When Rudyard Kipling wrote those words he was not simply being sentimental about his mother. He was touching upon reality. Whether we admit it or not, the one stable element in human society, the one great civilizing force of history, the one fountainhead of morality, has been neither school nor church nor hall of justice, but the concern of a mother for her young. The picture of Hannah kneeling in the primitive temple at Shiloh, her lips moving in silent prayer for the child yet to be born, is the classic stance of motherhood.
Since that early day the church of God which mothers helped to build has remained a sanctuary where their hopes and longings have been planted and watered and where they have borne fruit. That is another way of saying that the Christian faith has developed and encouraged the finest in human motherhood through the centuries.
Converts to Christianity from other faiths, such as Sundar Singh of India and Masahisa Uemura of Japan, have paid tribute to their non-Christian mothers, telling of the devotion they showed in fulfilling their vows to the idols and deities of their respective cults. Women of great character they obviously were, greater by any measure than the images they worshiped.
Jesus of Nazareth, by contrast, added a whole new dimension to motherhood. He taught mothers the meaning of their vocation. More than one historian has described Him as the emancipator of the sex. I once heard the evangelist Billy Graham remark, "If I were a woman, I would run to Christ. He is the best friend womankind ever had." The mothers of ancient civilizations, as they appear in the records, displayed many virtues, including heroism and self-sacrifice, yet so often something seems to be missing from their make-up.
The concept of motherhood that we draw from the history of the church is of a different cast. The Christian mother is seen to be tender without forsaking firmness, gentle without becoming weak, loving without yielding an inch to unrighteousness. She does not think of herself as a heroine, nor does she coddle her young as a "doting" parent. She thinks of herself, like Mary, as the handmaiden of the Lord; as a steward, responsible to God for the upbringing of children who will honor and glorify Him with their lives.
Monica, the mother of Aurelius Augustinus, was a Christian woman who, like many in our own day, went through some heartbreaking experiences in child rearing. She was one of those about whom Joaquin Miller wrote: "The greatest battle that ever was fought . . . was fought by the mothers of men." Her husband was a pagan, with no interest whatever in Christ or the church, and her teen-age son drifted into an immoral life. Yet Monica was a woman who believed in Jesus Christ; and she prayed for ten years. So far as we know, her husband was never reached, but her son became St. Augustine, and the world is her debtor.
Susannah Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley; Mary Edwards Dwight, the mother of Timothy Dwight; Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln—these and many others have made motherhood a sacred vocation that has blessed all humanity. It was for their kind that Mary Thomson wrote:
"Give of thy sons to bear the message glorious;
Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way;Pour out thy soul for them in prayer victorious;And all thou spendest Jesus will repay."
Now, it is clear that many questions facing mothers in the year 1965 differ from those with which their grandmothers and great-grandmothers dealt. Ours is a day in which the individual is losing his significance; where the demographic explosion is making masses out of persons; where the psychiatric social worker is forcing us to speak sociologically, to think of sibling relationships instead of children, and of units and groups rather than persons.
A mother is no longer worshiped on a pedestal as the noblest work of creation; she is cataloged as a unit of society who, until she is proved incompetent, is entrusted with the responsibility for other social units, namely, her own offspring.
What are the problems that are being raised for mothers today that our own mothers did not have to contend with? Consider the increased availability and hazard of motor transportation, the new leisure, television, racial adjustments, limited floor space, hazardous traffic problems, the free flow of money in an affluent society, the stepped-up advertising programs of the tobacco and liquor industries, the enormous expansion of the drug market, social misfits loose on the streets in alarming number, the invention of new and synthetic ways of seeking thrills, the rush for status symbols, automation, urban blight, the lack of adequate city recreational facilities, oral contraceptives, the disappearance of the countryside—and these are only a few!
To be sure the mothers have not been idle. They have organized to meet emergencies; they have helped to provide, particularly in the areas of health and education, the greatest benefits of any society in history. Yet even as they have labored, other social forces in North America have been at work. Juvenile problems have soared to an all-time high, crime has jumped 10 percent each year, sexual laxity has thrown Western society into a moral crisis, and everywhere the mother turns, there are new questions!
