What the Bible Can Do
I just called Mom up from China. Mom suffers from failing memory.
No, “suffering” is the wrong word. My mother seems to suffer less than almost anyone I know. Our conversations tend to be a little repetitive. But they most often circle around a single simple theme: gratitude.
“I am just so grateful for everything. That little Holly dog, I’ve always loved dogs, I take her for a walk several times every day. Do you remember the dogs we had when you were growing up?
“I’m grateful to stay at Rand and Laurels. Sometimes Rand and I eat together when Laurie has to work. He’s teaching me to play golf and we go putting. I love the game of golf — the greens are so beautiful.”
Occasionally Mom brings up her daughter’s church, always mentioning how nice the people are, but usually adding that she misses her old church, Westside Presbyterian, where she married and attended so many years with Dad. And of course, she misses Dad, and (sadly) her memories of Dad. “What do you remember about Dad?” she will ask.
And “haven’t we had good weather lately?” My Mom may be the only person in Seattle who enjoys such consistently sunny skies. Arizona or Florida would be wasted on her.
Joy Despite the Troubles
Mind you, Mom has endured a few of the proverbial slings and arrows of unkindly fate: an alcoholic father, a brother who died young under tragic circumstances. I remember how depressed she felt when we lived in Southeast Alaska when I was in middle school: dark clouds were snagged by the mountains in fall, the short daylight hours were filled with endless rain, sleet, and snow, and friends and family were a thousand miles away. Mom had to watch a bevy of four active children, who somehow managed not to drown, be buried in avalanches, or get hypothermia, on our many adventures exploring the 49th state. (At least I think we started out with four of us!)
That time of depression seemed to push Mom not only on the social resources of Douglas Island Bible Church, led by a warm preacher and his wife from central Canada, their good friends, but also on the epistles of Paul, such as his imprecation to “Give thanks in all things!”
Mom determined many years ago to live by that motto.
I don’t know the ins and outs of Alzheimers. I know some forms are far more debilitating and tragic than the kind my mother has.
The Fruit of the Gospel
As author of a book refuting the New Atheism, I have debated many skeptics about both the truth and the value of Christian faith. In recent years, the sociologist Phil Zuckerman has convinced many atheists that Scandinavia is a sort of a paradise of secularism run rampant, with its low crime rate, high life expectancy, bicycle paths, and good beer. It wasn’t before the Gospel arrived: it was the homeland of Vikings who made a living by making other people die and stealing their treasure and chastity.
As an historian, I can tell you many facts about “what the Gospel has done for the world:” liberating women from foot-binding in China and funeral pyres in India, founding hospitals and schools that have served billions of the sick or the young, ending human sacrifice and even stopping wars sometimes. I have met Christian doctors who have healed tens of thousands in imitation of Jesus, and missionaries who have taught cannibals to read and sing songs of praise, or freed prostitutes from their brothels and drug addicts from their chemical masters. Even the Scandinavian skeptics whom Zuckerman cited often rightly credited the Gospel for changing their homeland.
I know what the Bible can do when people take it seriously.
I know that, like all social groupings, churches are often dysfunctional places. We have seen wolf-like predator pastors, internecine quarrels, the roots of every religious war or inquisition in a little cross-shadowed human petri dish. Jesus understood human nature well enough to warn against religious-inspired persecution, seeing its roots even among his own disciples.
But whenever I encounter skeptics of the “Religion poisons everything” school, my mind goes back to Dad and Mom, sitting on the couch in the living room first thing in the morning, Dad with his purple Scofield Bible, praying together for us, and then for our children, morning after morning. Always they smiled and greeted us warmly, and the warmth of their greeting only seemed to grow over the years — “like a tree, planted by living waters.”
I know what the Bible can do when people take it seriously. I remember that surprisingly firm last grasp from the hand that once held that old Scofield Bible, along with many hammers, nails, and sheets of plywood (Dad was a builder), accompanied by that last blessing, “God bless you, too.” And now I hear God’s blessing, the influence of Scripture and prayer like a slow marinade pouring flavor into a life, every time I call Mom.