Proverbs 23:15-25Ephesians 4:17-32

Once again it is Mother’s Day.

It’s a nostalgic moment for me, as it is for most of us. My earliest memories of Mother’s Day go back to our little white Cape Cod home in Arlington, Massachusetts, surrounded by the white picket fence.
In those days, it was the custom, at least in New England, that on Mother’s Day you wore a flower. It was a token of respect to your mother. A white carnation in her memory if she was dead, a red carnation to celebrate her presence if she was living. I’m sort of sorry that custom has gone out of style.
We’ve celebrated today by acknowledging the oldest mother present, and the newest, and the one who has come from the greatest distance. Each has received a beautiful rose.
Our theme is “Creating Joyful Motherhood.” Our text is two verses from Proverbs:
Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old (Proverbs 23:22).
May your father and mother be glad; may she who gave you birth rejoice (Proverbs 23:25).
My intention is not to dampen the effervescent atmosphere of this service. At the same time, we must deal realistically with the fact that joyful motherhood is not the experience of every mother.
Geographic distance takes its toll. How many of us have living mothers today and how much we would give to be closer to them. Some of the joy is gone from this day because we cannot enjoy their presence, and we know how much they’d love to be with us.
Aging has a way of taking its toll. One of the experiences of pastoring that I enjoy least is walking through the halls of a nursing home — however upscale or downscale in price and quality — sniffing the acrid smell of urine in the air, hearing the moans and groans of persons almost animal in nature and seeing, in room after room, persons once vital, alert and rational, many of whom are now only a faint memory of that once vivacious young mother. I am reminded of these words, anonymous in their origin:
What do you see, nurses, what do you see?
What are you thinking when you’re looking at me?
A crabby old woman not very wise,
Uncertain of habit and faraway eyes.
I’m a small child of ten with a mother and father,
Brothers and sisters who love one another.
A bride in her twenties — my heart gives a leap,
Remembering the vow that I promised to keep.
A woman of thirty, my young now grow fast,
Bound to each other with ties that should last.
At forty, my sons have grown and have gone,
But my man is beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At fifty, once more babies play around my knees;
Again we know children, my husband and me.
I’m an old woman now and nature is cruel;
‘Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body it crumbles, grace and vigor depart;
There is now a stone where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
And now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, and I remember the pain;
And I am loving and living life over again.
I think of the years all too few — gone too fast,
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nurses, open and see
Not a crabby old woman; look closer — see me.
Broken relationship takes its toll. I remember that wedding, how beautiful it was. The bride and groom had dated through college, planned carefully for their wedding. It was a glorious evening. The reception was filled with laughter and celebration — that is, except for the mother and father of the bride. Their rebel son had during that evening flung epithets in their faces, taking off to elope with his mid-teen sweetheart. This seemed designed to punish his parents and to break his mother’s heart in her greatest moment of joy.
A few weeks ago I preached through the Ten Commandments. The fifth reads, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). I tried to open up that important instruction from God in a way that is faithful to Scripture and honest to our contemporary existence. I knew that the notion of one honoring one’s parents, some of whom hadn’t been very good parents, would be troubling to a few present that morning.
Little did I expect the intensity of a three-page letter, single spaced, and typed on 8 1/2″ x 11″ size stationery by a woman who had been there that morning. She told of being the daughter of a man who sexually molested her older sister to the point that after four years she ended up having his baby. She described many overheard, middle-of-the-night conversations between her father and mother, one of which ended with repentance. But the pattern started all over again.
As sad as this story is, it is even more complicated by the fact that her father was a missionary, pastor, and more recently teacher in a Christian school. She writes, “Unable to reconcile the differing pictures of my father, the missionary/minister with his arms raised to God before his congregation in the morning and my father sleeping with his daughter during the nights, I placed the painful memories deep within my subconscious mind.”
She writes on, describing how these painful memories came back to haunt her as she established her own marriage and later went through a tragic divorce. In later personal conversation with me, she described her own feelings about her mother who knew the facts but entered into an enabling collusion with her father which led to coverup and continued practice.
She described how she has had to get a court restraining order for the safety of her children, keeping her father from seeing her children, and how resentful her mother is toward her for this behavior. Then, in devastating honesty, she looked me in the eyes and asked, “Do you mean I have to honor these two people who have allowed such pain for me and the rest of my family?”
That’s a tough question, isn’t it? It has a way of bringing us back to reality when we talk about honoring our parents and speaking about joyful motherhood.
