It’s Complicated: Faith and the in-between

It’s Complicated: Faith and the in-between

We have a lot of preachers in my family. Each of them is amazing in their own right. In my opinion though, the best of the best is my wife, Bri. Most of the time I use this website for my own work but this week my brilliant wife wrote a fantastic sermons that needs to be shared far and wide. If you like this sermon you can read more from Bri at gracewithducks.tumblr.com. – Pastor Mike

Mother’s Day isn’t the same when you’re a pastor. My kids already know that mom works on Mother’s Day, and messing with our Sunday morning routine isn’t going to earn them any favors. So instead of Mother’s Day, they’ve been celebrating Mother’s Week: we started with donuts last weekend, and continued through the week with extra hugs, with handmade gifts, reading books to me, showing love through interpretive dance and original songs, praising my cooking – apparently I’m especially gifted with mashed potatoes and Kraft mac-and-cheese… and all those praises and expressions of love have been peppered with constant fighting, two little girls turning everything into a competition, a helpful attempt to share macaroni and cheese with the potted plants, throwing angry cats on my lap, mixing cat food with milk and water, painting the walls with hand soap, “forgetting” that brushing your teeth is a thing we do, and refusing to use the bathroom without a hand to hold.

Motherhood is special in all kinds of strange ways.

Even before I became a mother, I’ve had something of an ambivalent attitude towards Mother’s Day. I love my mom, don’t get me wrong, and I sure hope she knows that. I grew up in a church that tried to include not just mothers but all women in its Mother’s Day celebrations – which means as a little girl I looked forward, every year, to getting a carnation of my very own.

And then I got older. And I started to realize that life is a lot more complicated than it seems. There were years when I wasn’t sure if I would ever be a mother – and quite frankly, plenty of days since becoming a mother when I’ve wondered if I’m really cut out for the job. I’ve walked with friends through infertility, and miscarriage, and failed adoptions, and difficult decisions… I’ve walked with children of all ages with the loss of their mothers; I’ve walked with mothers through the loss of their children. And I’ve come to love families of so many different shapes and sizes, and come to realize that much like parenting itself, life is much more complicated than it ever used to seem.

It’s exhausting, it’s painful, it’s stressful, it’s frustrating, it’s wonderful – and it’s also funny how, as kids, we think a donut and a carnation once a year is enough to say “thank you.”

One of the hardest and strangest Mother’s Days in my own life came in our in-between year: it was the first Mother’s Day since the death of my son, but it also came just a couple of weeks after announcing I was pregnant with our daughter. And if I’m being honest, if I wasn’t a pastor, I probably would have just stayed home all day. But I didn’t have that choice… and people weren’t quite sure what to say or how to act around me. They tended to focus on the joy I must be feeling, knowing I would be a mother once again, rather than acknowledge the fear that accompanied that pregnancy, and the grief that weighted heavy on our home. Hope and fear, joy and grief, mingled together – that’s parenting, but also, that’s life.

And it’s Mother’s Day again. I’ve always been ambivalent about this day. This year is no exception. I don’t know how many of you follow the United Methodist News Service – or if you even know that that’s a thing, but it is. A little more than a week ago, our Council of Bishops met to consider recommendations on how the church might move forward while we are so divided over issues of gender and sexuality, when we can’t agree on the question of who God welcomes, and who can love whom, and what a family looks like. And just this week, the same Council of Bishops received and counted votes taken by conferences all over the world on several amendments to our church’s constitution – again, that’s a thing. Two of those amendments dealt with adding affirmations around gender and equality. The first proclaims that “men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God” and promises that the United Methodist Church will “seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls… in every facet of its life and in society at large.” The second amendment adds gender, ability, age and marital status to the list of characteristics that can’t keep anyone from church membership – in addition to race, color, national origin or economic condition, all of which are already named and protected.

And this week we learned that both of those amendments failed to pass.

