Healing Touches & Songs

Rev. Furrer’s Mothers Day tribute to mothers and all who practice kindly and nurturing motherly behavior.

“Healing Touches and Songs”

May 12, 2019

My title this morning derives from memories of my own Mother. She had a beautiful voice and my earliest memories include those of her singing as she attended to her housework—torch songs, mostly, but also show tunes and foolish made-up rhymes and ditties. If she was in a good mood, she’d be singing, and usually—it seemed, when I was young—she was in a good mood. Mom was also a great reader. She had been trained as a librarian and loved to read aloud—a skill she truly mastered. To this day I get little charge from TV renditions of Winnie-the-Pooh, How the Grinch Stole Christmas or the like, because the narrator (whoever she or he is) just doesn’t measure up to my Mom. Her seamless narrative and delightful voice adaptations for every character were perfect.

But there was more. Mom could be a powerful ally… in the family, the neighborhood, but also against anyone with the audacity to underestimate my abilities… at school, or elsewhere. She could also be a formidable adversary. But when the chips were down she was—always—a healing presence. As was her only sister, my Aunt Fran, who died in Berkeley a year ago last October at 92. As an adult, conferring with my aunt was, somehow, always less stressful for me than with my mom. But they shared a lot of the same energy. When I think of both of them, I think of their ability to make things better with their soothing voices and touch.

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For those of us lucky enough to have known our mothers (and this includes almost all of us), most can easily conjure such memories. As one’s first contact with life, thoughts of our Moms are invariably powerful and usually positive. It was this natural inclination to honor our mothers that led the Unitarian Julia Ward Howe, back in the late 19th century, to lay the groundwork for the first Mothers’ Day, as my colleague and Director of Lifelong Learning, Aisha Hauser, shared with the children only moments ago. Julia Howe was what we might call a “cultural creative” of her era, along with her husband Samuel Gridley Howe and their whole circle. She wrote the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (at the suggestion of her friend, the Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones) after an 1861 meeting with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. It quickly became one of the most popular battle songs in history, inspiring Union troops intent on liberating captives and destroying the political and social order that held African-Americans in bondage throughout the South. Being such a powerful war poet weighed on Julia’s Ward Howe’s heart. Following Appomattox, she focused her activities on the peaceful causes of women’s suffrage and pacifism, including her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870—149 years ago—asking women the world over to unite against war. The current schmaltzier holiday, established in 1908, was the work of West Virginian Anna Jarvis, whose own mother had founded a well-known Mother’s Day Work Club to improve sanitary and health conditions.

Reconnecting with the initial, anti-war impetus behind Mother’s Day inspired peace-loving UUs at my last settlement, Santa Fe, to wrap our entire building in a huge blue ribbon and call upon the whole community to join us in following Julia Ward Howe and other courageous women and men in ending war worldwide.

Nevertheless, war goes on… and on… and on. As every mother knows, the human situation is not always calm or serene; and sometimes it’s terribly bellicose. I am reminded of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth, “All life is suffering.” People struggle. Everywhere. The world is tough, often a veil of tears. Gnosticism was a Greek-influenced variant of early Christianity. Gnosticism was fairly heavy on this “veil of tears” idea; so heavy, in fact, that it ends up with an essentially negative view of life: the view that Original Sin sullies all creation. In the modern era, Carl Jung and others have touted certain aspects of Gnostic philosophy, but historically orthodox Christianity rejected its tenants as being too negative, too life denying and rejecting.

The whole concept of “sin” is problematic for many Unitarian Universalists. Especially “original sin.” Sin is problematic for many UUs because it seems to be all wrapped up with the idea of evil. This was not the original idea, however. If you go back to the original meaning in Greek, sin is simply a matter of “missing the mark.” It has nothing to do with evil. It’s more like being off-target. Perhaps a better way to understand the original meaning is to think of sin as being synonymous with alienation. Feeling out of it, disconnected, not quite in-the-flow with the interconnected web. Sure, when we mess up and try to connive or hustle other people we’re going to end up feeling alienated from them, and perhaps there’s something evil involved in behavior of this sort. But we also feel alienated—quite naturally—just by virtue of our subjective self-awareness; it’s intrinsic. Unlike the animals, human beings are self-aware, and aware of our mortality; this raises us above the apes, but it separates us from them at the same time. It’s this sense of subjective self-consciousness that makes us aware of our mortality. And, all too often, of our separateness from the whole interconnected web, of which—self-conscious though we are—we are still interfused with. This feeling of separateness is what is meant by sin. At least originally.

So, there is sin in the sense of feeling self-consciously separate from the web of life, out of synch. But here’s the thing: alienated though we often feel, life is not all bad. There is beauty and wonder and blessing in life, too. Like the image of my mother that I carry inside, of her singing in the kitchen and the smell of something baking in the oven. Not every memory of my Mom is positive; she had her issues, as I have had; and we were at loggerheads often enough. That is also part of life.

Matthew Fox is an American priest silenced and expelled by Cardinal Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict XVI) in 1993. Fox then became an Episcopalian and has, at this point, written over forty books. One of his most popular is entitled Original Blessing. Original blessing, writes Matthew Fox, is also in the bible and is antecedent to original sin. In the well-known biblical myth, Fox explains, God made the world and all the creatures in it—including humanity—and declared that it was “very good.” And this was before the whole story of the fall. We are all blessed, and were blessed before we became self-conscious and, simultaneously, alienated from one another and from the web of life.

