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May 08, 2016

Divine Commission

Divine Commission

Passage: Matthew 12:46-50

Speaker: Bruce Van Blair

Series: Sermons

Category: Mother's Day

Keywords: mother's day, roles of women and men

Divine Commission

May 8, 2016

Matthew 12:46-50; 15:1-9; John 19:25-27


         Don’t you think that women should be preaching on Mother’s Day? Would that not give us a better, deeper perspective? Men may wax more eloquent than honest on this day, not that they always remember such sentiments all the way through the year. But I would think that women could reflect on motherhood with greater depth and understanding. Maybe we can see to that in the years to come. Meanwhile – stuck again.

         If you are a mother, I hope you are basking in great appreciation and affection this day. May all your children know that there is genuine delight in doing things that please you. And may it last far beyond this one particular day.

         In two of the Scripture passages for this morning, we find Jesus refusing to let His mother define or control His ministry. It recalls even harsher teachings from Him: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:36-37 ESV) From the perspective of the Pharisees, it is just one more illustration of how Jesus is willing, when necessary, to break the Ten Commandments. And from our perspective, it reminds us that the New Covenant is not always easy. The Kingdom of God is more important than the commandments, and sometimes that makes our choices difficult indeed. The Kingdom of God is even more important than our families. We never want it to come to that, but if it does, we need to know our priorities.

         In the nineteenth chapter of John, we are reminded that despite the issues along the way, Jesus deeply loves His mother. In the hardest hour of His life, He wants to make sure that she will be taken care of. It’s interesting that He does not assume His brothers will do that best. He turns His mother over to the care of one of His disciples. It’s nice to know that despite His faithfulness, Jesus ends up getting His family back. The books of James and Jude are in the New Testament, and neither book was written by one of Jesus’ twelve disciples; they were written by two of His biological brothers.

         While we are musing: Have you ever thought about finding appropriate Scripture readings for Mother’s Day? You ask me to do that every year. With a little ingenuity, we can maneuver some Bible verses into service. But when we do that, we often warp their context or their purpose. I suspect the reason for this is the opposite of what we might at first imagine. The importance of motherhood and mothers was even more obvious in the ancient world than it is in ours. Our world is overpopulated; theirs was not. In the ancient world, to be a wife with no children was a shame and a curse that we can hardly fathom. We know stories of women who were dishonored and stories of motherhood that was not valued, but those are rare exceptions that prove the rule. “Honor your father and your mother” was among the Top Ten on the hit parade. And to strike or even curse father or mother incurred the death penalty. (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9). Ah yes, “Give me that old-time religion.”

         Whatever our opinions about biblical wisdom, with all the mayhem going on today around marriage, raising children, custody battles, and what we believe about the roles of men and women in our society, it is hard to imagine that anybody could seriously think that we have found all the genuine solutions to these kinds of issues in our time. Everybody seems to know that women were “put down” in the ancient world. You think that men were not? This is a broken world. Even in idyllic Orange County, we all know that if you scratch the surface, there is still pain and fear and alienation and anger and depression. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse always ride. And some of us still need a Savior.

         Even so, I catch myself wondering about biblical wisdom and its place in our society. Can a modern woman come to the church or to the Scriptures and get help for understanding what it means to be a woman or a mother, and what the role of a woman should be in our world? I know some churches that claim they have the total truth about such matters. They are certain they do; I am certain they do not. I also know many women who say that the Scriptures are so infected by a male perspective that there is no help for women there – at least no help with the subjects of womanhood and motherhood.

         Of course, I think the Scriptures have some marvelous things to say on such subjects, but it also seems clear to me that only two or three of us understand such passages correctly. For the most part, whenever a group takes the Scriptures to be a true guide for women and their rightful role – and claims to know the pattern intended by God – the group invariably describes a role in which women are the slaves and servants of men. This, of course, makes it almost impossible to think about the subject or to deal with the biblical texts without reacting to this perspective. That is, I know both men and women who buy into the subjugation role for women. But those who do not, both women and men, find this approach so offensive that they frequently turn away from the Scriptures altogether, and sometimes away from the church as well.

         Naturally, I wish they would stay with the Scriptures: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1 ESV) Yeah Paul!

