Happy Mother's Day to all the Moms out there!!!
Mother’s Day Message - May 2006
Before I say anything else, I want to introduce myself. My name is Amy Dunlap and I’m the Director of the Drama Ministry here at St. Philip’s. But more importantly, I’m the mother of (Scooby), age 6, (Tarzan), age 3, and (Cinderella), age 2. I love being their Mom. They are my pride and joy, and I love them more than life itself. I think it’s important for me to say that first, and you’ll understand why as I progress with my message.
So we were sitting in our creative team meeting a couple of weeks ago, and Eric (our pastor) says, "Mother's Day again. I've preached on Mother's Day so many times. What else is there to say? What do mothers need to hear?" Let me tell you, my response was instantaneous, and visceral...right from my gut. "We need to hear we don't stink as Mothers!" Actually, I used another word than stink, but I don't feel comfortable using it in front of you all. Eric and the other men in the room were surprised by the vehemence of my response, but the other Mom in the room knew exactly what I meant. The feeling of failure as a parent, and the guilt that accompanies it can be practically immobilizing. It can defeat you, plunge you into depression, and make you completely ineffective in God's Kingdom. Do these phrases sound familiar to any of you? "If I were a good mother, my children wouldn't talk back, fight, or whine. Good mothers have better discipline. Good mothers have more patience. Good mothers don’t yell. Good mothers have clean houses. Good mothers cook nutritious dinners every night. Good mothers don’t forget when it’s their turn for snack day. Good mothers have theme birthday parties and hand-sew their children's Halloween costumes." Any of this sounding familiar? I could go on and on. I could go on because these feelings are all mine.
So because I was so emphatic and passionate about my response, Eric decided that I should be the one to get up here and talk about this to you all. But please know, I'm not here as an expert with all the answers to this issue. I'm here because this is probably the biggest struggle in my life, with the deepest roots, and the most far-reaching implications.One of my favorite television shows is Grey's Anatomy, which is about new interns in a surgical residency struggling to maintain a balance between their personal and professional lives. In one of the early episodes, the five interns are seen sprawling in various stages of exhaustion after a grueling day, where they never seemed to know enough, and where the stakes are literally life and death.
One of the interns, George, blurts out "Who here feels like they have no idea what they're doing?" And every one of them raises their hand.Well, if I were to ask that question today in a room full of parents, I'd bet that if folks were being completely honest, a whole lot of hands would be raised into the air. There are many, many moments in my day when I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. In fact, there are many moments in my day when I feel like a total and complete failure. I’ll give you some examples.
Now, it’s not like I have this big dramatic story to tell you – like leaving my kids in the car in 90 degree weather while I go and drink at the Seashell Lounge. It’s really not that dramatic at all. It’s more like Chinese water torture…drip after drip after drip, until you feel like you might go crazy. There was the time when my two year old had a complete meltdown in Barnes and Noble, and I had to carry her under my arm, screaming at the top of her lungs, out to the car, where I then had to physically hold her down and force her into her car seat. I was completely covered with sweat by the time she was buckled in. It doesn’t seem right that such a little body can exert so much force! Or when my middle child was a newborn, and pooped on my friend’s brand new off-white shag carpet while I was changing him – right after I had declined her offer for a towel to put under him. Or when I found out my first grader had cheated on a spelling test. Or when I gave the kids peanut butter and jelly for dinner again, and my son asked me why we can’t ever have a real dinner – like Granny cooks. Or the many times when I have been so overwhelmed with frustration and anger that I’ve found myself shaking, and red-faced, and screaming at the kids like some toothless, flip-flop wearing Jerry Springer guest. More than once, I have cried myself to sleep at night because of the shame I feel from failing my children.
And as if the sometimes overwhelming struggle to simply get through each day isn’t enough, when I consider the fact that I am also responsible for spiritual formation of these young lives and how great my sphere of influence is right now, and how short a time I have…I want to crawl under the covers and hide. It’s just too much! The very job sets us up to fail. It's impossible. I asked my own mother this week what she thought a Mom’s job was. She said, “To love unconditionally – no matter how rotten the kids are.” I don’t know why she would say a thing like that to me, her perfect daughter…but even that is impossible. Sometimes I don’t feel love for my kids. Sometimes, I don’t even like them very much. And I’ve only been doing this for seven years – I can’t imagine what the teen years are going to be like. Actually, I told Don he gets them as soon as they hit puberty. He likes hanging out with that age, so he can have them. I got the diapers, he gets the hormones.
