An All-Encompassing Love

As we come to one of our signature Hallmark holidays, Mother’s Day, I first want to salute all the moms out there.

I know that my mother was the person in our family I could count on to buffer our family from my father’s outrageous tirades and irrational behavior.  She was our intercessor.  She, in moments of family strife was instrumental in keeping it all together.  She was long-suffering.  She remembered those little things that brought delight to our lives and had a good sense of humor through most of it.

She and I could play gin rummy for hours.  We kept a tab on who was winning and not.  I rarely, if ever, beat her.  She was one in her family who should have been sent to college, but was shipped to Stockton for “business school.”  Aunt Donna, the oldest, went to college and became quite an organist.  She inherited the family genes for music ability, Grandpa having gone to Julliard for voice.  Music was definitely not Mom’s gift.

It is the fierce love of mothers who, if anything, saves the planet.  It is that Supreme Love known through Jesus and the gift of the Spirit as known through our mothers we salute today.  It is that love through which we first know the Love of God.

In Acts we find Paul on a missionary tour to Athens.  As he walks about that magnificent city, he notes the many religious shrines to various deities worshipped in that metropolis. 

“I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, that Master is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is that God served by human hands, as though anything were lacking, since this God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…In this God is not far from each one of us…in this God we ‘move and have our being.’”

In the course of human events, it is this Sublime Reality made known to us in the life and message of Jesus.  It is the Care and Nurture first made known in our infancy through a mother’s love and care.  Through her, the Word becomes flesh for most of us.  Through our mother or a surrogate standing in her place.

In our topsy-turvy world these days, when our government could be led into bankruptcy for failure to pay its debts, through the dysfunctional politics that keep us from addressing any of the existential threats which confront human survival – as we opt to “kick the can down the road” instead of come to real solutions – it will be those little touches of humanity from the women who have brought us thus far that will suffice, must suffice.

I’ve lately been reading up on such possible disasters, as we get ever closer to a fiscal catastrophe – June first, we’re told, is when the money runs out.  Cupboard empty.  Well’s dry.  Butkus.  “Tha…tha…that’s all, folks.”

Maybe it’s just my warped personality that takes some solace in looking ultimate disaster in the face and wondering if we’re seriously going to go over the cliff.  Maybe it’s the suspense that intrigues, the glimpse into the void of nothingness that captivates.

In his book, Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Toby Ord outlines in chapter and verse those scenarios of doom that could forever consign the human race to an “might-have-made-it” species in the history of extinction.  He notes what we all know – our technological grasp has far exceeded the reach of our wisdom as a species.

While there are natural risks awaiting in the future such as supervolcanic eruptions, asteroids and stellar explosions, of which we have little or no control, there are risks that are completely anthropogenic, human

induced — pandemics, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, global warming and other environmental damage.  Yes, if you’re a disaster junkie, it’s a veritable feast of what could possibly go wrong.  And we as a race seem to be so lacking in the wisdom to respond.

How close? you ask.  Let me relate Ord’s retelling from the Cuba Missile Crisis of the Kennedy years.

As the pictures of Russian missile instillations were unveiled in that tense United Nations Security Council and the presentation by Ambassador Adlai Stevenson — as the U.S. Navy prepared a blockade of Cuba, the Russians had already assembled a counterweight of four submarines lurking in the depths off Cuban shores, each armed with a nuclear torpedo to wipe out the American fleet.  Meanwhile, the United States had gone to DEFCON 2, the next step to nuclear war.[1]

How close?

Ord continues the story:

One of those four ships was captained by a Soviet officer Valentin Savitsky.  It was at the command of this single man that the fate of the world hung in the balance.  His submarine had been detected by U.S. mine sweepers which began dropping low-explosive depth charges to force it to surface.

Commander Savitsky’s boat, hiding in the depths, had been out of radio contact and the crew had no idea what was going on above the surface.  Had war already started or not?  Conditions on board had become dire.  Temperatures ranging from 113 degrees F to near 140 degrees in the engine room.  Carbon dioxide had built up causing numerous members of the crew to collapse unconscious. 

One of the crew members recalls the terror, “’It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.’”

“Increasingly desperate, Captain Savitsky ordered his crew to prepare their secret weapon.  ‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here.  We’re going to blast them now!  We will die, but we will sink the all—we will not disgrace our Navy!’” he told his crew.  The political officer, who had half the launch code, agreed.[2]

It so happened that the commander of that flotilla of four submarines was stationed on Savitsky’s ship.  It was he who refused consent to launch.  It was he who talked Savitsky down.  The “eve of destruction” hinged on the humanity of one person in that moment.  One person!

Would Savitsky have gone through with this doomsday decision?  We don’t know how close we came to letting that genie out of the bottle.