         But would you say to your daughter or to a good friend or to yourself (if you are a woman): “Go to the Scriptures to learn about motherhood ... go study the Bible to find wisdom for how to approach life as a true and whole and wholesome woman”?

         The truth is, the Bible is not our only source of information about womanhood or marriage or raising children, or about chemistry, physics, medicine, geography, or lots of other subjects. The Bible does not forbid us to read other books or to keep growing and learning about our world and all its endless dimensions, though some Christian groups strongly imply this attitude or even state it outright. Every culture and time has its patterns, and the Bible is written from many different cultures and lands, by many different people, covering approximately two thousand years of changing circumstances.

         For example, Jacob is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel – a great patriarch of faith and destiny in our tradition for all time. But is there anyone in this room who wants their daughters to pattern themselves after Jacob’s two wives? That’s Rachel and Leah, if you are searching your memory. Do you want your daughters to give their husbands another woman so he can have more children? (Bilhah and Zilpah, in Jacob’s case.) Or do we want our daughters to emulate Jacob’s lying, cheating, conniving mother Rebecca? Now there’s a story for Mother’s Day. Actually, Rebecca was wonderful in her way – just a little overprotective of Jacob. And fortunately Jacob finally grew out of it.

         In any case, just because the Bible “tells it like it is” does not mean it is like it’s supposed to be. What about THE FALL? This is a broken, alienated realm. We are supposed to be following Jesus into healing and redemption. Why does the church so often speak as if its only purpose is to cement the damage?

         What women in the Bible do we want our daughters to emulate? Bathsheba? Tamar? Delilah? Mary Magdalene? In real life, there are always places in the story where we would rather not go. Esther certainly is portrayed as a woman of great courage. Perhaps emulating her courage and her love for her people would be a good thing. But Esther is also the sexiest concubine in all of Persia, and that is how she gets the leverage she needs to save her people. Do we really want our daughters to copy Esther’s role? Hey, it’s in The Book – it’s God’s Word; just believe it without doubting or questioning? Is that the formula?

         Ruth, Rachel, Abigail, and Lydia are among my top picks. I always wish King David had kept Abigail and left the rest alone. He would have been far better off and far happier if he had. We might even have missed the Civil War and the Babylonian Captivity if he had. But conjecture gets us nowhere.

*         *         *

         Despite whatever rumors you may have heard to the contrary, I actually did have a mother. Her maiden name was Ruth B. Morgan. She was really quite wonderful. Even so, she died in 1971 – forty-five years ago – and I have been Ruthless ever since. My mother’s life was full of contradictions. She was incredible and pitiful; powerful and pathetic; a powerhouse and an invalid; amazingly wise and a slave to her illnesses and her drugs.

         I have never known any person who had a higher opinion or higher regard for motherhood or who tried harder to nurture her children: with food, understanding, truth, ideals, self-worth, confidence. That was tough because sometimes she did not have much of those things herself. But that was one of the contradictions; sometimes in some ways she did, and sometimes in other ways she did not.

         My mother had a lot of issues with the outer church. She also had a deep love for God, and she struggled to free herself from the straitjackets of the narrow, fear-based anger and judgments of the religion she was brought up in as a child. My mother and my father were both seminary-trained. I was named after Bruce Kirchner, their Greek Professor at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis (formerly Butler University School of Religion). One day I came across a medal in one of her dresser drawers. She had won the Indiana State speech contest in 1927.

         When I was in fifth grade, the Pastor of our church persuaded my mother to teach the high school Sunday School class. They were down to three and sometimes two students on Sundays. Six weeks later there were nineteen kids in her class on the average. Nobody in the church even knew there were that many high school kids in the area. My mother was willing to be open and honest about the things young people really cared about, so the word went out and they came. Did it cause any controversy in the church? You don’t even have to ask. But if my mother were alive and healthy today and you called her to be your Pastor, this place would be packed out every Sunday.

         I have lots of hard memories, but my favorite memories of my mother are of sitting on the couch next to my sister, with my Mom standing over the floor furnace at the end of the couch. She would be reading us a story or telling us about her childhood, or engaging us in some conversation about the meaning of sex, when was it okay to tell a lie, why we thought life was the way it was, why we liked some people more than others, and on and on. There was no such thing as “because I told you so” in our home. There were reasons for every rule. God never made any commandments for God’s own benefit. They were all for our well-being and because God wanted our lives to be better.

