Remembering Sister Margaret Gaines

Friends: I got some sad news a few minutes ago. Sister Margaret Gaines was found dead in her home this morning. She was 85. I have long referred to her as my spiritual grandmother. She was the person who most shaped my faith. To be in her presence, was to be saturated with Jesus. 

In tribute, I wanted to post a section from my first book, Prototype, in which I wrote about her at length: 

The week after Christmas, I was sleeping on the sofa hide-a-bed in Pell City, Alabama, when the delicate sounds of 80-year-old Sister Margaret Gaines working quietly in the adjacent kitchen slowly woke me.  I was still in the hazy shadowland between dream and reality when I began to hear the pots and pans and her voice softly humming a hymn.  She was trying not to wake me, but it was hardly a bother.  When I’m at Margaret’s house and she’s making fresh Arab bread and hummus, the old Church of God campground doesn’t seem nearly so out of reach.  And when I share a meal with Sister Margaret, I always recognize something that gives me a reason again to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead after all.  I wasn’t able to handle the wounded body of Jesus, and now I can’t touch the body of my grandmother either.  But in Sister Margaret, I’ve got a stand-in. 

The claim though is not just that the resurrection changes people—but that resurrection has already changed the world.  The problem of course is that there are so many ways that the world is yet living in protest to its deepest calling.  We do not have to look very far to see how much suffering and evil and injustice is still at work in the world around us even still.  And yet when people really come to believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead and start to live their lives accordingly, we are able to see demonstrated what this new resurrected world looks like.  As strange as it might sound, through our very lives in all of their ordinariness, people begin to experience the reality of resurrection.  People who live such a life in a real sense begin to “take responsibility for God” in the world.  For most people, this is where faith in God starts. Rowan Williams says that belief in God

starts from a sense that we ‘believe in,’ we trust some kinds of people.  We have confidence in the way they live, the way they live is the way I want to live, perhaps can imagine myself living in my better or more mature moments.  The world they inhabit is one I’d like to live in.  Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in. [1]  

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            ...Years after my grandmother died, I came to know this feeling again for myself through Sister Margaret, whom I call my spiritual grandmother.  So I’ll take you back long before that morning I described in Pell City, Alabama, a few months ago.   I didn’t know her well until I was in my early 20s.  I knew of her because she was famous in my denomination as a missionary.  The first time Amanda and I got to be with Margaret, we literally cried for three hours as we talked, still so overcome by the time I left her that I staggered drunkenly to my car.  It wasn’t anything in particular she said.  It was her presence.  I had never been around a person who was as tender and gentle and good as Margaret Gaines.  It was as if to be with her was to feel the presence of God Himself.  And I’ve never gotten over it. 

            I know much more of Margaret’s story now.  She grew up in Pell City, Alabama.  When she was 19 years old, she felt like God called her to be a missionary, but she couldn’t get any support because everybody said it was too dangerous for a pretty single girl to go to Tunisia on her own.  But she went.  And years later, she felt like God called her to the Palestinian village of Aboud.  She never married, saying that she is married to Jesus, so it wouldn’t be fair to a husband since her heart belongs to Him.

Margaret’s life was greatly shaped by the hospitality and generosity of the Arab people, who received her as a gift to their community.  She established a church and a Christian elementary school that continues to this day, though in recent years serious heart ailments have forced Margaret back to her home in Pell City.  Currently, five Muslim villages surrounding Aboud send their children to the school.  With few resources, Margaret developed the curriculum and created almost all of the visual aids herself when she founded the school in 1970. Many of the Muslims there send their children to the school, knowing full well they will be taught about Jesus as part of their educational program.  A leading Muslim cleric in Aboud commented that “Sister Margaret shaped and changed the entire character of this village.”  A delegation of Muslim leaders told her on her last visit that they wanted to build a library in Aboud in her honor, as a monument to the love she brought there.

            There are so many astounding stories from the life of my 80-year old spiritual grandmother.  In 2006, I had the extraordinary privilege of going with her to Aboud.  To see firsthand the places where she experienced remarkable miracles of biblical proportions has forever marked me.  There are so many times she experienced supernatural provision from God while living among her people through multiple wars and astonishing oppression.  But rather than telling you any of those stories that would most enthrall you, there is one small story she tells me that sums up for me best just how odd the resurrection can make a person different in a hostile world. 

Margaret was in the village market one day when everybody was out, and a man accosted her.  Taking out his apparent frustration with western military interference in the region, he began cursing her.  He cursed the grave of her father, the grave of her mother, the grave of her grandparents, her God and the God of her parents--everything he could think of to curse.  She felt the eyes of the entire village watching.  As he hurled abuse on her, she quickly prayed for wisdom.  When he was finally done, Margaret responded “I am so sorry I hurt you.   I never had any intention of hurting you.  God loves you and I love you.  He loves this village and he wants to bless you.  When you get over being angry, will you remember I’m still your friend?”  Perplexed, he turned and walked away.  In words that have forever marked me, Margaret told me that “Satan doesn’t know how to respond to the gentleness of God’s Spirit.”  Discouraged, she went back to her room to pray.  “Oh, God, what was the meaning of this? Everybody in the village who could walk was out on the streets.  What was this all about?”  She heard God say, “That was your pulpit.  Those people will never come to the church.  But you preached my gospel by demonstrating my Spirit.” 

Margaret recalls that there were many such situations that “were unpleasant to the human heart…but if we can be God’s person of peace in any given situation and a witness—a living witness—to the unseen Lord…live out his word and live out his teaching in everyday life as he expects, then over time it makes a total difference.”  Margaret broke down in tears as she said “Oh, if every village had a living, breathing Spirit of Christ walking in its midst, there would be a lot more peace.   You are not going to Palestine perhaps.  But you have this one little corner of the world.”  She taught us that when we run into human cruelty and rage, “the sweetness of the Spirit will eventually dissolve the acidity of the spirit that is coming against you—and He will bring peace.”

It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand why I cry so much when I’m around Margaret.  Even though I had already started following Jesus and was even stepping into ministry, there was something about the peace, clarity and simplicity about her that made me ache for a life that I had not yet lived, and yet seemed strangely familiar.  Being around her helped me to understand that my name was not legion.  I didn’t yet entirely know what my name is or what becoming human would really mean, but I knew I had a name as God’s beloved son.  I knew I had another identity.  When you’re living in a violent world full of zombies and you meet an authentic human being, you remember. 

The last time Sister Margaret stayed at our house, I got up very early one morning to find her staring out the back window into our yard.  I will never forget the look I saw on her face.  It was lit up with wonder as she watched the birds and squirrels and rabbits.  It was a look of such awe and contentment.  When she saw me, she began to talk about the simple things she was seeing in creation so far that morning and how beautiful it all was.  At 80 years old, Margaret still hears the music.  Resurrection has made her a child of wonder, even now.  I know now that this is what resurrection does to a person—it doesn’t make you “religious,” it makes you attentive to beauty on an unprecedented scale.  Margaret has been to some difficult places and in some dark situations, but she doesn’t see them the way that other people do.  She sees “Earth crammed with Heaven,” a world forever altered by resurrection. 

What if people like us could become so intoxicated with the beauty of God that we, like Margaret, could help other people begin to see “a world they’d like to live in?” 

 

 

[1] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 21-22.