I am so very tired of our denomination breaking my heart. And yes, some of you United Methodist news followers will know that the first amendment, at least, will be voted on again, due to an editing mistake… and maybe this time things will be different. But I sat through those debates a year ago, and I was shocked, appalled, at the fear and prejudice that were displayed – by our own colleagues and neighbors and friends. So many people who proclaim and claim to love Christ and to love their neighbors are nevertheless willing to speak hatred and pass condemnation and turn those same neighbors – especially the most vulnerable ones – to break them and turn they away.

And now it’s Mother’s Day. While our church still tries to define what families can look like, while we failed to affirm that gender or ability or marital status doesn’t limit or define us… now we have the nerve to observe Mother’s Day, that day we set apart of parade and celebrate a certain set of women, women we lift up as models for Christian womanhood: those who’ve managed to reproduce. And I have to wonder, as much as I love my own mother, as much as I am humbled and challenged by being a mother – that’s not all that I am; is that all that women are ever going to be allowed to be?

This week, many of my colleagues have challenged us to imagine our churches without the leadership and gifts of women. Without a woman’s faith, there would have been no incarnation. Without a woman’s boldness, the news of the resurrection would not have been shared. Right here at this church, without women, we’d lose most of our staff members – including both of our pastors. The chair of church council, and many other committee chairs, our lay leader, our members of Annual Conference, our lay servants, our Sunday school teachers, would be gone; more than half of our committee members, more than half of our members, period, would be silenced, all those gifts and voices and contributions lost.

And I know that, by God’s grace, that’s not the case. I know that our ministries, our welcome, our affirmation didn’t change and wasn’t limited by any news statements released this week. And whenever we start talking about questions like this, inevitably someone raises the point that we shouldn’t have to take votes and amend official documents to affirm that women are people, and that our girls are gifts from God every bit as precious and powerful as our boys. We shouldn’t have to define or delineate by gender at all. I agree. We shouldn’t have to. But we do. The fact that those very statements keep failing – that’s exactly why we need to make them. Right here in our conference, there are still many United Methodist Churches here in Michigan that won’t accept a female pastor in their pulpit. And we live in a world where women are still paid less for doing the same work; where most of the power is held in the hands of men; where girls don’t get the same education and opportunities as boys. We live in a world where women bear the burden of unplanned pregnancies they had help in creating; where mothers are praised but a mother’s health, and the health of her children, are ignored, and women’s pain is not taken as seriously as men’s. We live in a world where girls grow up faster because they have to, where “boys will be boys” but “she was asking for it.” We live in a world where “you run like a girl” is still a devastating insult – even if you are one. We live in a world where my eight-year-old daughter can’t wear a sleeveless top to school because her body might be a distraction to the second grade boys around her. She’s already learning that she’s expected to take responsibility for someone else’s actions, and their education is more important than her own.

It takes a lot of nerve for us to celebrate mothers on a day when immigration officials are separating families, when refugee mothers risk everything for their children’s future, where many mothers are starving themselves so their children can eat, and finding their sacrifice is still not enough.

We can’t say we love mothers unless we fight to help women, to care for children, to protect and advocate for the programs that feed and clothe and house and heal so many of our most vulnerable members. Mother’s Day needs to be so much bigger than brunch.

We shouldn’t have to say that women are people. There are a lot of things we shouldn’t have to say. But sometimes, we need to say them, anyway.

So this is what needs saying today: God loves you. God loves you, no matter whether, when you were born, they dressed you in pink or draped you in blue. God loves you, no matter what pronouns describe you now. God loves you, no matter who you fall in love with, or how many times your heart’s been broken, or if you never fall in love at all. God loves you if you’re married, divorced, widowed, single – and if it’s complicated, God loves your complicated life; God loves complicated you.

God loves you if you’re a parent who gave birth, or who adopted, or who fosters, if you stay at home, if you go to work, if have no choice but you do what you have to do to make it through. God loves you if your mother loves you, and even if she doesn’t, God still does. God loves you whether you’re a parent whose children adore you or whose children slam the doors and curse your name or whose children won’t return your calls at all. God loves you if you’ve struggled with infertility, if you’ve carried a child you never held, if you gave up a child for adoption, if you ended a pregnancy, if you’ve never been pregnant at all.