And you know what? I guarantee you, I am not alone. I have talked to other Moms about this, and the response was universal. We all feel guilty for failing our children, and we all feel like bad mothers, at least some of the time. In fact, when I went online and Googled the phrase "Mother Guilt", there were over 15 million hits that matched. 15 million! That gave me some confidence that I’m not the only one to struggle with this.
Now to be honest, I started to get a little ticked off with God when I realized just how universal these feelings are. Why would he put us in such an important position and give us such enormous responsibilities when there's no possible way that we can do it? Those feelings of guilt and failure? Well, guess what. They're accurate. It's true. When I try to fulfill all the expectations of others and of myself in my own power, I am a failure as a mother. And so are you. But wait, don't leave yet. There's more. Here is where the kingdom of God comes in, and turns everything upside down. Which is so God, isn't it? Let's look at the reading again.
2 Corinthians 12: 7-10"To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
After describing a pretty amazing and unusual spiritual experience, Paul then reveals how God allowed a thorn in his flesh to prevent him from becoming proud. Scholars don’t all agree as to exactly what this “thorn” was, but it is generally believed to be something physical in nature, perhaps having to do with Paul’s eyesight. Whatever it was, however, it was troublesome enough that Paul pleaded with the Lord three times to remove it. God said no. Not only did He say no, He said that His grace is sufficient, now and forever, and that His power is made perfect in weakness. Do you hear that? Not only that God will give Paul the strength to eke by, to struggle though the times of hardship, to just barely make it over the mountain, but that God’s power is made PERFECT in weakness. What are the thorns that God has allowed in your life? For me, one of them is impatience. I can’t stand it when I feel like someone’s holding me back, or not moving at my pace. It’s why I can’t get through a weekday morning without raising my voice to my first grader. Why does it have to take ten minutes to brush his teeth? Why? Why does it take everyone so long to get their shoes on? Or take a bath? It drives me crazy! It’s a thorn in my life. And it keeps me humble, because I continue to struggle with it, again and again.
See, what God is doing here is giving Paul, and the rest of us, a message of grace. We often think that without human strength we are destined to fail and without personal courage we are bound to falter. But even though strength and courage are good things, having too much of them can cause us to seek self-sufficiency and not God-dependency. God shows us how weak we are in and of ourselves because He wants us to trust in Him - not in our gifts or abilities, our experience, or our spiritual reserves. Just about the time we feel self-confident and able to meet the enemy, we fail miserably. And our weakness enables us to experience the power of Christ.Grace is God's provision for our every need, when we need it. The grace of God transforms our weakness into God’s perfect power. The weakness isn’t just replaced, but transformed into a gift - a blessing.
God has ample grace for our every need, but He doesn’t give it in advance. Hebrews 4:16 says we come by faith to the throne of grace "that we may receive mercy, and find grace to help us in our time of need." Our time of need – not to greedily fill up our pockets in advance, so that we can meet our own needs when the time arrives. It’s like when the Israelites collected the manna in the wilderness. The manna was there every morning, sufficient for the day. But if they tried to horde it or save it, it went rotten. They were forced to trust in God’s mercies anew every morning.There’s a great example of this in The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. The child Corrie is concerned about not having the inner strength she will need to face the future. Her father reminds her that when they go on a trip to Amsterdam, he gives her her ticket right before they get on the train. And likewise, our Heavenly Father, in His wisdom, gives us what we need on our journey at the very moment that we need it. See, we would much prefer that God would orchestrate our lives so as to prevent those moments of weakness from ever occurring, but what He does is wait until we discover that we can’t do it on our own, until we crash, until we need Him, until we ask for Him, and then He says, “Look. Look what I can do with even this.”
