I will be honest with you – I really don’t like Mother’s Day.
I used to go through a raft of reasons why – I’m not a mother, my mother has died. I hate how a day calling for an end to war has become a day reminding us to call our mothers and send flowers. I don’t want children and never have, and I always feel annoyed when someone patronizes me with “oh, but you are mothering in other ways.”
But when it comes right down to it, I don’t really like Mother’s Day because I miss my mom.
My mother died in 2007 – just before Thanksgiving. Mom and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but she was always there when I needed her – for advice, for comfort, for a laugh, a story, a card game. When I got into a car accident, mom was there. When my partner died, mom drove 13 hours to be there. When I fell into a deep depression, mom was there – in fact, I remember that she got my whole family to read William Styron’s book Darkness Visible so that they could all understand a little of what I was going through.
Now I know that people have or had complicated relationships with their mothers – even mine, who was pretty supportive, was complicated. Mom was sometimes demanding, and sometimes asked questions with an accusatory tone – “you’re not really doing to do THAT, are you?”
I also know that people have had to estrange themselves from their mothers because the relationship was so toxic.
And I know many people got the kind of nurturing I got from my mom from other sources – a father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher, friend.
But somewhere along the way – we were nurtured.
Even when things were going awry, that person was there on the other side.
There was a period of about a year in my mid-twenties when I was going through some hard stuff – life was difficult, and I was in some ways embarrassed about my lot in life… phone conversations became harder and harder to have without my breaking down, and I wasn’t able to handle mom’s sometimes accusatory questioning style. And so I kinda checked out and estranged myself from her, like the prodigal son from the parable found in the Gospel of Luke.
But at some point we talked again – and mom welcomed me back in with open arms. She was curious as to what happened, of course, and we eventually had long conversations about it, but her welcome wasn’t conditional. She welcomed me back because we were family. She welcomed me back because I was her beloved child. She welcomed me back because she needed me as much as I needed her. She welcomed me back because she loved me unconditionally.
Our relationship was not perfect. Our family is far from perfect. I joke sometimes that I’m the plaid sheep of the family, a bit off, a bit different. My siblings and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things – politics in particular. But my parents – and mom especially – nurtured us to grow together, to always connect, to never forget that at the end of a hard argument, a hard time, a hard event, we would be welcomed back. We have each blossomed differently – my sister is like a vineyard – an agnostic, an educator who is a master at coordinating big projects; my brother is like an herb garden – a spiritual seeker, a math and electronics guy who is a master at putting things together; I think I’m like one of those wildflower paths – definitely UU, an artist and editor who…well, according to my degree is a master of divinity. But despite our differences of perspective and opinions… and despite the arguments that sometimes ensue, despite the hard times we deal with, we always treat one another with love and respect and open our arms in welcome. We always come back together. We still trust one another. We still need one another. We still love one another.
The same is true in religious communities – or it should be.
Our Universalist theology teaches us about a divinity that loves and nurtures us unconditionally, no matter what. Hosea Ballou, one of the fathers of Universalism, offers this: “Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”
Do we love the fellow members of our religious community because they look clean and neat and organized and are well behaved, or do we try to get organized and cleaned up and well behaved because we love our religious community?
What comes first – what matters, really?
As Unitarian Universalists, we rely on the concept of covenant – which in part means that when things get rough, we remind each other of our relationship and find ways to make it right. It’s not about calling someone out and saying “you are behaving badly” but rather calling someone in and saying “things aren’t going well between us” – the former is accusatory; the latter makes room for healing, for calling each other back in to covenant, for finding a way to get through the hard stuff.
Our covenant demands of us that we trust one another, that we nurture our relationships with one another, that we find ways to deal with our arguments and our struggles in a way that ends with our coming back together – the way our families work, the way the nurturing figures of our lives taught us.
But this stuff isn’t easy. Just as our relationships with those who nurtured us are complex and messy, so are our relationships with those we share religious community. It takes work to call each other back in, to find our way through, to behave more lovingly, to trust, to ask questions, to forgive, to make space. Nurturing is tough work – and sometimes a much longer play than you expect.
Which I learned first hand recently. In March, on the anniversary of the fire, I invited you all to plant your hopes for the future – along with some seeds – into a pair of flower boxes. You all wrote amazing things on plant sticks – you hoped for joy, laughter, spiritual deepening, connection, community – and the tiny English daisy seeds accompanied your wishes into the rich soil. I promised to take them back to the parsonage and nurture them.
