March 31, 4th Sunday in Lent.
Mothers in Film
All the films this week feature a mother in film and Scripture to guide our thoughts concerning our role as a parent and/or the heritage of our fathers.
A good wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain…
She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and tasks for her maidens…
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her…
Proverbs 31:10-11, 15, 28
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
There are two mothers in this under-rated 1990 film, but we will focus on the African American Odessa Carter who works for Miriam Thompson. It is the mid-1950s, and Odessa rides the bus to her employer’s home on the other side of Montgomery, Alabama. Like “the good wife” she rises before dawn to prepare breakfast for her husband and get the children ready for school. When the black community decides to boycott the buses because of the mistreatment of Rosa Parks, she and her husband get up early the day of the boycott and wait to see the first bus come by. Both are delighted that it is empty, except for the driver. They decide they too will quit riding. However, Odessa’s destination is not on the routes of the improvised car pools and taxi services the blacks set up, so she must walk to work. It is, as the title says, “a long walk,” so she is often tired, and sometimes late and wet due to rain. She never complains or mentions her hardship until Miriam questions her about her tardiness. Supper is often late at her home, even with the children helping prepare it. When the family attends the church rallies where the boycott is discussed and celebrated, Miriam, despite being exhausted accompanies her husband and two children. Miriam grudgingly offers Odessa a ride on some days, and is soon providing her rides back and forth on a daily basis—until her racist husband finds out and orders her to stop. Odessa is a quiet, unassuming person, but she possesses both courage and wisdom. During one of their few conversations about what is happening in their city Odessa says, ”Miss Thompson, I don’t want your children to grow up scared of mine.” Replies, “It’s just that a lot of the whites are scared. I’m a little scared.” Odessa, “We’re all scared. What’s scarin’ you Miss Thompson, who you are, or what Mr. Thompson wants you to be?” Odessa does not attempt to persuade her employer of the boycott’s justness. And yet, she is such a person of integrity, as well as a valued hard worker in the house, that Miriam decides that she will join the whites from the local Air Force base who volunteered to drive the strikers. Concerned that she realizes the consequences, Odessa warns her that once she starts there can be no turning back.
Being a mother in itself is a tiring experience, but working outside the home in addition is doubly so. It is understandable that some women decline to become involved in community affairs. Odessa, who probably did not graduate from high school, is not a leader, but one of the countless foot soldiers who made the Civil Rights Movement possible. Without people like her Martin Luther King, Jr. could have accomplished little. Her feet followed her heart, and as we saw in the film, often bled into her shoes, but she never complained. There are many causes outside our homes that need faithful volunteers. Maybe not as dramatic as a bus boycott, but still tasks that help the children, the handicapped, or the hungry and homeless. When we sing such hymns as “Where He leads me, I will follow,” may we remember Odessa and mean what we are singing.
A guide for this film is in my book Films & Faith: Forty Discussion Guides.
A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.
1 Corinthians 16:13
When Holly Burns drives her three children home from a church pageant practice and sees the hooded Ben sitting on the front steps, she is conflicted—torn between joy and fear. Ben has been away for 77 days at a drug rehab center and not yet scheduled for a home visit. Her two children by her second husband, Lacey and Liam, are over joyed to welcome him back. They are too young to understand the possible dangers of his coming back too soon, but Ben’s teenage sister Ivy is so upset that she calls her stepfather Neal. Holly, in a quandary over Ben and her other three children, decides that he can stay for at least a day before returning to the clinic. But she lays down the law, telling him he can stay only if he agrees not to leave her sight for a minute. She quickly enters the house and takes their prescription drugs out of the medicine cabinet to hide them from Ben. It is Christmas Eve, and matters are tense as the family goes to Christmas mass together where the younger three children do well in the pageant. There are a few in the church who have been ill-affected by Ben when he was dealing drugs, but no disturbance. However, when they return home they find the house has been vandalized and their pet dog is gone, Ben thinks he knows what has happened and runs off to find it. Holly follows him in their car. She insists that they will search for the dog together. From various people they meet, including the mother of a dead girl to whom Ben had introduced to drugs, Holly learns how low Ben had sunk during his high school days. At one point Ben admits he is a liar and not worth all the trouble but Holly refuses to leave him. He is able to ditch Holly at a convenience store so that he can confront the drug dealer holding their dog. The dealer makes ben run a drug errand before giving over the dog. There is much more, with Holly at the end saving Ben’s life when she finds him in a drug-induced unconscious state thanks to a kit with revival medication. Ben’s future is very uncertain, but we can be certain that Holly, like the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, will do what she can, even though she knows she may have lose him.
