First Unitarian Church of Providence
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"It’s Not Easy Being Mom"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church, Providence, RI, May 14, 2017

We're sorry, no audio is available for this service, but feel free to read the full-text below.


Our ancient reading this morning is Chapter 4 of the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, as translated by Lin Yutang:

  • [The] Tao is a hollow vessel,
  • And its use is inexhaustible!
  • Fathomless!
  • Like the fountain head of all things,
  • Its sharp edges [are] rounded off,
  • Its tangles untied,
  • Its light tempered,
  • Its turmoil submerged.
  • Yet dark like deep water it seems to re-main.
  • I do not know whose [child] it is.
  • [It is] an image of what existed before God.
Our second reading is the poem, The Journey, by contemporary poet Mary Oliver:
  • One day you finally knew
  • what you had to do, and began,
  • though the voices around you
  • kept shouting
  • their bad advice--
  • though the whole house
  • began to tremble
  • and you felt the old tug
  • at your ankles.
  • "Mend my life!"
  • each voice cried.
  • But you didn't stop.
  • You knew what you had to do,
  • though the wind pried
  • with its stiff fingers
  • at the very foundations,
  • though their melancholy
  • was terrible.
  • It was already late
  • enough, and a wild night,
  • and the road full of fallen
  • branches and stones.
  • But little by little,
  • as you left their voices behind,
  • the stars began to burn
  • through the sheets of clouds,
  • and there was a new voice
  • which you slowly
  • recognized as your own,
  • that kept you company
  • as you strode deeper and deeper
  • into the world,
  • determined to do
  • the only thing you could do--
  • determined to save
  • the only life you could save.
I’m going to jump around in time just a bit here, as I begin. The first stop will be at Tortilla Flats, a restaurant/supper club in Moline, Illinois. Its late spring, 1987. I’m the hired entertainment for that week at the Flats, and my parents have come out to hear me sing. My break time rolls around and I join them at their table.

I might note that my father, who had played the part of primary antagonist for much of my earli-er life, had abandoned that role a few years earlier following a couple of strokes. And so he did not play a major part in the conversation that took place there at the table in Tortilla Flats. It was mostly between my mother and me.

She knew that, at the time, I was considering possibilities for what might be the next career ven-ture in my life. At the age of 36, I’d already had opportunities to do all kinds of things. When I think back on that now, sometimes I wonder how I ever got away with some of the things I’d done. I’d traveled the world; lived in large cities, and way out in the country. I’d been a social worker, an entrepreneur, an entertainer, a tire man, a salesman and an elected official. The most important job to that point in my life was as an at-home father to our three children in their early years. That era was about to end as Shana, our youngest daughter, would soon be packing her book bag and heading off for kindergarten.

“I think I know what you should do next,” my mom said, a few minutes into our conversation.

“What’s that?” I asked, somewhat suspicious.

“I think you should go into… radio,” she said. “Think about it. You have all of the qualities of a good radio personality, a good sense of humor, the gift of gab, and you know about lots of things.” I knew a compliment when one came from my mother! That was much more compli-mentary than she often was.

“Well," I said, "I’ve been thinking about a lot of different possibilities. And, funny, radio is one of the things I’ve thought about. But the truth is,” I went on, “I have finally discovered what’s next for me, and that's not it.”

“What is it?” my Catholic mother asked.

“I’m going to start seminary this fall. I’m going to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.”

Silence fell. I don’t know what might have been going on in the busy restaurant around us, but all I could hear was silence. And I watched as my mother’s face quickly twisted into an expres-sion of horror.

It was not my mother’s custom to be quiet in moments of significant agitation. When I had told her years before that I would no longer be a practicing Catholic, she did not hesitate to tell me that I was a great disappointment, and that she had not raised me so that I might throw my life away and go straight to hell. She had not hesitated when I told her that I was applying for status as a Conscientious Objector, to say something that was even more damning.

It’s not like she thought about saying things like that, and then used them as weapons. It’s more like she didn’t think about them at all. She merely hurled them out as some kind of self-defense, a protection against threatening circumstances that she didn’t understand. I did not then and I do not now presume that it's easy being a mom. That’s especially true for my mom who was mother to ten children, but true, I suspect, for all moms.

So there we were at Tortilla Flats; I was sitting at a crossroads, the juxtaposition of two worlds. I was the guy many of the people in that room had come to hear sing. And I was the guy waiting for… whatever would be my mother’s response to this news I’d just given her. I didn't know what was coming next.

Maybe it was because she found herself in a room full of strangers that she did hesitate this time. I don’t know. What happened though, was that over the course of some kind of eternity, which probably lasted only one or two minutes, I watched my mother’s face slowly let go of its contor-tion. When she was finally able to speak, she sort of smiled an acquiescent smile and said, “I think you’ll make a good minister.”