Strained relations take their toll. I see a lot of this these days. The typical story is not as dramatic as these two stories of broken relationship. It usually involves a middle-aged woman, striking out at her living parents with whom she still maintains a reasonably congenial relationship.
I received a long-distance phone call recently from a couple who had visited our church. They described raising a wonderful family of Christian children. They told how many of their friends had come and asked how they had been so successful as parents. Then they began to lament the fact that one of their daughters, now in her thirties, was beginning to lash out, in particular at her mother, accusing her of various kinds of parenting mistakes.
They described a daughter who had been a “perfect child,” who had “caused no problems” during her teenage years, who now was hostile and bitter toward her mother. The more they talked the more complex the story became. They told how the daughter had gone into depression. In the process of psychological counselling, she “turned against her parents” and was hardly civil with them when they would come to visit.
This story is not unusual. I hear it with great frequency, both from the vantage point of parents who are stunned by the strained relations and from the daughters whose eyes flash of apparent hostility at the very mention of the mother in what now appears in retrospect to have been a smothering maternal control throughout the childhood that was not as happy as it appeared on the surface.
I was reminiscing with a family after the death of their mother. One of the daughters, now turning fifty, who had stood so close to her mother during her illness, turned to one of the persons in the room and said, “I was always jealous of the freedom you had as a child. My mother was still telling me what to do up to forty-eight hours before her death.” Then another one of the daughters described how close she and her mother had been and began to wonder aloud why it was that even with that closeness they had some trouble getting along.
Spiritual alienation takes its toll. Seldom does a month go by but what some aging mother, with tears trickling down her cheeks, describes her love for her child, now an adult with his or her own children, a child who is not walking with Jesus. The tears sometimes turn to sobs as that parent describes how much he or she yearns to have that child come to saving faith in our Lord.
As you know, just as often, I hear friends my own age express spiritual concerns for their parents. There are many middle-aged children who came to faith in Jesus Christ during their college years or later, who observe mothers and fathers who may have gone to church in the 1950s when it was the popular thing to do but have never had their lives changed by the power of God unto salvation.
What’s happened? When it’s no longer popular to go to church, you don’t have to do it to be successful in the community, these fine people have simply dropped out. They don’t deny the existence of God. They live ethical lives. In fact, they are usually quite good people. But the fact is they are simply not born again. They have never received Jesus Christ as Savior. So we see the younger generation praying spiritually for the older generation as frequently as we see the older generation praying for the wayward son or daughter to come back home to the Lord.
As you see, joyful motherhood is not the experience of everyone. Why are there so many situations in which the parent-child relationship lacks joy?
I am convinced that the twentieth century has ushered in a whole new set of heightened expectations in regard to parent-child relations. The criteria for personal happiness are so different today than they were a few decades ago.
Many a parent in the sixty-years-old-plus age bracket had not been exposed to contemporary theories on child raising. The 1930s and 1940s, with the Depression and World War II, were “survival” years for many. People were happy to just have a job. The nuclear and extended families stayed closer together geographically, but that did not necessarily mean that there was much sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings. One just hoped that he or she could get through World War II alive without the Nazis taking over. The 1950s had us scared of international Communism.
It was during these same 1950s and 1960s that their children were going to college, studying psychology, sociology, and becoming aware of early childhood and adult development patterns. The theories of Freud, Jung, Adler, and their successors, who further developed this emerging understanding of the human inner world, became the preoccupation of the educated born post-1940. This is bewildering to many parents whose educations were interrupted by the depression and the war.
The men of that generation had been raised not to cry, to hold emotions in, to be the producers, the bread winners. They were taught to work long hours, to be successful. They had a sense of responsibility not only to their families but to society. The women had been taught to be homemakers. A few had jobs, but in most cases that was only temporary until children came along. Their priority was to be in the home, and they taught their daughters similar priorities.
Then came the 1960s when values went up for grabs. Traditional family structures were questioned. Women had their rights too. Economics began to necessitate, in the minds of some, the two-career family. The feminist movement created a backlash on the part of those who became all the more entrenched in their traditionalism and conservatism.
What do we observe? We observe a generation of women between age 35 and 55 today who are caught in the middle, between the experience and values of their mothers who see life one way and their daughters who see life and its opportunities so differently. They become aware that both options have their pluses and minuses.
