Since my mother has recently gone to live in a nursing home, my sisters and I have been cleaning out her home of the last 20 years, plowing through perhaps 40 years of notebooks, check registers, canceled checks, documents, photos, memorabilia, and so on. My mother apparently did not believe in throwing much away. Anything reusable was saved, from envelopes to place mats to candles to. . . well, you get the picture. All this in a modest 1600 square foot house.However, betwixt the exclamations of "Can you believe she. . . saved this, kept this, never threw away this, had this many clothes," and so on, what kept emerging was a sense of who my mother was, not just as mother to me but as an individual, as a person with a unique personality, her own hopes and dreams, her own disappointments, and her own routines and habits. I better knew her by examining the trail of evidence of her life. You might say she came to me sideways, wrapped up in the leavings of her life. Remember that scene in Mary Poppins where she pulls all manner of things, including a lamp, from her carpetbag? I felt that way when I began pulling things from my mother's closets, as if they had false bottoms or extended beyond the walls. And yet the yoke is easy, the burden light; every item I encountered told me more about her, gave me circumstantial evidence of her presence and her life.
All this came in the midst of my reading Paul Alms's article, "God Sideways," in the latest Touchstone. Alms writes about how the the real stuff of church is not only or even primarily what is going on up front, what is being said from the pulpit, but rather how that message is mediated through the smells, sounds, and distractions of the pews, among the congregants. If we came up in a church with no air conditioning (as I did), then the gospel is "hot," its message bound up in sweat, passion, flapping fans with pictures of Jesus on them, and the second hand of the watch tick-tocking away the time on my father's arm, as I waited for the interminable (and yet only 20 minute) sermon to end.
As Alms points out, "the good news of Jesus Christ is not abstract. It is not like digital data we download. It comes with skin, it comes in minutes and hours we experience concretely. It comes dressed in things that do not seem to matter. But these indifferent things can become significant, moments associated with and attached to the presence of Christ." What he means is that the gospel is incarnational. That which originally came embodied in flesh and blood keeps coming to us embodied in our sensory perceptions, in what is going on in the pew --- in the noise of children, in the nodding heads, in the green of trees against blue sky ever so slightly stirring. The peripherals become incomprehensible or unrooted without the words proclaimed from the pulpit, read from scripture, or said in prayer, and yet it all becomes a rich, multi-sensory experience as we let it settle in. As Alms says, "Getting God sideways is how the church works. The straight-ahead message of the gospel slips out of the preacher's mouth in his idiosyncratic style and travels through the static of the group, through a thousand competing thoughts and sounds, and is received by a listener who understands it in his own limited way, and yet Christ is proclaimed." God is present, shared, hidden, sideways --- and yet He is there.
My parents came from a quiet generation, one where the gospel was not so much spoken as lived out in the stuff of life. They talked very little about themselves and to my memory preached few sermons to their children. I didn't know until recently that there were married on Christmas Eve in 1947. I still know nothing of how they met and courted. My father served in WWII under Patton, crossing North Africa, then Sicily, Italy, France and Luxembourg, where he was wounded. I knew none of that until recently. He never spoke of it. And yet the woman whose possessions I am sifting told me about who she was in all the quotidian details of life, in the clothes she washed, the meals she made, the sacrifices she made for me, the quiet letting go of me to college, marriage, and life away from her home. The evidence is here, not only in their leavings but in history, in all the acts of love she practiced.
She didn't have to say it. She didn't have to preach it. In the end, a few words were all that were necessary to tell me the truth about who she was and who I was and what life was about. I got all the gospel I needed of her --- sideways.
Last time I visited my mother I was strolling her around the halls and she looked up at me and said, "Have you got a girlfriend, Steve?" I said "Sure do. I married her." (I'm 51 and have been married 29 years.) She's still being mother to her young son. Then we're sitting looking out the window, the sun on our faces, and with her eyes closed she reaches out and makes as if to hang me something. She says, "Here, take this." So I reach down and make as if to take it. (There's nothing there I can see.) I said, "I got it." After a minute or two she says, "I don't know what it was I gave you," and I say "I don't either, but I'll take good care of it, whatever it is." And she says, "I know you will. I know you will."
I think I know what she gave me. It all came to me sideways, a carpetbag full of it. I hope I can take good care of it and pass it on. In my own idiosyncratic way I hope it slips out of me and passes through those near and far, laps up against the souls of people unknown. I don't know how to make that happen. There's no direct way to do it. If it happens, it happens sideways. Maybe one day, when my kids are cleaning out my closets, they'll get it too. And whatever it is they get, I know they'll take good care of it with God's help.