Five Things We Learn from Our Mothers

May 9, 2004



Five Things We Learn from Our Mothers (5/9/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

I know that many of you were expecting me to begin my two-part series on the rapture this morning. As you know by now, I write my sermons in advance, and work on four or five at the same time. When I scheduled the rapture series, I did not realize that this particular Sunday was Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is one of the holy trinity of church days: Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Preachers learn early on not to mess with those days, so I decided to slip in a Mother’s Day sermon, and delay the rapture by a week.

There must be a couple of hundred approaches to Mother’s Day sermons. Everybody agrees that mothers are about the most important things in the universe. Seriously. And I know there are bad mothers in this world—mothers who do not love and care for their children the way they should; but I am not going to talk about those exceptions to the rule of motherly love today. I acknowledge that there are some people in this sanctuary this morning whose mothers did not give them the type of unconditional love I will talk about in this sermon. I’m happy to say that those few present I know of, who were not blessed with great mothers, have themselves become wonderful, loving parents.

Today, I’m going to talk about the reason mothers are so important. It’s not that they love their children, although they surely do. It’s not that they protect their children from what sometimes turns out to be a very crazy world, even though they do. I think the reason mothers are so important is because of the things they teach their children. We learn from our mothers more than we learn from any other person in our lives. Psychologists tell us that we are shaped into the people we will be for all our lives long before we ever set foot in a school. And that shaping, in most cases, is done primarily by our mothers.
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I set out to make a list of the things we learn from our mothers, and it was a long list. I narrowed it down to the five things that I think are most important—things we learn not from our fathers, or siblings, or friends, or schools, but almost always from our mothers.

The first thing we learn from our mothers is that it’s okay to cry. This is an especially important lesson for young boys, because society tells us from an early age that tears are something to be ashamed of. If you miss the nail and smash you thumb with the hammer, just stand there stoically as if it doesn’t even hurt. Even if your thumb is throbbing to the point you would swear it is expanding to the size of a watermelon with every heartbeat, don’t let the world see your pain.

Typically a young lad in this situation can hold those tears inside for a while. He looks at his dad, and his friends who were watching him proudly hammer the roof on the dog house, and he informs them that he needs to go in the house and wash off his smashed thumb. No problem though. “Sure, it hurts, but hey, I’m a heck of a man, especially for a little kid. I’ll be back in a few minutes, and we’ll finish working on that dog house.”

And then he walks through the back door, calmly, coolly, and he sees his mother, who has secretly observed the whole scene as she nervously watched through the back window, wondering why good old dad was letting her little boy swing that big hammer in the first place. She stands there with that unique motherly mixture of love and concern all over her face. And he breaks down and cries like a baby. And it feels good! And there is this warm hug that can only transpire between a mother and child, and a few minutes later it really has stopped hurting. Mothers can do that. And they teach us the healing power of tears.

We need to remember that lesson when we grow up. Men still feel this responsibility to respond to the pain in their lives with stoicism. A loved one passes on. “No problem. Sure it hurts, but hey, I’m a heck of a man. Time to get back to work.” Hopefully we had mothers that taught us it is okay to cry, because there are some wounds that just won’t heal until you’ve washed them through your tear ducts.

So that is one of the really important things we learn from our mothers: it’s okay to cry. Another lesson we learn from our mothers is the importance of telling the truth. When we are children, we all take liberties with the truth. Picture this: there is a brand new batch of cookies on the kitchen table, still warm from the oven, and a three year old child is quickly munching one down while mom is in the other room. Mom calls back into the kitchen, “Don’t’ eat any of those cookies!”

Do you know what virtually every three year old in the universe will yell back as crumbs come flying out of his mouth? “I’m not.” It’s not lying. It’s experimenting with the truth, and mom is the one who gets to teach us not to undertake such experiments.

This is not an easy lesson. After all, what type of uncreative person has to stick to the truth all the time? At some point it occurs to most children that any idiot can tell the truth. It takes somebody with some real intelligence and imagination to come up with a really believable lie. And as children, we get lots of practice. We know we’re not supposed to jump up and down on the bed, so we are careful to close the door before we turn our bedroom into a gymnasium and the mattress into a trampoline. And when mom calls through the door, “Are you jumping on the bed?” we answer, “No mom—just reading.” As if she couldn’t hear the bed springs creaking and the whole house shaking.

Mothers are good at teaching us this lesson—the importance of telling the truth. They have some magical way of knowing just how far to let us go with our deceptions. They somehow know when to step in and put a stop to things, and when to let us go ahead and crown ourselves on the headboard. They know when to checkmate us: You’ve been jumping on the bed, and here’s how I can tell…and when to let us learn from our own mistake, and from the guilt of trying to cover it up: Wow—you got that bruise on your forehead because you went to sleep reading and fell out of bed—you poor thing.

The importance of telling the truth—that’s one we learn from good old mom. Another lesson we learn from our mothers is to love ‘til it hurts. I don’t think that mothers necessarily love more than fathers, but mothers usually feel less compelled to hide their love. Emotionally, mothers tend to be open books. When I played Little League Baseball, there was this one kid who was always late to practice. He said it was because his dad gave him chores to do around the house every day, and if they didn’t get done, he was in big trouble. The coach told him one day, “Just tell your dad you need to be here on time.” And my friend said, “I’ve told that to my dad, and he always says the same thing. He says, ‘I brought you into this world, and I can take you out. Now do your chores.’”

