Y’all understand the title, right? If you live in the South, you should. Everybody’s got a “Mama’n’em.” Allow me to translate. “Mama’n’em:” a Southern derivative of the phrase, “your Mother and them.” In this case, it can be used like this:
Who took care of you when you were young?
Most of us had (or still have) a whole host of women who watched over us as children – our “Mama’n’em.” My list includes:
- A biological mother – the unknown woman who gave me birth.
- a “real mother” – Sarah Roe Freeman
- A Step-mother – Mary Bone Freeman
- Extended mothers – mothers of friends who treated me like their own child – Cookie Cole, Jane Newman, Lou Croley, Peggy Butler, among others
- Grandmothers, real and “step-“, and a great aunt Polly who acted like a grandmother.
- School mothers – teachers with an extra dash of care – Billie Clokey and Jeanette Miller
- Church mothers – Sarah Johnson, Jill Hurst (who alternated between mother and big sister)
Since today is Mother’s Day, we should acknowledge the many different manifestations of “mother,” and honor all women for their strength. I have had many different “Mothers” in my life: In my life there are mothers – many mothers – who never “birthed” me as a son. A few (Aunt Polly, Sarah Johnson, and Cookie Cole) never birthed a child at all. Even my own “real mother” never birthed a child.
All too often, we have restricted the “Mother’s Day” honor to our biological mothers, or at least the mothers who raised us. That’s too narrow for me, and I think for most of y’all, too.
The Church is guilty of holding up an unrealistic stereotype; Christian women are supposed to be meek and mild and submissive. Some think that’s from the Bible. Read closer! Scriptures are full of examples of strong and determined women. Some were mothers in the traditional sense, some were not. The Bible was “inspired by God” but recorded and compiled in a time and culture ruled by men. Women were of little value, even considered property. At best they were secondary actors in the drama of life and are rarely mentioned and even rarely named in Scripture.
Our Church was founded by a man with a very strong mother. The relationship between John Wesley and his mother, Susannah, is well-known. She taught his everything he needed to know about growing in the faith, and being strong.
Samuel Wesley was a Priest in the Church of England. His parish was in Epworth. The Annual meeting of all priests was held in London on December 7, 1711 – 140 miles away. Since traveling was difficult, he would be gone until March. Communication was limited to letters. He assigned the Associate Pastor, Godfrey Inman, to take over. During Samuel’s absence, many felt that Inman’s leadership and preaching was inadequate.
Susannah was already conducting devotions for her household every Sunday afternoon; she had 10 children. John was 8 and Charles 4. Servants were also invited. One servant told his parents, and they began coming. Soon, there were 50 people in the parsonage. Susannah would preach and lead singing. Then they prayed together (an obvious forerunner of John’s Class Meetings).
This upset Rev. Inman and, rather than talking directly to Susannah, he enlisted several others to help him shut her down. He wrote to Samuel in London to get him to tell his wife to stop.
On February 6, 1712, Susannah writes Samuel to answer his questions and address his doubts about the gathering. She reports that attendance had grown to somewhere between 200-300. Her letter ends:
“When you have considered all things let me have your positive determination . . . in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting the opportunity for doing good when you and appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In other words: If you’re going to tell me to stop, you better make it good because one day you’re going to have to convince Jesus!
In our 21st Century culture, on our best days, we have grown to learn that all humans, men and women, are afforded an equal place in God’s family. That was not so in Biblical times, sad to say. Though, when you look behind the story on the page, you find that women have always been strong, more powerful than the men in their lives were willing to acknowledge.
Our world has many different forms of “Mother” and so does the Bible. There are women in Scripture who birthed children. There are some who did not. The cultural bias of the time gives primary place to those who bore children, but all through the Scripture, we see women worthy of emulation.