I mentioned earlier that our weakness and failure can be transformed into a gift, and I’d like to unpack that just a bit. There are three ways that failure can be a gift. Failure is a gift to us because it reminds us that we are not God. Now most of you are probably saying, “Hey, I know I’m not God. What kind of conceited freak would think they were God?” But really, don’t we sometimes try to be God to our kids? Don’t you sometimes feel that if you did your job right, as a mom, that your kids would always be happy, healthy, smart and popular? Don’t you want to heal every wound, make straight every path, and give them all the wisdom, knowledge and experience they need to succeed in life? And doesn’t it feel good when you get a little adulation back? I was in the car last week, driving home from preschool, and I had neglected to pack the sippy cups in the diaper bag. Of course, whenever I forget, that's when the kids are dying of thirst. And as I'm sure you all know, it's really impossible to reason with a two and three year old about the distance between here and there, and how long it will take, and the amount of forbearance necessary to tide you over. Instead, all I heard was "But I'm thirsty! I'm thirsty, Mama! I'm thirsty NOW!" Finally, in exasperation, I said, "Well, I can't make water for you out of nothing. I'm not Jesus!" To which my daughter replied, in all her toddler wisdom, "Mama, you not Jesus, you Mama!" See, she gets it. Too often, we try to be Jesus to our kids. We try to meet all their needs - spiritual, physical, emotional, and we can't do it, because we're not God! Failure reminds us that there are things and people that we cannot control. There are things we can't fix or manage. There are areas of our kids’ lives that only God can touch. And we are not Him!
Failure is also a gift to others, to tell them that you are not God. It’s part of the human condition to look for someone to heal your wounds and your brokenness. And many people are disappointed when they look to a leader, whether a corporate, political, or spiritual leader and that leader doesn’t meet their expectations. Or maybe it’s a relationship; a spouse, a parent, even a child who is expected to fill up all the emptiness and need. But as C.S. Lewis says, “Human beings can never really make each other happy for very long.” Salvation never comes from the side – from another traveler along the road – only from above.And children especially need to learn that their parents can not meet all of their needs, that their parents are not perfect. When we blame ourselves as mothers for our children’s failures or sins, when we take on guilt that isn’t ours, we are attempting to take Jesus’ place in their lives. My kids don’t need me to be their Savior – they need Jesus. They also don’t need a perfect Mother, to settle every argument, discipline every stray word and tame every rebellion. They have a Heavenly Father for that. And they need to learn to rely themselves on the Holy Spirit of God, and not expect me or their father to be able to meet their spiritual needs.
Finally, failure is a gift to God. When we offer our failures to God, we allow the Redeemer to redeem. We allow His power to become perfect. When we die to ourselves, God's resurrection power can go to work. God's power neither displaces weakness, nor overcomes it. On the contrary, it comes to full strength in it. Not that we are to cherish our infirmities. Weakness in and of itself will perfect nothing. But when the human vessel is weak, Divine power is especially evident.2 Cor. 4: 6-7 says "For God who said 'Let light shine out of darkness' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Isn’t that a beautiful picture? The all-surpassing glory of God, this incredible treasure, being contained inside feeble, fallible, coarse, utilitarian vessels like us. The bizarre thing is, we get so busy trying to fill up our jars by ourselves – with relationships, recreation, work, anything to fill that emptiness inside. But God desires that emptiness, so that He can fill it with Himself. When we are too full of ourselves, we don’t leave any room for God.
Listen to these words by Sir Thomas Browne:
“If thou could’st empty thyself of self,
Like to a shell disinhabited,
Then He might find thee on the ocean shelf,
and say, “This is not dead,”
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes he says,
“This is enow Unto itself – ‘twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.”
Our weakness is what will enable us to empty ourselves of ourselves, and make room for God’s power.
It is not our place to try to redeem our failures as parents, or the failures of our children. It is our job to develop a relationship and an intimacy with the Redeemer, Christ himself. Anytime we focus on our behavior and working harder, and running up the hill faster, and being better at what we do, we have already lost the battle. We need to focus instead on Christ, and on the battle He already won on the cross. Christ is the one who takes all our mistakes, sins, inadequacies, and failures, and changes them into something beautiful. He’s the one who takes our old messy human hearts, and replaces them with His perfect one. When we get out of the way, and let the Holy Spirit work in ourselves and our children, He can bring change, and conviction, and love, and joy. Then he can make us all vessels that will glorify Him.
God doesn’t look on us with disdain or contempt when he sees our failures. He looks on us with compassion and mercy. God desires to perfect His power in our weakness and to shine His light through our muddy jars of clay. Why don’t you offer up those areas of weakness to the Father right now? Maybe you’ve failed as a parent. Maybe your failure is in your relationship to your spouse, or to your own parents. Wherever it is, stop holding on to it and stop trying to hide it. Bring it into the light, and let God transform it into a blessing.