There is something secure about being taken care of by a man even if it means being the primary child-raiser, housekeeper, homemaker, cook, and carpooler. And there is something very appealing about coming at life as equals, living in partnership, sharing duties around the house, as well as having equal opportunity in the marketplace. At the same time they fear for their daughters who have wonderful career freedoms but wonder if this will be at the expense of satisfying marriage and child-raising.
It is important that we step back and try to gain some objectivity, taking a look, as Christians, at the cultural changes we have experienced in this century. If we don’t, we’ll never quite understand some of the stresses we are now experiencing between generations. I say this not to minimize spiritual realities. They only accentuate these difficulties.
I believe that no matter how complex the issues may be there are two primary biblical admonitions that can help us create joyful motherhood.
We need make no apology when we talk about honoring one’s father and mother. We need not despair at the possibility of having a healthy relationship between the generations. We need not revert into nostalgia when we talk about Mother’s Day, thinking back to an era in which life was much simpler and we had less complex expectations of each other. We need not come into a sanctuary to experience an hour and fifteen minutes of over-idealization as our hearts are lifted by the “Seraphic Song.”
Tears come to our eyes as we see the joy in the eyes of the oldest mother as she receives her rose and the newest mother as she receives hers, and as we acknowledge one who has come the farthest distance. Yes, it would be more pleasant if we could eulogize motherhood in highly sentimental terms. But would it be right? Or would it be just putting on nostalgic blinders for a brief period of time, then having to walk into the dazzling sunshine of a world that simply doesn’t square with that backward look?
Jesus is not just the robed and sandaled apparition remotely identified with first century Palestine and that agrarian environment in which life was much more simple. Not for a moment. His day was complex too. There were even snide remarks in Nazareth about His paternity. His mother admired Him, but He was bigger than her, and His mission demanded action that she could not fully understand. He even framed questions which raised issues over just how one should prioritize family concerns in relationship to the rest of life. He called people to leave father and mother and follow Him.
Through His Holy Spirit He guided the biblical writers to talk about life as it is lived and can be lived, empowered by the Holy Spirit. So I share with you two primary words on how we can create joyful motherhood. One deals with action. The other deals with attitude. What is our action to be?
1. We are to speak the truth.
Jesus came that you might know the truth. He declared that the truth would set you free. He doesn’t ask us to hide our heads in the sand, pretending things are much nicer than they are. He deals with the tough and hard realities of our human existence, not only in the first century but in the twentieth century, as this twentieth century begins to meld into the twenty-first century. The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:25: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor ….”
If we speak the truth we must put aside falsehood. Part of falsehood is naive, childish dreams. Let me mention three. One, seldom do our children live up to all our dreams for them. Two, seldom do our parents live up to all our dreams for them. Three, seldom do we ourselves live up to all our dreams for ourselves. Be honest. Tell it like it is. Let’s have a theology that undergirds it.
When the Bible says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” it is declaring emphatically once and for all that no one is perfect. Our children are not perfect. Our parents are not perfect. And we are not perfect. Each of us needs the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we are not perfect how can we expect others to be?
None of us has ever learned how to be the perfect child, the perfect parent, or just the perfect person. That’s the truth, isn’t it? You know it, and I know it. Let’s not just talk about things the way we’d like them to be. Let’s talk about them the way they are. We are then freer to come closer to being what not only we would like them to be but what God would like them to be.
If you are a child, allow your parents, no matter how old they are and how old you are, to tell you what they really think and what they really feel, as honestly as they possibly can. If you are a parent, encourage your child to tell you exactly what they think and what they feel, no matter how old or how young they are. If they are free to tell you the truth and you are free to tell them the truth, it doesn’t mean that everything they say and you say will be bad. Some of it will hurt. Some of it will be unpleasant. Some of it will be surprisingly good. But I will guarantee you that if you and I are people open to the truth, as unpleasant as it may be in some circumstances, we will be all the more open to the truth as life liberating as it will be in other circumstances.
The Bible tells us specifically that if we have some issue in which we feel we’ve been wronged by a brother or sister in Christ, we should go to that person and tell them how we feel. Our inclination is to automatically assume that this means people of our own age. I’ve never heard a minister or teacher interpret this to mean that we should go to our parent or our child if we have a disagreement with that person. Follow the logic.
In many situations, our parents or our children are not only parents or children, they are also our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. At that point we are on equal footing, just as we are in husband-wife relationships. We are to be mutually submissive one to another, even as we are to be mutually honest one to another. The last thing you and I want if we are truly honest with ourselves is to be misinformed or uninformed. Isn’t that what loneliness is all about. The greatest loneliness in the world is to simply not know the truth and as a result experience broken relationship. Speak the truth.
