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anna-shrine-to-mothers-dayI confess that one of the things that has always eluded me is how Mother’s Day has become one of the high holy days in the life of the American church.

Don’t get me wrong . . . I like mothers as much as the next guy. For sure, this year’s Mother’s Day was a struggle in that it was the first time without my mom here on the earth, and walking through the card aisle at the local Rite Aid and realizing that I had no mom to send a card to made my heart sad. But my issue with the holiday lifting up mothers has little to do with my own emotions, and a lot to do with how easily this holiday can be one in which others can be hurt.

You see, what failed to get mentioned in church this past Sunday is how hurtful the entire topic of motherhood can be for some. In our desire to honor those have nurtured us, far too often we neglect the feelings of those whose image of mother is less than whole  . . . those who suffered both physical and mental abuse at the lack of touch and empathy from their moms. Still others want to be mothers, but for some reason the universe has conspired against them and in spite of every effort they are unable to bear children. And there are those who clearly know in their hearts that they have neither the gifts or call to be mothers, but are made to feel guilty be a church that far too often glorifies family and marriage over vocation, faithfulness, and singleness.

Of course, Mother’s Day is exalted because it’s a societal cash cow. The greeting card and gift industry have built this into something major in pursuit of a buck. They’ve manipulated our emotions, knowing that many of us carry around guilt over the way we’ve neglected our parents, and encouraging us to attempt to assuage that guilt through flowers, cards, and restaurant visits. In the church, we’ve come to build up Mother’s Day because very frankly it’s often good for worship attendance when the kids who’ve been away come back to try to make mom happy and go to church with her. I’ve been guilty myself of a campaign encouraging folks to “make mom happy and go to church.”

The problem, of course, is the disconnect between the holiday and those for whom the holiday is a struggle — and we in the church far too often only contribute to the problem. It’s that struggle that I faced this past Sunday in our own celebration of Mother’s Day.

What I tried to do — probably not successfully I should add — was attempt to help folks see that “mother” can be as much a role as a family birth identity. The fact is that I had a pretty good mom who did everything she could to care for me. At the same time, because of her own family history there were simply emotional needs she couldn’t meet — and so along the way I’ve had several surrogate “mothers” along the way. The persons may have been related or simply friends, but they provided guidance and nurture that helped me to grow to who I am today.

I would dare say that there are women (and maybe even some men) in our lives who fulfill the mothering role for us. Our birth mother’s may have been “Mommy Dearest” evil, but these persons came into our lives and picked up the slack, helping us in the journey to be more fully who God wants us to be. Some of these women have children of their own. Others have never had children, but in their love and support of others have fully embraced the identity of “mother.” Maybe we could be better served by focusing less on celebrating those who carried us in the womb for 9 months and focus instead on those who nurtured and raised us throughout our lives. Sometimes that may be the same person. Other times it’s not . . .  and we need to recognize those who lead us to fruitfulness.

The United Methodist Church attempted to deal with this by creating an alternative holiday in place of Mother’s Day — The Festival of the Christian Home. It’s a great ideal, but doesn’t face the cultural reality that Mother’s Day is now a societal norm which isn’t going away anytime soon. Maybe we’d be better served by simply acknowledging that the categories we’ve created for identifying others in our lives — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters — are a lot less rigid and dependent on blood relations than we would make them out to be. Maybe we need to know that these roles are bigger than blood

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Not long ago I sat in a worship service listening to another pastor exhort his congregation to service and carrying out the radical call of Christ to love our neighbors. I was sitting there silently cheering him on when all of the sudden he made the following comment:

Now before anyone panics, understand that I’m not suggesting that we’re going to let the local homeless take residence in our church. I am sure that our Trustees would say that the liability issues are too great for that….

Now, while I know how this sounds to many, I understood what he was doing. Certainly he believed that the call of Jesus asks us to offer love unconditionally and sacrificially. I would dare say that he truly believed that we follow Christ wherever he leads us. However, this was a man who had sat in too many meetings with the Trustees of the church who said that this or that ministry was too great a risk for the church; that the potential liability issues were so great that the church couldn’t possibly consider taking this on. These are conversations about insurance rates and fiduciary responsibilities and protecting the church building so that folks can enjoy it in the future. After hearing this again and again, it’s easy for any pastor (including myself) to fall into the trap of disclaimers in the midst of prophetic proclamation. “We have to be careful,” we think, “for if we push this too far we’ll find ourselves in another of those meetings.”

Of course, Jesus experienced this too. His disciples were scandalized at all this talk about the cross and his death. “That line of thinking isn’t very helpful in the long term Jesus,” they seemed to say. “How are you to build a megachurch . . . uh . . . a kingdom with those kinds of risks and liabilities?” But Jesus, as we all know, wasn’t about avoiding liabilities. He was about taking up crosses, and did so freely so that the world might be changed.

When will we begin to recognize that the life of faith is not about security but about intentional risk taking? When will we understand that the call to take up our crosses was not a pie in the sky image but rather a command to throw liability to the wind in pursuit of something far greater — God’s kingdom.

In every church that I’ve served I’ve been a part of conversations about liability that seriously hindered the work of Christ in the world. I’ve heard stories of churches which sold off church vans, closed church daycares, and forbade certain groups from using their facilities out of a fear that somehow the exposure to legal action was more dangerous to the life of the church than the inability to connect with others in radical ways. In every case, the churches found their ministries in decline because they cast off important ministry tools that had great potential for growing their ministry rather than hindering it. They failed to recognize that the ministry of the church — the call to love sacrificially — is what holds us together rather than maintenance of a building or institution.

Look I understand concerns about issues of liability (especially in terms of sexual misconduct and the abuse of children) and believe that we need to be prudent in maintaining churches that are safe for folks who come through our doors. And yet, I see church after church who have been able to find the balance between safe sanctuaries and ministering to the homeless through programs like Room in the Inn; churches who have policies and procedures to minimize risk when they can, but who also understand that meaningful ministry is a risky business and that’s okay.

We have got to move out of the mindset that we can’t take on a particular ministry because of liability issues. While the church I mentioned above may not want to turn the church building over to the homeless, they absolutely need to be talking about how to care for those homeless folks who walk the streets around their church, open to the guidance of the Spirit on the best way to offer love and care to the least of these.

To do otherwise is to find ourselves standing behind Judas, cheering him on as he scolds the Master for his irresponsibility.

The cross is a liability issue. But Jesus calls us to take it up and follow him.

Will we really do so?