         My mother died of cortisone poisoning. It was not an accident. The doctors at the time could not think of anything else to do for her. She had lost half of one lung and two thirds of the other. She never smoked, but it was thought that infection from her abnormal sinus cavities had spread to her lungs. Over the years, there was less and less that anyone could do. Several months earlier, a doctor had mentioned to me that if I took the medication my mother was taking every morning and evening, I would be dead within five minutes.

         So life is not all sweetness and light. And people do not have to be perfect to be wonderful. No matter how much we may grow and learn, we never outgrow our need for God, our need for a Savior, or our need to be converted and changed one more time. It is a long and endless pilgrimage that we are on. We should take it more seriously, but also with greater joy and abandon. We should take it with far more trust in God, and also with far less fear and caution.

*         *         *

         What I want to suggest to all of us on this Mother’s Day is that the Bible has never tried to define one role for women or one role for men. When the Bible does speak to or reveal anything about men’s roles or women’s roles, it is always in the context of much more important issues. That is, the context is the relationship of humans to God, to the purposes of God, or to what God is doing in the world in a specific time and place. In general, the biblical perspective is not interested in either men or women being dominant. Either one is a disaster. The Bible thinks God should be dominant, that we should put God in charge of our lives, and that all humans should come to the awareness that this is our only hope – that in our right minds and hearts, we truly want God to be in charge. This puts all of us into subservient roles – to God; never to each other.

         Therefore, spiritual progress and spiritual awakening are always spoken of in terms of humility, meekness, surrender, repentance, obedience. ALL biblical roles are subservient roles. Has the world ever seen a more obedient Son than Jesus? God is to be adored, worshipped, served, obeyed. Therefore, if we listen to descriptions of virtuous women or virtuous men and forget that God is the primary concern and the primary relationship, we come away with great distortions. A person who is quiet (peaceful), controlled, responsible, productive, thoughtful, considerate, effective, and consistent probably has at least some of their act together, and indeed displays qualities we associate with spiritual development. If the Bible praises these qualities in a wife, it also praises them in any role for either sex. If the Bible praises them for a woman, it also praises them for a man.

         “Moses was the meekest man who ever lived.” (Numbers 12:3) Moses is considered the greatest person in the Old Testament because he was the most subservient to God. But not when he walked into Pharaoh’s presence. And Jesus was the most obedient man we have ever seen when it came to prayer, to obeying God, to finding and following the guidance of God in real-life situations. But He was totally unmanageable when it came to the human authorities all around Him, even though they were the top religious authorities of His nation.

         It makes one suspicious that at least some women have tried to use equality and liberation themes as excuses behind which to hide their spiritual rebelliousness. Certainly a great many men do. The church is never perfect, and our theologies are ever incomplete. But blaming God and the church for our own spiritual rebelliousness is an old and classic ploy. “The reason I am such a bitter, self-centered, unloved, and unloving agnostic is because I went to church when I was three and saw a hypocrite there.” Terrific.

         A certain hog farmer refused to have anything to do with the church because whenever he went to church, he saw a bunch of hypocrites there. And he could always name two or three outstanding examples. One day, the Pastor of the church came by his farm to buy a hog. After looking over the farmer’s entire swine herd, the Pastor pointed to a scrawny, sickly, ugly little pig and said, “I want that one.” The farmer was aghast. “You don’t want that one!” he insisted. “Look, here are some fine hogs over here.” “Nope,” said the preacher. “I want that one. And I’m going to haul that pig all over the countryside and tell everyone I see that this is the kind of hog you raise here.” The farmer looked startled, then angry. But slowly a smile started playing around the corners of his mouth until he burst into a grin, stuck out his hand, and said, “I’m sorry, Pastor. And to prove it, I will be in church in the front row next Sunday, and from now on.”

