I have a real gem of a mom.
Seriously, I do.
In one fateful afternoon way back in the mid-70’s, she sacrificed her pretty appearance and reputation as a sensible mother for me. And I didn’t even deserve it. Not one bit.
Let me explain.
I was a shallow child. (Seriously, I was.) My lack of character and depth showed up at the incredibly young age of six when I refused to wear the school outfits my mom picked out for me each day. I had definite ideas about what I thought was fashionable at an age when most kids didn’t think twice about clothing choices. My level-headed older sister always dutifully wore whatever was laid out for her and never turned her nose up at anything Mom ordered for her out of the Sears catalog. For some unknown reason, however, I constantly fussed about what I wore. And even though I was more of a tomboy than my sister, I still had an unusual need to be stylish while shooting my BB gun or fishing with my dad.
Things didn’t improve much as I got older, either. Winters became especially frustrating for my mom as I felt that my beefy coat and clompy boots were entirely beneath my hip and happenin’ preteen image. I was exasperated by how both my over-caring mother and the brutal Montana winter had no respect for flimsy shoes and paper thin jackets like the cool ones like the Brady Brunch kids wore in their gorgeous California setting. I knew that Marcia and Jan wouldn’t have been caught dead in bibbed snowpants and I was determined to never chance dying in a pair myself.
And so, it was bound to happen.
The day came when I had worn Mom down enough to let me leave for school on a slushy, snowy day without my snowpants and wearing tennis shoes instead of serviceable boots.
It would stand to reason, then, that that would be the day when I would fall knees-down in a slushy mud puddle during morning recess.
It was bad. Bad enough to make me do what I really didn’t want to do–call Mom. The same mother who only three hours earlier had tried to coerce me into wearing humiliating protective outerwear was suddenly my solitary option for rescue.
She became all that stood between me and the embarrassment of going back to class wearing soiled and sodden wide-legged pants from their above-the-waist perch down.
I slogged into the school office and pulled our numbers down on the phone’s rotary dial–a primitive, yet effective implement akin to the toggle switches on an Apollo lunar module.
“Mom, could you please bring me another pair of pants?”
She groaned. “What happened this time?”
“I fell in a puddle.”
“Well, I just set my hair.”
I knew full well what that meant. Her head was full of rollers that would need to stay in place for a couple hours in order to achieve maximum hairdo height and beauty. For us, an electric curling iron was still about a year away. And, having her hair in rollers translated into her not daring to be seen in public for the next two hours. It was unthinkable.
As unthinkable as me publicly wearing mud-smeared pants for the rest of the day.
So whose appearance would be sacrificed for the other’s ?
Or, put another way, who loved the other more?
Biblically, the word started out as a designation for a religious offering. It would later acquire the wider meaning of anything valuable given up for a greater good. By the time Jesus entered the world, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, had twisted their sacrificial offerings into public acts that they took pride in. They fashioned for themselves pious personas designed to make them look ultra spiritual. They wore fancy robes and executed their duties with calculated showmanship designed to elicit admiration and adoration from all the regular Jews. They began to base their acceptability to God on how amazing they could make their externals appear to the outside world.
When ordinary Jesus came along claiming to be the Son of God, the Pharisees were affronted. They believed their lavish externals reflected the lavish glory of God, so peasant Jesus couldn’t possibly be who he said he was. What they didn’t know was that Jesus was ushering in a new era. A system of grace based on unseen, spiritual principles that would be written on hearts instead of tablets of stone. Its grandeur was not visible to the naked eye, therefore, no amount of outside fanciness could reveal it. In fact, men’s reputations and appearances could quite possibly detract from God’s glory.
Jesus, as ol’ King James so poetically states, “…made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself…” Phil 2:7-8.
In other words, Jesus apparently didn’t place any value on what he needed others to do for him or how he needed to be viewed by the outside world. Instead, he put his whole earthly life on the altar in order to fill all of humanity’s most basic need–to be loved. Truly, unconditionally, sacrificially loved.
He sacrificed his appearance, his reputation, his very Godhood to serve others. And he didn’t even care if that sacrifice made him look just like a backwards pagan to the religious elite. He had a job to do. For us. For me. For you.
Of course Mom brought me dry clothes that day.
