Day

It’s important to remember today, on Mothers Day, that God is as much like a mother as like a father. But we are more accustomed to hearing paternal rather than maternal language about the parent of our spirits. In today’s message I’d like to consider how God may be like a mother, or how a mother may be like God.

Who among us who are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers of children, who among us who have interaction with children, whether our own or others’, who among us isn’t at least occasionally concerned for the welfare of their young souls? Especially if they are on the cusp of young adulthood and more than eager to leave behind the churchgoing habit of their families.

Some of us experience this scenario in our own families, and I know that many a parent over the years has brought to me that concern about children choosing not to be part of a religious community, with the inherent question, “Oh, what will happen to them?” Out of today’s gospel of the vine and the branches, I hope to illustrate a way of thinking about the issue that might be useful, fruitful for you, and might produce some peace of mind, if it’s needed.

First I’d like to consider Job and his family in the traditional story we read in the Old Testament. In the prologue to that story, we read that Job’s sons used to take turns holding feasts in their homes, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send for them and have them purified by offering a burnt sacrifice for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

Does that remind you of anyone you know? Yourself perhaps? Praying ceaselessly for your children and your children’s children, your nephews and nieces, your students, that they may be right with God, however your prayer is phrased. Far be it from me to discourage praying, one for another; on the contrary, I am a strong advocate for that. However, I would like to add a caveat to that kind of prayer. We think of the unjust judge and the woman who keeps badgering that judge to make a decision about her case. He finally agrees to do it because the woman is driving him crazy. There are models aplenty in the gospel for persevering in prayer, and that’s just one, with God as judge.

But, back to the caveat, however. In the case of Job interceding for his children, hoping to assuage God if any of the children have cursed or blasphemed, to take on himself the burden of any blasphemy or sin on their part, I suggest that Job might have left that to the children themselves. If these seven sons and three daughters were feasting together with food and wine, I suspect they were old enough to be responsible for themselves before God.

So am I saying pray for them or don’t pray for them? There’s a fine line here. What it feels like is whether we think we can control God’s response to the situation and to prayer––or not. Whether we entertain the thought we can control what finally is the fate of our children––or not. If we pray openhandedly, openheartedly for the best outcome for those children, according to God’s lights, and yet for enlightenment and all that that means for them, I think that is a very different attitude and kind of prayer from that of the hands clasped to the bosom, imploring God to spare this one, to lead that one.

Alden Davis gave me my first teaching about the Tao de Ching in our first conversation, at the Hill Church, and it seems relevant here. I asked her if there were a bottom line of understanding about that religious philosophy, and she said, paraphrasing, that everything is unfolding the way it should, and that we should let that happen. That was a new kind of thought for me as somewhat of a hand-wringing parent, and I offer it to you. As with everything else, it is seeking the balance and cutting ourselves all the slack in the world for our humanness and how that translates into our experience around our own children, regardless of their ages, and the children of our various communities.

Our children learn more from watching us and what our choices are in situations than in any other way. If a non-begrudging attendance at church and a joy in the activities there are part of our regular experience, they will probably be part of our children’s experience, sooner or later. We are always in the business of making memories, which can have a profound effect on future actions.

But when the children get to the age of young adulthood, anywhere from 13-25, probably like Job’s children, they have come to the point of individualizing, becoming themselves, discovering more fully their own personal identities apart from the family. That is the work of adolescence, and the wisest parents among us––of whom there are a number in this congregation––know that. But oh, sometimes it’s hard to keep hands––and certain kinds of prayers––off. Again, the balance, the emotionally, healthy attitude that will allow us to come before God with the open and not clenched hands, the open and not clenched heart, as we pray for all of our children.

In the reading from 1 John 4 this morning, the author says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment.” If we backtrack, we can imagine that Job was praying out of an attitude of fear toward God, fear of punishment, if not for himself, for his children. But, perfect love drives out fear. As it is written further on in that same letter, ”God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him.” How encouraging is that? How much can we trust that that is true? What’s the alternative to not trusting that that is true? To live in fear––no way to live a fruitful life. Living that way recalls the man again who buried his talent under the ground so that he could return that talent intact to his hard taskmaster who had given it to him.

