During a trip to London my mother visited Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. She skirted a long line of tourists waiting to have their pictures made with the replica of Fergie, Duchess Of York and instead chose the lonely figure of General William Booth for her photo op.
General Booth, a Methodist lay preacher and revivalist was in essence a self-appointed spiritual general and most notably founded the Salvation Army in the late 1800s. He preached on the streets of London’s East End, beating on a bass drum singing “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” He set up soup kitchens, housing and job training concerns for men and women, he helped drunkards get sober and decried the evils of alcohol. He devoted himself and the organization to stepping into the breach he believed the government had created by failing to meet the basic needs of the poor and disenfranchised.
General Booth faced opposition from many sides and particularly the alcohol industry whose best customers were often those that could least afford a drink. The press accused him of being a Charlatan and misinterpreted the Salvation Army motto: “Blood and Fire” as a threat of hell and brimstone rather than the intended reference to the blood of Jesus shed for sinners and the empowering fire of the Holy Spirit. The Church of England accused him of being the anti-Christ and all were unanimously contemptuous of his elevation of women—giving them equal status with men.
General Booth’s wife said he often returned home at the end of a long day exhausted with his clothing torn and bleeding from mob attacks in which he and his Christian soldiers were pelted by rocks. There were multiple injuries and even deaths over the years but The Salvation Army with its simple message of caring for the ‘least of these’ prevailed, reaching around the world and eventually the tide of animosity turned toward honor and respect.
It has been many years since my mother and I lived in the same town or even on the same side of the country. The telephone is our primary means of staying connected but the majority of my attempts to reach her either go straight to voice mail or are greeted with a breathless “I can’t talk right now honey I’m headed out the door.”
She has never had any moss growing under her feet and when she recently took up watching television during the day we all thought that maybe she was terminally ill. But in fact she remains very much alive, mostly present and ever enthusiastic for engagement. We never know where she might engage but we do know that nothing is really above her, beneath her or out of the question. On one recent call she informed me that she was headed to Schollenberger park in Petaluma carrying a plumbers friend to unclog the toilet in the women’s restroom. She likes to walk at the park each day and is grateful for the convenient facility. But she says maintenance frequency is a bit lacking so she takes up the slack when she decides it is needed.
On one abbreviated call I learned that she was on her way to her station at a local grocery store to ring the bell and collect for the Salvation Army. I smiled imagining her, dressed to the nines, standing by her red kettle. I suspect she supplied her own white gloves. Knowing she would not be satisfied to simply ring the bell I asked her if she said anything. “Oh yes, I spoke to everyone going in the door and said: you look like someone who would want to give generously to this venerable organization.” “And did they?” “Most of them did, some more sheepishly than others.” She said she zeroed in on the unfortunates that tried averting their eyes, calling out to them cheerfully. I asked her: “Did it work?” “Sometimes—but even when they didn’t respond, I was satisfied that I had gotten my message across.” “And what exactly was your message, mom?” “Well, something like: You’ve stood out as a tight wad today and you’re going to have to live with that.” “Nice” I said. She added: “I thought maybe the guilt would work on that person and they would put something in the pot next time.” “Or, maybe they would go in a different door” I said.
She loves the Salvation Army. She has a vivid memory of her childhood in Knoxville, excitedly encountering the brass band on a street corner and joining in for a chorus or two of whatever hymn they were playing. “Why the Salvation Army in particular?” I asked. “Well, they honor God, they play the hymns, they help the needy, they help drunks—and those are all things that I care about.”
I care about those things too. I admire General Booth for the courage of his convictions and I admire my mother for the courage of hers. She said that once years ago in the middle of a sermon at her church, the pastor suggested that we would be surprised at who we encountered in heaven, maybe even Stalin or Hitler. My mother was so offended that she stood up, interrupted him and asserted to him and the congregation that we would not find those agents of evil in the heavenly realms. She says she wasn’t rude, just certain she needed to speak out.
In another pastoral clash, the minister at a different church she attended announced that there would be no more songs about the “blood” of Christ because they were just too bloody. This time my mother waited until the end of the service and sought out the pastor in his chambers declaring: “Without the crucifixion, there is no resurrection. Without the resurrection, there is no redemption. And without redemption, what’s the point of Jesus’ suffering and the Gospel?” I don’t often ask her what the response is. I know she is not there to engage in a theological argument or intentionally create conflict. She is declaring her faith and her understanding of it out of a deep desire to honor the God she loves.
Living out our principles is often a lonely affair. I think of General Booth and his booming bass drum. I think of my mothers admonition to herself and others: if you believe something, you need to speak it. I think of the many times that I have remained silent over one issue or another out of a desire to avoid conflict, contempt or misunderstanding. I am sometimes impressed with the coalescence of my thoughts and certainties into a fairly seamless argument—when I am alone—but I am no ones choice for the debate team. In a dispute, I’m often dismayed to find that I cannot put two sentences together and that my word bank has vanished into white noise. Moses knew about being at a loss for words. He had the temerity to question God Himself on the wisdom of choosing someone with a speech impediment to challenge Pharaoh, the supreme ruler of Egypt. The Lord told Moses He would supply the words and I ask Him daily to equip me too in word and deed to live authentically and truthfully, in love. I watched my mother do this all my life, not perfectly, just humanly and faithfully.