It is rare that I write a column focused solely on my own personal experience - so rare, in fact, that I don’t remember my ever having done it; that is, until now! Focusing only on one’s own experience can be quite limiting, although the result is not necessarily invalid. In fact, to share one’s own experiences sometimes can be of value to others. So I wrote this column with that fond hope and felicitous possibility in mind.
The month of May always begins with an opportunity to observe Mother’s Day or, as is now often the custom, to remember bothparents since, in most churches, there currently is, on Mother's Day, a celebration of what is called the Festival of the Christian Home.
Of course, to remember one’s parents can give rise to mixed feelings or even a pervasive sense of sadness, since so many families are marked by debilitating experiences of dysfunctionality. I remember a good friend’s telling me (the biblical injunction to the contrary) that she did not consider her parents to be honor-worthy because her memories of home and family were more negative than positive. Actually, over the years, that is a story I’ve heard many times, and I deeply empathize with the pain that no doubt was experienced by all parties involved. But even in the most difficult of family situations, there is a bittersweet “plus-factor” that can be potentially helpful. Even from the most dysfunctional parents, we can learn how not to be, how not to act, and how not to relate. Unintentionally, and in a reverse kind of way, such parents can help us become more mature than they. That approach, if we choose to appropriate it, can be the proverbial silver lining in an otherwise dark and foreboding cloud.
Most people, however, at least according to surveys, tend to rate their parents on a continuum from at least “relatively good” to “simply wonderful.” Although I certainly wouldn’t claim that my own mother and father were actually perfect, nor was I; but I was extremely blessed to have both of them and would gladly choose them to be my parents again. My father was incredible, but, of course, this month is a time especially to pay tribute to mothers; so, in keeping with the season, I’ll focus now on my own mother. My mother was a marvelous cook, as are some of you. She made it a habit to prepare three delicious, balanced and nourishing meals every day, using primarily the fresh vegetables that we grew in our own garden. Her kitchen was not a fancy one, and she had no dishwasher until I graduated from college; but I shall never forget the flavorful food and intoxicating aromas that emanated from her kitchen. In addition to cooking for us, she made it a point regularly to prepare entire meals for sick neighbors and friends.
When I was small, she always managed to find time to help me with my homework; and every time I made a grammatical error, no matter how commonly misused by others, she used that as an opportunity to teach me correct usage.
Although my mother claimed that she was not a very good seamstress, she made all of our draperies, curtains, slipcovers for furniture, and other items as well, working sometimes late into the night. The reason is that she made a decision not to work outside the home until I was old enough to be in college. Consequently, she intentionally gave up having a nicer, more spacious house and more elegant furnishings as well as newer clothing for herself in order to be at home with her son. She felt that there is no higher calling than to be a mother, and she didn’t want to be a mother-in-absentia or to pass that responsibility on to someone else. She loved and admired beautiful things, but the acquisition of those things was never her priority. Consequently, she was quite content to “do without” for awhile - even forever, if necessary - in order to fulfill what she believed to be her higher calling as a mother. At the time I was completely unaware that she (and my dad) were making some major sacrifices for me; in fact, I never even realized that money might at times have been in short supply. In retrospect, though, I do remember my mother’s pretending to be full on occasions in order to make sure that Dad and I had enough to eat
All of the aforementioned matters endear the memory of my mother (and dad) to me; and although I’ve never thought about it until now, their being role models of generosity, simplicity, and non-materialistic self-sacrificing love may have prepared me to work for CCM without any monetary compensation for nearly fourteen years. Despite the fact that such a decision has resulted in a bit of belt-tightening for me, I consider my having been able to do so a priceless privilege.
The gift from my mother (indeed, from both my parents) that I value above all others is the seriousness with which they gave constant attention to my spiritual development. For as long as I can remember, my mother kept in her bedroom a picture of me as a toddler together with a poem that obviously had special meaning for her. The verses and the meter would win no prize for elegant poetry, as she knew; but she took that humble bit of prose as her “marching orders,” her overall goal toward which, primarily by example, she quietly and imperceptibly resolved to work. After Mother died, I read the poem at her memorial service because it defined so clearly the spiritual grounding of her priorities. I reproduce it here in case some of you might find it of value.
He cannot be a child forever, God.
He walks my way, hand fast within my hand;
yet I would not have him stay a little boy.
Instead, I pray that someday he may stand
with body tall and arrow-straight,
with eyes looking bravely at some worthy task.
But more than that his body finds its height…,
I ask that his soul may grow in stature
as his body waxes strong,
until the little lad whom I love so much
will come to know
that brawn does not make a man.
Maturity goes deeper, after all.
A gallant body does not matter much
unless the soul it houses grows tall.
As I look back, I am able to see that all my mother was and did pointed to that which she believed to be the supreme task of a parent, beside which all else paled into insignificance: to introduce her child to the sacred. She felt that, ultimately, she would have failed as a parent if she had nurtured my mind, body, and social skills but had not nurtured my spirit.
Today, more than anything else, I am thankful for the spiritual wisdom of my mother and, perhaps, the little poem that may have inspired her sense of values. That goes for my father, also, who partnered lovingly with my mother in bringing that which they both deemed to be of primary importance to fruition.
So, on this Mother’s Day, I have ever so much for which to be thankful: the fact that my mother gave me many valuable things, but especially that she loved me enough to give me the one thing that matters most: an awareness of, and appreciation for the sacred.
Material things are wonderful, and so are many other advantages; but my hope for each of you who is a parent is that when you are no longer here, your children will be able to look back on those precious years with gratitude that, to borrow from Hallmark, you cared enough to give them “the very best.”
The good news is: While we still have breath, it’s never too late to start!
The Rev. Dr. John C. Whatley III
Senior Pastor of Community Church of the Midlands