Dinner Table Conversations

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is an excerpt from the long poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay:

…And thank you to the quick and gentle flocking
of men to the old lady falling down
on the corner of Fairmount and 18th, holding patiently
with the softest parts of their hands
her cane and purple hat,
gathering for her the contents of her purse
and touching her shoulder and elbow;
thank you the cockeyed court
on which in a half-court 3 vs. 3 we oldheads
made of some runny-nosed kids
a shambles, and the 61-year-old
after flipping a reverse layup off a back door cut
from my no-look pass to seal the game
ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods
and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
grinning across his chest; thank you
the glad accordion’s wheeze
in the chest; thank you the bagpipes….

The second reading this morning is from Mourt’s Relation, written in 1622. This reading gives the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration in the words of one of the Pilgrims who was actually there. (The language has been modernized.)

“You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Sermon: “Dinner Table Conversations”

Remember back in 2019, before the pandemic? It’s so easy to put on our rose-colored glasses, and think — those were the good times, the easy times. We sat down together at Thanksgiving, never knowing that the very next year we wouldn’t be able to have Thanksgiving dinner with all our relatives. And in 2019, we didn’t have to worry about the war in Ukraine, or the war in Gaza and Israel. Ah yes, those were the good times.

Except, of course, they weren’t. Maybe there wasn’t a war in Ukraine nor a war in Gaza and Israel. But I remember some of my friends coming back from Thanksgiving with reports of combative dinner table conversations between the opposing sides of the culture wars. And I remember talking to a non-binary teen who felt exhausted at having to accept that their relatives were just going to refuse to use their preferred pronouns. No, we should not look at 2019 through rose-colored glasses and think: Those were the last good times.

Ah, but if I think back to my childhood…. That was a long time ago. Surely those must have been the last good times. Well, no. I remember Thanksgiving dinner conversations that got onto the subject of the Vietnam War. An uncle would say something about Vietnam, that would provoke a cousin into challenging him, and then my grandmother would have to say in a firm voice, “Do you think it will rain this week?” That was her hint for everybody to drop the subject, and talk about something less controversial. Or actually it wasn’t a hint so much as a command to change the subject; my grandmother was a bit of a Tartar. No, I cannot look back at those childhood Thanksgiving dinners through rose-colored glasses and think: those were the good old days.

Well, then, surely we can think back to the very first Thanksgiving, back in 1621…. That was a really long time ago. Surely those must have been the good old days. In the second reading, we heard an excerpt from “Mourt’s Relation,” a contemporary account of the first celebration of what we now call Thanksgiving. It sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it? They had had a pretty good harvest that year, then they went hunting and got even more food, enough to have a big celebration. And when King Massaoit and ninety of his warriors stopped by, together they came up with enough food to go around, and they all shared a big meal together.

And in many ways, that first Thanksgiving really was the good old days. But we also have to remember what happened the previous winter. Less than a year before that first Thanksgiving, something like half of the Pilgrims had died of cold and exposure and starvation. Many of the Pilgrims must have felt sad on that first Thanksgiving; I imagine that more than one of the Pilgrims shed a tear or two for the people who didn’t live long enough to see that first Thanksgiving. And then when we remember that as recently as 1619, King Massasoit and his followers had been subject to a plague that killed off as many as ninety percent of their people, they too must have some sadness on that first Thanksgiving.

So when I imagine the dinner table conversations at the first Thanksgiving (not that they were seated at a table, there’s no way the Pilgrims had tables enough to seat a hundred and forty people) — when I imagine the conversations at that first Thanksgiving, it seems to me that there were many things people didn’t want to talk about. On the Pilgrim side, I can imagine that when the conversation started getting too close to the too-many deaths they had experienced in the previous ten months, one of the elders would firmly say whatever the Pilgrim version was of, “Do you think it will rain this week?” Similarly, on the Wampanoag Indian side, I can imagine that when their conversations started heading towards the aftermath of the plague, and the probability that the Naragansett to the west were going to try to invade, one of the elders would say, quite firmly, the Wampanoag version of, “Do you think it will rain?”

More to the point, the story as told in Mourt’s Relation shows that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags knew the value of doing things together. The Pilgrims, you may remember, “among other recreations, exercised [their] arms” — meaning that the men played games together, winding up with some sort of shooting contest. And when the Wampanoags showed up, they didn’t just hang around talking — they went out hunting so there would be enough food for everyone. As for the Pilgrim women, with only four of them to cook for a hundred and forty people, their focus had to be on working together. Communal events seem to go most smoothly when we’re working together or doing something together.