         In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells Christian slaves to obey their masters. He is not approving of slavery! He is not making a social statement or recommending a political structure. He is talking to Christian friends about how to walk a spiritual path in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances. It takes about .003 seconds to know what Paul’s opinion of slavery really is, if you want to talk about the subject of slavery itself. He is Jewish. He is a Pharisee. He is rabbinically trained. He does not need us to remind him of the truths of Moses, Passover, and the remarkable release of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. And we also have his letter to Philemon, where he sticks his neck way out to get Onesimus freed from slavery.

         I am suggesting that we need to be cautious with our use of biblical statements about the role of women or men or children or parents. And when we do come across gems, they will be in the context of the spiritual life and will not apply merely to secular living. A woman who is obedient to a man who is disobedient will soon become disobedient herself, and vice versa. On top of that, most of us are sometimes obedient and sometimes disobedient, and often we are confused about when is which and which is where.

         The biblical perspective is that one of the marks of human alienation from God is the animosity and inequality between the sexes. It is one of the major “curses” of the so-called FALL OF MAN. We are supposed to maintain a curse? Jesus came to reverse the curses. Paul describes a very different WAY for Christians. Some of us are still caught in or even enthralled with the warfare. We still willingly carry some general opinions (or resentments) against women or against men. It may be too strong to call most of us “women haters” or “men haters,” but the terms are still known and the attitudes are not extinct. To the degree that any of us still carry such attitudes, we are at war with the Christ and His Kingdom.

         Mother’s Day might be a good day not only to celebrate our gratitude for all the care and love and bother and worry our mothers have expended on our behalf, but also to remove from our hearts and minds a little more of our prejudice, fear, and dislike for any person on the basis of their gender alone.

         In closing, I would remind you that Deborah was a judge and a warrior, and Sisera took orders from her without complaint or wonder, as did everyone in Deborah’s army. Joseph was a seer and an introvert. Jacob was not as macho as Esau. Joshua was as tough an old warhorse as this world has ever seen. David was half poet, three-quarters statesman, and every inch a warrior. Mary was a mother; Daniel was an astrologer; Matthew was a tax-collector; Lydia was a cloth merchant and probably quite rich. All of these people served God. There is no biblical “role” for women or for men. The Bible thinks all of us should love and serve God in all of our various roles and ways and patterns. And the Bible reminds us that God loves each of us, wherever we find ourselves. There is no prescribed role.

         A woman’s place is where? A woman’s place is with God. A man’s place is also with God. And sometimes we find love-bonds forming with each other, and we try to find ways to walk side by side, to support each other, and to make life better for each other. But the roles do not save us, and neither do the pronouns. We are saved by faith. Hallelujah!


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May 10, 2015

Divine Commission

Divine Commission

Passage: Judges 12:1-13

Speaker: Bruce Van Blair

Series: Sermons

Category: Faith

Keywords: mother's day, parenthood


May 10, 2015                             Judges 13:2-25
Mother’s Day

          Charming stories exist, like the one we just read, telling of couples who actually want to have children. Sometimes we almost forget, in the mayhem and concern for all the trouble and evil of our time, that lots of parents have dreamed and planned and prayed and worked for their children since long before their children were even born. Many thousands of parents go on doing their parenting while knowing themselves to be in a mysterious partnership with God. Many even suspect that though nobody does it perfectly, it is nevertheless the most important thing that they ever do.

          It is easy to forget in our time that for every parent who does something wretched, there are hundreds who think constantly and work diligently to give their children the very best life they can, according to whatever light they have. And even some parents, like me, who have made grievous mistakes are caring, loving parents who try very hard but have made grievous mistakes. We have no option but to go on trying, even though mistakes always make things much harder.

          On the other side of the coin: How old do we have to be before we stop expecting our parents to be perfect? There is no answer, of course, because there are too many of us and we all have our own timeline of development and awakening. But I was trying to figure it out anyway. How old do we have to be before we stop expecting our parents to be perfect? I think by the age of twelve most of us have seriously considered the possibility that our parents are not perfect. Between sixteen and eighteen, the large majority of us hold in our minds certain proof that our parents are not perfect. But those are the easy awakenings. The question is: How old do we have to be before we stop expecting our parents to be perfect? Meaning, before we stop believing that it was their solemn obligation to be perfect – and our inalienable right to come into this world with perfect parents? How old do we have to be before we stop being seriously annoyed that we were cruelly shortchanged by having imperfect parents?