God loves you if you’ve buried your mother. God loves you if you’ve buried your child. God loves you if you’re not sure who will bury you when your time comes.

I hope you will hear me today: love is stronger than death, and love transcends the limits and labels we use, and love surprises us again and again. There is more than one way to create life in the world. There is more than one way to give love, and more than one way to receive it, and I hope that, by God’s grace, you’ve know a lot of love, and you’ll know a lot more.

Today is Mother’s Day. And it always behooves us to remember that the tradition of Mother’s Day is much bigger than flowers and breakfast in bed. The roots of this day are found with women who decided to use what power they had to make the world a better place. It begins with Ann Jarvis, organizing Appalachian mothers to work to improve sanitation, to help keep their families and neighbors from dying from diseases carried by insects and polluted water. It begins with Julia Ward Howe, organizing mothers who yearn for peace after watching too many of their children march off to war. It continues with Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna, who wanted to honor her mother and honor all the ways that women continue to work to reshape the world. Today is for all those women who’ve learned the hard way that new life only comes through struggle and pain – and though it feels like it will tear you apart, the struggle is worth it when that new life enters in.

Today is Mother’s Day. But in the church, today is Ascension Sunday – the day when we remember how, forty days after Easter, ten days before Pentecost, Jesus ascended into heaven. And it’s an ambivalent and complicated sort of day, too. Today we revisit the story of Jesus’ broken and resurrected body taking its place in glory… and there is joy as Jesus is lifted up, as he’s exalted, there is gratitude for his presence and all that’s been shared – and there is grief because he’s leaving, and something beautiful is ending, and no one really knows what happens next. The disciples enter into an uncertain season of in-between: Christ has risen, Christ will come again… but not yet. He’s gone, and he promises to send the Holy Spirit… but he Spirit hasn’t come quite yet.

This is where most of our life, where most of our faith, takes place: in the in-between. And what does it look like, to praise God in the in-between? In the days when it’s complicated, when we’re ambivalent and torn? When joy and grief come hand in hand? Somewhere in between the dream and its fulfillment, between the sorrow and the reunion? What does it mean to keep the faith when love and loss flow mingled down? When the promises have yet to be fulfilled, and the story isn’t over yet?

What does it look like to praise God when the scars are still fresh and there is still so much left undone?

That’s where we live – in the in between. And it takes faith to believe we’re being blessed even when God seems further and further away. It takes faith to keep going when you just want to walk away. And it takes faith to keep praising God in the meantime when we can’t see God, can’t hear God, when we don’t know what happens next. All we have is the promise that we will not be abandoned or forsaken. Before leaving, Jesus promises, “I will not leave you orphaned,” so we hold onto faith that good-bye is not the end.

In other versions of the ascension, the disciples are left staring, confused, gaping into heaven. But I love this telling from Luke’s gospel, because as Jesus goes, he offers blessing upon blessing – and the disciples go to wait, praising him,
full of faith for the in between.

Motherhood has broken my heart. The church has broken my heart. But I’m still here. And I’m not giving up. I still have faith. I believe the story isn’t over yet.

As we live in our own in between, may we be full of praises and full of faith

May we keep saying the things that shouldn’t need to be said, because someone needs to hear them. May we keep doing the work that we thought was over years ago.

Flowers fade – but faith, hope, and love remain. And in the end, love wins. Thanks be to God.

Oh God, we struggle today – as we give thanks for the love we’ve seen and known in our own lives, as we give thanks for the love that we’ve given and received… and as we are reminded that there are still so many places and so many ways that hatred and injustice seem to be winning. Help us to have faith, as we live in these complicated and ambivalent days; help us to believe that you bless us, even in the in-betweens, and help us to have enough faith to keep praising you – and by your grace, by your power, to keep faithfully working for new beginnings and new life to enter in. In Christ’s name we pray; amen.

Luke 24:44-53

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