Having just celebrated mother’s day this past weekend, I thought it would be good to share again a piece I wrote celebrating the gifts my mother gave me that have shaped my life and faith. I wrote this piece as I finished graduating from Divinity school at Campbell University, while I was serving as a pastor of a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Eastern NC.
Last night I strode forward to take a diploma from the hands of the dean at Campbell Divinity School, while joining many smiling and laughing colleagues in receiving the bright hood of a Divinity School graduate.
This graduation was a long time coming for me. Many times I gave up hope and never thought it would come. My journey to a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Counseling began over a decade ago, when I began seminary at Azusa Pacific’s Haggard School of Theology. I attended there very early on in my pastoral ministry. My hope had been to receive the Master of Divinity and become a pastor in the denomination that I had begun my ministry within, which is today called Grace Communion International.
We plan, and God laughs, or so the country proverb says. Shortly after I was ordained by this denomination I faced a crisis of conscience. Serving as an assistant pastor on a church circuit in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, I began to see the exclusion that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people faced at the hands of my then denomination. My heart broke to see the barriers standing in front of those men and women. That fellowship of churches joined many other denominations by standing in the way of people in that community experiencing the embrace that God seeks to extend to all in Christ not because of how God looked at them, but because of the church’s ignorance and prejudice.
When the senior pastor of the church I was serving pushed me to practice that same exclusion to someone in our community in order to keep peace at the church, I chose to part ways. I knew the God I had experienced in Christ opened God’s arms wide to all people, and that I couldn’t rest easy in my walk with God by joining in the decision to stand in another’s way who was trying to come to Christ. I began to minister independently then, something I continued until I affiliated with the Progressive Christian Alliance around 2 years ago. While this opened up the doors to reach out with God’s love to people the traditional and mainline church were not then yet embracing with Christ’ love, leaving my denomination of origin and ministering independently also came at a great cost. It meant losing the sort of funding for ministry that had allowed me to begin my theological education in the first place. When that happened I had to take a break on my theological education. I thought the degree I just received was no longer possible for me.
Where does this connect with my mother? Well one of the great lessons my mother taught me growing up was it is never too late to further yourself and move forward. Receiving last night’s diploma was in large part inspired by her example. When we were little, my mother stopped her career as a teacher both to help raise us and also to take care of my ailing grandmother, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot. On one level this is what she wanted, and another it was what her culture expected of her in that day and time. I have always wondered what that was like for mom. For me it would have probably felt like I was done, and it was time to throw in the towel on my dreams. But when we kids had grown older and needed less care, mom went back to school. Mom earned a Masters degree which she used as an educator.
Mom’s example of not giving up on her dreams, of doing what must be done in her time and place but, when the time was right, shaking off the dust from her feet, rolling up her sleeves, and going for her dreams has stayed with me. It is a part of what gave me the strength to go back and finish my degree after all this time. It is a lesson from my mother that stays with me.
This willingness not to give up on her dreams, but to dream again, reminds me of one of my favorite images of Scripture, the words of Psalm 126:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
Thank you, mom, for teaching me to be as them that dream! Thank you for inspiring me to, when I have done what needed being done, to shake the dust off my feet, roll up my sleeves, and get to work living the dream God has given me.
Another lesson my mother taught me was to find faith for myself, not simply going along with what I had always heard. For many years while I was growing up we went to church in a really extreme offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists: one that did not keep Christmas or Easter, one that didn’t allow us to eat pork or shrimp, and one that had a lot of beliefs most Christians (including myself today) find pretty far out there. This church was the church where my daddy found God, and I think that is part of why my mom eventually supported him by going there with him. However, she never really fully bought into their ideas, still holding onto certain aspects of her Missionary Baptist upbringing. I can still remember as a young teenager, when friends invited me to visit their Sunday-keeping pork-eating church, hearing my mother say to me, “Listen, Micah, you have to decide for yourself what to believe and what you think is right. Whatever church or religion you join, you need to know we will support you”.
This conversation with mom laid the foundation for me realizing that what counts is following God, not what church, denomination, or religion you or I join. Just as I mentioned how grandma’s background as an educator instilled in me the importance of always learning and keeping an open mind, so this example of my mother helped me realize I had to find God for myself, on my own terms. It is a part of why I felt free to embark on this journey of progressive Christianity that has so shaped my own life when it became clear to me the form of Christianity I had been brought up in wasn’t completely working.
My mom taught me to embrace my creativity too. Mom has always been a creative person. Growing up, our house was covered with paintings momma had made over the years. Right now Kat and I have paintings my mom made covering our walls in our home. Beyond painting, mom did artwork, crafts, jewelry design, made hand-sewn clothing, and did so many things with her hands while I was growing up that I lose track. Mom encouraged us to also be creative – to paint, to draw, to sing, to write stories. One of my earliest memories of church was sitting at my mom’s feet drawing pictures inspired by the sermons I heard. I still remember later on as a child how my little sister and I would act out skits for mom. Momma taught us to be creative, and to embrace creativity as a gift.
I would have to say that this love of creativity is part of why I write, a part of why I love music, and even a part of why I do theology. Just as fishing with dad opened me up to the fact that God is Creator, so momma helped me learn that you and I are Co-Creators with God. Working together with God we can make the world more beautiful, more kind, and more just. Writing is part of this. Painting is part of this. Dance and song too help create beauty. Even theology, at its best, is a form of artwork – putting into words the unspeakable beauty that breathes life into each moment.
Finally my mom taught me that strength can be found in weakness. She stood again and again by people dealing with pain and hurt. She showed great strength and compassion caring for Grandma Myrtie when she could not care for herself. She continued to put the needs of other family members with debilitating health problems ahead of her own. Much of her career was working as a teacher for special needs children, where she helped those children and their families find their own strengths in situations where often the world at large only found weakness. Later in life mom has had some bad health problems of her own, some that were painful to both her and to the rest of the family. Yet them it all she remained a person of strength.
The strength she has exemplified in the midst of pain and the strength she helped others discover within themselves in the midst of what others saw as weakness reminds me of these words by Mumford & Sons –
But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again
Or as the Lord told the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9)
What are your stories of southern mommas? What are some lessons your momma taught you?
I hope to share some more thoughts on motherhood later, but in the meantime I look forward to hearing your stories.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here,
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,