There is a saying that goes, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” It's been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but turns out he never said that. The closest thing he said was something about how Franciscans should follow their preaching.
The book of James teaches this same principle in the first chapter. Starting in verse 22, James says “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do."
Do what it says. Why is this important? Because you never know who is watching your life. I'm always surprised to find out that someone has been observing my actions. I see myself as an ordinary woman. I'm not very exciting. So when someone tells me they've seen God in action in my life, I'm always left a bit awestruck at the idea.
When I was taking care of my mother, I went over every day. Day in, day out. I felt invisible to the rest of the world.
One day when I went over, I found her with small, wadded up paper towels cleaning the door sill by her entryway. As soon as she saw me, she started screaming that this place I moved her to was filthy, and that it wasn't cleaned before she moved in.
That simply wasn’t true. Moreover, her house had been a cesspool when I moved her – it was covered in filth of cats with no cat litter available, and the smell had been overwhelming. But because her outburst came at me seemingly out of nowhere, against all reason I replied, “This is dirt you tracked in from gardening.” That was a big mistake. It sent her on a tirade of how she's only been there a few days, she never went out and it couldn't be her. Because I'm a slow learner, I replied, “A few days? You've been here two months!” That really set her off, and she screamed that I was lying and the cycle was in full swing.
Later, I met Mike for lunch and it was clear that I was not doing well and he was frightened for me. I told him about mom's continual self-pity and how she was always complaining that her old life was so much better and now it's all gone. My life was gone as well and I was grieving that. I shared that with Mike and remarked that I'm not any different from my mother.
He was incredulous. “Not any different? Not any different??? That's totally unrealistic! Donna, it's awful of me, I know, but if I'd gotten that letter, I would not have answered it. You've shown me a new level of the Christian walk I've never seen. That woman has never been kind to you. She's always been unpleasant and, God forgive me, I would have thrown that letter away. But you walked in forgiveness. You're taking care of everything on your own, and you know if the situation had been reversed you would have been abandoned.”
I looked at him in wonder. God bless that man. He gave me a new perspective and he spoke truth. It helped me keep going. It also showed me that someone was watching my life and was being affected by it. Over the years of caring for her, more than one person remarked on watching me when I was totally oblivious of the fact.
So keep in mind the quote misattributed to St. Francis. Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words. Your life is your message.
Note: the letter my husband was referring to was Mom’s, when she contacted me to ask forgiveness and to ask for help. See the post titled, “Beginnings.”
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.