A Joyful Mother of Children
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 9, 1999
Mother's Day


Psalm 113 A joyful mother of children

Praise the Lord.

Praise, O servants of the Lord,
Praise the name of the Lord.
Let the name of the Lord be praised,
Both now and for evermore.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
The name of the Lord is to be praised.

The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
His glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
The One who sits enthroned on high,
Who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?

He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the needy from the ash heap;
He seats them with princes,
With the princes of their people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
As a joyful mother of children.

Praise the Lord.

John 16:12-24 Pain and joy in birth

"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all

truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

"In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me."

Some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,' and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" They kept asking, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We don't understand what he is saying."

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, "Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me'? I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

Apocalypse Explained #660 Joy and sadness

All joy and gladness come from love, since we all rejoice and are glad when things go according to what we love, and also when we go after and get what we love. In a word, all of our joy comes from what we love, and all of our soul's sadness and grief comes from things that go against what we love.


Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord. . . . He settles the childless woman in her home as a joyful mother of children. (Psalm 113:1, 9)

As beautiful and appropriate as this passage from the 113th Psalm is for Mother's Day, I hesitated about preaching on it.

Of course, there is the perennial issue for men who preach to women about Mother's Day: I am not and never can be a mother! A father, yes, but as Patty is quick to remind me, being a father just isn't the same as being a mother. In most two-parent households, it is still the mother who does the lion's share of the child-raising. More often than not, it is to mommy that the crying child will go first; she is the one who is usually on the front line to take care of the children's wants and needs. And, of course, there is the stubborn biological fact that it is women who bear children, not men.

By way of our reading from the Gospel of John, which speaks of both the joy and the pain of bearing children, this leads to my second reason for hesitating in preaching on this passage. We are past those supposed halcyon days when bearing children was considered to be an unmitigated joy. Of course, this never was realistic: bearing and raising children has always had its struggles and heartbreaks--not to mention its drudgery--no matter what rose-colored glasses society may have worn about the joys and wonders of motherhood.

At the time when this Psalm was written, bearing children--especially sons--was the greatest thing a woman could hope for, and represented her greatest fulfillment. These days, many women have found other ways to fulfill themselves, and although we still value our children highly, the negative sides of motherhood get much more press than they used to. Further, there is a distinct sense in today's society that if a woman is "just a mother," she has somehow fallen short of her potential as a human being.

And so we have a situation in which bearing and raising children is just as much of a challenge as ever, but it no longer gives women the almost automatic status and respect in society that it did at one time. (Of course, women have made gains in other areas where they once received no status and respect at all.) Still, bearing children remains a desirable and even crucial goal for many millions of women in our society. Women who want children but are unable to have them, for whatever reason, continue to feel the age-old pain of the childless woman evoked by the Psalmist. And women who have gone through the pain of labor continue to feel the joy of which Jesus spoke: the joy that a child is born into the world.

Both the pain and the joy are real. One of the things that our society has gained from taking motherhood off of the unrealistic pedestal that it used to be on is that we now recognize, and can talk openly about, both the joys and the struggles of motherhood. Because of this, young women who are considering having children do not have to be quite so surprised by the difficulties and emotional struggles that often come when the initial joy of childbirth has passed, and they are suddenly twenty-four-hour-a-day mothers. Perhaps this new realism is one of the reasons that teen pregnancy has actually gone down significantly in the past few years, and the teens who are having children are more likely to be older teens.

Our church's teachings put high value on freedom of choice. So although it may not seem positive to some people, another thing we can view as a gain is that women now have much more choice about whether or not they wish to conceive children. As with other things in life, if women have children because they have no choice, or simply because it is "the thing to do," some of them will not have the same commitment to raising their children well as if it is something they think about and choose to do--especially if the choice is made with an awareness of both the ups and the downs of motherhood. As this view of motherhood (and fatherhood) as a choice embeds itself more deeply into our society, I believe we will see continued growth in the commitment do doing a better and better job of raising our children.

However, what we have been talking about so far are largely social issues. As important as these are, the church's primary reason for existence is not to address social issues, but spiritual ones. Of course, the church does need to be concerned with social issues as well. But it is through presenting the spiritual side of every issue that the church can have its greatest impact on the social and family life of our culture. And it is by looking deeper--looking to the spiritual meanings contained in our Bible readings--that we can deal most deeply and effectively with the issues of pain and joy in motherhood. Let's take a look at the deeper meaning of marriage and of childbearing.

Swedenborg tells us that when the Bible speaks of a marriage between a man and a woman, it symbolizes a marriage that takes place within us: the marriage of our thinking side and our feeling side. In religious terms, it is the marriage between our faith in God and in the teachings of the church, and our love for God, the church, and our neighbor.

