possibly the most difficult service of the year

virgin and childIn the UK this Sunday is marked as Mothering Sunday. And, when you are a local church Minister, it is one of those Sundays that takes a disproportionate amount of thought and preparation. It is a day when, when I have got it ‘wrong’, I have had more complaints than any other in the calendar year! Allow me to let you in on some of the things that have to be considered and how I have not got it right on occasions…

Gifts – do we give a gift on Mothering Sunday? If we do it should probably go to all women so that nobody feels excluded. Will a small posy of flowers be a blessing, or is it just a token? Will some women feel patronised by being included? Can we afford that number of posies of flowers? Who will organise getting the flowers and sorting them? Who will give them out? When in the service will they be given out? Are there any alternatives to flowers?

Inclusivity – not all women are mothers. Some would desperately love to be a mother and others would rather not. Some mothers no longer have their children with them – they might have moved away, they may have lost contact, some may have died prematurely. Some people did not get on well with their own mothers and would rather not be reminded of them. Some people are mothers and find it a joy, others find it a struggle. How can we prepare a service in which we take account of and include all of those different emotional needs and circumstances?

History – Mothering Sunday was not originally about mothers. It emerged in the era when the wealthy had lots of domestic servants in their homes who worked all hours and (if allowed out on a Sunday) attended the same church as their master/mistress. This was one Sunday in the year in which they were released from the obligation to attend that church and could go back to their Mother church and also visit their home. That’s a tradition that is no longer observed due to changed cultural and social structures. Mothering Sunday has now become about Mums. But if we focus on the historical roots of the day it could become a ‘Back to Church Sunday’, yet my experience in local church is that this would not be something that many would appreciate.

Language – It used to be ‘Mothering Sunday’, now it is ‘Mothers’ Day’. That change of language reflects the change of purpose of the day. But if it was a day to think about mothering it would be different from thinking about mothers. We could sensitively reflect on mothering as a positive concept and perhaps avoid upsetting some people by reminding them of past hurt or current pain.

Bible – linked to ‘language’, the Bible constantly talks about God as Father. Far less frequently is God referred to as ‘mother’ or even in the feminine, although there are a few passages – you can find a good summary of them here. I was in the congregation of a service on one occasion when the person leading opened with a prayer that began: “Mother God…” Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that we have paid insufficient attention to the femaleness of God, and that we have ‘maleified’ Genesis 1:27 when the Bible talks about male and female being made in God’s image: if both genders are made in God’s image, what does that say about God? And I don’t actually think that to talk to God as our Mother is disrespectful, blasphemous or wrong. But to begin with those words upset almost everyone in the church (male and female) because it came without explanation or warning. I don’t think many people remembered anything about the service after those two words. There is still a lot of patriarchy in our theology and practice in church and Mothering Sunday has the potential to run aground on the rocks of that prejudice.

Tradition – I have found to my cost that if you try to change the way that Mothering Sunday has been done before you will get criticism. There is something important for people (which I have underestimated) about tradition (and that’s coming from a non-conformist branch of the church). One year I took the decision not to give out flowers but said that we would use the money instead to give to a charity working with bereaved mothers. I had not asked many people about this, I had not sought approval from the leadership team for this, I acted out of good motives but rashly and unilaterally. I naively thought that this would receive universal assent and affirmation as a new way of doing things. Nope. Cue lots of unhappy people (men and women) because I had changed from the traditional way we had done things. I’m not having a go at those people – their upset was genuine and I had not taken their feelings and thoughts into account. I’m just illustrating how deeply tradition is felt and how not to go about changing it.

Commercialisation – I do struggle with the way in which Mothers’ Day (Mothering Sunday) has been hijacked commercially. Cards have to be sent, gifts have to be bought, meals with the family in restaurants are booked (when usually people spend the time differently). Again, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against showing people that you love them by sending cards and gifts. It’s just that it sits uneasily with me, especially when there are people (identified above) for whom this is a difficult time and everywhere they go there will be reminders.

All of this may lead you to think that I am against Mothering Sunday. No. Not at all. It’s just that it’s so difficult to prepare for when you have to take all of the above into account, and that’s alongside the intention to prepare a service in which people can worship and encounter God, and a sermon through which God can speak. The beauty is that when I have got it right, it has been a very special time. For me it starts with preparing a service in which people can worship and encounter God and a sermon through which God can speak. But then it’s entirely right to take into consideration the issues I have mentioned above.

I think it is important that we encourage people to be who they are in church, not putting on a pretend, happy face when inside we are weeping. It is important that we bring all of our lives and experiences with us into church and seek God’s Spirit to minister to them, not leaving the difficult items at the door to be collected (unchanged) on the way out. Prayers can be inclusive, allowing time and space for the pain and hurt to be expressed to God alongside the thankfulness. If I was doing it again I would probably still want to make a gift to a charity working to support bereaved parents, but it would be alongside not instead of existing traditions if they were helpful to people.

Exploring the nature of God (including in the feminine) is something worth doing, and worth doing well. One of the moments that I think worked well was when we got some people up to have a ‘dandling’ competition using some of the dolls from the crèche, coming from this image in Isaiah 66:12-13:

‘I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will feed and be carried on her arm
    and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
    so will I comfort you;
    and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.’

(If you don’t know, dandling is playfully bouncing a child up and down on your knee.) The congregation voted for the best dandling and then we explored what it meant that God’s people (Israel in the Old Testament) are described as dandling – playful, secure, comforting, loving… and how that might be true of us.

I hope that, whatever Mothering Sunday means to you, it will also bring with it a greater awareness of God’s love, compassion, protection, joy, pride, enthusiasm and, yes, dandling into your life.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

 

family planning

I wasn’t planning an adoption

I already have enough children

One has just been torn from my grasp and ripped from my heart

Typical of him, though, to be thinking of me

Right at the end

In the midst of it all

I wasn’t planning an adoption

but I have just been adopted.

Jesus on Cross 2

the inevitability of disappointing church services?

I’m currently searching for inspiration for our Mothering Sunday service this week.

I find that this is one of the most difficult services of the year to prepare. That’s not because the subject is difficult. Neither is it because I don’t have any ideas. It’s because it is one of the services where different people have very different hopes and aspirations for the service and it’s almost impossible to meet them all. To some extent that is true of most services in churches, especially those like ours that have an eclectic congregation (a good thing imho). But on Mothering Sunday it seems to be heightened.

For example: some want to maintain traditions that go back a long time, such as giving out flowers. And others don’t want flowers at all and would prefer we stopped that tradition. It’s not easy to give out flowers and not give them out simultaneously. Now I am not against the flower-giving, I am just using as an example of the sort of tensions that exist. I could also have mentioned the difficulties for those who are childless or have been bereaved in contrast with those who want to celebrate their children, or those who want to focus on the ‘motherhood’ of God and those who struggle with seeing God that way, and many more…

Each year I (usually along with other colleagues) seek to prepare a service that blesses all those who come. And each year I know that some people will go away upset or unhappy. And that’s the last thing that I want to happen. But is it inevitable?

As ‘worship’ is not for our benefit but for God’s, shouldn’t we all simply put aside our preferences and focus on him? Shouldn’t we come expecting to give him pleasure rather than hoping to be pleased by what happens? It is possible that this is part of the answer – if we come to give to God rather than looking to receive, we will not be so disappointed, unless the service does not enable us to give our worship to him.

Yes. I have often heard speakers say things about us not bringing our consumer culture into church services for that reason. I have probably said it myself.

Honey, I brought You GiftBut I want to add a rider to that. Because God is so gracious and generous that he does not want us to leave empty-handed when we have gathered together in Jesus’ name. Long before it became the thing to do to give out party bags at the end of children’s parties, God was giving out party bags at the end of services. Yes, they are metaphorical, but they contain blessings from him – a glimpse of the divine, an encounter with Jesus.

