Faith Works 5-9-15
Mothers, and worship, and remembrance
Mother's Day. I just helped my wife bury her mother, and have done so for a number of other families in the last few weeks. It's going to be, well, tough.
Sometimes I think we can almost overplay our "qualifications" for Mother's Day in this ever more inclusive age. We don't want to offend the childless, irritate the unmarried, or further grieve the bereft by putting too much weight on the occasion.
It's been true for the century or so we've been marking Mother's Day in this country that we need to acknowledge those who have lost mothers recently, and those for whom motherhood is a lost or blasted hope. There are an assortment of ways to do this, and I pray I've been appropriately sensitive from the pulpit on occasions when I've been involved as a pastor in Mother's Day observances.
And there's an argument that Sunday worship is not a time to drag into the church, or at least into Christian worship, any cultural creation. It's the same one that leans against Memorial Day and Fourth of July being carried into church for fear that they will (and they can) obscure the real reason why we worship.
I take a more nuanced, if cautious view on that question, but I've certainly seen boundaries crossed that are hard to uncross in the middle of the service. And I have a certain sympathy for those who say that having mothers stand up or that sort of direct recognition can be cause of a pang for those who are not.
This year it's a different pain I'm contemplating, though; it's the unavoidable pain of little reminders of loss, and grief, and sorrow. No one can protect you from those cobwebs of remembrance suddenly snagging you on your way down today's path.
There's an anniversary coming up May 21 for a well-remembered occasion ten years ago, just up the road. A nationally, even globally famous author came to Kenyon College up in Knox County, to give a commencement speech. These things happen every spring, and as a commencement speaker once said to me just before taking the podium, "If you manage to get onstage and off again without embarrassing yourself, you've done a good job." Let's say that expectations are low.
What David Foster Wallace delivered ten years ago was a speech that is today probably the most remembered, and certainly the most cited commencement speech in history. It's known today by the title "This is Water," and while it's been turned into a full-length book and some video treatments, you can find the full text and even a video of his original speech at Kenyon online without too much effort.
The single most cited passage in the address goes like this: "There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."
Everybody worships. Wallace perceptively goes on to outline some of the most common forms of "default-setting" worship that many of us engage in:
money and things, body and beauty and sexual allure, power, intellect. He takes them apart by cutting directly to how the worship of each can only eat us up alive.
Wallace, for all his inner torment (he died three years later under the weight of a lifelong struggle with depression and addiction), is starkly honest with his somewhat stunned audience about how soul-deadening it is to worship that which does not give you life. My words, those last, not his, but that's my take in brief on his not-overlong speech – seriously, look it up and read for yourself.
And we can, by focusing purely on externals, "worship" motherhood in unhealthy ways. Mothers do, indeed, give us life, but rituals of keeping up appearances can be more a burden than a blessing.
What I think Wallace wanted those graduates ten years ago to consider, and I'm happy to affirm, is that what we become what we worship, that our choices consciously made or not shape us. The affirmation he specifically makes in "This is Water" is "The only choice we get is what to worship."
I would suggest the question is really better understood as "WHO to worship," not what; a person more than a proposition. Mothers help us know who that person is, and at their best, that Someone shines through them clearly.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your prayer without ceasing at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.