The response to that choice is clearly outlined in this morning’s gospel, where the writer of John has Jesus identify himself as the true vine and his Father as the gardener who cuts off every branch that bears no fruit, the hard taskmaster who takes the little from the man who buried his talent in the ground and gives it to him who has much, who had doubled what he had. How do we relate that to what we are discussing here regarding young people who no longer choose to attend church or who have no observable religious practice, who possibly in our view may be setting themselves up for a terrible tumble from grace? What does this business of fruiting or not fruiting have to do with them?

While I mentioned earlier that church attendance is a good and reasonable way to set an example for young people that they may later choose to follow on their own, there is a commensurate calling forth who they are that they might bear the fruit that Jesus speaks of, the fruit of their individual lives, for which they are responsible before God. Let me offer an alternative narrative for the Job story in order to explain what I mean. Let’s say that one of Job’s daughters was a gifted flute player. Mrs. Job, her mother, whom we never heard of in the bible story, but without whom there wouldn’t be seven sons and three daughters, Mrs. Job, as we’ll call her, knew her daughter’s talent and desire. She encouraged Job, the girl’s father, to use the resources at his disposal to ensure that their daughter had an instructor and an instrument on which to practice. Thereby could her development as a musician be assured. She would bear the fruit of music, which would give glory to God and pleasure to her family and herself and all those for whom she desired to play.

Maybe Job and his wife had a son who loved camels. Everything about camels delighted the boy, much to the puzzlement of his father. But the boy had talked to his mother, and she knew how he even dreamed about camels and riding them across the countryside, the wind in his hair, like a young motorcyclist of our time. She encouraged Job to let their son help the grooms in the care of the animals and not to worry about what the neighbors would say, mixing the classes.

In this alternative narrative, Job, rather than pleading for his children with those clenched hands, agonizing with worry, as parents tend to do, rather than making the burned sacrifices for them to ensure that the awesome God would be appeased and not punish the children who might have offended God, rather than all that, if he listened to their mother, he could be enjoying the children, watching them, listening to them to find out more about who they themselves are. And then, as he was able, to make opportunities for them to shine, to bear fruit, to give glory to the God who loves them and wants them to succeed, is not watching with a hammer in hand to knock them on the heads when they step over some imagined line.

One way of looking at it is to give to them as we ourselves wish we might have been given to when we were younger. I am not talking about material things but about the gift beyond price, which is ourselves taking time to truly listen and reflect back to them what we see. And that’s true of us adults in relation to one another as much as it is true for us reflecting back to children. It’s one way we are community together. Choosing to speak a word of kindness that gives life, rather than not.

I believe holiness for us consists in trying to be our best human selves, and that includes discovering and developing and exercising our gifts that God has given us on behalf of our communities––home, school, church, work, the list goes on. Can we see that by helping our children, however they are our children, go forward in their lives as athletes, scholars, musicians, naturalists, healers, writers, educators, social workers, and so on, as we help all our children to go forward in trust that they will discover God within themselves as they grow and become wholly themselves. They will bear fruit as members of their own various communities, and we? We will be letting things unfold as they should with our support, as Alden suggested about Taoism, but without our interference.

Mr. and Mrs. Job’s hypothetical daughter playing her hypothetical flute or their son tending to the camels, these are artificial models but models nevertheless, which we can consider as sacred activities because they represent children fulfilling their gifts, being fruiting branches off the vine that is Christ. Flute-playing and camel-tending are not recognized as religious activities per se, no, they would be called profane. But they do represent a way of fulfillment of the sacred contract we all have to fulfill the promise of our lives, no matter at what stage we find ourselves.

Think again about the vine and the branches. No less than we are branches off the vine of Christ who can not bear fruit apart from him, so our children are branches off that same vine. They have their own row to hoe in their own way. Let us be observant caretakers, adding fertilizer when we see it’s necessary and possible and can do that without interfering with who they are before God.

In conclusion, an afterthought to this message: Some of us think we have the best mother the world has ever known, and that has to include Jesus, whose mother Mary was there from the very beginning to the very end. When we tick off our mothers’ virtues and talents, it’s clear that we have thought a great deal about them, whether they are living or dead. On the other hand, some of us may think we had the worst mother in the world, especially when we take stock of her over against our own construction of what makes a good mother and how she fell short of that ideal as we think about our growing up.

Whichever group you fall into, the celebrators of mothers or the non-celebrators, or more likely, somewhere in between, remember her today. Remember your mother, and if you need to forgive her, for both your sakes, do that. Give yourself a rest. She was probably doing the best she could with what she had and what she knew at the time, as is true for most of us right now. Amen.

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