There were times it was obvious the pastor welcomed an end to my questions. I often had more questions than made them comfortable. I usually felt they expected me to believe everything at face value - but what made it come alive, and kept me engaged, was the ongoing exploration and possibilities that lived inside the dialogue.
I wanted to explore more ways to interpret, or place it in context that made more sense, or brought more life. I loved digging deeper. I didn't want to over-complicate it, yet wasn't comfortable with over-simplified answers that lacked depth or ignored complexity. It made no sense that scripture was as one-dimensional and literal as was presented. Inspired? Sure. Plus, sound bite answers insulted my intelligence and made me feel like a lemming. I rarely returned to a church with this approach. What amazes me is I was one of the few who wanted to talk about it. At least I was there.
They inevitably asked why I didn't return. I knew the honest response would put me on the prayer chain so I averted. But when someone engaged in dialogue, like a pastor in Arco, Idaho who created an environment with space for inquiry; I came back week after week. He was confident enough to delve into questions that invite us in and offered more than simple text book answers. It kept me interested, reminding me God was more than I could understand. This was enough to keep me from abandoning a genuine desire to better understand the essence of being a Christian after not being involved in church life for a long time.
Years later, when I cared for my mother with Alzheimer's, it became clearer. Ever since, when I question or resist adopting or believing someone's interpretation of the Bible, the following example from the relationship between mother and child gives me a place for the questions to rest.
My mother laid in bed, blind and suffering from late stage Alzheimer's or dementia, it was hard to know which. Her memories were vacant and non-existent, but her love and joy was fully alive. What she did remember was disjointed or fantasized.
I thought about my relationship with my son, and asked what mattered most - was it that he knew the exact details of my life and passed on my story; or that he knew my love for him and his experience of loving me? Then I asked the same questions of my relationship to my mother - to view both contexts from different vantage points.
It was the experience of love that mattered for all three of us. The reality of knowing the dynamic and reciprocal experience of love and joy between us. Whether my son knew or believes the extent of my devastation when his father wanted me to abort my pregnancy doesn't change my relationship with my son. Whether my mother was scared and lonely, or having a torrid affair on the long journey alone from Norway to America in 1944 as a young woman fascinated me, but irrelevant to my experience and memory of our life together. (The torrid affair is imagined; scared and lonely is assumed)
The story helps shape my perception of her and enriches it, but doesn't change my experience of her.
Her story cannot define the relationship and mutual experience we share. She wouldn't care what I remember or believe about her story, as long as the love and experience we share is real. And that I remember who she was authentically. That said, the story has value. It helps shape our family history by providing continuity and legacy.The story is also valuable for those who come after her - but not essential to the relationship. It is how we love, how we show up in the world with each other that, ultimately, guides and shapes our future.
Being with my mother during Alzheimer's has been a deep reminder of how profound the experience of love matters. The idea is obvious, but the inner recognition is different. Even in her weakened and childlike state, I always wanted her to fully experience her aliveness - even if she didn't recall it five minutes later. When her ability to reason or remember was gone, she maintained her full capacity to love. It shone from her like a beacon straight out of her heart. I didn't need to understand everything about her, or believe everything she said was true - for it to be meaningful.
I like to think she was chosen to be my teacher - as I was hers in other ways. The lessons we needed could only be accomplished in our mother-daughter relationship, perhaps. It also helps to remember that even when I felt her love lacking, or she - like me - had a bad mommy moment - she loved us the best she could at the time. This, I've always known for sure, and always, with no exceptions, she wanted to do the right thing for us. I've never questioned that ever.
Knowing this, and paying it forward is my primary job now. Passing on her story, sharing my experience of her, and the lessons she taught matter too. I hope I remember to spread the values that made lives she touched richer for giving of herself. I remember her fairness and absolute conviction that all three of her children be treated equally. Her unconditional compassion and love for a child that treated her with rage, violence, and hatred since the day she was born is embedded in me. How she withstood this was always beyond my understanding - even after being a mother myself.
I think she trusted that in the midst of this hatred, lived love. This was a great teacher. These are the things that count. Yes, they were undeniably hard too. But if the outcome of standing witness to this gut-wrenching betrayal of nature was learning how to love unconditionally; I am grateful.
