My Southern Baptist grandmother (not to be confused with my Methodist grandmother) knew the Bible inside and out, backwards and forwards. She could pull scriptures out of the deep well of her memory, something appropriate to whatever you might be going through, and quote chapter and verse without missing a word. She wove the Bible into conversation with reverence and conviction and genuine love; for her it was the beginning and end of any question.
She took the obligation to teach God's word to the next generations quite seriously, and as her first grandchild, I was the primary focus of her energy in this area for several years. She started with the Lord's Prayer, and that went well enough. Legend has it (and I have a vague memory to go with the legend) she sent me out on stage at an Evie concert at age three to recite the Lord's Prayer for the audience, and according to her I nailed it--didn't stumble over a single word. After that she decided I was ready to learn the Ten Commandments.
I think if she had stuck to pure memorization it might have turned out differently for both of us, but at some point in our lessons, she thought it would be a good idea to connect the words with real life experience. One day I was disobedient and misbehaved in some fashion, as three- and four-year-old children are wont to do, and I earned myself a spanking with the fearsome "pancake turner" that was always close at hand on the kitchen counter and left welts in lacy patterns on the backs of my thighs. She would always hold me in her lap in her big rocking chair after a spanking, and on this particular occasion, she tried to reinforce the discipline by saying, "Now, Emily, remember: the Bible says 'Honor thy father and thy mother.' If it's in the Bible, we have to do it."
The way she told the story, I waited for her to finish speaking, looked up at her with eyes full of rebellion and sass, and said, "Oh, yeah? Well, I tore that page out of my Bible."
And that was the moment she decided perhaps my mother was right to raise me as an Episcopalian after all.
She and I went head to head about theology and worship and faith throughout my childhood, having heated arguments so numerous and varied I would never be able to remember all of them. We argued about grape juice and spontaneous, unscripted prayer versus the structured liturgy and wine. We locked horns over stained glass versus clear windows; infants baptized with polite amounts of holy water poured over their heads versus adults fully immersed in swimming pools; organs and hymns and vestments and acolytes and whether drums and guitars were ever acceptable in church. She thought ten minute sermons demonstrated flimsy knowledge of the Bible and a lack of conviction in proclaiming the gospel, and I thought altar calls were sentimentalized and driven by peer pressure. We argued about sin and grace, mercy and forgiveness. Neither of us ever hesitated to speak our minds and rarely minced words, and I feel pretty sure we spent more time coming up with our next zinger than really listening to each other.
It was awful. And it was wonderful.
Don't get me wrong: her critique of traditions I loved hurt me deeply, and I'm sure I hurt her, too. It stung when she didn't come to my children's baptisms. She came to the baptisms for my brothers and me--the picture above is her holding me at mine--because my grandfather's desire to participate trumped her fervor for her own tradition. But my grandfather died a few weeks before we baptized my oldest daughter, and that was the end of my grandmother's ecumenicalism. I don't remember being very gracious about it.
But as far as what she was able to teach me about faith? The woman was brilliant.
She taught me to think--hard--about what I believed and why. She called out easy rationalizations and comfortable interpretations and made me examine my own beliefs and preferences. She taught me that thinking deeply about faith is worth the effort, that discipline and wisdom are the fruits of offering the best of yourself to God, day after day, in a relentless search for the Truth. She taught me to wrestle with the things of God, and that the blessing to be gained by wrestling usually comes with a limp.
Unfortunately, back when I was a know-it-all kid, the stiffness of her limp was all I could see. I didn't know it came from years of honest struggle, that it was a badge of honor and blessing, something to be respected rather than ridiculed. I didn't know that her being out of step with most of the people around her was a sincere act of bravery rather than something embarrassing or uncool. The limp seemed so exaggerated in areas where our beliefs conflicted or diverged; I didn't know I would continue to wrestle in those areas for much of my adult life, nor that the example she set for how to do so with integrity would be instructive and helpful. I now see the limp for what it was: a sign that she had encountered God and came away changed.
Something else that was no small thing: she and I wrestled alongside each other as equals. She dismissed a lot of what I had to say because she didn't believe it, but not because I was a child when I said it. Even if she was sitting there trying to come up with her next zinger and not really listening, she still stood her ground and gave me space to stand mine instead of shrugging me off or telling me to go play. She made me feel like my opinion mattered, enough to argue about it anyway, and I absorbed that as a vote of confidence. She took me seriously and that strengthened my soul.
I think of her every morning as I wake up early and reach for my Bible. I can't quote chapter and verse, and I'll never have the encyclopedic knowledge she had. But my faith doesn't have to be hers; my limp as I go through my life has its own rhythm from my own struggles, my own wrestling, my own way of reaching for the Truth. I think we would still fight tooth and nail about a lot of things, but I know we had a lot more in common than we wanted to admit.
Other people have been more supportive and encouraging as my faith has grown, and I need their gentle grace. But my grandmother took me by the hand and led me to the part of faith that feels like fire, the part that brings heat and light and passion into the world. Sometimes we burn each other with that flame as we humans mishandle it, but we can also make it blaze for God's glory.
She showed me the fire that still keeps me warm. For that, I will always be thankful.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.