          The deal is: You get here. If you survive at all, you should be grateful. The rest is up to you. Lots and lots of folk have come to see and accept this, or the whole place would have imploded long ago. Many individuals are in the process of self-destructing because they cannot see or will not accept this. Sometimes, becoming parents ourselves is what begins to cure us. It is nevertheless amazing that even being a parent does not always bring the truth home to everybody (if you will pardon the pun).

          A man stopped at a flower shop to order some flowers to be wired to his mother, who lived two hundred miles away. He did not do this often, but you know how it is with Mother’s Day. Getting out of his car, he discovered that a young girl looking in the window of the flower shop was quietly sobbing. He asked her what was wrong and she replied: “I wanted to buy a red rose for my mother. But I only have seventy-five cents, and a rose costs two and a half dollars.” The man smiled and said, “Come on in with me. I would love to help buy a rose for your mother.”

          He bought the little girl a rose and ordered his own mother’s flowers. As they were both ready to leave, he offered the little girl a ride. “Oh thank you,” she said, a little to his surprise. Once in the car, he followed her directions until they came to a cemetery. She thanked him sincerely, jumped out, and went lightly across the lawns. He watched for a while, then saw her lay her rose on a grave and kneel in prayer. He was deeply moved, but also started feeling like an eavesdropper. So he started his car and drove off – straight back to the flower shop. He canceled his wire order, bought a huge bouquet of flowers, and drove the two hundred miles to his mother’s home. That is called perspective.

          One dimension of Mother’s Day is personal perspective: The sheer realization that our mothers gave us birth and nurture, spent countless hours for many years tending to us and our needs, and that apart from this, we simply would not be here – we would not have survived. There is no way to pay that debt. The gifts of life and nurture were given. All of us come into this world as charity cases. The quote about “charity begins at home” is not an opinion; it is a fact. However perfectly or imperfectly, we have each experienced this charity. It is the foundation and source of our physical reality here.

          There is another dimension to Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day, for that matter), at least within the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions: Parenthood is always linked with God’s purposes. “Before I formed you in the womb I chose you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you.” (Jeremiah 1:5) In our religion, having and raising children is a sacred affair – a teamsmanship between parents and God.

          This concept has fallen on hard times in recent years. The idealization of motherhood ceased during the 1960s (along with the demise of many other “silly ideals”). Fathers had already lost authority. They had been busy with the Second World War, homes and affections were displaced, and the kids grew up without them. Fathers returned awkward to the dynamic at home and determined to put delayed careers back together. Many mothers had learned to work outside the home, and their authority and role were also different. Many sociologists have said that we won the war but at the cost of our identity. When the children of those years grew up, we got the ’60s. Now, almost seventy years after the Great War, we have to wonder if we ever found a new identity and purpose, or if we have merely been rocking back and forth between the sacrifices of the past and some emerging new insanity.

          In any case, for two generations, popular psychology taught us to hate our parents. We were told that we could not grow up or be ourselves until we had “worked through” our Oedipus complexes. While it was all rather complex, at least it came clear that our parents were guilty for whatever was wrong with us, and we all had a lot of hidden anger toward them because of it. Prior to that, mothers had been pictured as hard-working, self-sacrificing, and constantly concerned with their children’s welfare and development. Actually, their reality has not changed much since then. Before, we called it saintly, and we honored our mothers for their love. Now we have learned to call it manipulative, controlling, neurotic, and co‑dependent, and we have been told we should despise them for it.

          Before long, “the home” and “the mother thing” were no longer fulfilling or satisfying in and of themselves, and they were no longer adequate in the eyes of one’s peers. Besides, if you were going to put in all that time and effort only to be bad-mouthed and blamed for all the bad karma the little brats brought with them, well, a person might as well find some more fulfilling outlets.

          During this pain and mayhem, two pillars of family life tottered. Not everywhere and not for all people, but in the main they fell, or at least began to list quite badly. One was the link between home and church. The other was the link between parenthood and serving God. Motherhood (parenthood) had been understood as a “calling” of God – a thing undertaken with the providence and blessing of God and for God’s larger purposes. From that conviction, it was assumed that

the church and the home were partners in the same enterprise. The parents’ solemn responsibility was to teach their children the Bible and the Christian Way of Life. Church and home were allies in this high responsibility.

