I am in a curious place compared to many of my black male contemporaries – including in the Christian world. I love my mother, but we simply do not have the kind of relationship that a seriously large number of my black male friends have with their mothers. The relational dynamics in my family are insanely complex. Some of you good folk out there know me and my family better than most, but even you guys may not ever grasp the full extent of how my family works. Fortunately, that fact will not undermine relations in any way.
In this blog post, I want to pay tribute to my mother.
I also intend to be transparent. I am now in ministry. I have grown up with both parents being seriously active in lay ministries, but for the last eleven years my mother has been running an independent ministry of her own. She has grown and changed in this time.
She is one of the biggest reasons why I am who I am and doing what I do. But our minds are completely different. She really thinks that I am more like my father than I am like her – both negatively and positively. In our conversations she only ever acknowledges the positive attributes that I have from her – and not a single one of the negative attributes that she (in and of herself) is genetically responsible for my having received. This is a serious problem for mother-son relationships – so if any sons or mothers are reading this and wondering about their own situations, let me take a moment to say to the mothers that if your analysis of your son’s strengths and failings is not as truthful and rounded and accurate as it can be, you cannot reasonably expect sympathy if you find yourself to be resented by the son in question. God has finally taken the resentment away from me (this is totally the work of the Holy Spirit responding to prayer), but this very reality is one of the single biggest reasons that my mother and I do not and cannot see eye to eye much of the time.
In many, many ways I bear my father’s imprint. But in the twelve months preceding the date of this post I have come to learn just how much I resemble my mother – more than I ever realised – and more than she appears to realise. There are certain weaknesses of mine that have been seriously confusing me for many years. I now have practical evidence that these specific weaknesses are in fact inherited from her! So I acknowledge that I am more like her than she has realised – or been able/willing to admit – but the fact that she has refused to acknowledge this means that certain things she says lack credibility on every level.
However, I will come back to this later on.
Both of my parents are Guyanese. The Guyanese are a particularly proud people and they have some ways that I personally find utterly reprehensible. For years, I refused to even acknowledge myself as a Guyanese person. But God has been incredibly good, and by my mid-twenties I was able to accept who I was and what I am – the good, the bad and the ugly. She is – like all of us – representative of her era and context.
My mother is a woman who has endured certain hardships that very, very few others will never understand. Like my father, she endured terrible, terrible poverty as a child. Both of my parents bear the scars of childhood trauma in ways both of them have yet to comprehend and/or analyse. And for the f last twelve months, I understand the journey of self-awareness that God has been taking me on for at least five years. Dealing with the full range of negativities in my family history has been a terrible, excoriating experience. By rights, my parents should have rejected the faith, dumped the church and been doing like so many others – pursuing every conceivable distraction to avoid the ‘roaring disquietude’ of their own hearts (take a good look at the first few verses of Psalm 38 in the KJV to see where that came from). But the fact that they are walking with God to this day is a miracle of and a testament to the power of the gospel. This has put the shocking spiritual inadequacies of many of the other older members of my church into sharp relief.
My mother has made many sacrifices for me. She has not always understood my life, and my career choices, and now the unique intensity of my ministry calling has dimensions that simply do not fit the somewhat binary framework with which she views certain things (including ministry). She also spends a great deal of time telling me her version of what I should and should not have done, and what I should be doing – and is constantly frustrated by the fact that I do not accept her viewpoints more than I do. Yet for all that, in her own way she has left no stone unturned to support me.
It so happens that of the many people of my age group whom she has really helped, none thinks the same way that I do, or has been called to what I have been called. Those guys (God bless you) are all closer to her in thought than I am. She would love to have been able to impact certain aspects of my life as she has done for other people, but this has been literally impossible. And the pastor in me thinks I had better explain this properly so as to avoid potential confusion (especially from those in my own church!).
When you find a ministry practitioner who you gravitate towards, it is inevitably in part because whatever they are saying is based on certain benchmark, unspoken presuppositions which happen to match your own. A preacher might say something that really questions and challenges your viewpoint, but if you and that preacher both agree that the Bible is inspired, then you can receive the challenge more easily. But if a seminar presenter challenges your ideas about something, and their theological and Biblical presuppositions are radically different to yours, then this is an example of the old saying:
A person convinced against their will
Is of the same opinion still.
My mother complains that I use the word ‘theology’ a lot. And this is indeed at the heart of our disputes on almost every level – theologically, we are completely different. Most people are driven by their emotive self instead of their rational self – my mother included. She feels before she thinks, and in many situations her emotive instincts are nothing but an asset. Our theological presuppositions are the same in all of the most important ways. However, beyond the core basics of elementary Christianity, our presuppositions in both life and faith are literally worlds apart – because she ‘feels’ her theology and I am unable to reciprocate on that level, as I am only too well aware of the dangers of uncritical, insufficiently rigorous theology.
But as I said, this is not the case with many other people – not least in my peer group – and so she can help them and be there for them in ways that simply do not work for me. I have still learnt a HUGE amount from her – just not what she always intended, and often not in ways that she can understand!
She has more empathy and compassion than nearly all of the baby-boomer Christians that I personally have met. She has put herself out to help people, gone beyond the call of duty more times that I could begin to remember, and taken on some deeply challenging people and situations in her own ministry. She has not always been recognised, or understood, or appreciated. She has also been taken for granted and even betrayed by some of those to whom she gave so much of herself. This has been heart-breaking to watch (and it has also made me powerfully angry at times).
