Conversatio Divina

The Reading Teacher Who Couldn’t Read

Gary W. Moon

A few weeks ago, Gary Moon’s mom awakened, as Dallas Willard might say, to a much more vibrant view of reality. Gary remembered that he had recently written an article about his mom that offered a good example of what can happen when a person follows Dallas’ plan for saint making—to simply do the next right thing.

We are offering a rendering of that story below as an example of what can happen when an ordinary person pays it forward.

My mom celebrated her 98th birthday a few months back. She is under contract to live to 100, but let me know that she may want to renegotiate after she hits triple digits.This essay was originally published a few months back in Christian Counseling Today and was titled, “Pay it Forward and Cash Two Checks: A Story about Physical Decay and Spiritual Wellness.”

I wrote an article about my mom not long after she turned 90. The issue theme for that magazine was aging and she seemed like a qualified consultant. With the present issue being built around “sleep, diet, wellness and performance,” I again decided to ask for her help.

Here is what she has to say about these subjects: Sleep, “I’m always sleeping my best when it’s time to get up;” Diet, “The doctors said I can eat whatever I want and I want a lot of prune juice;” Wellness, “I don’t think I have many parts that were supposed to last this long.”

But it is in the areas of performance and spiritual wellness that I think she has the most to offer.

About 20 years ago my mom began to worry that she might develop dementia. Based on her family history, there was at least minor cause for concern. So, I tried to help by using a bit of what my Uncle Otis liked to call “sly-chology.”

The next time she gave her worries voice, I said, “Mother, you should try this. Every morning before breakfast make sure you say one verse of Scripture from memory; and if you can do that, then you can go through the rest of that day knowing that you don’t have dementia.”

I didn’t think much more about that until a pattern began to develop. Every time I came home for a visit, she would get really excited and then rattle off another psalm that she had recently memorized.

But she didn’t stop there. She also memorized the poem, I’m Not Growing Old. Her theatrical recitations have become part of her birthday celebrations for the past two decades. It’s a long poem; I’ll drop in the first and last stanzas.


They say I’m growing old
I’ve heard them say it times untold
In language plain and bold
But I’m not growing old.
This frail old shell in which I dwell
Is growing old I know full well
But I’m not growing old. …

… How can I be growing old?
I’m safe within the Savior’s fold
My ageless soul shall fly away
And leave this tenement of clay
This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise
To seize the everlasting prize
I’ll meet you on the streets of gold
And prove to you I’m not growing old.Source unknown, but it’s my mom’s version.


But even though her mind remains sharp, Mom’s body has begun to wind down. Recently it has seemed unsafe for her to be left alone for long periods of time.

So the family began to find her, well, what she calls “my sitters.” One of her “sitters,” is a very humble woman with a warm and compassionate heart. I will call her Mary. Over the past three years Mary and my mom have become very close friends.

My mom loves words in all forms. Conversation. Word puzzles. Books. Hallmark movies. And what I call her “dirty TV show.” She calls it Family Feud with Steve Harvey.

My mom is a retired schoolteacher. It didn’t take her long to realize that Mary always turned down moms’ invitations for her to take a turn reading.

One day Mary gave in to the pressure and she read in front of my mom for the first time. Her reading was very slow and halting. Small words were mispronounced. Large words were mountains that could not be climbed. Mary looked very embarrassed as she confessed. “I never learned to read too good in school.”

So, for a while, my mom went back to reading to Mary every night. She read long passages of the Bible; She read Christian books; she read Christian romance novels—which are a lot like non-Christian romance novels except that the couple on the cover use more buttons. About two hours of each five-hour shift most every day involved my mom reading to Mary.

But my mom also began work on a secret project. It took a few weeks, but she compiled from memory what became a 20-page, handwritten, reading workbook. It was a facsimile of what she had used for four decades of introducing elementary school children to the magic of turning curvy lines into letters and then letters into words and words into millions of images dancing across their mental landscapes.

Her large workbook was built around five building blocks for unlocking words: 1) How does the word begin? 2) How does it end? 3) Are there small words hiding inside a big one? 4) Can you find the vowels and are they long or short? 5) If you still can’t unlock the word, can you read the rest of the sentence and drop in a word that makes sense?

After Mary completed the slow journey through the workbook, she was willing to try her hand at reading again. Much better. Months passed. Even better. A year later; Mary was reading very well.

Then something unexpected happened. My mom, had already lost the sight in one of her eyes. But then the other eye began to dim. It wasn’t long until she only had enough sight in her good eye to recognize faces and to read words on the TV screen if the font were large enough. During the past year my mom lost the ability to do what she has loved most. The reading teacher couldn’t read.

It was a very difficult adjustment. But, now, my mom hardly notices the deficit. Each evening, between 4 PM and 9 PM, Mary spends two or more of those hours reading to my mom. She reads long passages of Scripture. She reads Christian books. She reads Christian romance novels. And when she gets tired, they listen to Steve Harvey as he mercifully sends most of his double entendre right over my mom’s holiness head and out through the fields and into herds of pigs who blush and giggle themselves to death.

What is the moral of the story? Well, Steve Harvey aside, I would have to say that my 98-year-old Mom has taught me another valuable life lesson. It is never too late for your performance to be motivated by love—that is, willing and acting on what is good for another. And when you are paying it forward with that type of motivation, don’t be surprised if there are two spiritual wellness checks being cashed. This isn’t hyperbole. It is something I saw most every night when I’m home.


Gary W. Moon, M.Div. Ph.D. served as the founding Executive Director of the Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture and the Dallas Willard Center for Christian Spiritual Formation at Westmont College and continues to direct their resource development initiatives through serving as the director of Conversatio Divina: A Center for Spiritual Formation.