Marni Asplund Campbell, editor
Hearts Swelling “Wide as Eternity”
A Talk for Mother’s Day
[p.9]I appreciate the chance to speak today, both as part of our sacrament service and on this day when we focus on motherhood. I have spent several weeks pondering this talk, and I pray that my words may be expressed, and received, through the help of the Lord’s spirit.
I have wondered, for the past several years, why we devote a worship service as central as sacrament meeting to Mother’s Day. That is, why dedicate our principal meeting to a characteristic that is, in a technical sense, not a matter of spirituality but of biology? To a role that not all of us in the congregation can or do share in—either currently, or ever?
As I ponder these questions, I am haunted by the voice of a friend who, with her husband, has tried for many years to become a mother and has been physically unable. For her, Mother’s Day is excruciating because it only reminds her, in a service where she hopes for religious communion, of what she lacks. Many mothers I know are similarly uncomfortable with such meetings because their idealizations often create more depression than celebration. I remember that, as I was growing up, my own mother, after hearing talks putting mothers on pedestals, often came home discouraged because of how aware she was that she wasn’t perfect. While these questions and concerns continue to trouble me, I nonetheless do not want to brush motherhood or parenthood aside altogether, because focusing on it gives us the opportunity to learn some particular lessons about becoming like Christ and, in an obvious extension, like our Heavenly Parents. So today I would like to use parenthood as a metaphor; doing so will, I hope, [p.10]make us understand our literal parents (and our parenting, for those who are parents now) better, but also will help us look towards Christ as our ultimate model.
Since I am not a biological parent, the best way for me to compare parenthood and being Christ-like is to probe my feelings-both my anticipated joys and fears-about the prospect of becoming one. In that spirit I would like to share a few of those impressions with you, drawing analogies to Christ and our heavenly parents. I realize that many of you may not share my feelings regarding parenthood; nonetheless, I believe that the qualities I describe will help us explore the challenges involved in becoming like Christ.
One aspect of parenthood that seems especially daunting to me is having responsibility for a living, breathing person—being involved in a project with the most real and important of consequences. I have felt this anxiety before. When at age fifteen and a half I was first learning to drive, my father took me out, early one Sunday morning, in our blue Chevrolet station wagon to practice on a quiet side street in our neighborhood. I distinctly remember that as I first pushed the gas pedal and gripped the wheel, I thought of all the possible lives that would be in my hands over the years as I drove—friends, family, children—and how easily those lives could be ruined with one wrong turn. Although I was crawling along at only five miles an hour or so, these images flooded me with such an overwhelming sense of responsibility that tears spilled down my cheeks. As I contemplate parenting, I feel once again to be behind that wheel, facing the very sobering and very adult burden of caring for human life.
Part of the reason that responsibility seems so heavy is its necessary involvement in both physical and emotional pain. I have heard many stories of excruciating labors and deliveries, and know how, especially in previous generations, a woman bearing a child edges very close to death. I also see all around me the physical, financial, and emotional labor exerted by both mothers and fathers in raising those children once they are born.
Christ, of course, is the one who best understands and experiences the burdens of responsibility, as he atoned for our sins: “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19: 16). Moreover, Christ descended below [p.11]all things to feel our pain with us, as King Alma described in Alma 7:11-12:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
What seems crucial here is that Christ is willing to feel things with us, to experience our pains and vulnerabilities so that we, moved to know that someone has been there and thus understands us and still loves us, are moved to turn to him for forgiveness and solace. Not only am I concerned by parenthood’s burdens of responsibility, but also by knowing how much to give, wondering how to keep the boundaries of myself stable enough so as to have something to offer, yet flexible enough to do so. In considering this dialectic, I have been both heartened and chastened by Scott Peck’s definition of love in The Road Less Travelled as “the will to extend one’s self for one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” (81). Peck emphasizes that to truly love, we must have a self to extend, and that love is easily confused with control or dependence. He relates a story of a man who was debilitated by a mother who “loved him so much” that she drove him to school all the way through high school, “protecting” him from taking the bus On his Own (82). As Peck later concludes,
Love is not simply giving; it is judicious giving and judicious withholding as well. … The word “judicious” means requiring judgment, and judgment requires more than instinct; it requires thoughtful and often painful decision-making (111).
