On January 15, 1929 a baby boy who was destined to do great things came screaming into the world. His name was Michael, after his father, a Baptist minister who served as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
A few years later in 1934, Michael’s father traveled to Germany to attend a Baptist World Alliance meeting. This was about a year after Adolph Hitler had come to power as chancellor, and Germany was becoming an uncomfortable place to be, losing itself to hatred and discrimination with the rise of the Nazi party.
The state of affairs in that nation and in the world weighed heavily on the reverend’s mind as he toured sites important in the story of Martin Luther, another man of God who found himself in an environment in which those in power were guilty of oppressing the less powerful for personal gain. According to legend, in 1517 Luther declared the need for change, and his willingness to defend his argument, in the form of a list of ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.
In response to the swell of hatred in 1934, the Baptist World Alliance issued a statement of its own. It wasn’t a list of ninety-five theological arguments and questions nailed to a church door that would touch off a reformation movement. It was a strongly worded condemnation of “racial animosity, and every form of unfair discrimination toward the Jews, toward colored people, or toward subject races in any part of the world.”
Both the conference and the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a 16th century German priest who prompted significant change in a world that was desperate for it, the Reverend Michael King, Sr. returned to the United States profoundly affected by all he’d seen.
So affected, in fact, that as he pondered the experience he came to a fairly unusual decision. He chose to legally change his name to Martin Luther King. His young son and namesake became Martin Luther, too, and on July 23 of 1957, the young man, then twenty-eight years old, made the official change to his birth certificate.
Today this son is remembered for his great leadership in bringing about change to a world in desperate need of it, for casting a vision in which all people condemn unfair discrimination and oppression. It was a challenging mantle to carry, one that cost him his life, but painted an enduring and powerful legacy.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably better remembered in many circles today than is the priest whose name his father once decided to take as his own. But in learning and revisiting the activist’s story as we take time this weekend to honor the anniversary of his birth, I’m struck by the power of a name and the greatness it may inspire.
If you live in the US (and you don’t live in a cave), I’m sure you know by now that this Sunday (May 14) is Mother’s Day. It’s hard to escape the ads for jewelry, and chocolate-covered strawberries, and flowers, and yes, free glass vases. And there aren’t many stores you could walk through without seeing some display or other of sentimental greeting cards and “World’s Greatest Mom” tee shirts or coffee mugs.
That’s all well and good. I’m sure many of you will pick out something like that to give to your mother to honor her on the special day, and I am certain she’ll appreciate the thought. But for me (and I suspect for a lot of mothers), it’s kind of a strange holiday. I hate to say it, but I don’t really look forward to it all that much.
Here’s the thing. Moms do a lot of stuff. And we’re pretty good at it. No, most of us are probably not born that way, but when we become mothers, we gain more than a child. We gain a desperate longing to do everything we can to ensure that child’s well-being. That’s challenging, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve, requiring some big adjustments, like:
Accepting that the bathroom is the only place you will ever again have any privacy (a luxury that is by no means guaranteed).
Learning to eat the yucky flavors in the popsicle box because that’s all that’s ever left.
Managing to function, more or less, in a constantly exhausted state.
Understanding that at no point will you be able to honestly say the laundry is done, unless you have convinced your family to go naked for a while.
Feeling guilty if you don’t prepare a nutritious, balanced meal for your kids, while acknowledging that if you do, there is no way they’re going to eat it.
Tolerating that your actual name will rarely be uttered anymore, but you will hear “Mom” at least 10,000 times a day, often several times in the same sentence, because I guess your kids assume if they don’t remind you who they’re talking to, your exhausted mind will wander.
Knowing that no task (like writing a blog post) will ever be something you can complete without interruption by a kid who is learning about Scott Joplin in music class and desperately needs to use the computer to look up the “Maple Leaf Rag” on YouTube before he goes to school.
Okay, that last one might just be me, and it really did happen this morning. It was kind of awesome. But in a more general sense, the struggle is real.
So you might think that what moms really want for Mother’s Day is a day off, maybe even some time alone. I think I can speak for a lot of us when I say, yes, that is definitely something we want. The trouble is that the moment our children go away and leave us alone, we miss them. And then we kind of resent them a little because we can’t even take a break without thinking about them. And then we feel guilty because we feel resentment toward some of the people we love the very most in the whole world. And we’re sad that we’re missing the day with them, when all they wanted to do was to make us feel special.
You see why I don’t really look forward to Mother’s Day?
But I have given this a lot of thought lately. I’ve looked at some of the things said by and about famous mothers in the past, and I think I’ve finally figured out what moms want.
First, I read about Hoelun, mother of Genghis Khan (a fact which, according to some historians and geneticists, makes her the most successful grandmother in human history). She overcame a lot of tough challenges as a mom. Then when the successful Genghis rose to become a great conqueror and threatened to kill his own brother, Hoelun put her foot down. Out of respect for her, Genghis let his brother live and his mother became one of his most trusted advisors.
The second example I found interesting was Nancy Edison. When as a young boy, the eventually wildly successful inventor Thomas Edison was deemed mentally incompetent by his teacher, his mother Nancy began homeschooling him. Later he would say of her, “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”
Another great mom, Alberta Williams King worked hard to instill a sense of self-respect in her children, teaching them that segregation was a construct of man and had nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of natural order. It was a lesson her son Martin Luther King, Jr. took to heart, making it the cornerstone of his life, and not forgetting to give his mama the credit she deserved.
And of Abigail Adams, one of only two American women to have been both a president’s wife and a president’s mother, her son John Quincy Adams had this to say:
My mother was an angel upon earth. She was a minister of blessing to all human beings within her sphere of action. Her heart was the abode of heavenly purity… She was the real personification of female virtue, of piety, of charity, of ever active and never intermitting benevolence.
Actually that might be a tad bit over the top. Because I would bet that even Abigail Adams didn’t feel like she always deserved such high praise. The lesson here, though, for those of us who are mothers and for those of us who have mothers, is that what Mom probably really wants is for you to love your family, to know that she is behind you, cheering you on, even in the really tough times, and to understand that regardless of what you look like or what the world thinks of you, you are precious.
But go ahead and get her some flowers, too. Because she also wants you to know that she appreciates that you appreciate her. And it’s nice, once in a while, for a mom to hear that she’s an angel upon the earth. Because she’s exhausted and her shower got interrupted when somebody needed something RIGHT NOW, and the laundry is piling up, and she never feels like she does enough, even when she feels like she does it all. And just this once, maybe you could insist that she chooses first, so she doesn’t get stuck eating the grape popsicles.