Over the phone she scared me by stating that maybe it was time for her to stop enabling my vanity and that maybe if I really suffered for the whole day I would finally appreciate the value of sensible outerwear. But then, when I made my voice shaky as if I was shivering, she said, “Fine, then–I’ll be there in ten minutes. But only because I don’t want you getting sick. Oh, and did your shoes get soaked?”
I looked down at the puddles forming at the edges of my soggy rubber soles and immediately formulated my own looser definition for the word soaked before answering, “Uh, no. Not, um, really.”
“Are you sure? I’ll bring your boots just in case.”
“NO! My shoes are fine!”
“Well how could your shoes stay dry if your pants got completely wet?”
“I, um, fell, um sideways…sort of. “
I waited at the door for a few minutes, but then realized I had to go to the bathroom bad. Figuring I could still get back to my post before Mom showed up, I ran to the restroom. Predictably, I was still in there when Mom arrived.
She breezed in, whispering my name as she tried to keep her curler-bedecked self from being seen by any of the school staff. She had tied a kerchief around her head, but it was, admittedly unflattering.
“Willow! I didn’t want to come in. Just hurry–I’ll wait while you change,” she said, thrusting a pair of pants under the stall door. “I’ll take the wet pair home with me.”
That’s when she spotted my shoes off to the side. “These ARE wet! Why did you tell my they weren’t?”
“Really, they’re fine, Mom.”
“No they aren’t! I can’t let you wear wet shoes ALL DAY! You’ll get sick!” And that’s when the real sacrifice, the no-holds-barred total mother love offering happened right there and then.
“Here–take my shoes.”
I gasped. “Mom, I can’t wear those!”
She was wearing the scruffy, low-heeled clogs she only wore around the house. Granted, as a sixth grader, my feet were already the same size as hers, but still, the shoes were ugly. Not as bad as snow boots, but ugly nonetheless.
She grabbed my shoes before I could snatch them and pulled her bare feet out of her pair.
“Mom! You’ll have to go out barefoot. In the snow.” I couldn’t believe she would do such a thing. She’d freeze her feet. What was she thinking?
Mom’s voice softened a bit. “It’s okay. As long as no one sees me, I’ll be fine.”
It was like we had walked through a wormhole into an alternate universe. A place where my refusal to sacrifice my fashion reputation made my mom have to sacrifice hers. And then, her noble bid to make sure my feet stayed warm turned into me suddenly worrying about her feet getting frostbitten.
Her sacrificial act of love stirred up feelings of reciprocal love in me. Selfish, naughty, shallow me.
So now let me ask this: In what ways have I, as a pious modern Christian refused to sacrifice my appearance for the sake of serving someone else?
Or, more specifically, what might reputation sacrifice look like among Christians today?
Would a somber Reformed believer be willing to accompany a friend for prayer to an altar where a Pentecostal preacher is touching people, yelling in tongues, and “slaying them in the spirit”? Or would Reformed rather die than be seen there?
Or would a dyed-in-the-wool Evangelical, for the sake of a loved one, be willing to participate in common cup communion from a Catholic priest in a public mass? Or would Evangelical rather die than be seen there?
Or, what if a non-believer in a desperate situation wanted to talk to their Southern Baptist coworker about faith, but insisted they do it over a beer in a tavern? Would Southern Baptist turn the invitation down just because he/she’d rather die than be seen there?
What parts of our shiny “Christian” reputations would we be willing to sacrifice in order to love our neighbor unconditionally?
I’ll just leave these questions here for today. My story isn’t quite finished yet.
I obediently slipped my feet into Mom’s shoes and she sidled, barefoot, down the hall and out of the school.
My pretty mom, out of care and concern for me, had left the house with rollers in her head and was now leaving the school like a guilty criminal, glancing around corners before rounding them and leaving bare footprints in the slush on the cold entrance floor. After checking to make sure the coast was clear, she bolted out the front door of the school and ran across the snow-covered parking lot toward our VW bus. She almost made it.
She later reported the utter humiliation she felt as the shop teacher came around the corner and greeted her before she reached the car. She said Mr. Walhus’s eyes widened as he looked down at her feet and then back up at her. She didn’t know what to say. She knew she looked like a crazy lady.
And, momentarily, I guess you could say she was.
Crazy with love for her daughter, that is.
Thank you, Mom.
I mean it–I’ve never forgotten that day.