[N]ot giving at the right time [is] more compassionate than giving at the wrong time, and … fostering independence [is] more loving than taking care of people who could otherwise take care of themselves (113).
It seems to me that Christ is able to strike the perfect balance in the di-[p.12]lemma of selfhood and giving, because he is at once utterly selfless yet utterly clear on his mission, his personal power, and our individual needs.
Toni Morrison affirms the importance of a sense of self as she describes how parenting forced her to be distinctly who she was and no one else:
[Becoming a mother] was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me…. Liberating because the children’s demands on me were things that nobody else asked me to do. To be a good manager. To have a sense of humor. To deliver something that somebody could use. And they were not interested in all the things that other people were interested in, like what I was wearing or if I were sensual. I could not only be me—whatever that was—but somebody actually needed me to be that (quoted in Bill Moyers, A World of Ideas III).
As Christians, too, we are needed for ourselves, for what we can offer as individual gifts. As Paul tells us, all parts are necessary to the body of the Christian community—we are all both utterly distinct and symbolically united:
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. … If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. … That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular (1 Cor. 12: 13, 14, 17-18, 25-27).
A final dilemma that parenting presents to me is its demand for a deep emotional investment in a person whose actions I cannot control, and who may very well reject or hurt me. Indeed, I have observed my parents’ pain and confusion as I have made choices contradicting their own desires and ideals, and have been moved by their continued efforts [p.13]to connect with me despite these conflicts.
Christ, of course, epitomizes this capacity for empathy. For instance, although he knew of his ability to raise Lazarus from death, he “groaned in the spirit” and was “troubled,” as Lazarus’s family grieved. Few passages of scripture convey so briefly yet so powerfully Christ’s willingness to share the pain of those who suffer as the subsequent simple verse, “Jesus wept” (John 11:33, 35). Indeed, Christ’s mission enacts the incalculable and terrifying risk of caring for, and feeling with, those who may at any time betray that bond.
Our Heavenly Father is equally committed to the risk of empathic involvement. This willingness is illustrated in a particularly moving manner when, in the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, Enoch receives a vision of the world to come—of Christ, Satan, angels, heavens, and all the inhabitants of earth—and then notices something astonishing:
And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains! And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever; And thou hast taken Zion to thine own bosom, from all thy creations, and from all eternity to all eternity; and naught but peace, justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep?
The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency; And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood. … and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens [p.14]weep, seeing these shall suffer? (Moses 7:28-33, 37; emphasis added)
Here Enoch is privileged with a glimpse into God’s heart, into the emotional anguish that even he, in his majesty and wisdom, feels for his children. Strikingly, God’s empathy and compassion affects Enoch so deeply that he, too, is moved to tears; as he sees the “wickedness” and “misery” of the “children of men,” Enoch “wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (v. 41).
This scene poses, I think, a model for us all—a model of the demands of being a Christian, of being willing and able to experience others’ pain, and thus help to heal them. As Alma tells us in Mosiah 18:8-10, we are to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”
In conclusion, on this day, even as flowers are given to women only, and even as the Primary children sing songs about literal mothers, it is my prayer that we will extend the meanings of motherhood—and of parenthood—beyond biology, to a focus on Christ, and towards our spiritual parents. I believe that as we muster the courage to be responsible to each other, as we respect ourselves as distinct members of the body of Christ with valuable contributions to make, as we suffer and rejoice with our brothers and sisters, as we weep and “stretch forth our arms”—that our hearts, like Enoch’s, will “swell wide as eternity.” For indeed eternity is unfolding now, as we nurture, minister to, and give life to all those around us.