Sometimes a parent’s heart, like Holly’s, are broken, and yet love persists. This message permeates the Lenten season, all the way through Good Friday when God’s Son died on the cross for us. Holly’s unconditional love is not only the epitome of motherly love, but emblematic of God’s love for us. Whenever we sing Isaac Watt’s great hymn “When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” may we think of Holly as we mouth the words, “love so amazing, so divines, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
1 John 4:7-8
In this true story based on Garrard Conley’s memoir Nancy is the dutiful wife of Marshall Eamons who is a Ford dealer and the pastor of a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. (The names of the persons have been changed.)When they learn that their son Jared is gay, Rev. Eamons meets with two of the leaders of his church, and they all agree the boy should undergo conversion therapy at a distant center called “Love in Action.” The first couple of weeks are introductory, a sorting out period, with Nancy staying at a nearby motel and able to see her son at night. After several days at the clinic, Jared becomes convinced that the name of the center is a lie, the treatment consisting of lectures and exercises attempting to get them to discern and name the family member who (supposedly) led them into the sin of homosexuality. Jared sees the leaders as spiritual bullies, especially when they conduct a horrific exorcism in which a boy’s parents are invited to join the leader in “beating the devil out of” their son with their Bibles. Nancy resists at first Jared’s pleas to leave the place. She starts to come around when she reads the program’s handbook and finds it full of grammatical errors and questionable psychobabble. Jared becomes fed up when he challenges the counselor’s suggestion that he hates his father. He calls his mother on his cellphone, but when she arrives at the clinic she is denied entrance. She keeps trying, insisting that she will not leave without him. On their way home she apologizes to her son, saying she is ashamed that they did not check the clinic more thoroughly. Rev. Eamons is very upset that they have given up on the program, but mother and son are united in their determination that conversion therapy is not the solution for him. There is little theological discussion in the film, so we are not sure about Nancy’s beliefs regarding what the Bible teaches, just that she has always gone along with what her husband and her church believed. We do know that Ben, estranged from his father, left home for New York City and that he began to write articles condemning conversion therapy and then returned four years later to begin reconciling with his father despite his life style..
Nancy’s maternal instincts prove to be stronger than her accepted beliefs about God, the Bible, and homosexuality—and her submission to the patriarchal system that taught her to accept male authority as the final word. Like Ben, she rejects the conversion therapist’s teaching that God would not accept Ben unless he changes and conforms to the church’s beliefs that homosexuality is evil. She struggles, like so ,many other mothers have done, with the fact that her son is different and cannot will himself to change his sexual preference. I wonder if while singing Charlotte Elliott’s familiar words she wondered if they included her son, “Just as I am, without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that thou biddest me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” The hymn writer wrote about being “tossed by many a conflict, many a doubt, Fights and fears within, without,” phrases that could apply to either she or her son. Once she decides to take her son’s part, she is able to throw off both patriarchy and condemnation of gays. In an interview the real mother, Martha Conley says approvingly of Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of,” She became his [Lucas’s–Ben] mother and she became that warrior that fought for her child. I think that is so evident all throughout the movie. I was just so honored the way she played my part.”* “Warrior mother,” quite a change, but then maternal love will do that to a woman, such love reflecting that of the God to whom Charlotte Elliot directed her great hymn.
