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HAPPY BIRTHDAYS I Samuel 1: 20-28; Acts 2: 1-4 05/11/08 We celebrate two birthdays today. One is the birthday of the church. Fifty days after holy week, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God swooped down on Jesus’ followers and the church came into being. The other birthday is yours, and mine. We’re here today because of a mother who birthed us, introduced us to the world. With our minds on our mothers today, let’s sit for a while at the feet of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and reflect a while. In the annals of feminist literature, the name of Hannah does not appear. Why? She lived for two things and two things only—to be a wife and to be a mother. What an old-fogy she was. But what she wanted most, becoming a mother, eluded her. Hannah had a fertility problem, and she was very depressed about it, because she knew it was her problem and not her husband’s--he had some children by another woman. The story has a happy ending. Hannah gave birth to a son and named him Samuel, meaning “asked of God.” Scripture tells us two things about Hannah’s mothering career. First, she nursed Samuel for two years. For some reason, scripture makes a big deal of that. Hannah says to Elkanah: “I won’t go on the religious shrine at Shiloh this year because Samuel’s still nursing.” Elkanah says: “You know what’s best—stay till you’ve stopped nursing.” “Hannah didn’t go to Shiloh until she stopped nursing.” Second, when she finished nursing Samuel, she dedicated him to the service of God for the rest of his life in appreciation for God’s having loaned her a son. “The Lord gave me just what I asked for. Now I am giving him to the Lord, and he will be the Lord’s servant for as long as he lives.” Once every year Hannah visited Samuel at the religious shrine at Shiloh. Every year she brought him a new robe that she had made for him. The rest of the story? Samuel grew up to be one of the greatest leaders in the history of Israel. Two long books of the Old Testament are named for him. This is an extreme story. No one is suggesting that after two years at home, a child should be sent off to a clergy person to be reared from then on (especially in our day when so many clergy have been found guilty of sexually abusing children). But this extreme story makes an important point. The combination of good nursing followed by good weaning, of intense engagement followed by disengagement, of bonding followed by relinquishment, of lots of tender loving care followed by release to go free—is a model for good mothering. Hannah understood that children are a gift from God. They’re not our pets, not our possessions, not our property. After a period of high attachment and high nurture, we’re to set them free to fulfill God’s unique purposes for them (which may be different from our dreams for them or what we would choose for them). I got a mother like that. As far back as I can remember, there sat on my mother’s dressing table an 8 X 10 black and white baby picture of me. Tucked in the upper left corner of the frame was a poem my mother had torn out of a magazine. It surprised me to realize one day, after I was off at college, that I had walked by that picture and poem so many times growing up that I knew the poem by memory. I had it put on needlepoint years ago so our sons would grow up walking by it every day as they grew up in our house: “Nobody knows what a boy is worth, a boy at his work or play; a boy that whistles around the house, or laughs in an artless way. Nobody knows what a boy is worth, and the world must wait and see. For every man in an honored place is a boy that used to be.” As corny as Kansas in August. But it’s better than getting a new robe--or a new wardrobe--every year. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, a blessing good for a lifetime. The trickiest part for many mothers is the weaning part--the relinquishment part. When I went off to college, there was a boy I met on the first day who had never spent one night away from home. His name was Don. His mother stayed in the motel nearest campus for his first nine days at college. She sort of appointed me (Mr. Maturity at the ripe old age of 17) to be his protector/advocate/guardian. The first clue I got that I was in big trouble was when I saw Don’s mother comb his hair. He had never combed his own hair. I had to teach him after she left how to part and comb his hair. Before our freshman year was over, he was in prison, having fallen in with the wrong crowd. He was the proverbial fish out of water. John Ruskin, great Victorian writer and artist, is a classic case of relinquishment- failure. Ruskin’s mother was a strict evangelical puritan. John grew up with no toys in the home, because his mother thought all pleasure or silliness or frivolity was sinful. For hours every day he counted the knots in the wood floor or the bricks in the neighbor’s house. By age three he had memorized the 119th Psalm (the longest psalm, 176 verses). For hours every day his mother read the Bible to him, Genesis to Revelation. When he misbehaved, he heard his mother say: “It’s because you’ve been so indulged.” At age 18, he went off to Oxford. His mother moved there with him. She left her husband for three years to help John. John Ruskin was sickly all his life. He had a number of pitifully immature relationships with women. He once married but never consummated the marriage. He was insane for the last eleven years of his life. Kahlil Gibran, the Hindu poet, wrote: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they will have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls live in the house of tomorrow which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to become like them, but try not to make them like you, for life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.” Rearing children is different from raising pets. We foster our pets’ dependency on us. We don’t want them to grow up and leave home. We don’t want them to have a mind of their own, to go off and do their own thing. We want them to obey, to stay put. “Stay!” we teach them. If they don’t, we may send them to obedience school. Or we may take them back where we got them and get a pet that will stay. Our children are not pets. All our labors aim at our kids being able one day to fend for themselves, to stand on their own two feet, to be their own person—to individuate. Someone said that ultimately mothers are not for leaning, but to make leaning on them unnecessary. Today we praise mothers like Hannah who see their children as “a loan” from God, mothers who give us both roots and wings, mothers who lavish bushels of hugs and kisses on us and then have the unselfish love in them to step back and set us free.
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