All this may sound like the usual holiday platitudes that you’d expect from a New Englander: if we all just work together and not talk so much, we’ll be fine. Maybe it’s a platitude, but sometimes platitudes represent wisdom. And I found confirmation for this kind of wisdom from a surprising source: from Seth Kaplan, a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and internationally-known expert on fragile states. Fragile states are those countries that have such a weak governmental infrastructure that their citizens are exceptionally vulnerable to a variety of shocks. While the United States is not a fragile state, Seth Kaplan realized that some places within the United States function exactly like fragile states — he calls these “fragile neighborhoods.” He contrasts these fragile American neighborhoods with his own neighborhood, which is the opposite of fragile. Kaplan lives in a tight-knit community where neighbors look out for each other, where nearly everyone belongs to several community organizations, including religious congregations and secular groups. Neighbors also help each other out in informal ways, buying groceries for an elderly neighbor, chaperoning at school events, and volunteering in many small ways to help each other out. Kaplan writes:

“As a result of all this, we know all sorts of details about just about every family for many blocks around us — how many kids they have, which schools and camps their kids attend, and what leisure activities they enjoy. However, we spend surprisingly little time talking about politics, and thus know little about many of our neighbors’ political leanings and preferences.” (Seth Kaplan, Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing American Society, One ZIP Code at a Time [New York: Little, Brown, 2023], p. 184.)

When we change our perspective and focus on local community, there simply isn’t much time to spend in highly partisan arguments about national politics. This is not to imply that national politics are unimportant. They are important. But in America today, when it comes to national politics, it feels like our highest priority lies in expressing our individual political opinions. As much as I value free speech and free expression, I don’t think we want to be our highest value. Instead, our highest values are, or should be, hope and courage and love. As the Pilgrims knew deep in their hearts, we humans are meant to be together and to work together; we are communal beings before anything else. My grandmother knew the value of conflict avoidance when she would say, “Do you think it’s going to rain?” Then after dinner, she got us all to avoid conflict by playing cards: sometimes a vicious highly competitive game called “Pounce,” other times poker played for matchsticks.

I’d like to propose that at Thanksgiving, there’s no need to talk about national politics or international politics at all. There will always be people who really do want to talk about partisan politics, or international topics, at Thanksgiving dinner; you may be one of those people. If this is something you want to do at Thanksgiving, and if you can find someone else who wants to express their individual opinions, go ahead and find a corner somewhere where you can go at it hammer and tongs. The rest of us will be doing something like helping in the kitchen, or setting the table, or washing the dishes, or playing cards. The rest of us need not get involved in conversational conflict at Thanksgiving. And even if everyone who comes to your Thanksgiving celebration is in complete agreement — even if you agree completely on every aspect of domestic and foreign policy — you still don’t have to talk about anything to do with the culture wars. In fact, that might be a good way to keep everyone’s blood pressure down.

To put this another way: There are many strategies for managing conflict. Conflict avoidance is one valid conflict management strategy. And there are times — Thanksgiving is one of those times — when conflict avoidance is the best conflict management strategy. Now that I say this, I’m sure that you can think of lots of conflict avoidance strategies. In my childhood, we asked if it was going to rain, or we played vicious card games. Watching football games also works, or playing video games, or — well, you get the idea.

May our Thanksgiving dinner conversation avoid the culture wars. Instead, may our Thanksgiving dinner conversation center on what’s really important: the people you love and care about. May our conversations revolve around questions like these: Who is doing well, and who could use some support? Who would benefit from getting a phone call or a handwritten card? How are the young people doing, and how can we support them? Has anyone visited this or that distant relative, and should we reach out?

May your Thanksgiving conversations center on hope. May they center on courage in daily life. May they be filled with love for neighbors and family and friends.

Chant as a Spiritual Practice

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is titled “Meditative Singing,” instructions on singing, from the website of the Taizé community in France:

“Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly….Nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of ‘heaven’s joy on earth,’ as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.

“These songs also sustain personal prayer…. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts….”