          I mean to leave no hint about glamour or perfection, as if the past were some kind of golden age. I was there and it was not! But that was the framework and expectation in most people’s minds until about fifty years ago. The residue of those old frameworks and expectations is still active in many of us, on some level. Only, it is increasingly frustrating to know what to do with those longings or to know how to put into effect today our parenthood as a Divine Commission from God. Obviously you have to start your own school to do it right, so that church and school and family can be a coordi­nated team once again. But such an undertaking is enormous, and few of the attempts, however high the dream, have improved on what is already offered. In most places today, that leaves the church either competing with the school or sitting on the sidelines totally ineffective. Increasingly, it leaves conscientious parents competing with the school as well.

          Many people talk as if this battle were over and lost – that we will let the state decide how to raise our children and be done with it. But I suspect the issue will not disappear. In the minds of many Christians, motherhood is more than a biological affair. Family life is more than a nice way to organize the care and feeding of infants. Getting married concerns more than two individuals enamored with each other. And none of it is primarily designed to pander to the comfort and convenience of the individuals involved. ALL of it has to do with a spiritual pilgrimage – with what God is trying to do in and with our lives – and with our efforts to respond to God’s guidance and assignments in each and every day.

          There certainly are numerous mothers and fathers today who are not making any effort to raise their children “for or under God.” In this scary, overpopulated, undernourished world, parenthood is not an automatic blessing. Motherhood is not automatically honorable. It is a Divine Commission – or it is a great curse. It always comes round, doesn’t it? That which has power for great good has power for great evil. And thankfully, that which has power for great evil has power for great good. Neither God nor Satan seems to get very excited about the lukewarm and the mediocre – which is, I suppose, why so many of us try to hang out there.

          Not long ago, I was listening to a mother bragging about her son: what a brilliant boy he was; what a success he had become; how much money he was making. Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. At least not in my opinion. I did not know this son, nor did I have any hint about his purposes or motives. But the way his mother was talking, it was hard to imagine that she had ever asked herself what her motherhood was for in the eyes of God. She seemed to have no inkling of being a partner with God in the destiny of an eternal soul. Perhaps this mother knew the dimensions beyond but simply had no words to express it. Or maybe it was my poor ears.

          It is no surprise that we live in an imperfect world. The startling thing is that the Divine Commission is still being accepted and attempted by many marvelous mothers and fathers. By the way, their children do not always turn out well, from a normal earthly perspective. Not all children respond well to the love and guidance their parents give them. Some children seem to be born with a spirit of rebellion and disobedience. Why do we forget that? Parents are not in total control of any outcome. On the other hand, we have not yet seen the end of any story. Why do we keep forgetting that? God is still working his purpose out – with all of us. All the more reason to honor and pay high tribute to all parenthood that has accepted the Divine Commission as its true purpose and aim.

          It is a good day to count up some of it again, even though we all doubtless know it. Remember again the patience and sheer labor involved in receiving a squalling bundle of seven-plus pounds and knowing that somehow you have to care for it and teach it so that one day it can take care of itself. You must somehow train it to discern right from wrong, to assume responsibility, to love God enough to put long-range values ahead of short-term desires, and to avoid most shortcuts. Think of the years of quarreling and complaining that must be endured; the lessons that must be taught over and over a thousand times; the anxious fears that must be controlled but which can never be expelled; the mistakes that will bring heartache but which must nonetheless be forgiven or nobody can go on. And then there are all the purposeful revolts and belligerence that must be endured and somehow turned around.

          Dr. John Homer Miller tells of a family that, when threatened by an earthquake, sent their small son to a relative’s home two hundred miles away for safety. After two days, they received a telegram that read: “Returning the boy. Send earthquake.”

          How many times a mother must wish she could send such a telegram to God! “What kind of soul did you pack into this little body, anyway?! I’m tired of being a mother. I’m confused and worn out, I’m doing a lousy job, and I don’t know where to go from here. I’ve had it! Couldn’t I please do something simpler for You, like pay off the National Debt? Or run Congress? Or die as a martyr?”

