A Mother’s Legacy: Bitterness Begone

I feel blessed whenever I remember my mother. She was a godly mentor and a wise woman. She died of nasty cancer nine years ago, and I especially miss her every time Mother’s Day rolls around. But she left a wonderful legacy, and part of it is how she responded to hurtful people and painful experiences. She refused to allow them to make her bitter. She had an inexhaustible capacity to keep on loving people anyway.

Mom was born Lilyan Alberta Brandon in 1926 on a marginal Canadian farm about an hour’s drive north of Toronto. She finished high school, took an ordinary office clerical job, and dated soldiers coming home from World War II. From the photos we have, we know she wore generous amounts of lipstick and looked a bit “worldly.”

But a Christian friend invited her to a church-sponsored retreat at a pine-beamed lodge out of town, and that weekend she had a conversion experience that she treasured the rest of her life. The next fall she quit her job and headed off to Bible school in downtown Toronto, and worked as a maid for a difficult family there to make ends meet. That Bible school may not have covered higher criticism or hermeneutics in great detail, but its graduates came out exceptionally well acquainted with the biblical text itself.

In the summer Mom teamed up with another young woman to itinerate around the Thunder Bay area of northern Ontario—navigating the gravel roads on bicycles, and preaching their hearts out to little congregations of otherwise-neglected souls. After graduation she took a job as a sort of social worker and evangelist for a Baptist mission in Saint Henri, an impoverished slum in Montreal. She was good at what she did. She was feisty, and she could preach. But most of all she found it easy to love people.

Eventually she met my Dad, a newly-minted graduate of Moody Bible Institute. He was bright, full of energy, and with an obvious gift of teaching. He enjoyed the shenanigans of Fundamentalists (like T. T. Shields) without ever quite being one himself. In 1951 they married, and forged a partnership of deep commitment and mutual affection that lasted almost half a century. But back in 1951 my mother was obliged to adjust to the complex expectations of a dutiful preacher’s wife.

The pastoral ministry was rewarding, but it wasn’t easy. It brought considerable satisfaction, but some challenges as well. My folks were ridiculously underpaid, though I can’t remember Mom ever complaining about it. Back then such pastorates represented Protestant asceticism at its best. I can remember when one of their pastoral sojourns started to head south in the late 1950s, and, to use the stock euphemism, “they sensed the Lord might be leading them on.” My parents certainly weren’t perfect, but from what I pieced together years later they had been severely mistreated by some of the fractious folks who ran that church.

It was late one summer night, and the scene in our neighborhood was illuminated only by a streetlight. We were finishing up the convulsive severance ordeal. We had emptied out the house, and all our earthly belongings were stuffed in the orange Allied moving van on our gravel driveway. A realtor’s sign had been hammered into the lawn. Mom sat cross-legged on the grass, completely exhausted. I can remember her quietly repeating, more to herself than to anyone, words she had memorized from the old King James Version of her Bible: “Beware ‘lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled’” (Heb. 12:15). Her biggest fear was such defilement—that somehow she might nurse the kind of toxic resentment that could eventually poison her soul.

My folks remained faithful to God and to one another through the years. The friendship and mentoring they extended to so many through the years were truly exceptional, and their hospitality was legendary. But that verse of Mom’s became her mantra whenever, in the midst of many joys, she also ran into pain in the years that followed. She was always on high alert for that nasty little thing called a root of bitterness. She managed to maintain a grace-filled and triumphant spirit through it all. And kept daring to love people, and accept the risks involved in doing that.

How did she pull it off? I think it had to do with the consolation she found in God. Just today I was reading Tom Schwanda’s excellent review of Arie de Reuver’s book Sweet Communion, which is about the spirituality of certain Dutch believers in the seventeenth century. Those given to religious stereotypes will be surprised to discover that Calvinists could ever be deeply familiar with the affective dimension of the Christian life, but the facts here speak for themselves. These old saints knew the sweetness of deeply meaningful communion with God. The reviewer notes the author’s opinion that “one of the most serious symptoms of the present crisis in church and culture is the increasing loss of sweet fellowship with God.” It’s hazardous to reduce our current spiritual crisis to a single cause, but de Reuver’s assessment may not be wide of the mark. My mother knew what that sweet fellowship was all about, and it inoculated her against bitterness. She exuded love to the very end. I thank my God upon every remembrance of her.

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