* The delightful interview is at https://awardswatch.com/2018/10/30/interview-martha-conley-mother-of-boy-erased-author-garrard-conley-exclusive/.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human
Based on Pat Conroy’s semi-autobiographical novel, this is the story of the passage of a boy into manhood and of his difficult, changing relationship with his Marine pilot father, Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum, who dubs himself as “The Great Santini.” It’s also the story of the strong, quiet woman Lillian whose love for both her husband and her gentle son brings her pain, as well as understanding and strength to them. Santini treats his teenage son Ben and two daughters as if they were members of his air squadron, barking orders as if he were a drill sergeant. When Ben beats him for the first time in a one-on-one basketball game, Santini refuses to admit defeat, insisting that they keep playing beyond the designated score. Later that night as mother and son look out his bedroom window at Santini still bouncing the ball and making shots, Lillian tries to explain to the angry boy why his father is so tough on him, that it is out of concern that he be able to cope with a tough world. Throughout the film we witness the love-hate relationship between son and father, with Lillian both seeking to protect the children and explain to them their incomprehensible father, whose fits of rage are often fueled by his drinking. Matters come to a head when the children awaken one night to the sound of their parents fighting. Ben is enraged when he comes down to the kitchen and discovers the drunken Santini hitting Lillian. The boy grasps his father, pulling him away from his mother. Santini stops struggling when he looks down and finds even his little daughter crying and hitting his legs with her small fists. He breaks away and wanders off into the night. Ben expresses his disgust and “Good riddance,” but Lillian tells him to go after him. Ben refuses, but Lillian sternly says that he must, that if he were to be picked up in such a drunken condition on the base, his career would be ruined. Reluctantly, Ben goes out, calling his father by his nickname, “Santini, Santini.” After a few minutes he comes upon the man sitting on the ground beneath a large tree, mumbling out loud phrases he had said to ben before about being tough so he can survive in a hostile world. It is Ben’s “Aha” moment when he understands what his mother has been explaining to him all these years. He stoops to support his father, telling him that he understands and that he loves him. Santini is still hostile. But Ben ignores this, dancing around his fist-swinging father as he says, I love you, Dad, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
The love of Lillian flows through her son at this climactic moment, even bringing Santini to his senses, who proves to be a changed man after this sequence.
We see that Lillian, loving both husband and children, has the Christ-like role of family mediator. She appeals to the better natures of both sides in family disputes, striving to get them to understand one another. She knows her macho husband better than he knows himself. During discussions of the film some women have accused her of being an enabler of her husband’s drinking habit, but she proves to be more than that, as we see in the kitchen when she physically stands up to her drunken husband, reading him the riot act. At that moment, her patience with him is exhausted, but as soon as he leaves the house, her deep love for him takes over, and she sends Ben out to rescue him from his own folly. Hers is not just the love of a wife and mother, but also like the love celebrated in Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “Love divine, all love excelling, Joy of heaven to earth come down…” “Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,” it continues, and we see that this has happened in her. Fortunate are those who grew up with a mother like Lillian.
A guide for this film is in my book Films & Faith: Forty Discussion Guides.
Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
Better to meet a she-bear robbed of its cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly.
He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’”
Michaela and husband Augusto Odone (Nick Nolte) fight to save the life and sanity of their son, Lorenzo (Zack O’Malley Greenburg). The boy, diagnosed in early 1984 as a victim of ALD, a brain degeneration for which there was no cure, is beyond the help of ordinary medicine. The couple refuses to take the advice of the doctors to accept the inevitable death of their little son and make him as comfortable as possible. They troll the Internet, assembling so much information that they come to know as much about the disease as the doctors. The latter come to resent the active participation of the pair, pushing back by telling them in effect, “Don’t bother us.” Of the two, Michaela proves to be the feistiest, Augusto at one point so tired that he briefly flags in his efforts. But not Michaela who, as fierce as a tigress defending her cubs, continues to fight against the doctors and even support groups whose members have accepted the defeatist medical advice. Together she and her husband contact scientists, investigate experiments, and even set up an international symposium on the disease, eventually coming across an oil at which point they persuade a British chemist to produce it. It is too late to cure their son, but he does regain some faculties (such as his sight)—and it helps the afflicted children of others even more. Michaela is like the wronged woman in Jesus’ parable of The Widow and the Unjust Judge who keeps knocking and yelling unto she gets her day in court. Eventually her dogged determination benefits a good number of other sufferers. Hers is like the “love that wilt not let me go” in George Matheson’s hymn. The third verse especially seems fitting when thinking of her, “O joy that sleekest me through pain , I cannot close my heart to Thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not in vain T hat morn shall tearless be.”
I will finish the following 2 meditations by this Tuesday morning.