The scripture I have chosen for today may seem like an odd one for Mother’s Day. It isn’t odd, though to help us talk about strong women. First, some background. This passage comes at the beginning of the book of Exodus. A new Pharaoh has taken the throne who does not remember the favor that Joseph gained for the Israelites. They have gone from being welcome neighbors to a nuisance and now, they are slaves.
The only problem is, there are too many of them. Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, fears an uprising.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”
Shiphrah and Puah – two women without whom the story of Salvation would have ground to a halt. I’m sure that God would have found a way, but not through Moses. If it hadn’t been for these two brave women, using what little power they had against the most powerful man in the world, Moses might never have survived.
They did what they did because of their faith; the scripture says, “But the midwives feared God.” Our ears might hear that saying “the midwives were afraid that God would punish them.” In the Old Testament the phrase “fear of God” meant “belief,” “awe,” or “respect” of God. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That means that no one is truly wise until they learn their proper place before God – a place of respect and awe and belief.
Shiphrah and Puah were members of God’s Kingdom before they were members of Pharaoh’s kingdom. They allowed their faith – and probably a little anger at the injustice – to give them courage. They refused to perpetrate the crime that their earthly King had ordered.
The first two chapters of Exodus are filled with examples of such subversive courage and power. Moses’ mother, Jochebed, hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she hid him in the reeds beside the river and dispatched his older sister, Miriam, to see what happened.
Miriam watched Pharaoh’s own daughter open that basket and acknowledge that this baby might be a Hebrew baby. She knew, at the very first moment, that she was going to disobey her father’s orders! Even among those closest to the unjust and cruel, God can work!
The subversion of evil continues as Miriam volunteers to go and find a nursemaid for the baby. The sister of the illegal baby brings back the mother of the illegal baby to nurse the child under the very nose of the King who commanded the baby’s death.
The fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom, but it seems that the fear of the Lord might also be the beginning of civil disobedience. It might also be the beginning of protest, or refusing to obey unjust laws. Long before Jesus said “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” God was acting on behalf of the oppressed.
On this Mother’s Day, a question for all the men – if we truly have been ruling the world all this time, what kind of world have we ruled in which women must still use protest, subversion, civil disobedience to exert their power? Have we not learned anything from the centuries of human history?
There is an entire sub-culture (thankfully, I feel proper in using the “sub-“ prefix) of men in this world who laugh behind the backs of powerful, outspoken women; who caricature intelligent and creative women into monsters; who pretend to listen to female co-workers or peers, then call them “honey” and go on about their business. I know because I live with a woman like that! I have seen all those things happen to my wife as she attempts to live out her call to ministry; all because she “dares” to answer God’s call in a male-dominated profession. We ought to be ashamed!
Just this week – on large, multi-national ways and small, personal ways – I have been reminded that or world has a long way to go. The United Methodist Council of Bishops announced the results of votes we took last summer on amendments presented to all the Annual Conferences. The UMC works much like the USA in that amendments to its Book of Discipline must be “ratified” by all the “states” (Annual Conferences).
Last summer we voted on five. Three were ratified. The two that failed had to do with wording that would afford women and girls status. They failed by very slim margins, but failed nonetheless. I’m proud to say that most Annual Conferences in the United States (including North Alabama) passed these two amendments overwhelmingly; but, we aren’t a United States Church, we are an international Church. We still have a ways to go!
On a smaller scale: one of my daughter’s friends (in her early twenties) recently got a job at a local Marion County factory. Within the first weeks of her employment, she was receiving suggestive texts from a co-worker.
Some men just won’t learn!
If we learn anything from Scripture, we ought to know that since the days of Shiphrah and Puah, of Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s own daughter, God works on behalf of the powerless. God has always used strong, courageous women to subvert unjust power when needed.
On this Mother’s Day, remember your “Mama’n’em,” remember their strength, remember their compassion and love. Remember that God has never intended any of his children to live under the yoke of injustice. Say a prayer of thanks for the strong, powerful, subversive, disobedient “Shiphrahs and Puahs” in your life.