My beloved mom died last week. She lived a long and good life; she brought a lot of good into the world and made many people very happy; and she died a good death – peaceful, in comfort, in the presence of family. How good can it get?
There are many things I have long been thankful for about my mom. I would like to reflect on one of them here.
Many years ago, when I left the Christian faith that my mom held so dear – a faith that meant almost everything to her – it caused her a great deal of pain. But she did not allow our stark differences to destroy our relationship. We continued to love and honor each other even though we were deeply at odds on issues that both of us considered among the most important in our lives.
My mom was not raised in a religious household. She grew up in the small town of Burlington Kansas and her parents were not church people. When she was in high school she started becoming interested in religion – a friend invited her to Sunday school, she attended a revival meeting, and started thinking seriously about God and her spiritual life. In college she began attending church and by the time I came along she understood belief in God, the Christian tradition, and the Bible as central parts of what it meant to be a good and loving person.
She was not particularly interested in deep theological issues and was not overly concerned about denominational differences. When we moved back to Lawrence KS after an eight-year hiatus in Fremont Nebraska (I was in fifth grade) we went church hunting. We kids rather liked the Methodist Church because the minister told jokes during the sermon. That church and most of the others we tried were fairly main-stream liberal, concerned with social issues. That wasn’t a problem for my parents per se, but my mom was insistent that any church we joined should be one that actually talked about God. Fair enough. And so we ended up at the Episcopal church with its rich liturgy and a focus on prayer, confession, eucharist, and, well, God.
Mom became increasingly devout – not in an evangelical Bible-thumping way at all, but just as a personal commitment to God and to doing what was right to and for others. I don’t recall her ever discussing religion in social contexts (at work, with neighbors, at cocktail parties). Her faith was simply part of her life: she was active in the church and she served on the altar guild.
I was confirmed in the church and served as an acolyte, all the way through high school. In my junior year I became a born-again Christian through a Youth for Christ club; my mom was delighted and we began to talk religion seriously together. She was always the kind of Christian who focused almost exclusively on a personal relationship with God, and that intensified at that point. My dad, who was not particularly drawn to the faith for most of his life, became more devout. My brother and sister both became more seriously religious.
When I went off to Moody Bible Institute my mom was thrilled, very pleased indeed that I had committed my life to Christ and would probably go into some kind of ministry as a pastor, evangelist, or missionary. She became more involved with Bible studies, prayer groups, and fellowship meetings. She and my dad followed me out of the Episcopal church to the Lawrence Bible Chapel (which was Plymouth Brethren). For me as a hard-core evangelical it seemed a more seriously committed form of the faith based intensely on an understanding of the New Testament rather than English liturgy. My folks became more and more invested in their Christian commitments, and assumed that for all of us these commitments would deepen over the years.
Then, to their chagrin, I started to change. I went to Wheaton, an evangelical liberal arts college, to finish my degree, and there began to study something other than the Bible and theology. I majored in English literature, learned ancient Greek, took classes in wide ranging subjects that showed me that there was a very big world out there with lots of diversity and challenges to a narrow view of reality, classes from European intellectual history to geology. My mind began opening up. But I was still a very committed evangelical Christian.
When I went to Princeton Theological Seminary I remained evangelical for several years. But as I studied the Bible more intensely in the original languages, took courses in theology by decidedly (and strongly) NON-evangelical scholars, made lots of friends (ministerial candidates) who had very different views from mine, and so on – I became more open to other views and less convinced that what I had believed as a fifteen-year old was necessarily eternally true, just because it was what I had heard at the time.
A big turning point came when I realized there really were contradictions in the Bible, historical mistakes, and errors of various kinds. For what it’s worth, I prayed and agonized over the issues for a long time; I didn’t leave the evangelical faith quickly or easily but kicking and screaming. Still, once I admitted that my earlier views were just wrong, I became even more intensely focused on learning more and more and on developing my scholarship.
My mom was not a scholar. She believed the Bible had no mistakes in it and that faith in Christ was the only way to salvation. Anyone who refused to believe in Christ would be condemned to hell forever. This was simply how it worked. God was eternally loving but he was also completely righteous. And his righteousness could not allow those who rejected him to receive his grace. The grace was on free offer. If someone foolishly refused to accept it, it wasn’t God’s fault. If a hungry person stupidly refuses to accept food, they’ll starve. The person who offered the food isn’t to blame.
