Regarding the title of this piece, I must make an admission up front, which I only offer because you already know, and it would be highly insulting of me to presume you didn’t. The title is provocative; after all, that’s what I’m supposed to do in this age of cacophonous digital voices straining to stand out from the congested landscape of social media, frantically trying to grasp your attention. Then, in true clickbaity fashion, once curiosity has enticed its victim to give a little peek into this rabbit hole, what is discovered is rather mundane and boring. The lion doesn’t bite the man’s head off, the couple getting engaged don’t fall off the cliff, you won’t really be shocked at what she looks like now, and though I’ve never checked into it, I’m sure that secret the casinos don’t want you to know probably has more to do with the quality of the lobster on the buffet than the secret to victory over the slot machine. We are not fools; you and I. It’s merely a game we play, but pretend we don’t. I pretend my writing needs no suggestive title to be read; you pretend that you are immune to such juvenile tactics, yet here we are, and both rather embarrassed about the thing.
But my provocative admission stands, even if I must shortly, for the sake of my reputation, explain it away into the realm of the unextraordinary: I have this thing for old women.
It may not have been the first time I’d spent a night at a friend’s house, but it was the first time that I recall. It was a girl’s house. I was about eight, maybe nine years old. And my pastor Dad, of all people, suggested that I spend the night there. Provocative, right? Downright scandalous! Her name was Blanch, and she was older than me – by a half century. Her husband had recently died, and though I never met him, hanging on the dining room wall was an Amsoil clock which testified of the late Gideon’s prior presence (for what woman hangs an Amsoil clock in the dining room uncoerced?) and occupation. At any rate, for some reason which remains shrouded in mystery, my dad suggested that my brother and I go spend the night at her house. We ate popcorn, watched Laurel and Hardy’s The Flying Deuces on her VCR (oh the miracles of technology! And she so rich to own one!), and she doted on us like a grandmother-of-the-year. She was gentle, kind, she was interested in us, and we loved her dearly. Thirty some years later, I still love TheFlying Deuces, (“huh, termites!”) and think back fondly to that evening every time I watch it.
Just for grins, as I was thinking about Blanch today, I googled her. Her digital footprint seems to consist of a single item: her obituary. Blanch went home to be with the Lord just over a year ago, at the ripe old age of 89. It made me sad; the world needs more of her kind, not less.
There always seems to be a wonderful group of widow ladies in any decent church, and back then ours was no exception. Blanch was joined by the diminutive Margaret, whose voice would remind you of Pooh’s friend Piglet, and Gladys, a tall, slender, happy soul full of what we used to call “spunk,” and who always made sure to give me a hug every Sunday morning, evening, and Wednesday evening, because back then, the pastor, his family, and the old ladies attended all the services, even if no one else did. Gladys once joked to one of the other older gals that I was her boyfriend. And I also remember Violet. I was perhaps twelve when our family went to the hospital to visit the ailing Violet, and Mom asked me to recite a poem I’d learned. Nice and loud, she said. I began reciting Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith,” much of which I still remember all these years later:
Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands.
The smith, a mighty man is he
With large and sinewy hands
And the muscles on his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands…
Somewhere about halfway into the second verse, Mom said, “That’s enough Joe. She’s not awake anymore…” We quietly left, and I never saw Violet again. She died a couple days later. To this day I’m not certain she ever regained consciousness after passing out during my performance, so all these years I’ve wondered if I didn’t kill her with my obnoxiously loud recitation. I’m sure my interpretation would have given Longfellow himself a turn for the worse, so my concerns are not unfounded.
So I’ve always liked old ladies. As the writer to Hebrews might say, time would fail me to speak of Donna, Charlene, Phyllis, and so many more of whom the world, not to mention me, is unworthy.
But I must mention Marie. Marie lives in Upper Michigan, a faithful member of the church where my parents serve. Pops and Mom moved up there after I’d gone off to college, so I’ve only visited over the years. But somehow, the Lord put me on Marie’s heart, and for the last fifteen years she has faithfully and powerfully prayed for me. Me, of all people.
Marie is now eighty-five, and though macular degeneration has robbed her blue eyes of most of their sight, she is full of energy, humor, and radiates an enchanting Christlike beauty from deep within her soul. She talks fast, with vivacious animation, razor wit and good-natured humor. I often hear how Marie asks “How are Joe and Michele?” and how she is praying for us. Occasionally Marie and I pass a note back and forth – old school, with pen and paper and stamps and the whole bit. But writing is hard for her.
Like so many others, she followed Alice’s story, but not in real-time; she doesn’t have Facebook, so she had to either hear news from other people or wait until my Dad would print out a copy of the blog articles with type large enough for her to read. As Dickens might say, this fact must not be forgotten, or what follows will make no sense.