The second reading is from The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, a 1979 book by Starhawk:

“Witchcraft has always been a religion of poetry, not theology. The myths, legends, and teachings are recognized as metaphors for “That-Which-Cannot-Be-Told,” the absolute reality our limited minds can never completely know. The mysteries of the absolute can never be explained-only felt or intuited. Symbols and ritual acts are used to trigger altered states of awareness, in which insights that go beyond words are revealed.

“When we speak of ‘the secrets that cannot be told,’ we do not mean merely that rules prevent us from speaking freely. We mean that the inner knowledge literally cannot be expressed in words. It can only be conveyed by experience, and no one can legislate what insight another person may draw from any given experience. For example, after the ritual described at the opening of this chapter, one woman said, ‘As we were chanting, I felt that we blended together and became one voice; I sensed the oneness of everybody.’ Another woman said, ‘I became aware of how different the chant sounded for each of us, of how unique each person is.’ A man said simply, ‘I felt loved.’ To a Witch, all of these statements are equally true and valid….”

Sermon: “Chant as a Spiritual Practice”

One of the most interesting aspects of being a Unitarian Universalist is that we are not told what kind of spiritual practice we are supposed to do. No one tells us that we should read the Bible regularly, as happens for many Protestants. No one suggests that we light the shabbat candles on Friday evening, as is true for many Jews. No one reminds us to pray salat five times a day, which is the case for many Muslims. No one calls on us to do chant the sutras, something which is true for many Buddhists.

We Unitarian Universalists don’t have a prescribed spiritual practice. I believe this is mostly for very pragmatic reasons. We have learned that individuals can be quite different from one another. While we generally feel that having some kind of spiritual practice is a good idea (most of the time), we recognize that what works for one person may not work for another. So we might suggest to one another that we find some kind of spiritual practice, if that’s something we feel the need for. But there are no requirements, no guilt if you don’t need a spiritual practice. (Guilt if you don’t help make the world a better place, maybe, but no guilt around spiritual practices.)

There is one downside to this pragmatic flexibility. If you decide that you’d like to engage in some kind of spiritual practice, sometimes it’s hard to know which one to try. How do we find spiritual practices that work for us?

This is more or less the situation I found myself in back in the 1990s. As a young adult Unitarian Universalist, I had tried and given up on prayer and meditation. I still attended Sunday services when I could, but I had a vague feeling that it would be nice to have something I could do not just on Sundays, but all week long.

It was about this time that I started going to some Unitarian Universalist young adult conferences, and I went to a Unitarian Universalist summer conference for the first time. Back in the 1990s, there were a lot of Unitarian Universalists who were also involved in Neo-paganism and other earth-centered traditions. I met some of these Neo-pagans both at the young adult conferences and at the summer conference, and discovered that they all seemed to repertoire of earth-centered chants and songs. I had never run into chanting before. I liked the simple repetitive feeling of the chants, because they stuck in my memory better. I also liked the meaning of the lyrics — a deep feeling of connection with the non-human world, and with the human world as well. As Starhawk said in the second reading, when I sang these chants with these Neo-pagans, we blended together and became one voice.

Chant lies somewhere between the spoken word and singing, and it has both the power of music and the power of the spoken word. It is deceptively simple, and it can be inspiring and moving. I soon found out that chanting of this type is found in almost every culture around the world. Here, for example, is a chant from Hawai’i…. [At this point, Mike Nakashima sang “Oli Mahalo,” or “Gratitude Chant,” an oli (chant) composed by Kehau Camara]

After listening to, and participating in, various kinds of earth-centered chant, I began to become aware of the existence of other types of chant.

In particular, I kept hearing about something people were calling Taizé. My first direct experience with Taizé song and chant involved one person teaching a simple song, and then leading a group of us as we sang it over and over again. The melodies were a bit more complex than the earth-centered chants I already knew, but it didn’t seem all that interesting. It turns out that Taizé chant is more than just simple melodies that are sung over and over. Most Taizé chants are meant to be sung as rounds, or with four-part harmony. If people can’t sing all the harmony parts, there might be someone like Mary Beth to play those other parts on a piano or other instrument.

I found that, for me, Taizé chants were not as elemental and ecstatic as the earth-centered chants I had heard and sung. But they were deeply meditative. Because they were repeated over and over, it was easier for me to learn one of the harmony parts. And even though it was far more structured than the earth-centered chant, Taizé chant also gave me that same feeling of connection to the people I was singing with.