Meanwhile, while my father was talking of building a bomb shelter in our front yard – after all, we lived only a couple of miles from a major aircraft factory, Douglas Aircraft – it was my mother who consoled us kids that whatever happened, she was there.  That evening we had our favorite after dinner snack, milk and toast.  As we sat glued to the TV over those hair-raising three days, it was she who convinced us that whatever happened, she was there.  Our family would make it through this. 

It was through our mother’s love, her tender arms wrapped around us, we experienced Blessed Assurance.  We would somehow be okay.  We would get through this. 

Fortunately, good sense prevailed.  Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and Khruschev removed the missiles.  We all took a deep breath and survived to live another day.  You who are of my generation will not forget those days.

The love of an unknown God?  It was Mom who made that love known and palpable.  We could taste it.  It permeated our fears and allowed us to get to sleep over those three nights.  We might not have known the extent of the danger but we sure picked up on our parent’s unspoken anxiety.

What was unknown, Mom made real.  Every bit as much as Paul when he opened Athenian eyes and hearts to the God who is through All and in All. And the Love of God made real through the prophets and the ministry of Jesus.

In the lead-in to Mother’s Day, I always recall one of our ancestor’s Mother’s Day proclamations.  A relative on my mother’s side of the family, Julia Ward Howe.  Grandma was a Howe.  So much more wholesome than sloppy Hallmark sentimentality.

Hear her proclamation that reads, in part:

“Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.”

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”[3]

It is an expression of a fierce love, that those cherished and precious not be squandered in needless war. 

Another mother’s fierce and determined love comes through in the stories of a woman who has spent her entire legal career as a public defender.  More than a counselor, she has been a mother to those she has represented, giving them the same fulsome support a mother gives her young, and not-so-young when they need a kick in the pants.

Robin Steinberg, having served for years as a public defender, tells one of the most heartbreaking stories of a loss.  The case involved a client, Martin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia.  Martin had been accused of the rape of his nine-year-old nephew, his sister’s son.  The police officers, in an interrogation after issuing Martin his Miranda rights, stated that they had a confession.

Unbeknownst to those officers questioning him, Martin had worn a wire.  He had the whole thing on tape.  When Robin attempted to introduce that tape as evidence, the judge, who already demonstrated great hostility to her client and to her, insisted that the FBI verify its authenticity.

They found that it was authentic, except for a splice.  Something had been removed.  In fact, Martin had removed a brief disparaging comment he had made about his mother.  When a second copy of the tape was submitted, it was found to be entire and legitimate.

By this time the police had lawyered up and pled the 5th.  Which meant the tape of their lying concerning a confession, showing that nothing had in fact been confessed by Martin, was inadmissible.  The boy had been sexualized through watching hours of his father’s porn.  The recent divorce of his parents had traumatized him.  And though the boy’s testimony was highly questionable, though the purported admission of guilt was shown to have never taken place. 

Listening to the tape, “The officers questioning Martin used every tactic they could to get him to confess, even threatening to kill him and ‘float him down a river, facedown.’  Despite the pressure and the threats to kill him if he didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, Martin denied that he did anything.  Over and over again…at the end of the tape, I realized that Martin had never said what the police alleged he had said.  The confession was a complete fabrication.”[4] 

The judge sentenced Martin to fifteen years. 

The result was devastating.  Robin concludes her story, sorely tested by the tragedy of this defeat, but defiant.  “Certainly,” she writes, “after the defeat in Martin’s case, I could have walked away, but I knew that if I did, I would not be able to live with myself.  It’s precisely in those moments when things get hard that you have to dig deep, remember why you do what you do, and find the resilience to continue.  Sometimes justice requires finding the courage to stand alone.”[5]

And that is what mothers do.

In their solitary advocacy, they make known a greater Love at the center of all.  The source of this greater Love is NOT unknown to those of us of the Jesus Movement.

So, today, whether you were given a white or a red rose upon leaving a worship service, you know in your heart of hearts a Power deeply known through a mother who believed fiercely in you.  I sure have such memories.  Thank you, Mother.  

By the way – the Cuban standoff with Russia was over way before Dad ever turned over a spade-full of dirt for his bomb shelter in our front yard.  Sometimes there are happy endings.  Mom’s wisdom prevailed.  Again, thank you, Mother.  Amen.

[1] Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (New York: Hachette Books, 2020) 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Julia Ward Howe, “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” 1870.  This was a call for mothers to leave their homes for one day a year and work for peace in their communities.

[4] Robin Steinberg and Camilo A. Ramirez, The Courage of Compassion: A Journey from Judgment to Connection (Optimism Press, a division of Penguin Random House: New York, 2023), 70.  Had there been no tape, the author admits she probably would have believed that Martin had made a confession.

[5] Ibid, 89 ff.

May 14, 2023, Easter 6

“An All-Encompassing Love”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18;
1 Peter 3:13-22; Gospel: John 14:15-21

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