Her profound stories of the war during the occupation had a deep influence. She told stories of Nazi soldiers reading letters from home, as they hid in the hills directly behind her childhood home in Norway during the occupation. She told us how the tears streamed down one soldier's cheeks as he shared stories of his wife and family, while she comforted him.
They were not enemies or Nazi soldiers in her eyes. She only saw their humanity.
This taught her war doesn't make sense to anyone, not even to those fighting in it. These young soldiers felt a civic obligation, not a moral one, she said.
This experience gained her conscious awareness of human beings as mirrors - which she passed to me. They were no different than her. The soldiers were too young to understand why they were there, and what laid at the heart of a war they sat on opposite sides in.
Ironically, I grew into an adult who professionally resolved severe and polarized conflicts, sometimes when guns were drawn. Seeing both sides became my nature.
She taught me the power of persistence and courage in her relentlessness to see justice when Nazi soldiers cut down her prized Birch tree.
Her reverence for God when she played the mandolin as a young girl, still remembering at age 93, that the Holy Spirit was present when a string broke in mid-performance taught me to look for the mystery.
The way she came to each of our bedsides every single night to sing our bedtime prayer in Norwegian with us. A friend recently reminded me this was a form of chanting – a practice that has stuck with me until today.
These are a few things I will remember and pay forward. Not because through them her life has meaning, but because she is remembered in the stories, and they make my story more complete. The continuity is comforting, reminding me that we all are part of humanity's story.
It is through the love she gave me and I pass to my own child that pays forward meaning. It is in knowing each of them, my mother and my son, are embraced by my heart as I am by theirs - even when I cannot see or feel it - the flow remains alive between us, and continues on to others beyond us.
I imagine this is how it is with God. The essence of who and what God may be, and how we and God connect - is where I imagine this ultimate power and truth lie. At least that's today. This will change soon enough, when I have another awareness, fresh and new. Isn't that the beauty of it, ultimately?
To be part of this unfolding journey that calls us to it while embracing us in it.
I also imagine some things I hold as truth will shift and change and grow as I do too, as humanity does. God hasn't changed since light came out of darkness they say, but we have. We have come to see and know and understand differently - the more we are capable of seeing. The possibilities that lie before us in our children's children are difficult to imagine. Thinking about how the life of Christ changed the world and how humanity experienced God inspires me to think of what might be possible as life continues from Christ's influence alone - growing more loving, just, kind, and authentic each day as life evolves and his ultimate message of love clarifies its pure intent to those awake to listen.
Like Christ, my mother's story taught me important and poignant lessons. There is magic in paying attention to the cumulative effects of one ordinary life.
Her experiences were my teachers and, on some level, extend into my own understanding of myself.
Seeing the Nazi soldier as herself taught me unconditional love and compassion.
Demanding justice from the soldiers who chopped down her tree gives me courage and taught me foundational principles of justice.
Standing in love and fairness while abused by her own child for five decades taught me the true meaning of unconditional love and sacrifice.
Living alone as a young widow with three children, no life insurance, or job, taught me strength and what deep commitment looks like.
Going blind while living alone with unimaginable grace for more than 20 years taught me acceptance and surrender.
She often told me how she experienced me as a human being. To her, I was "so very good and kind, like a light." As predictable as this may sound coming from one's mother, it helped to remember this light did live within when I couldn't remember myself. Or the sincerity I felt, even in the face of those who didn't like me. It was affirming; boosting my supply of gratitude and faith for the remainder of my journey – as well as for mistakes and hard choices I've made in the past.
Her solo journey on a ship across the ocean as a single and very young woman taught me to believe in dreams; not to fear the unknown, to be brave, and most importantly, to remember what lies within.
So, in the end, her story and how I experienced her made a difference, but the details of how this life played out and the reasons for her choices aren't as relevant to my life or the generations that will follow as the lessons her life showed us, and how her life spoke.
This is how it is for me with Christianity. If some of the details are wrong, or even key points inaccurate, the lessons I receive from Christ's life; and his experience of God inspire me on my spiritual journey.
The fundamental wisdom he shared and the personal stories of how his life transformed those who crossed his path is enough for me to believe in a holy mystery, the reality of God, the sacredness and power that comes from this glue of the universe, all that is, ground of our being, spirit and love that ties everything together and raises it up beyond our understanding.
This place of the higher self or heaven - whether on earth or not – where Jesus and Christ experienced oneness is what draws me nearer.