Faith of Our Mothers

Our Elders Know Suffering, and So Does God

Carrie Willard / 3.24.20

We’re living in unprecedented times. At least that’s what everyone is saying. And it’s true. There’s never been a time in our history when this many people have been using Zoom to make conference calls. But this is not the only time that people have faced catastrophic circumstances. The world has been a scary place since time began and repeatedly through the generations until the current day.

Before any of us had heard of COVID-19, my family hosted a lady from church at our house on Christmas evening. After dinner, we sat around the table and exchanged stories, and we learned that our friend had been quarantined during a polio outbreak, just as the school year was wrapping up and World War II was ending. She was a young person then, and she spent her summer break indoors that year. She told us that, at different times, when she received a diagnosis for other childhood diseases, like chicken pox or measles, the doctor would come to her home for a house call and would place a sign on the door that would indicate how many days she needed to stay in quarantine. Those weren’t widespread global pandemics, but our elders know quarantine.

Our elders also know fear, uncertainty, illness, and deprivation. My great-grandmother, who gave birth to three huge babies at home and nursed one on one breast after the other breast was taken by cancer, said, “You can stand any time but the good times.” She meant that we do better when we can take care of each other and when we can face adversity. Easy living was not her thing. After she buried her son, she came home, took a swig out of the RC cola bottle she kept in the refrigerator, and went into the backyard to stoke the smoldering pile of a literal garbage fire. If that’s not a metaphor for all of us right now, I don’t know what is. Our elders know suffering.

We’re lucky enough to have my parents living nearby. My mom is taking great delight in teaching my children some of the things that my great-grandmother taught her as a young bride. My children are getting lessons in cleaning, gardening, and thrift, and alongside that, they’re learning (again) that our elders have valuable lessons to teach us. We’ve filled a basket with old towels and rags that is known as “These are your paper towels now.” These are things we should have been doing all along, but we didn’t. My great-grandmother knew how to stretch cellar ingredients in lean times, and chances are, yours did, too. Our elders know survival.

The Bible is a book about human suffering and God’s faithfulness in the face of that suffering. Plagues, pestilence, and famine are its theme songs. Human cruelty is practically on every page. But we don’t need to go that far back to find stories of God’s faithfulness in times of adversity. We can make our grandmother’s dumplings and hum the tune to her favorite hymn, if we’re lucky enough to know what it was. (If you don’t, just assign one to her. God won’t mind.) I’ll be thinking about my grandpa’s green thumb when we plant a small garden this spring, as a sign of hope and practicality. He would be mystified that I ordered topsoil online, but I’d like to think he’d be proud of my growing compost pile. If you don’t have these kind of memories in your family, pick up an old cookbook or an old hymnal, and remember the faith of your spiritual fathers and grandmothers. I take a lot of comfort that people have survived in times such as these, and have prayed and sung the same prayers and hymns that we still use today.

If your grandparents didn’t have a favorite hymn, or you don’t know anything about their faith, take a few from me:

Faith of our Fathers! living still
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword,
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word:
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be truth to thee till death.

From my favorite hymn that we sing on All Saints’ Sunday, “For All the Saints:”

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.
Yet All are One in Thee, for All are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

If these don’t bolster your spirit, that’s ok, too. These are unprecedented times. Your forebears knew suffering, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not suffering now, too. Maybe your prayer looks more like taking a swig from the flat soda in the refrigerator and tending your garbage fire in the backyard, like my great-grandmother’s was. It’s not pretty, but God sees you, God loves you, and God is with you in garbage fires, in fear, and in faith.


One response to “Faith of Our Mothers”

  1. Heather says:

    So good!

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