There are other aspects of Taizé chant that I especially valued. First, while Taizé chants are distinctly Christian, there is a real effort to make them non-sectarian. The Taizé community in France, home of the chants, is a monastic community that welcomes anyone from any Christian denomination. Second, in an era when most Western religious groups seem to ignore young adults, the Taizé community makes a point to especially welcome young adults. Finally, the Taizé community has a distinctly internationalist perspective: an individual Taizé chant might be translated into twenty or more languages. “Nada Te Turbe,” a Taizé chant that we’ve been learning here at First Parish, and that we’ll sing in just a moment, has been translated into twenty-one languages. Thus, Taizé chant is meant to bind together a world that has become divided by religion, by age, and by language. Let’s sing together a Taizé chant that we’ve been singing a lot recently, “Nada Te Turbe.”

The third type of chant that I’d like to introduce to you comes from the Threshold Choir. The Threshold Choir was started by a woman named Kate Munger, who felt a need for a kind of healing music that could be sung to people who were dying. She began teaching others her singing techniques and her repertoire of songs, until now there are many Threshold Choirs. This past July, Kate Munger and the original Threshold Choir honored for their work by being invited to sing in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

About fifteen years ago, I took a workshop with Kate Munger, and learned some of her techniques for singing to people who are dying. She has singers sit around the person who is dying. The singers sing gently and quietly, but with power. Thus the person in the middle of the circle of singers is surrounding with gentle song. When her Threshold Choir groups are practicing, they take turns sitting in the center of the circle so they can experience what it feels like to be sung to. This helps all the singers listen better to one another, and it helps the singers to have great empathy with the people for whom they sing.

Some people have expanded the Threshold Choir concept to include singing to people who are ill or unwell, but not actually dying. My home congregation has such a choir, which they call the By Your Side Singers. My family had direct experience of the By Your Side Signers: in the last year and a half of my father’s life, they would go to his residential facility and sing to him. He was no longer able to talk so I don’t really know what he thought about it, but I liked the fact that someone would come and pay that kind of attention to my dad.

Even though I took a workshop with Kate Munger, I’ve never actually participated in a Threshold Choir myself, nor in one of the healing choirs like the one that sang to my father. But some of the Threshold Choir songs have stuck with me all these years, and I find myself singing them to myself. In the past couple of weeks, with all the turmoil in the world, I find myself singing one of these songs called “In These Times,” a short song I learned from my exposure to the Threshold Choir.

Chant begins as a communal activity: it’s something we do together; it’s something that is done in cultures around the world; it’s something that can bind us to people who are quite unlike ourselves. At the same time, chant can also be an individual practice as well, a kind of meditative singing that — to use the words of the Taizé community — “can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others, or resting.”

This means that chant is one of those spiritual practices that helps build community. Even when you practice it on your own, it is at heart a communal activity. Actually, this is true of any kind of singing — as you probably know, singing in community leads to all kinds of benefits, including relieving stress, boosting your immune response, develops a sense of wellbeing and meaningful connection to others, enhances memory including enhancing memory in dementia patients, helps with grief, calms your heart rate, improves sleep, and on and on.

This, by the way, is the pragmatic reason behind singing hymns in our Sunday services — singing is good for us. But honestly, some of our hymns are difficult to sing. By contrast, because many chants are relatively simple songs they can be learned more easily, even someone with little or no musical ability. At the same time, chant can provide interesting possibilities for skilled musicians: a more skilled singer might be able to sing a harmony part, or add accompaniment with a musical instrument that doesn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the chant.

Whether you’re a skilled musician or someone with no musical ability, the key to participating in chant is learning how to listen. Whether it’s chanting or singing, listen to the people with whom you’re singing or chanting. It is by listening while chanting in a group that the chants stick in your heart and mind; and in that way they can become a part of your everyday spiritual practice. This reveals to us a great religious truth. We can’t just follow a song leader or some other authority figure. We have to actually participate. Participating requires us to listen to those around us. So it is we give voice to what’s in our hearts and minds, and at the same time listening to what others are voicing is in their hearts and minds. This is how community is built: by listening, and by putting yourself out there, both at the same time.

Mother’s Peace Day

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” by Julia Ward Howe:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

The second reading was from “Gitanjali 35” by Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom… let my country awake.