And despite the pain and hurt that she has endured in more ways than I would ever want to document – she is still doing her best to live as sincerely and as truthfully as she knows how. She LOVES God. She sincerely desires to be the best Christian that she can be. There are occasions when she worries that she doesn’t understand certain things in the Bible and certain points of doctrine etc – and on rare occasions she will let me help her think theologically. And this brings me to the heart of this post.
I now know that loving a person is not dependent on understanding everything about them. A sinner opens their heart to God and says ‘yes’ to His will and to His way without understanding everything about Him. So for a long time yet they may make crazy errors of thought, word and deed on their Christian journey. Does this mean that they don’t love God?
In my romantic relational history, I have also experienced what it is like to be loved without being really, truly and properly understood. Because the love was real, the understanding came in time. Before that, I would have sworn blind that love was impossible without understanding and a relationship could never get off the ground if there was such radical incompatibility (from the point of view of understanding each other) at the outset. Now, as an older and wiser person, I have to look back and shake my head and grin ruefully.
I know that my mother does not understand everything about who I am. I know that the tools she uses for analysis of everything (including herself, other people, ideas, technical concepts, and the rest) have major flaws. The result: she gets some things right (and occasionally spectacularly so), but she also gets many things spectacularly wrong. Truly, I know no-one else with this trait to the extent which she possesses it. Worse yet, she has no real framework to understand why her analyses are as flawed as they are sometimes. This means that I would be lying through my teeth if I called her a ‘rational’ person. That in turn means that she cannot really know what I understand, because it is too difficult for us to hold a technical conversation.That now looks unlikely to change for the rest of our lives on this earth.
She thinks that I should take certain aspects of her thinking more seriously, but if I have to reject a whole panoply of major intellectual minds on certain important issues, and take issue with some leading preachers on many emotive issues concerning theology and Christian life practice, and also comprehensively reject much of the theology of some of her favourite ministry practitioners (to whom she relates by feeling rather than by rigorously critical reasoning) – one might be able to see how clashes between us are inevitable – unless I simply refuse to talk to her. And that would not be what Jesus would do…
Moreover, I will be spending the rest of my life pointing everyone and anyone in a very different direction of ‘reasonable faith’ to that which I myself inherited. I am a Seventh-Day Adventist because of my parents, but I am also a Seventh-Day Adventist despite my parents. The anthropologist in me knows exactly why if I had failed to understand my heritage (like the overwhelming majority of my fellow Black Britons), I would be a lost man (like so many of my fellow black male contemporaries).
Contrary to what my mother thinks, I really do know where I have come from. That has helped me to know why and how all the bad things that my grandparents did which really hurt my parents have affected them – which have caused problems in our own nuclear family. This is why from my generation onwards, if I ever have a family of my own we are going to do many things differently (and if you think I’m being clichéd, you don’t know me). She says that there are many things that I don’t know, but the reality is this: she honestly has no idea what I know, or how I have come to know it. And she hates technical conversations (and this post should indicate that I am er…the opposite). But I can tell you that if she knew certain things about certain things, it would be terrible for her – and so, for her own protection, as her son and one remaining child, I keep those things from her. That is my duty as a son, and while she doesn’t like the fact that I don’t listen to her and take her advice as often as her maternal ego would like (and I get how hard that is for her), she is also not responsible for my thought-life, or my relationship with God, or my life choices including my ministry output; I am answerable to God Himself – not anyone else.
OK – so in short, she doesn’t get me totally. But does this change the fact that she loves me? Absolutely not. Just as with my father, no-one cares more about me than she does.
With God’s help I have embraced my past, and my genetic inheritance. God has not seen fit to give me a mother who exudes the same type of natural support, understanding and love that others have. And for years, I struggled to understand that. This has been an incredible challenge – and indeed, an incredible burden, but I see that it is important to tell my story as part of what I am doing in public ministry. I have left a community behind, I am leaving many of my church members behind, and there is a very real and literal sense in which I must now leave my mother behind in order to do the work that God has called me to do. So we will be thinking differently for the rest of our lives. But her love for me is still as profound as love gets.
No-one else prays for me like my mother, and when she goes to her rest some things will be very much harder. But God already has a plan for my life and He will deal with that when the time comes. But I want to publicly acknowledge that her prayers have made a difference in my life – even on the numerous occasions when it has not been the specific difference that she wanted or a difference that she has understood. God knows all, and it is an incredible tribute to divine love that our failures to intercede for others with perfect understanding does not impede God’s ability to ‘translate’ the prayers using what was truly meant – however imperfectly said – and answer according to His will!
And to add a very important coda to a point I made above and to which she has said that she would return – on certain occasions in my adult life she has sent me some cards with some information and statements that belong to us alone. This is what you need to not miss: some of what she has never spoken about to me face-to-face – she has written down. And so she knows, I know and God knows. Those cards have helped to keep our relationship alive.
I know that my mother would give her life for me in less than a heartbeat. And I would do the same. It makes me really sad sometimes that her life has not been easier, but I also know that she would in all probability not have been anywhere near as worth knowing as she is now had her life been easier (this is true for every member of my nuclear family). And so, I post this poem by Langston Hughes today as a tribute to my mother.
Mother to Son
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor —
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
I love you, Mum. I promise you that I have no intention of turning back or sitting down, and I am trusting in God to keep me from falling by the wayside. I am glad that you are still climbing and I hope you keep climbing for a long time yet. And by God’s grace, I’ll love you forever – in heaven as well as here on earth when Jesus returns to take all of us home.