Lessons from a Southern Mother
with Rev. Alex Lang
May 8, 2022
What did your mother teach you when you were growing up? This Sunday, we celebrate mother’s day and the ways our mothers imbue us with lifelong wisdom!
Read the Full Text
I want to begin by saying, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Whether you’re a mother yourself or you are celebrating your mother, this is one of the most celebrated holidays in the country. Fun fact, Mother’s Day is the third-largest card-sending holiday in the United States, with 113 million cards exchanged annually. Almost 85% of adult men and women celebrate Mother’s Day. So, if you haven’t already done so, I would highly recommend doing something special for the mothers in your life, otherwise the rest of your year could be really horrible.
Now, clearly, the reason why we celebrate our mothers is because, not only did they give birth to us, which is no small feat in itself, but our mothers are the ones who often sacrifice in huge ways for their children. Although this is changing in our culture today, moms have traditionally been the ones to shoulder the responsibility of raising the children. That was certainly true for me. My mom was flawed, but she was my primary caretaker when I was growing up.
When I was kid and I got hurt, I didn’t go to my dad looking for sympathy. That would be a waste of my time. My father would fix me up, but also chastise me for getting hurt in the first place. Nothing like bleeding everywhere and getting berated all at the same time. If you wanted sympathy, mom was the way to go. She would fix you up and give you a popsicle to boot.
But my mother was a Southerner. She grew up with southern values and she expected her children to live by those values. So I’m going to take a little note from TC today, who preaches every sermon about his father, and tell you a little bit about my mother, just for this one sermon though. I know some of you grew up in the south, but for those of you who didn’t, there is a certain thing called Southern hospitality. What that basically means is, you’re expected to be nice to everyone’s face, but then you talk smack about them behind their backs. (I’m just kidding, but it’s kind of true)
My mother taught me that you always need to be polite, no matter how impolite another person might be. This meant that you always say please and thank you. You always address your elders as sir and mam. You always show people respect, even strangers, because you never know who that person is or how that person might impact your life. This is particularly true when it comes to people who work menial or challenging jobs. Showing them a bit of kindness and gratitude can go a long way.
I remember when I was at Oxford, we would eat at these long tables, like in Harry Potter. You would come in, sit down and the food would be served to you. Every night there were three courses, a salad course, a main course and a dessert. The people who served these meals were not just students. Many of them were full time employees. I remember, there was one woman who everyone really disliked. She was older, really grumpy and had been working at Oxford for most of her career.
This meant, of course, she was dealing with a bunch of kids between the ages of 18 and 22 who were super ungrateful and never once expressed a word of thanks. They just assumed, that’s your job, you’re here to serve me, no thanks needed. But I went out of my way to thank her every evening, just like my mother taught me because doing that job is not easy. And you know what? Even though she didn’t smile at anyone else, she smiled when she saw me. In fact, whenever she was in my section, she would go out her way to get me fruit. Everyone was like, “Why does she like you so much? She hates everybody else!” And I’m thinking to myself, “Well, maybe if you showed her just a little appreciation and kindness, she would return the favor.”
Another thing my mother taught me was that you always show appreciation for a gift, even if it’s something you didn’t want. I remember I learned this the hard way when my cousin came for Christmas when I was 11. My cousin, who is now the vice president of Shenandoah University in Virginia, when he was growing up, he basically lived in poverty. When they arrived at my house, my cousin was so excited, “Alex, we got you the perfect gift! I can’t wait for you to open it!”
Well, it was a Nintendo Power Magazine. For those of you not familiar with Nintendo Power Magazine, it was a big thing in the late 80s, early 90s. For those of us who played Nintendo, you read this magazine that would give you tips about how to navigate the games. Today, you would just go to YouTube, but back then you needed a magazine. Well, I had a subscription to Nintendo Power Magazine, so when my cousin, hands me the magazine, of course, I already had it.
My mom was standing right next to me when I got it and after I opened it, my mom said, “Alex, say thank you.” I was like, “Ah, thanks.” Because I wasn’t overflowing with excitement, my cousin was like, “What’s the matter?” And I said, “Well, I already have this one.” My mom screamed at me, “Alex! I’m sorry he’s so rude.” I was just telling the truth, but apparently in that instance I wasn’t supposed to tell the truth. My mom chewed me out and said, “That’s a lot of money for them to spend on you. You always say thank you and show your appreciation, even if it’s something you already have.”
My mother was also a stickler about table manners. We ate dinner together as a family every night. You sat up straight at the table. You didn’t put your hands on the table. You didn’t talk with your mouth full. You chew with your mouth closed. You wait until everyone is at the table before you begin eating. You needed to hold your utensils in the right way. You were expected to eat everything on your plate and you were not allowed to leave the table until you had asked to be excused.