The first step in motherhood, as every mother knows, is to face reality with the family she has, not with some ideal color advertisement of what family life used to be like or ought to be. And she will very soon find that while the questions are all different in our century, most of the answers are the same as they have always been.Successful motherhood in 1965 is built upon the same spiritual foundation that it had in the beginning. The opportunity to inculcate ideas of truth, love, courage, justice, equality, and faith are as present as they ever were. The standards of value that existed in the time of Christ are the same standards of value that exist today, despite all the prurient writers, the sex merchants, and the "new morality" theologians.
Right is still right and wrong is still wrong; the Ten Commandments have not been abrogated. The slaughter of the children in Bethlehem was no different in God's sight than the slaughter of the missionaries and African Christians in the Congo. A hit-run crime at First and Main Streets is no different from the crime of Macbeth or of Joab. An act of mercy in a Judean cave is no different than an act of mercy in a ten-story modern hospital. Nor has the responsible relationship of the mother to the child changed in an age of psychological "mother-figures" and artificial insemination.
Yes, the questions are all different, but the answers are the same. If this fact could be driven home to the millions of young mothers who are starting the long haul, it could turn Mother's Day into something more than a floral fiesta. "God pays a good mother," Billy Sunday once said. "Mothers, get your names on God's payroll."
God and only God can give to motherhood the depth and breadth of character needed for an age that talks about the "Great Society." A Hebrew chaplain under whom I went to chaplain school once pointed out that under the English code, all statutory law is based on common law; all common law is based on moral law; and all moral law is based upon divine law. Giant social experiments behind the iron curtain aim to prove this thesis false. But who would relish the prospect of learning his morals and his jurisprudence from a tyrant?
Our highly industrialized society does bring to the surface some problems that baffle the experts, let alone the preachers. How, for example, does the gospel of Christ bear on the question of railroad featherbedding or the arrangement of shifts in a factory? How does a church pronouncement help in these issues?
But in the matter of a mother's relation to her child, the Christian approach is still limpid and clear: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."
What is the way he should go? Robert Browning put it:
"I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it."
And Whittier added:
"We search the world for truth; we cull
The good, the pure, the beautiful,
From graven stone and written scroll,
From all old flower-fields of the soul;
And, weary seekers of the best,
We come back laden from the quest,
To find that all the sages said
Is in the Book our mothers read."
A few years ago child psychologists and religious educators were claiming that theological concepts should not be taught the young child; that youngsters could not possibly grasp these issues until they reached high school. Such claims have since been exposed as anachronistic. The whole history of the church is, in fact, against it. It is true that the mother needs all the wisdom she can get, all the spiritual discernment she can receive, to drop the seed of faith in the heart of her child. But if she neglects to do just that, she is depriving her child of the most useful and most glorious asset of his future life.
What the child needs is Jesus Christ as a friend and a guide in his emerging life, not a Christ who is a mere "good fairy" of pretty tales nor yet a Christ who is forever shaking His finger at him, but a Christ "in" him, with the whole Bible behind him, the whole church behind him, and the whole home behind him.
As the years of motherhood pass, the mother's influence is cumulative. Her steadfastness of faith becomes the standard of reference by which the child builds his concepts of reality. He matures but he does not forget. He even drifts, for this is the world, but not without the inner feeling that one day he will return. And the rock-bottom convictions that make up the difference between a good life and a bad life are still the same. A good mother is still a blessing to all mankind, and a bad woman is still a reproach to her sex.
The joys of motherhood are many, but surely there is no greater joy than to see the fruit of one's womb stand before his or her Maker and acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is the real Mother's Day, the day for which she was born, the day for which she entered into marriage and bore her child. This also is the hope of the future; for in all the marvels and risks and terrors of the space age, the place of motherhood is secure; and where there is life, there is hope.