Monday, May 9, 2016


As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.... ~ God, in Isaiah 66:13
Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. ~Mary, to twelve-year-old Jesus, upon finding him in the temple after a three-day search in the city. Luke 2:48*
In January of 2002, I was traveling back to Minnesota from South Dakota, where I had attended a winter pastors’ retreat at Outlaw Ranch, in Custer. I had also visited my mother—who was living in Custer, near my brother Bob and sister Betty—and had extended my stay for a few days longer than planned when it was decided that Mom would go into Rapid City hospital for surgery to remove a recently discovered cancer. She had entered the hospital with a sense of optimism, but an even stronger sense of assurance that all was in God’s hands, and that she was prepared for whatever the outcome of the surgery might be. The morning after surgery, while she was still in a very groggy recovery, I said a prayer for her, kissed her on the forehead, and said good-by, leaving her in the loving care of my brother and sister – expecting that I’d travel back in a few weeks to visit her in her recuperation.

Now I was heading east, across the open prairies of South Dakota, the landscape of my childhood, and—once I had crossed east of the river—the particular landscape I remembered from my early years in Pierre and Huron, before we moved west. When I’m traveling alone, I like to get off I-90 and take the smaller highways. This time I was driving highway 34, and listening to an audio book, “The Confessions of St. Augustine.” Augustine was a bishop in Carthage, North Africa—an outpost of the Roman Empire—in the fourth century A.D. As the narrator made mention of Carthage, I passed a road sign that said “Carthage, eleven miles,” and I remembered that this was one of the small South Dakota towns in which my dad had served as teacher, principal and coach in the first years of their marriage, before the war—before I was born.

On impulse – and because of the strange connection with St. Augustine’s Carthage – I turned toward Carthage, South Dakota, and a few minutes later drove into this very small town. On Main Street, I asked directions to the school from an elderly woman who said she remembered Mr. Jorgensen, but that she would have been too young to have had him as a teacher. I found the school building – boarded up but still standing, and I went up and touched my hand to the brick.
This was the town where Mom and Dad were living when the war broke out, and I recalled how Mom had said they lived in a small apartment in a house across the street from the school; it occurred to me that this was probably where they heard the Pearl Harbor broadcast. I studied the neighborhood, trying to guess which house had been theirs. Then I continued east; South Dakota highway 34 became Minnesota Highway 30, and in a few hours I was in Faribault.

When I walked in the door, Caryl told me that Bob had called to report that the biopsy after Mom’s surgery had revealed an unexpectedly large spread of cancer. In the middle of the night he called to tell us that Mom had died. We wept, we missed her, we miss her still, but we quietly rejoiced that her journey of suffering was over, and her life with her Lord – and Dad – was brand new.

Depiction,  in stained glass, of Monica and her son, Augustine.
St. Augustine – Aurelius Augustinus – was a wild, headstrong young man, full of pride. An extremely intelligent wise guy who used his smarts to get good grades,  good jobs, and girls. (He once prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet!”) And he used his knowledge of philosophy to argue the impossibility of Christianity. After his conversion to Christ, Augustine became a bishop of the church in the stormy time of the end of the Roman Empire. His story – which is sometimes considered the first autobiography in western literature – is his own confession of what started out as a wayward and wasted life. (Augustine became one of the foundational theologians of the early church; over a thousand years later his writings influenced a young priest named Martin Luther.) I recommend the book, or the audio book (especially if you’re driving across South Dakota!). You may agree that it is a Christian devotional classic. But, on this Mothers' Day, I ponder and reflect on just one element of his story:  His mother prayed for him.

