A few years ago I sat with my mom and punched “record” on my iPad before I asked her about her childhood on the farm, in the searing heat of the San Joaquin Valley. She told me that when electric power became available, back in the day, her folks had decided it would only be affordable if they moved the house out to the street in order to save money on the trenching costs. Imagine that: easier to move the house than dig a trench! And so, they moved the house; picked it up and moved. I think it was easier to move houses back then because there was no indoor plumbing, but still…it’s not the kind of thing you do today.
The story exemplifies the spirit of many who lived through the Great Depression and fought a World War in Europe and Asia at the same time, with all that entailed (buying war bonds, food, gas, rubber, rationing, separation, suffering, death). They came home and built lives, schools, interstate highways, and got on with life.
The way my mom got on with life was to start a family, but the baby died shortly after childbirth, and nearly cost mom her life. The ensuing surgery meant she’d never have children, so adoption became the plan. Enter Susan, in 1952, and me four years later, in 1956. The convergence of suffering and loss in mom’s life was precisely how I ended up being raised by this woman who died yesterday, and so I’m spending part of today remembering the gifts I’ve been given by her, and the family to which I belonged. In particular, I’m giving thanks for these three gifts:
Our family had faith – If you go back in the archives of First Baptist Church in Fresno, you’ll find my dad on the building committee, on the board, on the finance committee. You’ll find my mom doing something called “circle” where women gathered, apparently in a circle, to work on projects that would somehow support missionaries. The only time I was ever recused from the Wednesday night programs at church was when the San Francisco Giants were in town to play a spring exhibition game. Dad had his priorities, and he picked me up from school right after lunch so that we could be there in time to watch Willie Mays take batting practice.
Their faith though, wasn’t really about involvement in all these church activities. Those were just the fruit of their lives being rooted in Christ. We prayed as a family, read the Bible together, talked about God as if God were real, because we believed He was. When Billy Graham came to town in 1962 we were there every night. I was six, and knew the tug of God on my heart, even then.
This wasn’t “church on Sunday—and then swearing, drinking, and raising hell” the rest of the week, behind the religious curtain. Nope. This was the real thing. I saw it, absorbed it, wanted it for myself.
So this Christmas I’ll celebrate having grown up in a family that, for all its flaws, believed they were known and loved by their Creator. Mom’s biggest joy in life, her primal prayer at some level, was that her kids would know this too. That we did, and still do, is a testimony to her legacy.
Our faith served – Mom knew a lot of loss in her life; the death of an infant; infertility; a good dose of poverty too, and then later, the untimely death of her husband in 1973, and her daughter, my sis, in 1995.
Still, for all that, mom’s paradigm for living seems simple to me in retrospect. She’d look for a need and meet it. I don’t even know how I was related to Aunt Josie, who looked terribly old and frail when I was a small child (she was probably in her 50’s), but I remember being annoyed that, after my little league games, we’d need to go visit this woman. The same thing was true when we visited her sick friends, Bug and Edie, while we were on the coast for holiday. She always found people with less than her, less energy, less family, less joy—and she’d go spend time with them.
When mom was 80 she’d drive over to the rest home where she ultimately lived for ten years, in order the “pick up the old people and take them to church.” Who does that? Mom did, apparently.
One way of dealing with loss is to sink into a cycle of bitterness and self pity, but I’ve come to believe that my mom’s faith buoyed her and propelled her outward, with eyes to see needs and a heart to serve.
Though I’m very different than mom in this realm, I can connect the dots too. When I had a profound encounter with God in 1976, it quickly became apparent that drawing concepts of buildings wasn’t going to be “service enough” for me, that I needed to be with people in some way, helping them discover and live into the grand adventure of knowing God. For me this led to a life of church leadership, pastoring, and teaching. Surely though, if you’d asked me where I learned about the possibilities of serving, in spite of loss, in spite of health challenges, in spite of insecurities, in spite of questions, I’d point to my mom and say: “Blame her… she showed me how…”
Our family laughed – in spite of everything. Mom was more often the butt of jokes than the initiator (just like my wife, Donna) but she laughed along with the rest of us when dad bought a rubber hot dog and she tossed it into the garbage disposal, where it shot out like a rocket, leaving us all on the floor laughing. We laughed when a 10-year-old guest was reading a morning devotional passage and when he came to the word “misled” (i.e. “He misled his sister) he paused, having a bit of trouble with pronunciation. Mom glanced over at the book and said, “MY-ZELD” as in “My Zeld is better than your zeld”) Dad says, “No. It’s mis-led” but mom wouldn’t bend, and soon we’re laughing as she tried to justify her mispronunciation, even though we all knew that she knew.
There’s a myth out there that our capacity for service, laughter, love, are proportional to the ease of our lives. So there we go, trying hard to live the good life, by which we mean the life insulated from difficulty. This insulated life, though, creates fear, walls, anxiety.
Mom and Dad showed me a better way. They showed me that, regardless of setbacks, we have our faith, our intimate relationship with Christ. Regardless of our suffering, there are those with less, and we have chances to serve. Regardless of our losses, we can laugh, and love generously.
I’ll miss you this Christmas Mom, but these are some of the many gifts you’ve shared that are still giving. Thanks!