May 13, 2018
My late mother left behind a testament, a book-long memoir that tells the story of her life From There to Here, which is the title. Reading it, I learned a lot that I hadn’t known before, including how she felt when she lost her firstborn child.
The tiny baby girl was born the next morning and she never breathed. . . . I was stunned and devastated. I had never experienced any real grief or loss in my young life . . . . Faced with the classic problem of pain and evil, my gut feeling was that God must be crazy.
I was not a witness to my sister’s death at birth but of course, I don’t doubt it. A lot of what we take for truth we learn through another person’s testimony.
The Bible is a testament too. Reading it, we learn things about God we would not have known. There are other ways we have of learning truth: observation, experimentation, inference from experience, and so forth. Compared to those ways, its testimony is more open to doubt. The Bible knows this. John, writing in the Bible, talks about it, suggesting that if we accept human testimony about this and that, as we do, then we have more reason to accept the testament of God. “The testimony of God is greater,” he says.
You don’t doubt my mother lost a child because she told me and I just now told you. It happened almost eighty years ago. My Aunt Bertie is alive and she remembers. For verification, we could ask her. John and his audience were closer in time to Jesus’s life than you and I are to my sister’s death. There were still some around who had been there.
The question for doubters in John’s audience was not whether Jesus existed and did this or that. Their question was: Was this the one for whom we waited? People had taken sides. When John said “the testimony of God is greater” than human testimony, I think he had miracles in mind. He called them signs. The signs were a testament too, God’s testimony on behalf of Jesus as his son.
In his gospel, John calls Christ “the Word.” In Christ, God is testifying: This is who I am. As my mother wrote papered words to tell us what was on her mind and in her heart, so God writes “the word made flesh” to show his heart and mind. Those who believe this, John says, “have the testimony in their hearts.” So that is God’s testament to the power of three: in Christ, in scripture, and in our hearts. Karl Barth called this the three-fold nature of the Word of God. When it speaks in our hearts we are reborn.
Of his disciples, Jesus counts heads and reports that none were lost, with one exception, Judas. Of the rest, “I protected them,” he says. Now he prays that God will guard them after his departure. Whether God protects us was a question then, as it is a question now, on which people will take sides.
That the world isn’t safe we know from observation. My mother lost that first baby and then two more. For all her love, she couldn’t keep them safe. Christians have recently been killed in churches. If there is safety, it isn’t obvious. We often ask: So where was God?
On the one hand, Jesus warned his followers that to follow him they would put their lives at risk. “If you try to save your life you’ll lose it, but if you give it up you’ll save it.” On the other hand, he never showed himself indifferent to their happiness and safety. We see him protect and guard his followers: curing illnesses and stopping their tormentors, including some who are ready to throw rocks. “God is love,” the scripture testifies, and where love is, there God is also. Thinking of my mother’s loss, grief is one of love’s intense expressions. In her grief, she spoke for God.
A stillborn child is one of a hundred experiences that could be taken as a sign of something bad in God: craziness, cruelty, indifference, non-existence: name your poison.
But as the Word of God unfolds through Christ––in person, scripture, human hearts––it testifies that God is not indifferent and is the opposite of cruel. Beneath life’s madness, there is method. Its risks are measured. We or something else can spoil, pollute, or break it bad, but only for a time. In Christ, our cruelest losses soon or late will turn to gain. St. Paul lists some problems that were typical for early Christians: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, death by sword, and more. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us,” he declares. He takes that for a fact, like laws in physics. Oh, we say, we hadn’t known that. Now we do.
My mother loved Julian of Norwich, the 14th Century English Mystic famous for her deathbed experiences of Christ and for using feminine imagery for God. Julian wrote a memoir describing her experiences, titled Revelations of Divine Love. Mothers give us life, nourishment and safety and Julian saw Christ as motherly like that, explaining:
It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good. Jesus Christ, therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him and this is where His Maternity starts. And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us. Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother. [i]
This truth makes us strong. Paul likens it to armor: the “shield of faith,” the “helmet of hope,” etc. In the south, the civil rights movement was a powerful example. From prison, Martin Luther King spoke truth to danger. “The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear,” he said. In that strength, he led a peaceful revolution, whose goal was the fulfillment of the American ideal as illumined by the threefold Word of God.[ii]
King refused to make the white his enemy. Instead, the enemy was hatred and a polluted mindset that granted rights and measured human worth through a racial prism. Racist laws and customs, long established, expressed and fortified the mindset. Normally, hatred is answered in kind. King called his movement to rise above the normal pattern—and it did. King marched in the conviction that the human happiness of blacks and whites is mutually dependent. He put it this way:
We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be [and vice versa.]
That was from a sermon to a mostly white audience at the National Cathedral, less than a week before he died. The sermon was titled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.”
So we are all in this together. How do we know this is true? The same way we know that life’s risks are measured and that God is the opposite of cruel. These truths are threads running through the single garment of a healthy Christ-illumined mindset.
My mother’s memoir is 435 pages long, chock full of testimony about family, politics, and events from Pearl Harbor to 9-11. Towards the end she writes:
If you are 18 and have been raised in a protected environment, as I was when you marry you don’t have any idea that life is a serious business. If you marry, conceive a child only to have her die at birth, and your husband goes off to war, all within a period of 18 months, you learn all too soon what serious business it is.[iii]
That is a good lesson we can learn from hard experience. No longer naïve, mother went on from that to probe it: Is it seriously this, or seriously that? There are several ways that “serious” could cut.
From Julian, she got further guidance. In prayer, Julian asked God to explain the meaning of their mystical encounter. She had pondered that for years until one day, she said, “I was answered by a spiritual understanding” ––and this is what she heard:
Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. . . . And I saw most certainly in this and in everything that before God made us he loved us, and this love never slackened and never shall. In this love, he has done all his works, in this love he has made all things profitable for us, and in this love our life is everlasting.
That is a truth beyond anything that experience alone could teach: life is seriously beautiful––not like a pretty face or sunset but like a thrilling piece of music, or great novel rising to a surprising, deeply satisfying end.
That is the story we belong to—all in it together.
Mother died late on a Sunday afternoon, at home on our farm in Louisiana. I was here for church that morning, having gotten word that she was failing and “this might be it” the day before. I had a wedding Saturday night, so it was “Do I stay or do I go.” Given the uncertainty, it was a difficult decision. I stayed here for the wedding and for Sunday morning services, then drove hard five hours to the farm. My sisters were there already and so was Aunt Bertie. When I walked in mother was still breathing, slowly. She wanted all her children with her and was waiting for me.
[i] From “Revelations of Divine Love” by Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), (LIX, LXXXVI).http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20010807_giuliana-norwich_en.html, accessed May 8, 2018
[ii] David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, Kindle edition, loc. 32-38.
[iii] Polly Keller Winter, “From There to Here,” p. 409