Augustine’s mother Monica was a devout Christian married to a non-believing husband. Proving that some things never change, Augustine writes that his father spent beyond his means to get his son into the finest schools to fulfill Dad’s own ambition, but that he had no interest in nurturing his son’s relationship with God.** 

Of his mother, he writes that “she never ceased to pray for me.” Monica prayed for seventeen years from the beginning of his adulthood before Augustine became a Christian. She used to go to priests and beg them for prayers, until some would try to avoid her or send her away. One priest encouraged her by saying: “A son who is the object of so many tears will not be lost.” Augustine’s mother was for him – in the word’s of St. Paul – “a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart.” After her death, Augustine said, “She called me a devoted son, But what common measure is there between the respect with which I treated her, and the service she did to me? She made it her business to win me for Christ by preaching him to me through her way of life.”

I was surprised that I identified with Augustine – not because my life is that of a saint, and not because my youth was like his (I wasn’t half as wild or interesting) – but because our mothers prayed for us. As I look back, for all I know – even though my life has not been one of great drama or rebellion – perhaps my mother prayed me into faith. Certainly it’s true of myself, as I once heard a well-known preacher say when he began his keynote address to an auditorium full of people at a national church convention, “I’m here today because my parents made me come.” A friend of mine says that upon the death of his own mother, his first thought was, “Oh, now who’s going to pray for me?” I know what he means.

An enduring memory of my childhood is the muffled sound I heard after I‘d gone to bed – after mom or dad had said prayers with me – I knew it was the sound of mom and dad having their own nightly devotions.

In her funeral pre-arrangements, my mother had requested that my two preacher brothers-in-law and I wear our clergy collars at the funeral. We told her pastor that this was her wish – that we weren’t trying to intimidate him, sitting in the front pew in our collars. Of course this was a matter of old-fashioned parental pride for Mom – but it’s also an indication that she was a person of the church. At the funeral, the pastor shared a recent anecdote: My brother had brought Mom to Christmas services in what he thought was plenty of time, but which necessitated that they sit in the very back. As mom looked around, she lightly scolded Bob, “I’ve never sat this far back in church in my life!” (And, speaking of my brother – a gifted carpenter and home-builder, and the only one of us guys at the funeral without a clergy collar – we’ve always told Bob that he’s the holiest of us all, since our Lord Jesus was a carpenter!)

What was the prayer of Monica, Augustine’s mother? What was my mother’s prayer? What is your prayer for your children, or your friend’s prayer for you?  It is this: It is St. Paul’s prayer in Philippians: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Although perhaps not in those exact words, that is the prayer of a parent for a child, of a brother or sister for a wandering brother or sister, of a friend for a prodigal friend. It is a prayer I have shared more than once with a parent in my office, weeping for her child, “I am sure that he who began a good work in your beloved child will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, friends: pray that prayer. Claim the promises of God; say to God “God, I know that, for Jesus sake, you will bring your good work to completion for my son, my daughter, my husband, my wife, my friend.” Like Mother Monica – take it to the Lord in prayer.

At the very genesis and heart of the gospel's story is the ordinary wonder that our Lord Jesus had a mom. We honor Mary not as a plaster saint, but as the mother of this kid. We know that being the mother of a headstrong twelve-year-old Jesus was a trial. And we know – although most of us don’t know – about the broken heart of a mother at the foot of the cross. Our creed is not only that Jesus is our Lord, but that he is Mary’s boy. Because she loved him enough to say, on that frantic day among the crowds,  “Where have you been! Don’t you know your father and I have been worried sick!” Like my mom would have said when I was twelve. Like your mom would have.

Mother Mary, Mother Monica, Mother Vi; your mother – or someone who is mother to you—are gifts of God to us, to set us on the path. It is perhaps, after all, not just sentimentalism to say that God couldn’t be everywhere, so He invented mothers.

And God himself says to us: “Like a mother comforts her child – so I will comfort you.”

Not a bad comparison. 
*The story of Jesus' separation from his parents as he sits with the elders in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) is the only account of Jesus' childhood in all of the gospels (apart from the infancy narratives). It is usually lifted up as a pious example of the divine boy's spiritual acuity and promise. As a father and grandfather, I find much more comfort in reading it as an account of a somewhat mouthy pre-teen whose parents don't understand him.

**Monica eventually prayed her husband into the faith, too. Quite a woman!