I can’t envision a mother saying anything like that, even in jest. Mothers just can’t hide their love. We learn a vulnerability from our mothers that we don’t see anywhere else. Mothers are emotionally honest, and they teach—by example—that it’s okay to be the same way. They really do love ‘til it hurts, and if there is a more important lesson to be learned in life, I can’t imagine what it is.

Lesson number four is the one I wish people would remember when they grow up: Don’t fight—talk things out. There must be about a million books out explaining that men and women are different—the Men are from Mars—Women are from Venus phenomenon. I don’t like to push that fact too hard. I’m a big believer that both men and women should be able to pursue any vocation they desire. I absolutely stand against the attempts society makes to define our roles in life according to our gender.

But I do recognize that generally speaking, there are differences between men and women. Women tend to like to talk thing out. Men tend to want to make snap decisions and take action. I suppose this is 90% hormonal, but I’ll tell you one thing. Most of the people who are in control of our world belong to the gender that acts first and asks questions later. I have to wonder what the world would look like if we tried letting women run things for a couple of years. We might build a few less weapons, and we would almost certainly find ways not to use those weapons with such frequency.

As children we learn from our mothers that things don’t always go the way we wish they would. I don’t want to share my toy with him. I know there are only two pieces of candy, but I want them both. I was playing with my ball, and she just grabbed it and started playing with it herself. I want to play basketball, and he wants to ride bicycles.

These situations don’t go away when we grow up. The stakes just get a lot higher. Mothers are the ones who teach us from a very early age that most problems can be solved with a little patience and a little conversation. That’s a pretty important lesson that for some reason, adults tend to forget, as their toys get more expensive, and the games they play are for higher stakes.

Which leads us to the fifth lesson we learn from our mothers: Dream big, but grow where you’re planted. I think our mothers are the primary nurturers of our dreams. They let us know that it is okay to use our imaginations; in fact, they encourage it. The encourage us to imagine what it would be like to grow up and be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an astronaut, or to own a business, or to be a teacher, or a nurse, or even the president! It’s okay to dream.

But they also teach us to grow where we’re planted. We realize our dreams by taking a stand where we are. The grass isn’t really greener on the other side of the fence—it’s just on the other side of the fence. Dream the big dreams, but make them happen by keeping your feet on the ground. Your future is in your own hands. You can realize your dreams from where you are right now. The little community in which you are being raised can produce fashion designers and astronauts and presidents just as surely as New York, Paris and London. Grow where you’re planted!

When I was preparing this sermon, I made a conscious decision not to be theological. I wanted to anchor this sermon in the real-life flesh-and-blood world of mothers and children. As I look back over those five things we learn from our mothers, though, I realize that what our mothers are actually teaching us—the lessons, the values, the wisdom—are
Christian principles.

Think about it: it’s okay to cry; tell the truth; love ‘til it hurts; don’t fight—talk things out; and dream big but grow where you’re planted. I personally would much rather the children of this church learn those things—those basic principles we learn from our mothers—than learn all the supposedly “correct” theological views regarding the nature of Christ. I would rather our children talk about the importance of telling the truth, than argue over who has been washed in the blood of the lamb.

And this is not to belittle Jesus. I just think that what Jesus said is at least as important as who Jesus was. After all, great theologians have argued for two-thousand years about exactly who Jesus was. Was he fully human? Fully divine? Half human and half divine? Fully human and fully divine? Created by God or fully one with the Creator? An atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity? An example of God’s love that heals our spiritual being?

The questions about who Jesus was go on and on. That’s a big reason we have hundreds upon hundreds of denominations. And the truth is, no matter how much we argue about it; and no matter how sincerely we believe we have it all figured out; and no matter how insistent we are that our children believe the exact same things we do; we are not going to solve two millennia of arguments in our children’s Sunday School classes.

But we can teach them what Jesus said. We’ve got a record, albeit somewhat faulty and confusing, of what Jesus said. And the message is not only pretty clear, it is as valid today as it was 2000 years ago. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Everything else he said was anchored on that simple teaching.

When we study the teachings of Jesus we come away not with a way of thinking about religion, but rather a way of living life. We discover in the teachings of Jesus these basic rules that were written on our hearts, even before he gave them voice. And we discover some very important truths. We discover that it’s okay to cry, because Jesus wept when he saw Mary and Martha mourning over their brother, Lazarus. We discover that we should always tell the truth, because Jesus told us to let our yes mean yes and our no mean no. We learn that we should love ‘til it hurts, because everything about his life tells us that is the only reason God created us in the first place. We learn not to fight, and to talk things out, because he told us never to return evil for evil, and he backed up that teaching by ordering Peter to shield his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. And we learn to dream big, but grow where we’re planted, because in passage after passage Jesus tells us to imagine the kingdom of God where the rule of love is the rule of the day, and to reach out and heal the hurting world that is right in front of our eyes.

Those are the very things we learn from our mothers. Which leads me to believe that God was wise to create this world with motherhood as a foundational institution. The Book of Genesis tells us that on the seventh day, after creating all the universe, God rested. Maybe God knew it was safe to rest because mothers were left to be the primary shapers of God’s children. Perhaps the author of the Genesis creation account left out a verse. Maybe it should read, “And on the seventh day, before resting, God created motherhood. And God saw that it was very good.”