2. We are to have a Christ-like attitude.
In that same passage of Scripture, the Apostle Paul writes, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
A friend of mine suggests the three most important words in the English language are in this order: 1. Attitude; 2. Attitude; 3. Attitude.
Truth is important. To have a good attitude but to not be in touch with reality is unfortunate. However, the flipside is just as true. To speak the truth but to do it in a hard, brittle, uncaring, unloving attitude is to destroy, not to build up.
Paul suggests that as we speak the truth that truth be undergirded by three attitudes.
First, we are to be kind. I am amazed at what I am able to hear that is unpleasant from others when they approach me with kindness. I don’t mean soft, sticky, sweet talk in which they assure me that what they are saying is said in love when I can sense the hostility that propels what are simply artificial words of kindness. I am talking about that genuine openness that does not see oneself any better than the other.
The attitude with which we express the Gospel, that Truth, is going to be a very important element in how it is received. If we do it in superiority, talking down to people, they’ll be turned off. If we do it in inferiority, hostilely demanding our moment in the sun, that will also repel people. If we share the truth in love, with kindness, someone is going to be much more open to receive it.
Two, we are to be compassionate. This means to identify with the other person and their needs. If you are a child of any age, trying to convey truth to a parent of any age, try to understand how that parent feels, what has made up his or her background.
Be aware that even those things they’ve done wrong didn’t come out of a vacuum. The Scriptures tell us that the sins of one generation are visited on the second and third generation. How they wronged you most likely is an area in which they themselves have been wronged. Where they have been insensitive to you may very well be an area in which they were treated with insensitivity.
And if you are a parent talking to a child, no matter how wrong that child may be in what they are doing or thinking, ask God to help you be compassionate. Ask God to give you an understanding heart in which you are able to walk a mile or two in their moccasins, giving them as much freedom to mess up as God has given you. That’s the attitude of compassion. Don’t avoid the truth. Don’t avoid speaking the truth. Do it with compassion.
Three, we are to be forgiving. Be forgiving “… just as in Christ God forgave you.” I’ve seen situation after situation in which a parent refuses to forgive a child and a child refuses to forgive a parent. And I’ve observed the helplessness in the face of the person who yearns to be forgiven for their sins of omission and their sins of commission. They know the Lord’s forgiven them but how helpless to know there is nothing I can do to get that parent or child or husband or wife to forgive.
Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, tells us that before we ask Him for forgiveness, go and forgive the one who sinned against us. He doesn’t say, “Wait until you understand all the implications of their sin.” He doesn’t say, “Wait until they grovel at your feet, telling you how bad they were.” He is saying that until you let go of what you rightfully could hold against each other, you’ll never experience the fullness of what it is to have God let go of what He has already let go of on the cross in your behalf.
Enact an attitude for both mother and children that will create joyful motherhood. With God’s help, don’t be on the attack or don’t be on the defensive. Healthful communication is open communication. It’s not one up or down. It’s two equals who are sharing honestly of their feelings, and even where they disagree, they do it in love.
Remember the importance of differentiation. You are not your parent. You are not your child. Both of you are created as individuals who will never think and feel the same way on everything. Don’t expect your mother, who was conditioned culturally in a different time than you, to fully understand the complexities of your thought-forms and understandings of life. And don’t expect your child to be just the same as you.
Finally, be willing to stay in loving contact, even as you’re willing to give full freedom to the other. You can disagree without a divorce. You can disagree in the parent-child relationship without threatening to sever the relationship, if you can’t somehow get it all perfectly together. It is possible to agree to disagree, giving the gift of freedom, at the same time that you are willing to give the gift of continual, loving relationship.
I’d like to wrap up the package of this message with beautiful paper, a ribbon, and a fancy bow. I can’t. But I can guarantee that if you take this word seriously and allow it to be applied to your life by the Holy Spirit, the words of our text will be fulfilled. “Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22). “May your father and mother be glad; may she who gave you birth rejoice” (Proverbs 23:25).

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About The Author

Dr. John A. Huffman Jr. served many years as pastor of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Early in his ministerial career, Huffman served as an assistant under Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He has published several books, including “The Family You Want,” “Forgive Us Our Prayers,” and his memoir, “A Most Amazing Call.” He has served on the boards of several influential evangelical organizations, including Christianity Today, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, World Vision and the National Association of Evangelicals.

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