This post is dedicated to my mom, whom I love with all my heart.
This week I unwittingly created a firestorm in a social media group for people who grew up in my hometown. When one of my friends posted a compliment for a county official who defended the recent placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the county courthouse (seeprevious post), I responded, offering a different perspective. A relatively civil discussion ensued, but one commenter who was frustrated with my responses told me that on this blog, I have often offended Christians all over the world who pray and read their Bibles every day.
I have no wish to offend, but it is very hard to talk about religion and politics without offending someone, as author Joyce Carol Oates learned this month when one of her tweets offended pretty much everyone. As New York Times author Frank Bruni, who interviewed her afterward, said, “Look critically at someone’s god and gird for the lightning.”
Since I began this blog, many of my friends and family have asked me why I try to engage in a discussion on such topics. They espouse the belief that we should never talk about religion and politics in polite company. But if we don’t, then we leave the discussion to people at the two extremes, which I believe is the biggest problem with our public dialogue. Reasonable people don’t wish to offend, and because we don’t, we steer clear of topics that are difficult to wrestle with and leave the discussion to those we feel are incapable of hearing reason.
I believe, though, that our stories hold the key to helping us understand each other. And so I want to share the story that started me on the journey of writing a book and creating a blog.
A few years ago my mother had a life-threatening stroke. She had a DNR order on file, but when my sister left her side in the emergency room to call me, the doctor asked her, “Mrs. Williamson, do you want us to help you breathe?”
When my mother answered, “Yes,” the doctors intubated her, and for five days she lay unconscious as a parade of doctors told us that we should unhook the respirator because if Mom awoke from the stroke, she would be unable to do anything on her own. Our friends and family prayed for our mother as we struggled to make a decision.
On the third day of our vigil, the on-call doctors changed, and a different neurologist showed us a scan of the bleeding in Mom’s brain. He pointed to the areas that control speech, showing that none of the bleed had so far reached that area, and told us that if our mother woke up, she could be okay after some rehabilitation. He said that if we had waited this long, it couldn’t hurt to wait for a couple more days.
Two days later my sister and I sat on opposite sides of Mom’s bed. We had both told Mom that we would miss her terribly but that it was okay if she let go and went to be with God and Dad and our brother who had died tragically a couple of years before. I sang hymns softly to her, and my sister talked about family.
And much to our surprise, she opened her eyes. By the next day she was talking. And after two months in rehab, she was able to walk again with a walker—much as she had done prior to the stroke—until a year ago when she had a much more debilitating stroke that has left her unable to communicate more than a few words or an occasional sentence.
In the time between the two strokes, I called Mom nearly every day on my long commute home from work and visited her whenever I could. And I learned things about her faith that I had never known before.
I knew that Mom had never gone to church. I knew that the church of her childhood forbade drinking, wearing jewelry or pants, cutting her hair, and, most strictly, attending any other church. I knew that the church leaders believed that she and Dad were going to hell.
Dad? I understood their condemnation for him. He was a hell-raiser. He drank, gambled, and routinely broke most of the Ten Commandments until an encounter with a bad batch of moonshine made him re-examine his life. He softened as he aged, but I never once heard him talk about God except to invoke a curse.
But Mom? She sang hymns as she cleaned house. She never cursed, never drank, never smoked. She told her children frequently that it was a sin to lie and to hate. Even when Dad lost his job and we lived on government assistance, she told us that we needed to be grateful for our meals because there were children starving in other parts of the world. Not once did I ever hear her covet what belonged to someone else or see her break any of the Ten Commandments. She faithfully watched religious programs and Billy Graham revivals. She taught me by example that believing in God was as natural as breathing the air.
I was stunned, then, when Mom admitted to me that she was terrified of dying and believed she might be going to hell. She told my sister and me that she had read the Bible twice and said, “That book is the most violent book I’ve ever read in my life!”
I reasoned with Mom. My sister arranged for her to talk with a therapist. I gave her books by authors who wrote beautifully about a God who is more about grace than fear. I prayed with her. She had no doubt about my faith or the state of my soul. She was certain that I was going to heaven, but she had no such blessed assurance for herself.
In the last conversation I had with my mother about faith before her second stroke, she told me that she knew on an intellectual level that God was full of grace and that nothing could separate her from the love of God. But she said she just couldn’t escape the teaching of her childhood.
Now Mom is in a nursing home. She can’t walk, go to the bathroom alone, or dress herself. She can speak only a few intelligible words, though she chatters to us and kisses us repeatedly when we visit. She can feed herself, but that, too, is getting more difficult. But still she fights, her will to live astounding the doctors who have predicted her demise many, many times.
Why does she fight? She can no longer tell us. But I suspect it has more than a little to do with that emotional shroud of fear that God will exact vengeance for some vague list of sins no one has ever seen her commit.
I don’t wish to offend—even those who fervently disagree with me. But as long as I draw breath, I’ll tell this story and my own stories in the hope that I can offer comfort and peace to people like my mother.
Whatever your faith, please help me tell stories of grace. Our world is much in need of them.
May it be so.