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.[b]
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
The bold and brassy woman who gives her name to this true-story film would never win a Mother of the Year Award. Twice divorced and raising three young children, Erin Brocovich, despite her short skirt and tight blouse, talks her way into a job at Ed Masry’s small law firm. While filing papers of victims ill from polluted water, she notices that Pacific Gas & Electric Company has been paying the bills for all of them to be examined by doctors. She investigates the grounds around the huge plant and interviews all the victims, quickly becoming acquainted and sympathetic to them. All of this means spending most of her nights talking with the victims, rather than taking care of her children. She has a boyfriend named George who watches them, but he grows tired of her long absences. So do the children, especially the oldest one, Matthew. When George tries to talk Erin out of spending so much time with the victims, she responds that she has found something important in her life, that people look up when she comes into a room to speak. He breaks off their relationship. Ed Masry does not have the funds to continue the lawsuit, so a large firm joins in. They attempt to cut out the brash woman without any kind of college degree, but soon learn that not only does Erin know every detail about the cases of the several hundred families, but that they trust and respect Erin so much that they will cooperate only with her. We see Erin’s maternal feelings toward her clients when she turns down the company’s offer of a $20 million settlement as being far too small:
“These people don’t dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim in a pool without worrying that they’ll have to have a hysterectomy at the age of twenty. Like Rosa Diaz, a client of ours. Or have their spine deteriorate, like Stan Blume, another client of ours. So before you come back here with another lame ass offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Ms. Sanchez. Then you take out your calculator and you multiply that number by a hundred. Anything less than that is a waste of our time.”
The resentment of Erin’s children at being gone so much has reached its peak when eight-year-old Matthew stops speaking to her. This, of course, leads to her anguish, but the families she is helping need her too much. Then the boy comes across some of the papers in his mother’s file and reads them. He says to his mom, “This girl’s about my age. Is she one of the people you’re helping?” “Yeah, she’s really sick so I’m going to get her some medicine to feel better.” “Why doesn’t her own mom get her medicine?” “Because her mom’s really sick too.” “Oh.” The boy, now comprehending the scope of his mother’s work, changes from being resentful to being proud of his mother.
Sometimes a mother’s love is so great that must reach out beyond her own home. And if the need is really great, as it was in this true story, it might even lead to the neglect her own children for a time. Jesus spoke about divisions within the family that would arise because of him, with children against parents and the like. Erin’s case is similar, her devotion to seeking justice from her client/friends being a stand-in for Christ. The world is richer for such devotion to justice. Sometimes a mother must “speak out for those who cannot speak.” In he long run even the children who feel neglected will be better off because she has been called to meet the greater good.
As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
Isabel Pullman has been homeschooling her son Auggie in their spacious Brooklyn home. For the sake of her son she has put her own doctoral thesis plans on hold. Born with a congenital disorder, Auggie has endured almost thirty operations that has left his face a scarred mass that has distorted it into that of a gnome or troll. But now that he’s 10, she and her husband Nate decide it is time for him to go to middle school and mingle with other children. Auggie, who has been hiding from the world by wearing a replica of a NASA space helmet so that no one can see his face, is dead set against this. It is not an easy decision for Isabel as well, because she is aware that the world can be cruel to those who are different.
Isabel talks with her son, patiently providing reasons for his need to socialize with other children. She walks with him to school that first day but knows that he must assume the burden of joining the children in their classes. Although the film’s title might well refer to Auggie’s sense of wonder at the star-studded universe we see in the scenes when he is cavorting in his space suit, the title actually derives from his mother’s loving comment to him, “You are a wonder.”
Augie is bullied by some, befriended by a few, and challenged and inspired by a couple of the teachers. He will know rejection and acceptance, pain and joy. Through everything Isabel always stands ready to support her boy, sometimes by making him face a situation that he would prefer to run from. Hers is a tough love, reflecting that of Israel’s God who condemned that nation for its sins, but after punishment, was ready to offer comfort. Isabel also is a wise mother, unlike those called helicopter parents who always hover around their children in order to protect them from every obstacle or danger. She knows there are some risks and hurts that her son must face on his own.
God is like this caring mother, the prophet Isaiah says. Elsewhere in Scriptures the male role of shepherd is applied to God (Psalm 23), and in Isaiah we see a combination of the male and the female roles, “He tends his flock like a shepherd:/ He gathers the lambs in his arms/and carries them close to his heart;/ he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11) As Augie is led (and pushed) by the gentle hand of his mother, so are we by God. During this Lenten season may we reflect back upon those times when God’s motherly love comforted us, and then challenged, us to be our best.