It may be that a worship song or hymn blesses us, lifts our spirits or inspires us. It may be that someone prays in a way that blesses us. God may speak to us through the reading of the Bible or (dare I suggest) even through the sermon. One of the mysteries of collective worship is that as we offer our worship to bless God he meets us by his Spirit and blesses us.

While we may not come to church because of what we get out of it, just as we don’t attend a birthday party for the party bags, we should expect to be blessed because we were there. So if or when people leave a service disappointed or upset it is right for the people who were leading the service to think about what happened and whether they gave God enough opportunities to bless people through the service even as we worshipped him.

That brings me back to the original conundrum about the inevitability of disappointing some people this coming Sunday. I am coming to the conclusion that while there are things I can do (or avoid) so that people are not unnecessarily upset, a service is first and foremost for an audience of One. If we can enable people to worship Jesus they may also see Jesus in the service. If we can help them to encounter him, then they will not leave the service empty handed, even if the contents of their party bags are not what they were expecting!

Be blessed, be a blessing

Mums who have teenagers understand why some animals eat their young.

A mother’s love never ages, but a child ages you quicker than anything else on the planet.

If at first you don’t succeed, do it the way your Mum told you to do it.

Dandling

In the UK it is ‘Mothering Sunday’ this Sunday (important to point this out for international readers who celebrate it on other dates, and to point out that I have international readers [smug mode enabled], and to make those international readers feel included). Where was I? Oh yes, ‘Mothering Sunday’. It has the potential to be another day designed to line the pockets of card and gift shops across the country as more and more “stuff” is produced just for that day.

At its heart, however, is thankfulness for the human experience of being mothered. It is chance to be thankful to those who have given us their love, patience, encouragement, patience, lent us their car when we were learning to drive, patience, tidied our rooms (or got us to do it eventually), patience, put food on the table for us, patience, nurtured us and did I mention patience? They need not have been our biological mothers, or even women, but they have shared motherliness with us and we are grateful to them.

In preparing for Sunday morning at church I have reflected on Isaiah 66:12. It’s a passage that was originally written for the Jews in exile and is assuring them that God has not forgotten them. It reveals something of his character to them and how he views them with motherlike affection. There is a lovely image of God treating his people the same way that a mother dandles a child on her knees.

Have you ever been dandled? I was not sure, so looked it up. Dandling is affectionately bouncing a child up and down in your arms or on your knees (now you know). That image took me back – first of all to my childhood when I can remember being bounced on knees, and then to my children’s earlier days when they were bounced on knees. The dandling was invariably accompanied by giggles, laughs and joy. It’s a shame I am too big to be dandled today.

The image of God dandling us on his knees has charmed me. There are times when I think he must despair of me but his desire is to know me as his child and to spend time with me in laughter and joy. Wow! That thought has just made the hairs on my arm stand on end and sent a shiver down my spine!

So let’s regress to childhood for a story. I can remember story-time on the radio as a small child: ‘Listen with Mother’, which always began: “Are you sitting comfortably? [pause] Good, then I’ll begin…”

The three bears

Baby Bear goes downstairs and sits in his small chair at the table, he looks into his small bowl. It is empty. “Who’s been eating my porridge?!!”, he squeaks. 

Daddy Bear arrives at the big table and sits in his big chair. He looks into his big bowl, and it is also empty. “Who’s been eating my Porridge?!!,” he roars.

Mother Bear puts her head through the serving hatch from the kitchen and yells, “For Pete’s sake, how many times do we have to go through this?

“It was Mother Bear who got up first, it was Mother Bear who woke everyone in the house, it was Mother Bear who made the coffee, it was Mother Bear who unloaded the dishwasher from last night, and put everything away, it was Mother Bear who went out in the cold early morning air to fetch the newspaper, it was Mother Bear who set the table, it was Mother Bear who put the cat out, cleaned the litter box, and filled the cat’s water and food dish, and, now that you’ve decided to drag your sorry bear-butts downstairs, and grace Mother Bear’s kitchen with your grumpy presence, listen good, cause I’m only going to say this one more time . . .

“I HAVEN’T MADE THE PORRIDGE YET !!”