If you lapsed on any one of those rules, she would let you know immediately. As you might be able guess, there was rarely a dinner where I did not get yelled at for breaking a rule. But even when I wasn’t breaking those rules, my mother was also a stickler when it came to speaking with proper grammar. If she asked how your day was at school, like what was your grade on a test, it was a trap. If you said, “I did good,” oh man, no you didn’t. She would snap back, “You mean, you did well.” Or if she asked, “Are you finished with your meal?” and you replied, “Yes, I’m done,” you certainly would be. “No, Alex you finish a meal. A piece of meat is done. Are you a piece of meat?” Maybe.
I remember when I was in my junior year of high school, I had come down to the dinner table to eat. I was scarfing down my food because I had to get to swim practice. We were having a conversation about our day and my mom was describing how she was driving around with one of her friends who was a bit inebriated and mom said, “Needless to say, she didn’t drive very good,” and without missing a beat I said, “You mean, well. I need to get going, I have to get to swim practice.”
I did it reflexively. I really wasn’t even thinking about what I was saying and I saw this quizzical look come over my mom’s face as she put the pieces together and she began to laugh. It was the first time I had ever corrected her grammar and she thought it was great. 17 years of beating the difference between good and well into my brain had finally paid off!
These are some of funnier anecdotes about my mother and although my mother could be fairly obsessive when it came to the smaller details of how you conducted yourself, two of the bigger priorities that my mother taught me were friendship and community. You care for your friends and you treat them like family and you do whatever you can to make your community a better place.
In our gospel reading from John, we read about Jesus giving his disciples a new commandment. Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Within this commandment is something quite radical that I think we very easily can gloss over. Jesus doesn’t just say love one another. That commandment already exists in the Old Testament.
Jesus says love one another as I have loved you. Then he clarifies exactly what he means by that when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The love that Jesus is talking about is a sacrificial love. A love where you’re willing to give up everything. Now, if you’re a mother or a father, I am sure you know what kind of love Jesus is talking about. If push comes to shove, I know you would lay down your life for your children.
But that’s your children. Jesus says that he wants you to lay down your life for your friends. That’s a much higher bar and much more challenging. So I pose the question to you: Are you willing to lay down your life for your friends? Are you willing to sacrifice everything for them? I think the vast majority of people would say, “No, I’m not willing to lay down my life for my friend.”
Now interestingly, this was my definition of a friend growing up. I learned this definition from my mother. To call somebody a friend, I had to be willing to lay down my life for them. If I didn’t feel that way, then that person was not a friend, that person should be considered an acquaintance. When I was in high school and I told somebody that was my criteria for friendship and she said, “I don’t care how much I like you as a friend, I’m not sacrificing myself for any of you.”
But my mom was different. She was the kind of person who would go out of her way to help her friends when they were in a bind. For all of my mother’s flaws, this is something I really respected about her. And sometimes I would see that she would be there for someone she called a friend, but I felt that person was taking advantage of her. I could tell they wouldn’t do the same for her if she were in a bind.
I remember I called her out on that once. She was helping a friend out and I said, “Why are you doing this for her? She would never do this for you. In fact, she’d stab you in the back the first chance she got.” My mom said, “That’s true, Alex. But what you have to appreciate is that friends, they each bring something unique to my life. Some of my friends are confidants. Others are really good at giving advice. This woman makes me laugh and I need that in my life. Not all my friends can make me laugh.”
It wasn’t until later, when I started studying Christianity, that I realized she got this from the Bible as well: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Everybody has different gifts and you need to appreciate the person for the gifts they bring to your life.
This was kind of revolutionary for me because, at the time, I was very selective with my friendships. You had to meet a very high bar because I was willing to lay down my life for you. In a sense, I was looking for the whole package and there weren’t many people who met that bar. However, after listening to my mom, I realized that I just needed to be less judgmental. From that point forward, I stopped looking for people’s flaws and rejoiced in their gifts.
And that shift was actually really important for me before I became a pastor in the church. I don’t know if you know this, but sometimes people in the church can be hard to deal with. I’m not talking about any of you, of course, but some people can be difficult. Therefore, when someone is particularly challenging, I am able to forgive that negativity and look at the positives of what they bring to the table.
In my experience, this is how you create a strong, loving community. My mother was big on bringing community together. She was active in local politics, she was active in her garden club, her book club, she was active in the schools. In her own quiet, powerful way, she moved our little community in Fredericksburg to do more together. And she did this by taking the best of everyone she called a friend and using those gifts for the benefit of the community.
And frankly, that’s what we need to do here. We need to see how each person in the community can offer their gifts to make us stronger. I feel like our leadership is really trying to make that happen right now, so if you’re not asking yourself the question, “What are the gifts I can contribute to this community? How can I make this church a better place?” you need to be asking yourself that question!
So as you leave from here to celebrate your mother this afternoon, I hope you will take a few pointers from my Southern mother. Sit up straight. Always say please and thank you. Know the difference between well and good. Love your friends. But most importantly, when you see your mother today, make sure to point out all of the positive ways she impacted your life because those positives are some of the ways you can give back to this community. Amen.