Mothers' Day: one of the "high holy days" of the church year

Here in the South, Mothers’ Day is one of the “high holy days” of the church year, ranking in the top five worship attendance Sundays of the year (sorry, dads, Fathers’ Day doesn’t make the cut). It’s been that way for a long time.

My wife LeeAnn recalls childhood Mothers’ Days at Wildwood (Florida) United Methodist Church, where her grandparents, assorted aunts, uncles and cousins were members. She and her family would make the pilgrimage from Winter Park to observe the day with her extended family. Tradition held that one wore a red flower, usually a camellia, if one’s mother was alive; or a white flower, usually a gardenia, if one’s mother had died. Awards were given to the oldest mother, newest mother, youngest mother (not always a coveted prize) and the mother with the most progeny in attendance. LeeAnn’s grandmother Mimi was the perennial winner of the most progeny award, the prize for which was usually a hydrangea plant, which she would lovingly plant in her treasured garden. What mattered, though, was not the prize, but the warmth and love that was celebrated at those gatherings, which centered on family, church and gratitude for the blessings God had bestowed on her family.

My own mother taught me my first lesson about gratitude and generosity. As a child growing up in central Indiana, I remember the weekly Sunday morning ritual of her bundling my dad, brother and twin sisters into the 1963 Buick LeSabre station wagon to get us to church. The last thing she would do before we left for church was to retrieve her checkbook from the bureau drawer, write a check to our church, and place it in the little green offering envelope that we kids took turns placing in the offering plate each Sunday. Ritual, discipline, commitment.

I was probably ten or twelve years old when I remember asking her, “Do they make you do that?” Stifling a laugh, she took the time for a “teachable moment” to explain to me that she and my dad gave out of gratitude to God for the blessings in their lives and to support our small church so that our family would have a place to worship, learn and serve.

Both of my parents were children of the Great Depression. My mother grew up in the far northwest corner of North Dakota on a dustbowl-era homestead farm with her Norwegian immigrant parents and five brothers and sisters. No electricity (rural electrification was decades away in that remote place), no running water (there was a hand-cranked pump in the yard), and an outhouse out back. In the winter months her school bus was a horse-drawn sleigh that ferried her, her siblings and friends to a one-room schoolhouse miles away. From those humble beginnings, and thanks in large part to the GI Bill which created the middle class of the 1950’s and 60’s, my parents had a lot to be grateful for, and they were determined to instill that value of gratitude in their children, who would never know the deprivations of their parents’ childhoods.

My wife was the second person to teach me about giving. When we met, she was a single mom with three young children serving a church in suburban Chicago. At the time I was working for the investment banking and securities trading division of Swiss Bank Corporation (now part of UBS), and I thought I was pretty generous to my church, although it was a long way from a tithe. She, on the other hand, was tithing on her clergy salary and seemed strangely happy about it. While she did not explicitly make tithing a requirement of our marriage, I got the picture, and we both have been blessed by it. Ritual, discipline, commitment.

I am enormously grateful for the influence of the women in my life—my wife, Mom, mother-in-law, step-daughter—who have patiently taught me about sacrificial love, gratitude and generosity; women who understand that one’s life is not measured by the material things we accumulate, but by the way we share what God has given us, grace upon grace.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers and all the women who have mothered us on our journey of gratitude and generosity.

Tom Wilkinson is Vice President, The Florida United Methodist Foundation

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