My friend Sam once explained to me how in the Jewish faith he followed you trace descent back through your mother’s family. Because of this most Orthodox and Conservative Jews consider someone to be “born” Jewish only if their mother was Jewish. My reply to Sam when something like this, “I think my family might actually be Jewish.”
I said this jokingly because my sister and followed the same kind of rule in that we were brought up in the faith/church of our mother and because of our mother. Of the two of my parents religion played a larger role in my mother’s life growing up. So naturally my parents started attending a Methodist church that my sister and I would be brought up in. This isn’t to say that I’m currently an active Methodist just because of my mother, but it would be hard to imagine my faith journey turning out the same without her influence.
Christian history is full of mothers whose faith shaped and empowered the lives of their children. James and John’s mother may have been more faithful to Jesus than her sons, always letting him use her house for meetings. In some Gospels she even accompanied Mary Magdalene to Jesus’ tomb and was thus one of the first to learn of his resurrection and share the good news with others. There was also the unnamed mother of Origen of Alexandria who legend says stopped her son from following his father to martyrdom at a young age by hiding his clothes. If she had not prevented her brass son from running headlong into death, Christianity might have had to do without one of its greatest theologians. Perhaps the most famous great mother of the faith was Saint Monica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo. We only know about Monica through her son’s writings which present her as being a Christian before Augustine’s birth (whether she was born a Christian or converted earlier in life is unknown). Augustine’s father was a pagan and his son did not convert to Christianity until much later in life. Monica prayed for and encouraged her son to embrace her faith until the very end. The fact that she was a very loving and patient mother compared to his abusive father probably didn’t hurt. She did live to see her son convert to Christianity and begin to reform his wayward life. She would not live to see him become a bishop or his tribute to her influence in “Confessions”.
I think of my own mother as being a little more assertive than Monica in some ways. Like many children who grew up in the South, going to church wasn’t seen as a much of choice by my sister and me. We were expected to be up and in our Sunday finest every week on time. No excuses. Sunday School and worship, one right after the other. This was my weekly routine for the nineteen years I lived under my parent’s roof. Like most children in church I had my good and bad days, sometimes seeing it as drag, other times having fun. Today it’s impossible to imagine my childhood without it though. Sunday worship was only a small part of our church life. We participated in VBS, summer camp, children’s choir, youth, mission trips, volunteer events, etc. Mom and Dad would sometimes come to church early or on week nights to serve breakfasts or potlucks. We never missed a Christmas Eve service, except one year when it got called off due to snow.
For my mother growing in a small town in Arkansas church was a big part of life. I don’t mean to suggest her family was fundamentalist or anything like that. Far from it. But the people she went to church with and prayed with were her neighbors, people she’d see all the time outside of the sanctuary. The children she went to Sunday School with were also children she went to elementary school with. Many of her parents’ close were members of the same church. The pastor seemed to know everyone by their first name. Relationships formed that took on a life of their own. Though we lived in a big city with no shortage of denominations, my sister and I had similar experiences growing up. We did always have at least a few school friends who we saw at church every week, even when we changed schools. We’re still friends with some of them. And we were allowed to call the pastor by his first name.
When I think back to what my mother instilled in me by taking me to church all those years the things that come up aren’t particularly dogmatic or theological, but more practical. Even though she and I are both proud, lifelong Methodists, my dive into the Wesleyan tradition didn’t really begin in earnest until college. Rather my mother left me with some practical wisdom and insight on what it means to be part of a church, whether it’s a Methodist church or not. Here’s just a few lessons I learned along the way:
- Church is not a spectator sport. Being a member of a church means you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch in with a little more than just tithe dollars. Church doesn’t just happen on its own, and we’re not here to be entertained once a week. My mother is very thorough and quick to give an opinion. Whether it’s a worship service, a pot-luck dinner, or a VBS program she’s open about how she thinks it went or what could have been better, and this is because she sees the church fundamentally as her church and its programs as part of her responsibility as member. Whether she’s in charge of this or that particular event or not, she wants it to be the best it can be. Just like she saw how my sister and I behaved as a reflection on her, so she also sees how her church operates, what it preaches, and how it welcomes new people as a reflection on her and the other members. My mother takes pride in her church and she expects others to do the same.
- Help out where you are needed and where you can do the most good. My mother never sang in the choir and doesn’t typically volunteer to a liturgist or an usher. She doesn’t do a lot of the tasks that are most immediately visible to everyone. But she always finds something she’s good at that needs to be done. On Mondays she’ll get up early and go the church office to count and record the offering from yesterday’s service. She used to be a bank teller and is good with numbers. Very organized by nature, she often helps plan and execute meals, parties, and get-togethers. Good with children, especially little ones, she often watches kids in the nursery or volunteers for VBS. My talents and interests are different from Mom’s. I don’t like math or dealing with money much at all and as she would tell you am not the most organized guy. Still seeing Mom find ways to be herself while serving the Lord encouraged me in my own path to working for the church as a layperson. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to pursue church work as a vocation if people like my mother hadn’t shown me it take all types and parts of Christ’s Body to make a church.
- Count on those around you to support you. My mother grew up in a town of neighbors where everybody seemed to know each other and people helped each other. She made sure that even in a big city like Memphis, my sister and I would have that kind of community through our church. Our celebrations were their celebrations, our struggles their struggles, our fears their fears. When we needed help whether in the form of prayer or anything tangible, we could count on the members of our church. As I’ve moved away and had to find my own church, I looked for this sense of community and didn’t settle until I found it. I was more willing to open up and be myself among the people of my church because of the positive experiences I had growing up in one.
- Never discount the importance of forming good habits. I’m not a morning person and struggle to get myself out of bed most days, but on Sundays it’s as if some force propels my mind awake around 8 o’clock and tells me there’s somewhere I need to be. That’s nineteen years of experience beating out my innate laziness. Thanks Mom. As I have tried to, as we Methodists say “move further along toward perfection” in my spiritual life, I know from experience that it does get easier over time if I just keep at it.
Here’s to all the mothers out there who walked, drove, and yes sometimes dragged their child to church every Sunday. You’re the greatest influence in our lives and yet we’re often too quick to forget it. Thanks for giving us a church to call home. Happy Mother’s Day!