Toes for God

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.  – St. Augustine

If not for my Mom, God might have taken my toes, along with my horse and my money.

I was the third of six, middle daughter, youngest of the ‘big kids.’ Sometimes I felt a bit invisible to Mom. Other times, it was clear how much she was trying to make sure each of us were seen.

I was the one who got given, as one of my first books ever, a hard cover, illustrated collection of Old Testament stories. I was the first one she taught to milk cows. I was given the first foal born on our little farm. And she never mocked my spiritual questing, even while she was (it is clear to me now) often nervous about how to talk with me about it, given what a fraught topic spirituality and religion were in our house.

She didn’t know how to tell a ten year old about ‘fornication’ in front of the neighbour, but she did find a way to explain to me, in broad outline, that it was about socially proper and improper things, about rules men make and rules God made.  And she saved my toes, the day I won at Bingo.

Bingo at the local Hall was a regular social event in our rural community. I would learn to hate Bingo, but, around the time I was caught up in the New Testament, Bingo was still fun. I remember the day it changed.

I was a number away from winning the big jackpot. I prayed to God to let me win. The caller called the last number. It wasn’t mine. On to the Consolation prize, $50, still an amazing amount for a kid. I swiftly considered – I’d been too greedy! – and revised my prayer. God, if you let me win, I’ll give this money to The Poor. As if to confirm God’s approval, the next number was mine, and I shouted out (imagine that shout, a cross between crushing shyness and religious fervour).

Immediately, the dilemma arose. I’d made a silent bargain with God. Now I had to turn over the dough. Why was that so hard? I put the cash in a pink envelope, I addressed the envelope to the popular charity of the day, the one with commercials all over our TV, all those images of big eyed, dark children. But then, I stalled, afraid for some reason I could not name, to do this. Somehow, I feared my family’s reaction.

This time, I screwed up my courage and asked Mom, shouldn’t I be giving this money to The Poor? Oh honey, replied my mom, for the first and only time she’d admit it, We are the poor. Such was the power of my belief in the fundamental wealth of my home, that I thought she was just saying that to let me off the hook.

I wonder what she would have said if I’d told her about the dust of my sandals.

As if tithing my pony weren’t problematic enough, and the struggle to know what to do with my bingo winnings,  I came upon the story of Jesus sending out his disciples to preach. If the people of a town wouldn’t accept the gospel, said Jesus, then the disciples should walk on, and be sure to shake the dust of that town from their sandals. It was the mightiest symbolic act of contempt.

So, there I was, now a tween pondering life’s paths, facing the dreadful prospect that I might have to be a disciple. It might be the most important thing in life, to answer the call of Jesus, and if so, hadn’t I better get on with it? I considered riding my pony, but rejected that as not authentic; I’d not succeeded in turning him into a biblical era plow-horse, so it might be cheating to use him to get out of the very direct instructions Jesus had laid out for his disciples. Literal-minded as I was, I reckoned that a true disciple must walk, per the book, from town to town, in sandals.

Not for the first time, and not for the last, I despaired of living up to God’s demands. How was I to walk from town to town? In our little corner of northern Alberta, towns were so very far apart. And how could God demand I wear sandals? In the forested hills, they’d be filled with spruce needles all summer, and what about the snow?! Why would God demand that I ignore basic good sense, and go out in forty below in sandals? Was this what was meant by sacrificing all for faith?

I dithered. I could not face losing toes for God. And worse, every time I pictured turning up in a town in sandals and robe preaching, I immediately heard the residents’ scorn –Sandals? What kind of moron wears sandals in the gumbo, in the bush, in the snow? And even if they were a town against whom I’d have to shake off sandal dust, first I’d have to clear this venture with my parents. I could not imagine them approving.

So then, did God want me to run away? There I stuck. On the one hand, this book said I must forsake family and home for the sake of the Gospel. On the other hand, one of the Commandments, with a capital C, was that I honour my father and my mother. I weighed it up, and decided that I just couldn’t dishonour them by simply leaving, and they wouldn’t agree to it – we may have been the poor, but we sure weren’t stupid – so no walking off in sandals and robe for me.

It did take some years to shake off a sense of craven guilt, a suspicion that I’d used ‘honour your parents’ as a cloak for my toes, which I would not risk for the gospel.

*This year, I am honouring my mom’s passing by writing throughout the Advent season, following as prompts the daily quotations cited in the free online calendar put out by the Catholic Medical Mission Board Mom was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and I was raised with the Church as a contentious part of our family life, given that my Ojibwe dad’s family was so affected by the church. Nonetheless, her faith was important to Mom, so this is a tribute to her. It’s also a reflection on how religions influence in many ways. 

If you like these posts, please also consider donating, in the memory of Albina Sewell, to Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton; her chosen charity for memorials is not religiously affiliated, but serves all children.

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