Sermon: “Mother’s Peace Day”

It appears that the very first mention of Mother’s Day dates back to 1870. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian and author of the popular Civil War song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had grown horrified at the actual results of war. She was horrified by how many young men were killed or disabled by war, but she was also horrified by what war did to the moral character of those who fought. A mother herself, she wrote in her proclamation for Mother’s Peace Day: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.” Thus she issued her historic call for all mothers everywhere to come together in an international congress of women in order to promote world peace.

After that initial proclamation of Mothers Peace Day in 1870, the idea of a day for mothers to take action together was forgotten until 1907. In that year, an Episcopalian laywoman named Anna Jarvis organized a worship service for mothers at her church in West Virginia. She did so in part to honor her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who had been a peace activist who had worked with Julia Ward Howe, and had supported Howe’s original idea for a Mother’s Peace Day. So our modern Mother’s Day began with a worship service in 1907, which had been inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s original vision of Mother’s Peace Day.

Since 1907, Mother’s Day has continued to evolve. By the mid-twentieth century, Mother’s Day was not centered on a church service. It had become a holiday that upheld a view of women then permeating American society: a woman was supposed to get married young, have lots of children, and subsume her identity in motherhood. This mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood ignored all the women who chose not to marry, or who were unable to have children, or didn’t become mothers for whatever reason. Unfortunately, when Mother’s Day became a day to uphold that old mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood, the original purpose of the day was forgotten. No longer were mothers actively taking control of the destiny of the world. Instead of mothers coming together as peace activists, mothers were supposed to be passive recipients of cards and flowers from their children and husbands. If they were lucky, mothers got taken out to lunch; at least then there was one less meal they had to cook and clean up after.

During the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, some feminists began to criticize Mother’s Day: why should women be reduced to being mothers? Why couldn’t we value women for all their contributions to society? These were needed criticisms, helping society to understand that women could be more than stereotypical mothers. At the same time, it turned out that many feminists happened to like Mother’s Day. We liked the thought that there might be a special connection between a mother and the children to whom she had given birth. We liked giving cards or flowers to our mothers. We liked the thought of taking our mothers out to lunch — although in my family, my mother, being a thrifty New England Yankee, was resistant to buying lunch in a restaurant.

In the twenty-first century, Mother’s Day continued to evolve and change. We began to re-evaluate the American myth of motherhood. We began to expand our understanding of what it meant to be a mother. We had already heard from women who had adopted their children, who had pointed out that their connection with their children was just as special as that of biological mothers. At the start of the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of same sex couples began having children, and male couples began to point out that they provided the mothering that their children wanted and needed. In the past decade, increasing numbers of transgender and non-binary people began having children, and they too have pointed out that mothering is not limited to just one gender.

And in the past half century, we have also learned to adopt the the perspective of children when we think about motherhood. For some children, their fathers provide more mothering than their mothers. Some children have cold or distant parents, and get their mothering from people who are not their parents. There are of course a great many children who do get mothering from their biological or adoptive mothers, but we began to understand that those children can get mothering not just from their mothers, but from other people in their lives — fathers and aunts and older siblings and teachers and so on.

We have expanded our understanding of motherhood, and this has come about in part because we have expanded our understanding of gender. It used to be that our society took it for granted that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role were all the same thing. Indeed, some conservative Christians still believe that if your biological sex is female then you are female, and many states in the South are passing laws that uphold this conservative Christian notion of sex gender. Many of those conservative Christians also believe that all women should be ruled by biological males, and should stay at home to raise children; these conservative Christians want to go back to that mid-twentieth century stereotype that the only appropriate role for a biological female is to be a mother.

However, the rest of our society has come to understand that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role can be quite separate. For example — and this is an example that gets the most press these days — our society is coming to understand that there are transgender people whose biological sex happens to be different from their gender identity. But our society is also coming to accept that people can take on a gender role that is different from their biological sex or their gender identity. We are coming to understand that man can be nurturing and can even take on the role of mothering; we are coming to understand that people who do not have children of their own can take on the role of nurturing and mothering.

We are slowly expanding our understanding motherhood to include a wider range of actual experiences. Of course we still celebrate biological females who give birth to new human beings. But now we can also celebrate those biological females who do not fit comfortably into the gender role of nurturing female, and we can also celebrate the biological males who take on the role of a nurturing mother. We can celebrate people of any gender identity, of any biological sex, who take on the gender role of mothering.

