When we lived in the southern US for a year, my mother fell ill and spent a short time in hospital.  With the help of a couple of our neighbours, natives of the small town where we lived at the time, my father was able to find a housekeeper to fix us meals and keep the house in order. 

The lady’s name was Rachel and she was a treasure.  She always carried her Bible with her, as did many of the black ladies who worked in menial jobs.  This was in the days of segregation in the mid-1960s, so the women generally worked as housekeepers, although some still worked in the cotton fields.  There were no factory or office jobs open to them.  They lived in shacks on the outskirts of town.  Their employers would pick them up and drive them home each weekday. 

Rachel used to tell me stories from the Bible in the evenings.  She might read a passage then carry on telling the rest of the story in a delightful way.  I was only six years old at the time and was enthralled.  It was always a shame to have to go to bed afterward.  I could have listened to her for hours.

I recall that she told me to do well in school and to be sure to read a lot.  She said, ‘I thank the good Lord that I learned how to read.  To be able to read the Holy Bible is the greatest gift I can imagine.’  I don’t think she ever read anything else, even though my dad always offered her a newspaper or a news magazine.  ‘No, thank you,’ she would reply. ‘I’ve got my Bible.  That’s all I need.’

Rachel was an older wisp of a woman — slender, with hair done in a neat bun in the back.  She wore glasses and a nicely pressed cotton dress with modest black shoes.  She carried a small black handbag. She spoke gently but had firm ideas on leading a well-ordered life governed by faith.  For many years I connected her with the word ‘righteous’.  I still do. 

We didn’t know much about her other than that she came highly recommended.  I don’t know if she had ever been married, just that she didn’t have a husband, a boyfriend or children.  (Yes, of course, I had to ask, as kids do.)  She had no wrinkles and didn’t frown.  I recall being highly impressed by her gentle presence and poise. 

On the housekeeping front, she cooked us simple suppers and kept the house tidy.  She didn’t do things the way my mother did, but we couldn’t really find fault with her and she kept me company with the Bible stories in evenings when my dad was at hospital.     

When my mother returned home, Rachel was still with us on a daily basis.  My mother found Rachel’s housekeeping not quite up to par — she would tell my dad that the bedspread didn’t sit quite right and the mashed potato was unsatisfactory.   She didn’t tell Rachel, however.  My dad was a bit taken aback, because he had tried to do what he could to speed Mum’s recovery.  As far as I was concerned, Rachel could have stayed indefinitely.  I was enjoying my time with her, listening to her Bible stories. 

One afternoon after school, Mum was asleep and Rachel was telling me another story.  It was probably from Genesis, although I can’t quite recall.  Rachel believed it was important to tell the stories in order.  I used to ask, ‘Could you tell me the story of Jonah and the whale?’ and she would say, ‘Child, we haven’t got that far yet. Be patient and we’ll get there.’ 

So, Rachel was bringing Scripture to life for me yet again.  It was a quiet afternoon, with the autumn sun dappling in through the living room window.  I sat, curled up in a chair, listening intently, imagining I was back in Old Testament days as the story unfolded.  That moment could have gone on forever, as far as I was concerned.

Suddenly, there was a muffled noise from the bedroom followed by footsteps padding down the hall.  Then, my mum appeared in pyjamas and a dressing gown.  She didn’t look too happy.  Rachel paused to say hello. 

Mum looked at her and asked in a strained voice, ‘What are you doing?’ 

‘I was just telling Churchmouse a story,’ Rachel replied softly, her Bible open on her lap.

‘Please don’t.’  My mother had The Look, a particular expression of hers which required no explanation.

Then she asked Rachel to go into another room of the house. ‘I’d like to talk with you for a moment.’  So, Rachel closed her Bible, left it on the sofa and followed my mum. 

Who knows what Mum said?  It was behind closed doors and was the most silent conversation ever.  I thought they might have been looking at each other, because I couldn’t hear a word. 

A couple of minutes later the two of them emerged in silence.  My mother went into the kitchen and Rachel returned to the sofa.  But instead of sitting near me, where she had been minutes earlier, she picked up her Bible and moved to the opposite end.  She didn’t look at me.  In fact, she acted as if I were not even there.  I was bewildered.  Where was the rest of the story?  Why wasn’t Rachel talking to me?  Why was she ignoring me?  Why wasn’t my mum talking to me?  What was happening?

The silence was deafening.  I wasn’t paying attention to the time, but from that moment until my dad came home seemed an eternity.  It was probably only 10 or 15 minutes.  But even when he walked in the front door, he could sense something wasn’t right. ‘What’s the matter? Is everything okay?’ 

My mother walked out of the kitchen and said feebly, ‘You can take Rachel home now.’ 

In silence, Rachel closed her Bible, stood and picked up her handbag.  She smiled at me wanly from a distance and said, ‘Goodbye … Be good, you hear?’

And that was the last I ever saw of Rachel. 

Needless to say, later on a terse discussion ensued between my parents in the kitchen.  ‘What’s wrong with a Bible story?’ my dad asked.

‘We’re Catholic.  She’s a Protestant. Probably goes to some little church with no affiliation. It’s wrong to fill up Churchmouse’s mind with the King James Bible.’

My dad was irked.  ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t find a housekeeper who came with an imprimatur. But I tried to help.  You can barely walk.’

Mum turned away. ‘I’m feeling better.  I’ll take care of things. Don’t get anyone else.’ 

That was one of the few times I think Mum was wrong about Christianity.  She was a bit too wrapped up in her Catholicism at that moment and couldn’t see things clearly.  I felt so bad for my dad and even sorrier for Rachel.

Well, there was no way we were ever going to see that lovely lady again. Our town centre was white as could be. Blacks had to use the rear entrances for everything.  If Rachel went into town, she would have had to go to the back of the grocery store or druggist to buy anything. That’s if the merchants allowed it. She probably didn’t have a bank account, but if she did, she would have gone round to the back.  If the men in her neighbourhood wanted to go to the tavern for a beer and a bite to eat, they went to the Negro section, divided by the bar, visible only through a hatch.  At the cinema, blacks had their own entrance and sat in the balcony.

Mum didn’t dislike Rachel, but, as a Catholic, she did have reservations about the Protestant use of the Bible.  She gradually became a bit more relaxed about Protestants in the years that followed. Yet, it was only in 1970 when I found out that my parents even had a (Catholic) Bible. (By then, I already had two KJV copies of the New Testament, which were gifts.) Maybe the Rachel episode served as a turning point.  I never mentioned Rachel again, though.  I didn’t dare.

If Rachel is still alive, she’d be a centenarian.  If she has gone to her rest, I hope that her final hours on this mortal coil were peaceful. No doubt, she is among those sitting at God’s right hand.  

I mention this story not to get on my mother’s case but to illustrate the conflicts which arise when one person’s authority in matters of faith opposes another’s. In this case it was Rachel’s sola Scriptura versus Mum’s Magisterium. One can imagine each woman praying fervently for the other’s salvation.  Yet, the memory of this episode still lingers with me decades after it happened.

Tomorrow: R C Sproul explains sola Scriptura in light of Reformed theology