I know. That’s what people are supposed to say about their mothers. But anyone who knows my mom knows I cannot possibly exaggerate her sweetness factor.
For much of my adult life, she and I have lived continents apart. But then she lives a world apart from where she was born – high in the verdant, severely undulating country of Southwest China. I’ve been to her birthplace and have seen some of the places she’s called home, none for more years than the house on Wheaton Avenue she has lived in since I was five. But – and don’t take this personally, friends in South Jersey – none of these places are her home. Home for her really is where Jesus is, and that is where she longs to be, more than anywhere else.
Once again this birthday I won’t be with her. So I’m writing this for her, knowing Dad will read it aloud – and she will understand.
Mom taught me many things over the years – pet sayings of hers, truths and principles to fortify a kid for life, stories with staying power. Most importantly, she taught me a love for God, for allthe people God has created, and for God’s Word.
Among the many things I’ve learned from her, a few stand out. I share them in my words more than hers; they have become such a part of my life, I can no longer remember how they were first communicated to me. Probably they came as much by example as by word, for there has never been a difference between the two when it comes my mother.
1. Give your heart completely to Jesus – if you do, you can trust your heart will never get off-track
I’ve been to the place where Mom “gave her heart” to Jesus. Dali sits at the end of a long lake 6,500 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Himalayas. There she and a handful of classmates and teachers had relocated to escape the ravages of Japan’s invasion of China.
We visited that city together as we found her old dormitory and she spoke of how in that very room she had read a letter from her parents telling of their house in Kunming being bombed. Far from her parents with all the feelings of vulnerability and aloneness that must have washed over her, she dedicated her life to Jesus as she finished that letter.
I’ve heard the stories again and again – of her growing up in China, the amazing journey around the globe as they were chased by enemy submarines, living in Missouri as a pre-teen and again in college, and then coming to pastor in New Jersey with her young groom. And I’ve watched her life ever since. From that moment in Dali on, she has known that if she gave it all to Jesus, she’d never be alone again – or lose her way.
No matter what might come her way. Life certainly hasn’t always been easy, more difficult that anyone on this earth will ever know, no doubt. But one thing for sure, her anchor holds fast and secure. “Thy word have I hid in my heart” she’d quote often – and it was true.
2. If you follow your heart, don’t be surprised when people misunderstand you
Being misunderstood is no earthshake for Mom. She expects it, as surely as the sun rises in the morning. Not that she is paranoid or has a persecution complex, she just knows human nature. And yet, whatever she thinks or feels inside, outwardly she refuses to be controlled by what others think of her or of how she should live her life.
An ordained minister, she has been one of the best expositors of the Bible around. Boy, is she a good preacher! She came from a long line of preachers, including her grandmother who’d been a turn-of-the-century lay Methodist evangelist. Although Pentecostals have been ordaining women ever since, there was a long period mid-twentieth century when men in leadership held women back. Then came the day when that leadership changed and the door to women opened again. Mom was among the first women to be ordained by the churches in New Jersey.
Occasionally someone, usually a man, would bring up the notion of women not being allowed to teach or preach. She’d have something kind but searching to say, to get them thinking in a different way, if they were open to thinking. And she could say all that in her own sweet way. But in the end, it didn’t seem to matter to her. She knew what was in her heart to do and that was enough for her.
3. People are everything, things are nothing – unless they are important to people
Maybe it is because she’d lost or had to leave nearly every possession more than once growing up. But things have not possessed her. People don’t either, truth be told, but people do matter, far more than any one thing. However, she has taken great value in those things people hold of value because she values the people who hold them.
Oh, there have been favorite possessions, like her piano or her hi-fi. But such instruments were merely tools for producing what she loved so much: music. To this day, she can sing a multitude of hymns by heart – verse after verse. Ask her to name one and one might or might not come to mind. Start singing or playing any one of a hymnbook full, and she will join in without missing a beat.
But music, as with God’s creation that she loves so dearly, is not a thing to be possessed as much as a God-given treasure to be enjoyed. And so she enjoys it. Through and through.
And so, too, comes her love for people. For people – all people – are created by God. People, regardless their station in life or condition or background, have value, immense value to God. God values people more than anything else in His creation and if God values them so much, then so will she. At least that is what I get from seeing her with her lifetime of loving people.
I remember once she received a gift from someone. I don’t remember who or what, people were always giving her precious keepsakes. I asked her if she really liked it. Why yes, she said. So-and-so gave it to me. The giver, whom she valued, gave it value in the giving.
4. All of God and God’s creation are valuable and of great worth for us to explore
Mom imparted an insatiable curiosity about all of life. When I was growing up, that intense delight in learning certainly was transferred to me.
Nothing has been of greater interest to her than God and thus her love for God’s Word, her gateway through which to explore the God she loves. That and entering into His presence, experiencing Him first hand. Thus it was a common, daily sight when I was growing up, seeing her reading and studying her Bible – watching her worship her first love.
But she was not one of those types who thought other learning useless, as if only the Bible mattered. No, for her, everything has God’s fingerprint on it and thus has value to be explored and enjoyed.
Many a time I’d come to her with a question or a thought. More often than not, I’d leave with more questions she’d posed. Or a thought about something else to consider. Never stop with an answer, for behind every answer lies something deeper. I never knew her bored, devoid of a desire to know more.
She’s always loved looking out the windows of her house, watching the trees and flowers change with the seasons. Every season beautiful.
One night several years ago we were camping at Shadow Mountain Lake in Colorado, a mile and a half high, where the stars were so brilliant at night, she could not make out the constellations she knew so well. There it was, the Milky Way, in all its blazing glory, just like she remembered in the highlands of Asia or the seas of the world.
All of nature, a gift from God, was to be cherished and lovingly cared for. Thus she was known for separating her trash years before it was cool to do so.
Perhaps it all came from her understanding of God, this Being who was Personhood personified and unfathomable Mystery, all at once. There is no end to discovering God, for God is infinite. Exploring God is a journey as much as it is a destination – and so too all that God has created.
5. Every stage of life is a gift from God
Every stage, every experience. Even those most difficult to discern what good can come of them. And of the more difficult chapters in life? She’s embraced them as teacher, as imparter of something meaningful. Not that she could always articulate what that was. Some things have a long waiting period before the meaning is revealed. Some things are better felt than articulated.
I heard someone this week speak of joy without pleasure. I don’t know that joy has lacked pleasure for Mom, but perhaps, the pleasure is in the joy itself. She’s never been a pleasure seeker. But she has been a joy explorer. Or maybe it is that joy is that which flows out instead of in. Joy is a byproduct of having your anchor secure. Anchor secured, joy experienced – and joy expressed.
In the twilight haze, there is mystery. The sun is setting (or rising) and things more discernable in broad daylight are no longer clear. Images blend together, shapes redefine. But there is meaning in that time of day not to be found in any other. I only wish the twilight understanding could be imparted to us by others going through it while we are still experiencing the broad light of day. Apparently there is no other way but to go through it. As with every other hour of life, there is more of God to learn in this hour as well. Things that cannot be learned in any other.
And so my mother continues to explore. As I have no doubt she will for eternity. Endless joy in the journey, anchor ever sure.
Happy Birthday, Mom!