A person’s capacity to affirm the blessings of life over and above its curse has a lot to do with the circumstances of her or his birth, how warmly and lovingly they were received into the circumstances of life here on earth. We sense this intuitively, but increasingly it’s being proved scientifically.

Attachment theory and research over the last 50 years and modern neuroscience of the last 20 years reveal that our brains are a social organ, developed and changed in interactions with other brains. Our earliest relationships actually build the brain structures we use for lifelong relating, becoming the “rules”, templates, or paradigms for human interaction, the “known but not remembered” givens of our relational lives. When your early experiences have been less than optimal, the unconscious patterns of attachment they established continue to shape your brain’s perceptions and responses to new relational experiences in old ways; you get stuck; you can’t take in new experience as new information; you can’t learn or adapt or grow from new experiences at all.

The good news is that people can actually change; all of us can create new neural circuitry, pathways, and networks that allow us to relate, moment by moment in new, healthier, more resilient ways. You have to put energy into it and it’s never easy; we call it growing up, becoming mature and response-able. My point is a simple one, that modern attachment theory and neuroscience concur: all of our abilities to relate honestly and trustingly with others are established in the first hours and weeks and especially over the first eighteen months of our lives.[i]

We talk about Mother’s Day and Motherhood, but in a deeper sense what we’re really celebrating is the joy and meaning found in nurturing others. This is less gender-linked than cultural: men encouraged to be engaged in child-rearing are as able to bond with their children as completely as women are. Becoming a single Dad when my daughter was only 21 months old, I quickly became sympathetic to non-traditional parent and family configurations. As a minister I’ve had families of every conceivable configuration raise healthy, happy kids.  Children, too, often find the mothering they need in someone other than their biological mom. Consider Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother. The future President was moody and inward-looking when she entered his life, but Sarah Bush Lincoln quickly connected with her twelve-year old step-son, encouraged his unique humor and cool intelligence and drew out an inner light Abe himself had barely seen shine. “Our minds always ran in the same channels,” she later wrote of him. Barack Obama credits his totally non-traditional Mom, Ann Dunham, and her offbeat extended family for his ability to love and to learn and find his place in today’s multicultural world. (They were members, incidentally, of this congregation, where Barack’s mom went to Sunday School.) Thanks, Ann. Thanks from all of us and from a grateful nation.

I’m thinking about these things on Mother’s Day partly because my daughter, Meredith—my only child—gave birth six years ago last week to my first grandchild, a boy named Asher. Not only that, my sister-in-law gave birth to a son five days later. So, two little boys in my family are turning six years old on either side of Mother’s Day. Naturally, I’m thinking about the wonder of birth and the miracle that brings forth life… always from a mother. The Great Mother of potentiality coming through the actual flesh and bones, heart and pelvis of real live women human beings, including the woman who carried and birthed each one of us… and every person who ever lived. A generative sorority that now, as of six years ago, includes my daughter.

In a certain sense we are always being born—born into an astonishingly beautiful world of wonder. The universe in all its glory—Matthew Fox’s definition of God—is always around us, nurturing us with loving songs and healing touches. Awake to it, we are born and reborn at every second! If we have the eyes and heart to see. In the words of the Unitarian Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman,

I see something of God in each hour of the twenty-four, and

each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own

face in the glass;

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one

     is signed by God’s name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will

     punctually come forever and ever.

This is how UUs, for the most part, have always understood most of the mythology found in the Bible: as pointing to the miracles that abound here and now. In our midst. At every hand.

Despite all that, people forget, become self-absorbed, alienated and feel separate and out of synch—at least some of the time. Perhaps enlightenment is that state of consciousness wherein we feel connected and integrated with the whole even when we’re blue and out-of-sorts. Even when we are in our private gardens of Gethsename, we know deep down all is well, and that, however bad it feels right now, things will ultimately come out right; that however difficult the metaphorical birth canal in which we find ourselves, loving arms await us.

An essentially loving and trusting bond with one’s mother has a lot to do with how easily one pulls that off. Indeed, we carry our mothers inside us—whether that mother was nurturing and generative or harping and critical, we carry her within. The image of Mary portrayed in the Bible—one who “carried all these things in her heart—” reflects the kind of mother who nurtures children to grow into adults with contemplative and generous hearts. Sarah Bush Lincoln and Ann Dunham were two real life mothers who followed suit, nurturing their young wards into creative, visionary adults: open to new experiences, prophetic, sensitive to mystery and compassionate with others. Heroes, mythic or flesh-and-blood, come partly—if not mainly—from the conditions of their birth and youth in the arms, and at the knees, of their mothers.

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So, let us, too, contemplate these things in our hearts. Let us all be better, more nurturing mothers—better, more nurturing people. In addition, let us resolve to call or write or visit our mothers. Or, if she is no longer alive, to otherwise contemplate or commune with her spirit that we may keep her best qualities alive in our own hearts and actions. That healing songs and touches may continue, always.                                                                                                                                                                                 Amen.

[i] Grahm, Linda. Resources for Recovering Resilience, “The Neuroscience of Attachment,” http://lindagraham-mft.net/resources/published-articles/the-neuroscience-of-attachment/