Father's Day and Mother’s Day are not times of celebration for everyone. How can we mourn with those who weep?
by Quentin P. Kinnison
I love being a dad, and my wife is a terrific mom. I deeply love my parents who are godly, loving, gracious and amazing people. I have never been abused or neglected. In fact, my childhood was quite the opposite. My parents nurtured me with a Christ-like love that has led me to conclude that it is time for Christians to rethink how we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
There is value in celebrating the good parental influences in our lives and for rejoicing in the exceptional honor of being a parent. But we have to understand that, much like Christmas and Resurrection Sunday, the world has commercialized these days for their own purposes, imbuing them with a certain kind of celebratory excess that best benefits card, candy and flower shops.
My frustration with the church's version of Mother's Day and Father's Day celebrations is that it is only that—a celebration. We miss out on an opportunity to care for those for whom these days are not celebratory. In fact, we often do significant damage to people, making them feel marginalized because it isn't a joyful day. Or worse, we push them away entirely from the body of Christ, which should be a source of their greatest comfort during their struggle.
There are many for whom this is the case in our churches, but there are three groups in particular with which we should be concerned:
Those who have experienced abuse. As a former youth pastor, I had to quickly figure out how to talk about love with students who only understood it as abuse or neglect. So many in our congregations come from homes where emotional and even physical violence is a part of their routine experience of their mother and/or father.
For these, celebrating the parent isn’t a joyful event but one of hurt, fear and anger. In our celebration, we might contribute to or even amplify their negative experience. At the very least, we are most certainly adding a measure of confusion to their understanding of parental love.
Those experiencing infertility. My wife and I waited 14 years to conceive a child. When it finally did happen, we miscarried. I promise you that two of the most painful days of the church calendar were those when we celebrated those who were successful at the fundamental part of life where we were failures. I know it would never be said this way, but it is how we experienced it.
One friend tells of being asked to stand with all the men on Father’s Day during church. Then while they all remained standing, the fathers were asked to come to the front to be prayed over and honored, leaving the childless men to stand where they were. He spoke of the church’s celebration as a humiliating and painful event in his life.
Those who have experienced death. One of the most moving experiences for me on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is to scroll through my Facebook updates and see the many friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are missing one or both of their parents on that particular day. For some, being the remaining parent means being recognized as both father and mother, roles they never wanted. Others are reminded of children who died out of turn, leaving them as a parent of a child they will never hug again this side of heaven. The days lack a particular celebratory note for these folks.
Mourning is the common experience for all three groups. Human beings are confronted with losses of significant proportions when they have been abused, when they are infertile and when they have experienced the death of a loved one. What we do as a church seems like pouring salt and lemon juice into the wound. This is especially sad when we could make some significant adjustments and provide a balm instead.
It is time for churches to respond with both lament and celebration. Romans 12:15 encourages us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn. We prefer the celebration and rejoicing, but the mourning is just as essential.
Mourning reminds us of our common experience as broken and needy people who crave God’s touch in our lives. Thomas Reynolds, in his book Vulnerable Communion, says we live with the cult of normalcy. This way of thinking convinces us that the normal world is happy and fun, whole and healthy and controlled and manageable, leaving us with a sense of invulnerability.
Sadly, it is an illusion. Reynolds reminds us that while there are moments of happiness, fun, wholeness, health, control and manageability, these are not the only—or perhaps even the primary—experiences of life. Our world is broken and so are we. In mourning with those who mourn, we remember our need for a God who redeems and reconciles all things unto himself.
We also need to learn to mourn as well as to rejoice because both drive us outside of ourselves and into the lives of others to whom we are joined in Christ. Romans 12:15 is preceded by Romans 12:3 and the words “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought,” and Romans 12:10 which says, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Paul then tells us to have the same attitude as Christ who became human, lived as a servant, died on the cross and then was exalted.
Over and over again in the New Testament, we are called to live for one another. This is in both the good and the bad of life.
Here are a couple of suggestions for how to live in both joy and mourning as we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
1) Name both realities and recognize joy and mourning exist in tension with one another and in the same room.
2) Make space for people to mourn honestly and repeatedly as necessary.
3) Allow for that mourning to be private, in silent prayer and reflection.
4) Allow for that mourning to be public, in the naming of family members deceased and lost.
5) Acknowledge the pain of childlessness, especially when it is not chosen. Pray prayers of lament. Read Scriptures of lament.
6) Use responsive readings to acknowledge both the joys and pains of the community. Make these readings commitments to pray for and journey with each other in all experiences.
7) Ask the kinds of people listed earlier to help you plan occasions when parents are honored and listen carefully to their input.
A final suggestion is to remember this before May. Save this and put it in a file for next year’s Mother’s and Father’s Day events. We should celebrate, but let’s not do so to the exclusion of those who mourn. Together we can be the church and the kind of people who care for one another.
Quentin P. Kinnison is assistant professor of Christian ministry at Fresno Pacific University and has over 20 years of experience in various ministry contexts. He and his wife, Cynthia, are raising Carissa, their daughter by adoption.