Tied up with belief in Christ, for my mom, was the simple acceptance that the Bible was the Word of God that revealed the truth. Anyone who rejected that rejected God. Arguments, logic, research, study, analysis – none of that had anything to do with it.
I need to emphasize that my mom was highly intelligent. She was not a brainless blob. She was very sharp and knew how to use her smarts. But faith was not a matter of the intellect. It was a matter of trust and faith. You can’t outsmart God.
The short of it is that we began to clash. I was learning things that I simply could not deny were true. She thought I was becoming blinded to the truth. And so we started to have some very painful arguments. They usually started with the Bible; she would say something, I would point out the problem with it, she’d stick to her guns, I’d stick to mine, and it was awful, emotionally wrenching on both sides. More on hers, because she not only thought I was completely wrong but also damnably wrong. And she loved me. That was truly bad. She also wondered what had happened to me. I was the one in the family to develop a (rather excessively) passionate commitment to the Bible and God; and now I was abandoning it. What was wrong with me?
And so we were stuck. What could we do? I couldn’t agree with her views and she couldn’t agree with mine. On some of the most important issues in our lives. Ouch.
BUT. But “love conquers all.” After a time, my mom and I realized that there was no point arguing or disagreeing, or even talking about it. We were irreconcilably different. But that didn’t mean we were irreconcilable. In fact, we never ever had a personal falling out. We were divided on the key issue. But we were not divided from each other. Ever.
Those painful times were over thirty years ago. In some weird ways the differences deepened our connection. She was deeply proud of me as my career advanced, even as she wept and prayed for me. But we simply stopped talking about the dividing issue. We instead enjoyed all the things about each other that we shared. We enjoyed each other’s presence. We lived half a continent apart but I went to see her when I could. We worked in her yard, ate together, laughed together. I took her on trips to the West Coast (she sat through a week-long series of lectures I gave in Oregon, and never complained about what I said!) and on a cruise in the Caribbean (more lectures). I took her out for a round of golf on her 80th birthday. I took her trout fishing every year – up until she was 88. Up until the end I’d visit her in her senior-living residence. When I saw her over the past few months, even though she didn’t remember my name or who I was exactly, her face would light up and she would laugh with me.
I’ve thought a lot about the things that divide all of us lately. We as a human race are far more divided than ever, polarized over seemingly everything: cultural views; social issues; politics; religion. And its not just that we can’t agree. We have demonized those we disagree with, even former loved ones, family members, friends, neighbors. We genuinely believe that those who don’t agree with us on issues ranging from abortion, to immigration, gender and sexuality, gay marriage, race relations, governmental spending, political party, history itself, religion itself, and most everything else itself – those who disagree with us are not just wrong, they are pig-headedly wrong, evil, and dangerous.
Just about everyone I know is like this. I am like this. I have a very, very hard time thinking that someone with different views from mine on all these major issues can be in any sense a good person. I think of all the terrible harm they do to others, to the “Other,” the immigrant, the African American, the transsexual, the impoverished, the … well, the list goes on a very long way – I think that the views of the “Other” are monstrous. We all seem to think that.
But surely there is a better way to deal with conflict than to build a fortress around our views and to start launching missiles at the outsider hoping to wipe them off the planet. For one thing, that ain’t gonna happen. For another thing, it will never change anyone’s views. And for yet another thing, anyone who is in principle committed to a life of love absolutely must not in practice be committed to a life of hate.
My mom disagreed with me on lots of things, not just religion. We disagreed on social issues, politics, issues of gender and sexuality, and so on. But we also loved each other and tried to bring out the best in each other. We certainly could have demonized each other. That’s what so many people now do: neighbors, friends, families – falling apart over differences. But there is a better way and my mom took it. We don’t back down an inch from our convictions. We believe in them. We stand by them. We fight for them. But we don’t have to cut off the person who disagrees. We find common cause with them. We find shared values and mutual interests. We help them become the best person they can be and hope they do the same for us. We love those we love, for who they are.
My mom believed “God is love,” and she did her best to put that belief into practice. I’d like to become more like that.
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