Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him; I will surely defend my ways to His face.
Job 13:15 NIV
It was 1940 when my grandmother decided to follow Jesus at a tent revival. She was 11 years old and had no real idea what would change in her life, and at first nothing did. Sundays she went, as usual, with her family to church; Monday through Saturday she was always kind. She held the feeling of salvation in her heart for seven years, until she suddenly found herself surrounded by a group of passionate believers. They pushed her to spread God’s message beyond the church walls and into the war weary navy town around them. In that fertile ground a seed was planted; her faith and purpose began to grow anew.
Over 70 years the seed grew from an acorn into a royal oak- a faith steadfast enough to hold a King the world wants dead. She’s dug her roots deep into the ground, absorbing the love and wisdom needed to extended her branches over those in her care. Her labor reaped more blessing than she ever imagined she would harvest, and now looking out at the four oaks that grow beside her brings her such joy.
The two closest, tall and strong, are her sons. They are as different now as they were when they were young, though they have both inherited her desire to shepherd the weary and bring home the lost. Each has weathered their own trials and yet still they’ve spread their branches to places she hadn’t even thought of dreaming. Though they tend to her now, as she once tended to them, she will never stop praying over and ministering to them. A mother’s work, in that regard, is never done.
Behind them stands the tree that changed the landscape of an island. A church, born not of a seed, but grafted so painfully from one of her own limbs. Its branches have now grown wide and strong, offering sanctuary to both the lost and hopeless- but when she knew it best it was just a mere sapling. Does God, too, think it ironic that the endeavor which robbed her of so much, now brings back her fondest memories? How could she have had the audacity to follow the call of ministry across the country with next to nothing? When she closes her eyes she can still see people’s faces changing as they began to understand the gospel. It was as if the book of Acts was happening in real time.
The last tree is the smallest, a bible study only 16 years old, scrappy and unpredictable in its ways. She’s amazed she has been able to tend it for that long. It has been hard to find a way to bind so many ages and backgrounds together, but she knows the need for wisdom is universal. While the other oaks grow so independently now, this one still requires constant nurturing. She looks at it gratefully, for the way it has filled her retirement with mission.
Time has been harsh to her, as it so often is, and the scars that maim the trunk bring me to tears. The deep gash, where a marriage failed. The nubbed branches where the shame of her mistakes was pruned away. The damage termites left as they slowly invaded with crippling pain. Worst of all the lightning burn, that stole away her husband and her second chance at love- a grief so deep it deafened her to everything except the book of Psalms.
In a funk where my own life feels more like a rock, eroded by water day after day, I desire her Paul-like determination to keep laboring as she presses on toward the prize. The middle of life brings the great temptation of weariness and in the midst so many frivolous battles laying down hope can almost seem like a reasonable choice. How does one continue to grow and thrive against the force of dreams lost and expectations unmet? As I listen to her stories, I scour the evidence of her life for some sort of spiritual secret, something that mocks this ravaging power of time…
But what I realize as I listen is that I already know the answers I seek. Live in community (exodus 17:12, matthew 26:38)
Know God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Cast off the things that hold you back (Philippians 3:14)
What kind of a remedy is that, though, when all the things that make you stronger also require a spiritual strength of their own? What ministers to me through the slow recounting of her stories, though, is truth. Truth of the life she’s lived and the truth of what continues to lead her forward.
That if we labor at the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing (Galatians 6:9)
That God is good, and what he does is good (Psalm 119:68a)
That the one who promised us hope is always faithful (Hebrews 10:23)
And that it’s all worth it because of His love. A deep, unwavering, holy love. (1 John 4:16)
As I close my eyes and let these scriptures mingle in my mind I dwell on this collection of oaks. I feel my own hope growing from the possibility of strength, that the knowledge of His truth will keep pushing my roots ever deeper into His love, words and presence. Stronger yet will I be. Strong enough to weather the abuse that time would hurtle my way. Strong enough to seek and trust Him continually. Strong enough, still, to share His love wherever my reach extends.
Special thanks to Grandma Norma Jean McDermet…for letting me tell her story, and for continuing to inspire after 87 years.