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A Mother's Day Sermon from 2015

This Mother's Day sermon was given by Reverend Sarah Shepley at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine, May, 2015

Apr 25, 2016

Last Mother's Day I went to hear my dear friend, Sarah Shepley, give the Mother's Day address at the UU Church in Yarmouth, Maine. It was a dazzling and sunny spring Sunday. I drove into Yarmouth under a canopy of large trees, feeling quite captivated by the sight of the old white church with open doors welcoming all to attend.

Reverend Shepley, (Sarah!) gathered the children on the steps of the altar and read the Margaret Wise book, Runaway Bunny, aloud to them. When they took their seats, Sarah gave the following inspirational talk. The message is timeless and though we were not able to publish it last year in time for Mother's Day, we present it to you now.

Posted by Kimmy Sophia Brown

The poet Mark Nepo writes:

“The place where beauty meets pain is where we bend, not break”.

For me, this passage describes the beauty of building up expectations and the pain of letting them go. Or maybe it is the other way around: the pain of expectations and the beauty of letting go. The bending is the acquiescing to meet life as it is, not always how we want it.

In no other area of my life has this dichotomy played out more than being a parent – and a child. What we receive, we give. Either you feel the tension that exists when you impose expectations on your child (even if it is in your mind) or you have been the recipient of someone else’s expectations of you. Either way – it is hard to feel our natural selves under the scrutiny of someone else. And sometimes the struggle of who we had to be versus who we are, takes a life time of re-discovery. Rilke says:

“I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,
because where I am folded, there I am a lie.
To unfold is to live out loud.”

Twenty-eight, pregnant with my first child, I spent nine months full of expectation. What gender, what would this child look like? Grow up to be? What kind of mother would I be? I had so many fantasies of how blissful the experience of mothering would be. I never once contemplated the sleepless nights, the cranky afternoons, the hormonal roller coaster – the eventual grappling with addictions – where I learned “the only life I could save was my own.”

I never considered, in the pregnant blissful fantasies, that my children might not follow the path I had in mind for them – that they were their own people, not the ones I could easily shape. This was earth school. As Wendell Berry puts it “life is a spiritual journey...arduous, humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground of our feet and learn to be home.”

So, it was both a disappointment and relief to realize that I wasn’t the only one in charge here. Mothering, like no other experience in my life, gave birth to my humble self. And giving birth, was the beginning of the letting go.

It was the first time I came into the presence of a power greater than my own. Three children later, I realize that mothering has been a breeding ground for the building up of expectations and the letting go that would be necessary to see the world as it was, not as I wanted it to be. Such lessons in surrender was the design of a benevolent God who wanted my heart to break, not apart, but open:

(From Mary Oliver:)

“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”

And this is where I turned to poetry for a source of guidance. Reading the wisdom from my favorites permitted me access to a sacred space and a much larger container to hold the complexity of life.

I needed a constant reminder to BE HERE NOW, and the poets helped. Mary Oliver reminded me to “let the voodoos of ambition sleep.”

And Mark Nepo:

“In thieves echoed my exhaustion.
From keeping up with all that does not matter.
and the insidious virtue to have everything in order before we live
is the greatest thief.”

And Mary Oliver in particular – I think of her as the mystic of the natural world with her pen in the air – She provided a reminder to return again to what was right in front of me. My three under seven years old, would have none of my distractions. They pulled me toward them with all their might. They could care less if the house was clean or what was for dinner. They wanted me present and accounted for. They wanted me to see how the dandelions had gone to seed and if we blew hard enough on one breath, they would all fall off…a sign of good luck. They wanted me to be a character in a book we had read, to make grass and mud soup, to lay down in the open field and be with them – with nowhere to go but here.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.”

My children wanted me empty of expectations so I could be a clear mirror for them. Oliver’s words remind me to

“Come to the pool of your imagination
or the harbor of your longing
and put your lips to the world and live your life.”

Aahh learning to see the sacred in the mundane. I had it backwards when I thought that my children would grow up to be spiritual – they were my greatest teachers from the get go, and carried the essence of rigorous Buddhist teachers, especially the “difficult” ones:

Be here now. Sit with pain, mine and yours. Let go of attachments and expectations. Surrender. Humility. I was deep in samsara.

And then night would come and I’d watch my children sleep after the day full of need – they, lying next to me on the bed, breathing in and out, quiet. I felt restored, forgetting the angst of the day, loving them so fiercely as they lay sleeping. Me in my watchful gaze, slowly gathering steam for another day.

Oliver’s “Summer Morning” rings to mind:

“Heart, I implore you,
it is time to come back from the dark,
it’s morning and the hills pale pink and the roses
whatever they felt in the valley of the night are opening their soft dresses,
their lives are shining.

Let the world have its way with you.
With mystery and pain
graced as it is with the ordinary.”

It was at those times when I felt as though my heart would break open from the ache of loving them so much – I felt that

“Sweetness dissolving into all it touches –
as though my container was shattering just so all the sweetness could escape.” (Mark Nepo)

We come into this world a mystery and we go out a mystery. The more I try to figure out who my children are and what their lives mean, the further I am from them. Just as the more my parents scrutinized me, the further I drifted desperate to preserve my sense of self – always searching for someone who could get me.

All this work of staying connected is the willingness to peer through the misperceptions – and I told my youngest daughter last year, when she was a teen and staying out late or not calling etcetera, that behind my furrowed brows, the angry looks, the seething silence was a heart full of love and fear. Simply a thin mask hiding my deep vulnerably. I always used to say to her “It is my right as a mother to know you are safe…”

I recently had lunch with my mother and it was like a veil had been lifted.

As Walter Wink wrote, “Being authentic means giving up pretending to be good and instead to become real- scars and all.”

So somehow we have all brambled through the thicket of who our parents want us to be, who we want them to be, and come into the clearing of who we are – to reclaim something of ourselves and pass it down.

Perhaps the lingering lessons of mothering has been this:

When all expectation is thrown to the wind, all need for strategizing and control vanished -eclipsed by the human heart and the ability to be present, that the release of our expectations means to meet life where it is not where we want it. Then we are able to step in and be steeped in the holy, chaotic mess of life.

As Mary Oliver writes:

“When we love another heart and allow it to love us,
we journey deep below time into that eternal weave where nothing unravels.
This we can trust.
Where we give it all up and go lie down where the great heron feeds,
Where we rest in the beauty of presence and are free.”

Photo of Rev. Sarah Shepley and her daughter, Beryl

Rev. Sarah Shepley has been a professional artist for over twenty-five years and an ordained non-denominational minister for five years. She lives in Maine with her husband, and she is the mother of three grown children. To reach her to purchase art or to invite her as a guest speaker, her web address is

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