If we do not have this marriage within us, our spiritual life bears no fruit. Faith alone, without the warmth of love, is dead because it does not lead to a life of kindness and service. (See James 2:14-26) On the other hand, love without the light of faith directing it is blind and aimless, and can lead us in the wrong direction just as well as the right one. But when the two are together--when we love God and other people, and have a strong and clear faith that shows us how to express that love--then this marriage within us bears children.

What are the children of our love and faith? Of course, as I've already mentioned, they are acts of kindness toward others. But they are also new insights into the deeper realities of life, and new feelings of love for God and for one another. In the biological world, when men and women come together, they bear children who also grow up to be men and women--men and women whom their parents hope will go on to do greater things than they themselves did. In the spiritual realm, when love and faith get together, they bear the seeds of new and greater love and faith--of new and greater kindness and understanding.

This may all seem a little bit theoretical, so let's bring these thoughts to bear on the issue we were grappling with earlier: the pain and the joy of motherhood. Let's face it: children can be a challenge. Patty is more on the front lines of it than I am, but some days it does seem that our job as parents is less parenting than fire-fighting! The whole day is devoted to dousing the erupting flames of jealousy and conflict among the children--and dousing our own flames of frustration, preferably before the erupt into outright anger at the children. When a mother is in the middle of one of those days, she may start wondering why she had those pesky children in the first place!

This is exactly where it can help (after the children have gone to bed!) to step back and consider the spiritual meaning of marriage and children, and how that meaning relates to our own parenting--which is so often stuck on the earthly level of physical wants and needs. If we think about it deeply, what we are trying to achieve with our children is exactly the same as the spiritual meaning of childbirth.

If we want raise our children from spiritual motives and for spiritual goals, we will not be content if our children merely grow up to be successful in this world--to be respected members of society with secure, well-paying jobs. If we are parenting from spiritual motives, we also want to see our children grow up to be men and women who have a living faith in God--a faith that is grounded in love, and that moves them to live a life of thoughtfulness and service to their fellow human beings. What good would it do our children to gain the whole world, but lose their own souls? (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36)

And so, as we face the trials of children who don't always do as their told, who often squabble and sometimes do nasty things to one another, who say and do things that hurt themselves as well as others, it helps to keep the deeper meaning of childbearing and child-raising in mind. As we douse those flames of jealousy and hostility, isn't there more to it than simply stopping the kids from hurting each other--and from driving their parents crazy? Aren't we also aiming to bring about new births of love and thoughtfulness in them? Aren't we aiming to bring together the love that is in them from God and their growing awareness of right and wrong so that as they grow physically, there will also be a loving and heavenly character growing within them?

If we look at it this way, then every time we have to direct and correct our children, we can look at it as one more opportunity to bring the goodness and the wisdom of God into their lives. As we become more and more conscious of this goal in our parenting, then both the times of happiness and joy with our children and the times of conflict and correction can become occasions for rejoicing--because both are giving us an opportunity to bring the Lord more fully into our children's lives.

Sometimes the birth of God's love and light into our children's lives does happen with struggle and pain. But there is joy when we see that the birth has taken place, and our children have learned more constructive ways to relate to one another. I feel that joy with Chris (3) and Caleb (2) when a fight over some coveted toy is transformed into sharing their toys, and I hear those little voices saying, "I love you, Caleb." "I love you too, Chris." I feel that joy when Heidi (9) gets over her annoyance that one of the boys has been playing with her precious stuffed animal without asking her, and decides to play a game with them or read them a story. I feel that joy in those blessed moments when they are all getting along together, and really enjoying each other's company.

For you see, we can be childless even when we have children if we are not bringing to birth the spiritual children of new faith in God's loving ways, and new understanding and love for one another. If we are not guiding our children toward God's heavenly kingdom, then we are truly, spiritually childless. And as we see our children grow up without the faith and love that we could have offered them, we may recognize with regret just how barren our family life has become.

But there is no need for that. We know that God is with us--whether or not we have physical children--showing us how we can have joyful new births of love and understanding that we can share with our loved ones and our friends, and with the people we see each day. And if we do have children, the spiritual awareness that we build in ourselves through our own inner births will help us to encourage that awareness in them, so that we can take joy in seeing our children grow into faith-filled, loving, and thoughtful human beings.


Praise, O servants of the Lord,
Praise the name of the Lord. . . .
He settles the childless woman in her home
As a joyful mother of children.


Painting entitled "Precious Bundle" is ©Tom Sierak 
and used with his permission by Moon And Back Graphics to construct this set

Music: Words of Love
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer