In the song, “Mama Tried”, Merle Haggard wrote this chorus:
“I turned twenty-one in prison, doing life without parole
No one could steer me right, but mama tried, mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame, ’cause mama tried.”
He wrote this partly-autobiographical verse in reflection of his time in San Quentin prison. Although he was not doing life without parole, he did turn 21 in prison because he hadn’t respected his mother’s lessons. And even though Merle Haggard ran a few illegal operations in prison at first, it was when he saw a fellow inmate on death row making preparations for his execution that made him want to change his life and return to living the way that would honor his mother.
He was dead right, as well, when he accepted responsibility for his actions. His mama tried, and his awful state was his own fault. If he had accepted the blessings of his mother’s teachings, his life may have been just as hard, but it would be with the knowledge that he was living honorably, honestly, and doing what was right.
While both mothers and fathers teach their children right from wrong, they don’t always do it in the same way. Their message may be unified, but their delivery will be different. When a mother speaks from her heart, there is a spiritual force that accompanies those words. That force can embed her words in the hearts and minds of her children, and will whisper to them for the rest of their lives. Those words serve as yardsticks by which her children will measure their lives ever after. We’ll know if we’ve done right or wrong by how well we’ve kept the words of our mothers.
Even when a mother may be absent in a home, children will seek that motherly influence elsewhere. An aunt, a grandmother, even an older sister can provide that kind of influence. Left on their own, wise men may take wayward members of their group aside and repeat to them words that they learned from their mothers – that perhaps their errant brothers may not have heard, or respected. When we are living right, we know so because we don’t feel a twinge of guilt when we think of our moms.
Moms have the capability to bind children to their words. I choose that word because, in Hebrew, the word used for “bands” can also mean labor pains. Not only do moms know what is right, they carried us for many months and went through all the trials of childbirth, that we might live. It is not for nothing that baptism is described as being born again, having broken through the bands of death. Adopted children do not have an easy out here, by the way. The legal process of adoption is quite involved, which can cause much pain and suffering and travail. Your moms have equal authority, so see that you mind them.
We only have two mentions of the interaction between Mary and Jesus, both found in the Gospel of John. The first, at the wedding in Cana, is quite telling. In John 2:1-5, we read:
1 And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:
2 And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.
3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.
4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.
5 His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.
Mary tells Jesus that there is no wine. Why? She knows what he can do and expects him to do it. A father would likely have just asked him to make some wine, but a mother wants her children to learn to take a hint of persuasion and think to do the right thing on their own. Jesus responded tenderly to his mother – “Woman” in the Greek dialect John wrote in is an endearing term – and hinted of his own that it was not yet time for him to start doing miracles. No matter: Mary had spoken to Jesus and was already making arrangements, telling the servants to follow his every instruction. He was going to do the miracle because his mom said so.
A lesser person would have complained or refused. A teenager would have groaned about being embarrassed. Jesus, however, set the perfect example and honored his mother straightaway by performing a miracle of turning water into wine. Such a good boy, this Jesus. Why can’t you be more like him?
And if you heard those last few words with the voice of your mother, that only underlines my point even more. Our mothers want what’s best for us, and they know that if they have to nag a little… or a lot… it’s for our own good. Who tells us to take the medicine, even if it’s nasty? Who tells us it’s better to rip off the band-aid all at once? Who tells us to take a nap because we’re cranky? And who has to deal with with our tantrums, outbursts, and willful disobedience?
I’d like to take this time right now to publicly thank my mom for making me take medicine, yanking off my bandaids, and putting me down for my naps. I would furthermore like to apologize for my tantrums, outbursts, and willful disobedience. I know I did a lot less of those things, once I had children of my own.
In raising my own children, by the way, that’s where my mom’s words and deeds come into powerful action. If I can justify a course of action with, “My mom made me do that!”, it’s as good as done. When I invoke the authority of my mom, my words transcend to a new level of might.
That stuff can cut both ways, though. One time, me and my family were visiting my parents. Malia was about 2 or 3 and I was running the “I got your nose!” scam. This was making Malia angry. So, she turned to my mom and said, “Grandma! Your son is teasing me!” Young as she was, Malia knew the power of a mom. I was quickly compelled not only to cease and desist, but to apologize. Lawyers should be so effective. Malia knew that I had to mind my mom and that there was no appeal beyond her. If I had tried to go to my dad, he would have just shaken his head and pointed at his wife, my mother, as the final authority in this matter.
As a former child, I can say that my life was blessed by listening to my mother. My life was cursed when I didn’t. Even so, she was there to take me to the hospital when I cut my finger after horsing around with my Cub Scout pocket knife. She wasn’t about to let me bleed out on the patio. Likewise, she was also there in my life to make me conjugate Latin verbs every time when my grade in that class took a dive. She wasn’t going to let me just fail and be done with it. Because with a good mother, those rules that she gives are intertwined with deep, incomprehensible love.
Often, the rules themselves were imperatives to love my neighbor, to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, and to seek after things that were praiseworthy and of good report. Moms are not only the givers of law, but the enrichers of lives. Each mom has her own set of specialties. There is no “perfect mother” capable of delivering exposure to all things to all her children. My mom was not perfect. Then again, neither am I. But my mom did have an affinity for the arts, and she brought music, art, and literature into my life. Other moms would have done other things: all I know is what my mom did with me.
Music was the easiest. She put the records on and played what she liked. I just ran around in constant circles as I listened. Apparently, running around in circles is the best way to learn because, to this day, I remember every word and every note of those songs. I don’t remember the naps I had after running those marathons, but I have a love for the Irish folk songs, golden oldies of rock and roll, and the Bach concertos she played. I didn’t ask for them: mom just shared them with me and that was that.
Art was next. As I became interested in books, I preferred picture books at first. So, she picked up volumes of art prints and placed them on shelves that I could reach. I stared for hours at those masterpieces, but I just thought of them as some neato pictures. Later on, she was able to talk with me about those artworks and develop a sense of art history that deepened my appreciation.
Literature followed suit. We had a million books in our house, growing up. People asked my mom if she had read them all and she said, “yes.” I hadn’t read them all, so I guess that made an impression upon me. Books were meant to be read. We didn’t buy them to keep dust off the shelves. Some I read for fun, others I read because a teacher had assigned the title and we just happened to have a copy at home. I haven’t read all those books, but I’ve since read plenty others. The things she loved, I learned to love.
The second time we see Jesus interact with his mother is at his crucifixion. From John, 19:25-27, we read:
25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
26 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!
27 Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
He was leaving the world, and his mother was at his side. Where others had abandoned and denied knowing the Savior, Mary was there to claim her son as her own. Jesus was equally devoted, as he made sure that she would be cared for in his absence, and that John would understand that the care would not be for just anyone: John was to care for Mary as he would his own mother. Mark that – John was to care for Mary as Jesus would have done so.
But the inverse of that was also true: Mary would now also care for John as she would her own son. They would grow old together and enjoy each others’ company. That is a third, great blessing of a mother – the ability to share moments all through one’s life. We honor our fathers and our mothers, it is a commandment with a promise. I’ve seen enough borscht-belt comedy to know that a mother left alone too long is prone to say, “What, you can’t even take two minutes to pick up a phone and give me a call?” They like to know what’s going on. Yes, they also like to meddle, but that’s what a mom does. If a child isn’t saying “Mooooooom” every now and then, there’s not enough communication, I say. Be there with her. That time is a gift from heaven when it’s good. The times when it’s not so good are for your own good, so be there, all the same.
I am fortunate that I live near my mom and I’m able to be with her almost every week on her radio show. OK, again, not all moms have a radio show. Do what you’re good at, not what someone else is good at. I never sang opera with my mom and the world is a better place for it, trust me. But I do love spinning those stacks of wax on the air with her every time I’m able to make it in to the station. I love them because that was the music she played as I grew up. I also love it because it’s what my mom likes to do, and I like to join in the fun. I also also love it because we can bring some fun into the lives of our listeners, whoever they may be, and my mom taught me how important it is to be kind and friendly to everyone.
Things my mother taught me… She taught me to never make fun of anyone’s culture or beliefs, and that I should never turn away a potential friend if he was someone that other people were mocking. I had some friends whose moms weren’t always there for them. I suppose that when they were over at my house, my mom was able to help out, in a way. She told me that, when she was a Den Mother in the Cub Scouts, she took all the kids that nobody else wanted into her den. Somehow, we seemed to have the most fun as a Cub Scout den. That, in turn, made me not only take all the kids nobody else wanted into my patrol when I was a patrol leader in Boy Scouts, but there were times when I was a teacher that I went to other teachers and asked them for all the kids they didn’t want in their classes.
I have had great blessings in my life from what my mother gave me. I’ve had other blessings from other motherly types, as well. Each time I have been with a caring woman that had strict rules and love for the children in her care, I have benefited from the lessons in subject matter and life itself that that woman had to offer me. My life is not a wreck only because I have chosen to heed the mothers in my life. If you want your life to be better, listen with care to the mothers in your life and follow their examples.
I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.