This helps us to expand Julia Ward Howe’s original idea of Mother’s Peace Day. Howe knew that anyone who had been a mother would not want to send their child off to war. Anyone who had been a mother would not want to see their child killed or maimed or traumatized by the horrors of war. That is why she ended the original Mother’s Peace Day Proclamation with these words: “I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” Howe’s idea is quite logical and straightforward: If she could just gather all the mothers of the world together in one great room, surely they could find a way to put an end to war. She was thinking about just those biological females who happened to have given birth, but why not include in that gathering all those who people who have filled some sort of mothering, nurturing role? The more people we can find who have filled a nurturing mothering role, the more people there are who will feel committed to ending war.

This might include people who would never be called mothers. Take me, for example. I’m a biological male, my gender identity is male, I’ve never had children of my own. Yet I spent a couple of decades doing religious education, and in my own way I helped raise two or three generations of young people. And there are quite a few people like me, people who didn’t exactly do any mothering, but who wound up doing a lot of nurturing. When add together all the mothers with the non-mothers who did a lot of nurturing, that adds up to a great many people who have put a lot of effort into helping the next generation grow up. And we would all prefer it if the next generation were not killed or maimed or traumatized by war.

I like to think that Julia Ward Howe would have welcomed no just women but nurturing people of all genders to her “general congress of women without limit of nationality.” I suspect Julia Ward Howe would have given the women and mothers the seats of honor in the front of the congress. But she would have welcomed anyone dedicated to keeping our children safe — people of all genders; teachers and social workers and doctors and anyone who nurtured others; aunts and uncles and cousins and older siblings and anyone who didn’t happen to have children of their own but helped raise and nurture children — anyone who has contributed to raising up the next generations. I think Julia Ward Howe would welcomed us all to her great congress.

And to me, this remains the central meaning of Mother’s Day. Not that any of this should interfere with your traditional celebration of Mother’s Day. Do whatever it is that you usually do on Mother’s Day: call your mom, let your children take you out to lunch, take your spouse out to lunch, ignore the whole thing. I don’t mean any of this to interfere with your celebration of Mother’s Day, but perhaps the thought of Julia Ward howe and Mother’s Peace Day will add to your celebration. If we were all better at mothering, perhaps the world would be a better, more peaceful place. If our world leaders learned some mothering skills, if they allowed themselves to be more nurturing, perhaps we would have fewer wars. Maybe that’s too much to ask — it’s hard for me to imagine that Vladimir Putin knows what it is to nurture others. But what if he could change? What if he could become empathetic? What if he could forget his own egotistical ambitions and learn to how to selflessly nurture those people who are not as strong or powerful as he?

What if all our world leaders learned how to be empathetic and nurturing? That is, what if all world leaders lived up to the late nineteenth century ideal of motherhood? What if Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers had actually gathered, and had actually taken on real power? We can imagine that such a congress would have focused on how to nurture and raise the next generation. And if our governments were formed with the goal of nurturing and raising the next generation, perhaps we would finally put an end to war.

Of course Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers was not able to take control of world affairs in 1870. Given the rampant sexism of the time, it was too much to expect that a congress of mothers could in fact take over the world. Nor are the chances for a great congress of mothers much better in today’s world.

That does not mean that we should lose all hope. We can start small. We can honor and support empathetic nurturing wherever we may find it. We can honor every person in our lives who nurtures others with empathy. There are people of all genders who nurture others with empathy. There are people of all ages who nurture others with empathy. Both parents and non-parents can be nurturing influences in the lives of others. We can honor all these people, and we can support them in their efforts to raise the next generation — to raise up a generation that in its turn will be more nurturing and empathetic than we are today. Perhaps one day, everyone will know the central skills of mothering — nurturing, empathy, and kindness.

Until that time comes, may we continue to honor the mothers among us. Those of us who had empathetic nurturing mothers can honor their roles in our lives, and if our mothers are still alive we can send them a card or maybe even take them out to lunch. Those of us who have a spouse who is a mother can honor our spouse. All of us can remember and honor all those people in our lives who helped to nurture us.

And so may I wish all the mothers among us a happy Mother’s Day. May you be honored for all you do, and all you have done. And in the spirit of the original Mother’s Peace Day, may your example of mothering be an inspiration to the rest of the world — so that together we may, in the words of Julia Ward Howe, “take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”