          Do you remember the story of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, whom most would still acknowledge to be the greatest of the Fathers of the early church? Augustine’s father was a pagan and his mother was a Christian. Where have I heard that before? Augustine himself was thirty-two years old before he became a Christian. I have often felt stunned by the motherhood of Monica through those first thirty-two years. St. Augustine was no saint to start out with: mistress after mistress; an illegitimate son; restless; wandering from job to job and from religion to religion; mostly broke; pandering to people with money; making his living writing and speaking high compliments about low and corrupt officials.

          Monica never gave up – much to Augustine’s disgust, we might add. Talk about manipulative, interfering mothers! Again and again he took pains to ditch her, to be rid of her influence – like when he would take ship in the night without notice and leave no forwarding address. Constantly she prayed for him, and occasionally she would take ship herself, tracking him down like some indefatigable hunting hound – to Carthage, to Rome, to Milan. What could she do when she found him? Admonish him, pray for him, hope for him, keep believing that one day he would “turn and see.” I think today they call it nagging.

          It is the highest, the hardest, and the most important task of all parenthood: to go on believing in your children. That is what the Waiting Father was doing all the time the Prodigal Son was away in the far-off country. He was believing in him. If the Waiting Father had not been doing that, the Prodigal would never have come home. Despite Augustine’s wretched way of life, Monica went on believing that her son had some important Christian destiny. She went on believing that God had some plan for him, and that someday he would come into it. And when he did finally turn, he turned indeed.

          Augustine still stands as one of the foremost thinkers of all human history in the realms of logic, philosophy, political science, and theology, and many call him the grandfather of psychology. It is hard to imagine what would have happened to the church apart from him – or indeed, what would have happened to Western Civilization – since, as the Roman Empire fell, he stood as the last pillar in the wreckage and cast a light that carried through a thousand years of confusion and chaos, until it was picked up again in the Reformation. Thank you, Monica, for your partnership with God.

          It is a nice day and we shouldn’t leave things on a serious note. I think it was Erma Bombeck who told the story first, but it has lots of editions by now:

          When the Lord God was creating mothers, it was into the sixth day of overtime when an angel finally appeared and said, “You’re doing a lot of fiddling around on this one.”

          The Lord said, “Have you read the specs on this order? She has to be completely washable, but not plastic; have one hundred and eighty moveable parts, all replaceable; run on spare time and leftovers; have a lap that doesn’t get in her way but which is portable and instantly available. She has to have a kiss that can cure anything, from a broken leg to a disappointed love affair. And six pairs of hands.”

          The angel shook his head slowly and said, “Six pairs of hands ... no way.”

          “It’s not the hands that are causing me the problems,” said the Lord. “It’s the three pairs of eyes.”

          “That’s on the standard model?” asked the angel.

          The Lord nodded. “One pair for normal, plus seeing through doors and around corners. Another pair inside for seeing into feelings and needs and what she shouldn’t know but has to know. Then this special set within the first that can look at a child that has goofed up and say ‘I understand and I love you’ without so much as uttering a word.”

          “Lord,” said the angel, touching his sleeve, “you’ve gotta get some rest. Maybe tomorrow ...”

          “I can’t quit right now,” said the Lord. “I’m too close to creating something really close to part of myself. Already I have one who heals by laughter, and even one who can get a nine-year-old to stand under a shower.”

          The angel circled the model of the mother slowly. “It’s too soft,” he said.

          “She’s a lot tougher than she looks!” said the Lord with pride. “You can’t imagine what she can do and endure.”

          “Can it think?” asked the angel.

          The Lord smiled. “That will end up being a loaded question. But she can not only think, she can feel her way into unseen wisdom and, on rare occasions, can even compromise (which is more than I can say for some of my other creatures).”

          Finally the angel bent over and ran his finger across the cheek. “There’s a leak,” he pronounced. “I knew you were trying to cram too much into this model.”

          “That’s not a leak,” said the Lord. “That’s a tear.”

          “A tear?” said the angel. “What’s that for?”

          “It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, frustration, pain, loneliness, pride.”

          “Wow,” said the angel. “You’re a genius.”

          “Oh, I didn’t put that there,” said the Lord, shaking his head. “The children do that.”