My mother’s tombstone, near the top of Dexter Hill, reads “GOD IS GOOD.”
Mom chose those words herself. It was something my mom said a lot, waiting for the words we knew to reply with: “All the time.”
I’m not sure where Mom picked that up. That informal bit of liturgy is more of a black church thing and definitely not something we heard at the nearly all-white fundamentalist Baptist church we attended. She might’ve heard it back when she was a young teacher in Trenton. Or maybe from the folks at Bread of Life, the storefront black Pentecostal church and ministry and community center that ran the baseball league I played in for most of my childhood. Or maybe from the parents of some of her students at Timothy Christian School. I don’t know.
But wherever she got it from, Mom loved to recite that even, or especially, when other things didn’t seem so good. She’d say it when we got stuck in Jersey traffic. Or when her Ford Escort refused to start. Or after a troubling call on the telephone prayer chain she ran with the other ladies from church.
It was what she said when she first went to the doctors because she was having headaches and trouble with her handwriting. And what she said when the doctors told her that she had glioblastoma multiforme, and that she wouldn’t be getting better and she wouldn’t survive it.
“God is good,” she said, waiting until we answered. “All the time.”
My mom died in 2003, just a few weeks after hanging on to see the birth of her fourth grandchild, a boy my sister named “Tobias.” That name means, roughly, “God is good.”
My mother’s tombstone now marks the graves for both of my parents and so it seems that Mom gets the last word in the lifelong theological dialogue she’d had with my dad. He was very much a Calvinist, and so “God is good” was never quite the first thing or the last thing he wanted to say about God. He wanted to say, rather, that “God is holy.”
That doesn’t quite mean that Dad disagreed with Mom’s belief in God’s paramount goodness, but …
You see, there was always a but. God’s holiness butted into everything.
God is good, but God is holy. God loves you, but God is also holy.
This divine attribute of holiness, whatever it meant, was understood as something distinct and separate from God’s other, less consequential attributes. Holiness was distinct from goodness, distinct from love, or mercy, or justice, or patience, or presence. And it often seems to be — for my dad as for so many of his fellow Calvinist believers — something almost opposed to those other attributes.
He wouldn’t have wanted to say that, or to state it quite so tactlessly, but this sense of opposition was clear in all of those “buts.” It was clear in the way that God’s paramount holiness was always invoked as a qualifier — a boundary or limit to anything else that might also be secondarily true of this Holy Holy Holy God.
So I think there was always this subtle, subtextual, unspoken conversation or argument going on between my parents. My mother believed, above all, that God is good. She also believed, to be sure, that God is holy, but whatever that might mean, it needed to be understood as part of God’s overarching, overall, unfailing goodness. And for Dad, I think, it was the other way around. He believed, above all, that God is holy. He also believed, as much as that permitted him to, that God is good. But whatever God’s goodness might mean, for Dad it had to be understood as part of God’s overarching, overall, unflinching holiness.
I was always with Mom on this one. If “holiness” meant something other than and apart from goodness — something distinct and separate from good or loving or just or merciful, something that always needed to be reintroduced with a “but,” something that qualified and limited and constrained all those other good things — then it seemed to me such an understanding of “holiness” was unwholesome and, ultimately, unholy.
This is where my dad and my brother and the many other wonderful people I know who subscribe to some shade of Reformed or Calvinist theology would insist that I just need a better, deeper understanding of what they mean by God’s holiness — an attribute always inextricably bound up with mass damnation and eternal torment, but which they always assert, in ways they’re unable to articulate briefly, is somehow better than good. “You need to read …” they’ll say, before listing some of the many, many tomes in the exhaustive syllabus they’re sure would convince me of this.
But no thanks. I don’t need or want to do all of that homework in the hopes that it might convince me, at long last, that God is not as bad as it seems. I take that as a starting point, not as the tormented, tenuous conclusion based on years of dense and difficult study parsing dense and difficult texts.
This was, after all, something I learned a long time ago from my mother. God is good.
That is, for me, the first word and the last. And so I’m pleased that my mom, for once, also got the last word in her long-running argument with the husband she loved. “GOD IS GOOD” it says there on Dexter Hill. No buts. No qualifications. No boundaries or limits. It’s carved there in stone. All the time.