Wednesday, July 10, 2013
After my mother’s father died we made it a point to visit my grandmother as much as possible. Sometimes my older sister, and some of our friends and roommates, would drive to
Indiana from the university to see her. After my older
sister, Melissa, transferred from Illinois and some of our friends started to graduate I
would often ride the bus and she’d pick me up.
My grandmother’s name was Zuannette, but everyone called her Zudie. She was a short Scotch-Irish woman, not even five-foot tall, with auburn hair. She was known for being an excellent seamstress and made quilts and dresses for people in her town when she and my grandfather needed money. She made my older sister’s wedding dress and all the floral Laura Ashley print dresses that Melissa’s bridesmaids wore. My grandmother could be silly and had a great sense of humor too. She greatly enjoyed Johnny Carson and the Dean Martin celebrity roasts
The most striking characteristic about my grandmother was how deeply she felt about God and her Christian faith. When you visited my grandmother’s house there were always little devotional pamphlets scattered around on the end and coffee tables. Zudie was fond of quoting from the Bible. She’d often say things like “As you reap so shall you sow.” And “Judge not lest you be judged.” When we visited on days like Easter, you had to pack nice clothes, because you were expected to join her at church.
When I started visiting Zudie by myself, I always tried to go on Palm Sunday. I like the message of that particular service because it talks about a man. It is about a man who is humble, and who for a brief moment exhibits doubt. Even after I started my career, I used to try to arrange business trips to
Indianapolis so I might get to be with my grandmother on
Palm Sunday in her town.
One time there was a visit to Zudie for the weekend. I can’t remember if I was with her alone, or others were with us. We decided to drive to another town, the one my father was born in, to see her sister, Roberta. I drove, and Zudie sat next to me. As we left town and went out into the country, we went past one of those little places with neon signs billing palm readings and fortune telling. I made some snide comment about it. Zudie quietly said, “Kitty and I went in there once.” Kitty was her best friend when she was a young woman. I said “Really? Why?” She just looked out of the window and said, “I wanted to know what the future would look like if I stayed with your grandfather, what with his drinking. I wanted to know if I should take Patra and leave.” I was very surprised. I asked her, “What did she say?” Zudie replied, “She was a girl I knew in high school. She wouldn’t take my money. She said it was a decision between me and God, not her.” I didn’t say anything after that. I could tell she was thinking as she watched the trees and farms roll by. Then all of a sudden she looked at me and said, “Tom, everyone has doubts sometimes.”
I have struggled with faith for a long time. I have searched hard for what I believe to be true and have faith in. Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers. He once described himself as a “skeptic, freethinker, humanist, Unitarian Universalist, agnostic, and atheist.” I think that pretty closely describes the various places on the path that I have touched on throughout my life. Right now I think you could describe me as a Humanist Christian. I do have a strong belief in humankind. I also like the messages of the New Testament and often find inspiration there. What could possibly be wrong with a message that you should love and respect others as you love and respect yourself? One of my favorite lines is from Timothy II, “Run the race, keep the faith.” That’s a phrase I have kept in my pocket for quite awhile.
Having listened to Zudie for many years, I do not judge other people because I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged myself. I have said this before and I’ll say it again. Where you place your faith and how you express it is up to you. If you place your faith and belief in a religion, science, nature, politics, your friends or family, your talent and work, or whatever, that is your prerogative. I just think everyone should have faith in something. If you don’t believe in or have faith in something it’s pretty easy to give into despair.
I know from experience that faith is a tricky thing. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once referred to faith as a step into the dark, full of fear and trembling. He also said faith in anything is essentially irrational and so needs “to be taken on in trust, as reason can only undermine faith and never justify it. “
The last time I visited my grandmother, on the way home from a business trip, she was very sad. She was listening to a sermon on the radio. I sat down next to her and held her hand. I asked her, “What’s wrong, grandma?” She said “I don’t know what I have done wrong. I have always believed; I have always lived the life that I thought I was supposed to. I just don’t understand why he doesn’t want me, Tom?” At this point Zudie was well into her late 90s. She had outlived all but one of her siblings, her husband, her daughter, and most of her friends. I said “I don’t know. Maybe he is just not done with you yet. Hang on. There are still a lot of people around here who love and need you. When the time is right he’ll let you know.” It wasn’t long after that, in the spring, that Zudie took a fall and she finally got to go to where she viewed as home.
My family is involved in a church. I’m not one of those guys who go to services every week. I tend to get more involved in programs that I think might help and go mostly on milestone holidays. I used to go more when the kids were growing up but I have trouble sitting still these days. I do always try to go on Palm Sunday so I can think about Zudie and engage in what Kurt Vonnegut said was the value of churches. They are places where you can go, sit quietly and “daydream about God” whatever that means to you.
I didn’t get to go to Palm Sunday this year, but I did take some time to think about Zudie and reflect on her amazing faith, not just in her religion, but her faith that in the face of a difficult situation, and despite doubts, that she could carry on. She did it very well. As I think about my current situation, I realize I have a lot of faith in things these days also. I have faith in my doctors; I have faith in my family and all the other people who support me; I have faith in myself. I do have faith in God. I sometimes have doubts but I can usually work through them. Mostly what I have faith in is that no matter what obstacles arise here in my little postage stamp of the world, or what happens even in the bigger world, it is as William Faulkner once wisely said in a speech about humankind. “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” That’s another phrase I keep in my pocket.