How the light got in

I used to think I could write a book about my scandalous childhood but not while my mother was living. I hated to see her cry and I knew my criticism would hurt her. One of my favorite Christian authors, Philip Yancey, has written a memoir, Where the Light Fell, about his difficult childhood. He did so knowing it would hurt his 96-year old mother but also knowing he had a powerful story to tell about how he came to understand suffering and grace. Although he has written numerous books on these topics, he believes “this is the one book I was put on earth to write.”

I found it hard to put the book down. It made me think about how a difficult childhood shaped me. Like the author, I grew up poor in a household headed by a single mother. Like the Yanceys, we moved frequently because we were poor. Like Philip, I had issues with how my mother raised us. I also grew up going to church regularly.

Philip was brought up in fundamentalist churches in Atlanta, Georgia. As he put it, church defined his life. He and his mother and older brother Marshall went to church a few times a week – twice on Sunday and midweek for a prayer service. His mother made money teaching Bible classes. As a child and as a Bible college student, he experienced the things that make a church toxic – 1) fear, 2) exclusion, and 3) rigidity. The God of Philip’s childhood was not a loving, forgiving God. The God he knew was “eager to condemn and punish.”

Philip’s father, a minister, died when he was only a year old so he has no memory of him. After his death, Philip’s mother vowed to dedicate her sons to God so they could fulfill her own dream of being a missionary in Africa. As Philip described it, their mother essentially took on the role of God in deciding what her boys should do with their lives. The weight of that vow and their inability to meet her expectations hung over them. Philip went through the motions of a religious life, answering the altar call, getting baptized, witnessing to others, sharing his testimony, etc. But he and Marshall were plagued with doubts about whether any of their religious experiences were real. Philip did his best to fake it.

Philip’s mother claimed to be living the Victorious Christian Life. To Philip, she had a split personality. There was the gentle mother who took care of him when he was sick and the angry mother who showed up without warning. To the church and to her Bible students, she was the devout Christian woman. At home, she was often angry, moody, and vengeful. Neither son ever had their mother’s approval but she was especially tough on Marshall. Marshall defied his mother’s will by transferring to Wheaton College (it was too liberal). She was furious and said something to him that was incredibly cruel, that she would pray for something bad to happen to him.

What beings as love may, in fact, corrode into something akin to its opposite.

Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell

My mom grew up attending a Nazarene church in a small town in Indiana. Her father was very strict, especially with his only daughter. Perhaps that is why Mom stopped going to church? Dad took us kids to the Nazarene church every week. The congregation was small, less than twenty or thirty people. Our large family was welcomed with open arms. Pastor Don Reeves and his wife Pat were poor and lived in the church basement until they could afford to buy an old fixer-upper house. The church was an old wood-framed building that needed a lot of work and Don worked on fixing it up.

If I remember right, Pastor Don was a recovered alcoholic. He was quiet and humble. He knew the meaning of grace. Sunday school classes were in the church basement and it was there that my Sunday school teacher told me about Jesus. I never had any doubt that God loved me for who I am.

Philip Yancey didn’t know what it was like to have a father. I was twelve when my parents divorced so I knew what I was missing when Dad was gone. Besides missing Dad’s presence, I missed his stabilizing influence on Mom.

Mom was kind and generous and had a wicked sense of humor. She accepted other people for who they are and could find something to like about anyone. She was generous with compliments. We loved to hear her sing and tell us stories about her childhood. Mom found something to appreciate in each of us. We always knew we were loved unconditionally.

But being single changed Mom. She stopped being a devoted mother. Her love life came first. The summer I turned sixteen, Mom uprooted us and moved us to another small town to be closer to her new boyfriend. When Mom found out he was married, she moved us again to Topeka, claiming it was because the furnace wouldn’t keep our old house warm enough. At the end of the school year, we moved back. Mom got a job at the local plant and began a relationship with a coworker who was separated from his wife. At the end of the workday, she went home with him and left my five younger siblings with me.

Like Philip, I saw my mother as two-faced. She sometimes talked about her faith but never went to church. Whenever someone heard that she was the mother of eight, they would express their admiration. Where they saw a saint, I saw an adulteress. In my mind, Mom may as well have worn the red letter A. With every affair, with every revelation about her sexual history, I mentally threw a stone at her. I was the judgmental, self-righteous one.

Philip grew up feeling ashamed because he grew up in a strict environment and did a couple of things he knew were bad. He could be ornery and devious. I was ashamed of being on welfare after the divorce because I knew people disapproved. I worried too much about what people thought of our family. When Mom had my youngest brother out of wedlock, I was so afraid people would find out that I lied about how long my parents were divorced. (I have not gotten over this shame.)

Where the Light Fell made me appreciate the humble, Jesus-centered church I attended. It made me appreciate the flawed mother who loved me unconditionally.

I saw Philip Yancey several years ago when he came to speak at my church in a suburb of Denver. When he ended his talk, he asked us make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. His book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? helped me see the world through grace-filled eyes. I let go of my resentment. I forgave my mother. I realized that she did the best she could. Like me, she was broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.

Hebrews 12:15 (CEB)

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