They sat outside, then inside for a few cold nights, then outside again. I watered when there wasn’t rain, checked on them, and nothing was happening. A couple of weeks ago, Ceil inquired, and I sheepishly confessed that I underestimated this cold spring and was probably going to have to buy some new seeds and start again.
And then I walked by them early last week….and there were sprouts! I hadn’t killed them! The seeds were planted, the nurturing continued despite a visible lack of growth, but eventually, the fruits of the nurturing are being seen. Finally.
But it was dicey there for a bit. A feeling that those who parent often feel, I suspect, when watching their children not really get it together, or take a bit longer to do something, or go on a path you wouldn’t have chosen, or make a choice that feels risky.
But that’s the thing – sometimes things get dicey. Sometimes things get hinky. Sometimes we get a bit embarrassed that things aren’t going as planned. Sometimes we just don’t understand a different point of view. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we think should be happening we lose sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes we forget that we have been part of something bigger. Sometimes we forget that we have nothing to prove in order to get the love that is always ours.
Whether that love comes from a parent, a nurturing presence, a religious community, or that which some call God. We are not loved because we are clean, we are cleaned because we are loved. We are not nurtured because we will blossom into the exact flower someone expects us to be, we are nurtured because we each blossom in unique and beautiful ways.
We need to be reminded of this sometimes. Not just in the implicit experience of coming to church, belonging to covenant groups, working on committees and project teams. We sometimes need to be reminded explicitly, that this love is always there. Maybe that’s why Mother’s Day is important. Because no matter your relationship to mothers and mothering, The day is a reminder that calls us back together to honor the relationships that nurture us when we’re at sixes and sevens, that hold us when we’re fearful, that smooths our fur when we’re upset, that loves us no matter what.
And more… it reminds us that we are all uniquely nurtured and nurturing, and that uniqueness is a gift.
Introduction to Flower Communion:
One of the ways I have been nurtured is through education. While my father was known as the history buff, with a huge library of books on the Civil War, the Revolution, Napoleon, and the Plantagenets, it was my mother who was the true devotee – and who planted the love of history in me. As a child, she’d take me to historical sites around upstate New York and western New England, and when cable television expanded beyond TBS and MTV, there were many weeks when her box never left the History Channel. She loved learning about ordinary people who did extraordinary things to change the course of history.
And so in that spirit, in memory of my mother, and in honor of Mother’s Day, I want to tell a little bit about an ordinary man who did some extraordinary things to change the course of our Unitarian Universalist history, the Reverend Doctor Norbert Capek.
Capek came from a small village in the southern part of what was then Bohemia – while he was trained as a tailor, his great love was religion, religious ideas and church communities. He became a minister – first as a Baptist, but eventually became more religiously and socially liberal, and in 1910 became a Unitarian; with the support of the American Unitarian Association and the British Unitarians, he was able to establish a new religious movement in Prague. It flourished, with large congregations and an active children’s program.
Among the members of this congregation in Prague were many ex-Catholics, who, reacting strongly against the Catholic faith, had come to find the traditional Communion service, with bread and wine, unacceptable. He felt they needed some sort of communion ceremony, and in 1923 Capek turned to the native beauty of their countryside for elements of a communion service that could be meaningful to them. The Flower Communion soon became one of their most significant services, celebrating connection, community, and the uniqueness of each individual coming together to nourish themselves and each other in religious community.
Capek’s story has a sad end – because of course, Europe in the late 1930s was anything but calm. In 1938, when it became clear that the Nazis would invade Czechoslovakia, Capek’s friends urged him to leave the country. His wide reputation as a religious liberal, his activities as a hymn-writer, newspaper editor, preacher, teacher and lecturer put him in a dangerous position. He refused to go, but his wife, Maja, left at the last moment. Capek continued his work, which became increasingly risky.
Capek found that his church could play a role in protecting Jews in Prague, but in 1940, he and his daughter Zora were arrested. Eventually he was sent to Dachau concentration camp, Zora to a labor camp. Almost a year after his arrest, Capek’s name appears among prisoners sent, on October 12, 1942, to Hartheim Castle, near Linz, Austria, where he died of poison gas.
When news of Dr. Capek’s death reached America in 1945, the then President of the American Unitarian Association, Dr. Frederick May Eliot, wrote, “Another name is added to the list of heroic Unitarian martyrs, by whose death our freedom has been bought.”
But today, we celebrate the ritual that Capek’s created, to celebrate community and connection, to honor the unique gifts each of us brings, to renew with beauty our covenant to be with each other, to trust one another, to nurture our relationships with one another.