A year later my father died. Another three years after his death, on the day of my ordination, my mother took me aside and said, “I want you to know that I understand now that all the things you’ve done in your life, you did because you felt they were right. I didn’t understand many of them before; now I know you did them because you believed that you had to, that you were do-ing what you thought was right, even when it wasn’t easy. I’m proud of you.”

In some very important ways, my mother and I both came of age that ordination day. We no longer needed to blame each other for anything. We were able to forgive each other for lots of transgressions, large and small. Nancy Friday, author of several books on women's sexuality and liberation once wrote, “Blaming mother is just a negative way of clinging to her still.”

Beyond clinging, there are so many things that could be said, maybe should be said on Mother’s Day. I don’t think anybody needs to pretend that their mother was something she was not. But for each of us our mother was the bearer, the conduit through which each of us emerged from not being into being. And for that we each have plenty of reason to be grateful today and every day.

Having a day designated for honoring mothers is a great opportunity, not only for honoring our own mother, but for honoring motherhood, which is a step in the direction of the spiritual realm. Moving from not being into being, or perhaps moving from universal being into individual being, is a spiritual event of the greatest scale.

I’m not suggesting or denying the pre-existence of an eternal soul here. I am saying that this is the only life I know, and I’ve never met anyone who could assure me of any existence, other than the one we occupy here. Even if the soul enters countless reincarnations though, it is still good old mom who provides the means for that transportation, that transformation.

Motherhood is our gateway to being. The person in each of our lives who fills that role for us is most often much more to us than just another person. In many ways she is the goddess arche-type, the standard, the definition of motherhood. And by that standard, we set the course of our spiritual journeys. Some goddesses, like the Madonna, are long-suffering on behalf of their chil-dren. Some, like the Hindu goddess Kali Ma, the Dark Mother, devour their offspring.

An archetype is something that exists within us; it’s a part of our psyche. Mother, the archetype – however we might conceive her – is an internalized aspect of who we are. Mother, the person, often represents that archetype for us, but she is actually quite someone else. Part of growing up, a part I suspect some of us may never fully accomplish, is differentiating that external person from our internal archetype.

The task is, I think, that each of us is left to become our own mother. We don’t need to do in the person or the memory of the person that gave us life and whom we love and, for some of us, even detest. (Although, I think Buddhism might suggest just that in the kōan that claims that if one meets the Buddha on the road, the correct response is to kill it. That seems a little extreme to me.)

But we do need to own for ourselves all of the angst, all of the blame we might have regarding our mothers. They are not the ones responsible for the ways in which we’ve turned out. We each are responsible for who we are and for who we are becoming. Maybe an appropriate celebration of Mother’s Day would be more of a commemoration of an independence day. Maybe it could be a day in which we accept the archetypal mother as an aspect of ourselves – the mothers that we would each aspire to be for ourselves. It could be a day in which we come to own the bless-ings and the flaws of the lives we have managed to form. It seems to me there's something holy in such a realization, the merger of goddess, awareness and purpose.

I would be remiss if on this day I failed to notice what is happening, what we have done to our holy mother the Earth. The same dynamics are at play in our relationship with this mother as with the others. We are failing, as a human race, to honor this grandest mother of all. We have been irresponsible in giving back to her as much as we have taken. When might we be the mature and self-differentiated, the spiritually centered children, that she deserves? That she requires?

Mother’s Day reminds us that we have been given this incredible gift of life, and it reminds us that we are accountable for it. Celebrated Nineteenth Century Lebanese-American artist and po-et Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incum-bent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties and its very atoms.” Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth, goes on: “I love people. I love my family, my children… but inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that’s where you renew your springs that never dry up.”

In our second reading this morning, The Journey, by Mary Oliver, the poet asks us to own our lives and then to save them.
  • ... little by little...
  • the stars began to burn
  • through the sheets of clouds,
  • and there was a new voice
  • which you slowly
  • recognized as your own,
  • that kept you company
  • as you strode deeper and deeper
  • into the world,
  • determined to do
  • the only thing you could do--
  • determined to save
  • the only life you could save.
Our mothers may have opened or closed doors to us in our lives. As we step into our own light, though, the choices have become ours… which doors we willgo through… whether they have been opened for us… or have been more like barriers. Whatever has come before, now the choice is ours.

On this Mother’s Day, maybe you can recognize that there is a new voice. Listen to it and live your life.

One of the hard things about growing up is accepting our parents as more than just our parents. They are or were people, with joys and concerns, with joys and challenges just like our own. And when we can accept that, somehow we open up the possibility for ourselves of becoming our own best parents, our own best selves. It’s not easy being mom.

So, Happy Mother's Day! May it be a day of appreciation and forgiveness, a day of awareness, growth and ownership, a day of awe and gratitude and service.