I got to visit Calvary Baptist Church of Negaunee in January, the first time I’d been up there for a church service in a couple of years. When Marie walked in I went over, and she couldn’t see me quite well enough to know who I was until I told her, then she wrapped her arms around me, and I around her, and I couldn’t say anything except, “Thank you, Marie, for praying for us.”
Oh, it’s my pleasure, she said. We talked about Alice, we talked about tragedy, we talked about the goodness of God in all things, and then in rather excited tones she began talking about the night Alice died. It went something like this:
“I was sitting in my living room looking out the back window, and it had been such a peaceful evening, and the lake was calm as glass, and I was thinking of you guys and praying for you, when something happened to me that’s never happened before. It was just a couple minutes after 10:00 I can’t explain it, but I stood up, walked over to the window, and said (in a tone more authoritative than imploring), ‘Lord, it’s time for Alice to go home.'”
A day or so later she spoke with a friend with better access to the information superhighway, and learned that Alice had died. Friday night? Yeah. Just after 10:00? Yeah, would have been 9:00 Minnesota time. The very moment she had asked the Lord to take her.
Looking back on that night, I remember how odd it was that after basically 48 hours of what seemed to be no change in Alice’s condition, she really did change in about the space of three breaths; I remember because I was lying there beside her on the bed when it happened, I called the family in, and within a minute or two she was gone.
In a sense, this little conversation, held six months after Alice’s death, about an event I had no idea happened, was a wonderfully sweet answer to prayers I’d prayed in the weeks leading up to that night. I think I even wrote back then about my disappointment that if Alice saw angels, she didn’t, or rather couldn’t tell us. It wasn’t necessary, of course; we walk by faith and not by sight, but it would have been nice. Even a card-carrying cessationist would like a little miracle now and again! I’ve written about my wrestlings and ponderings with Alice’s death and where she is now; burning up every ounce of the limited mental abilities I have to understand in some biblical parameters what the death of a sinful child means in the eyes of a gracious and holy God.
Then, when all that had been done, it appears that God had in some way answered my prayer the very moment of Alice’s death, but to a dear white-haired nearly blind saint three hundred miles away who I wouldn’t speak to for six months. And if you recall, after the ordeal of those final days of dying, the moment of Alice’s death really was a relief to us; we took little joy in the fact that she was alive when her life was in such a state as it was. So to hear that this dear saint asked the Lord to take her, and He did, meant so very much, I really don’t know how to properly express it.
Standing there in that sanctuary as dear Marie told me her story I cried; I don’t cry much anymore, but I did then. But it was a happy kind of cry, born of a rather sweet affirmation of what we knew about our Alice and our God to be true, coming from a source who had absolutely no idea what it would mean for us to have those truths affirmed in such a humble, unassuming way.
Last night I was teaching through First Timothy 5, and Paul speaks of those dear old women who have been bereft of just about everything in life and literally survive by faith in God and prayer. There’s not too many of those anymore in our land of affluence,* but there are some, in varying degrees, and when you find them, they are a treasure of incomparable value.
It occurs to me that in the normal providence of God, a woman is “a weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7), which I take to mean that they generally break easier when battered about by the knocks of life. Interesting too is the fact that a woman will, all things being equal, outlive her husband. This means that on average, a woman is going to live out her final years highly vulnerable to being physically, mentally, and emotionally broken, without her husband, her primary source of protection and support.
It would be nice to think that a woman in that perilous position might get a break; anyone of decent character oozes sympathy for the most vulnerable, or shall we be hip with the times and say “oppressed”? Yet Paul reminds us that Satan (a most cruel murderer who since the days of Moloch gets his jollies murdering the weakest with the most counterintuitive of tools: mothers handing over their own infants to death) happily lures widows away from Christ and into condemnation; Jesus told us in Mark 12:40 to watch out for those who would happily turn a widow out to the streets after they’d sucked what little she had out of her. Reminds me of most preachers on television and their persuasive words aimed at the most desperate – “send me, errr, I mean God (haha, hard to tell the difference sometimes!) your money!” I tend to agree with John MacArthur that the story of the widow dropping in her last two coins is more of a tragedy than a financial model worthy of imitation. The more vulnerable sex, women, at the most vulnerable stage of life, elderly widowhood, accosted by the cruelest of adversaries: Satan and false religion, not to mention age and increasing physical incapacity. What’s an old woman to do?
She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. 1 Tim 5:5
Set one’s hope in God. Survive by prayers and supplications night and day. Those last few years are just plain hard and dangerous. As the great Puritan commentator Matthew Henry wrote, “God sometimes brings his people into such straits that they have nothing else to trust to, that they may with more confidence trust in him. Widowhood is a desolate estate; but let the widows trust in me (Jer. 49:11), and rejoice that they have a God to trust to.”
The point Paul seems to be making ultimately is this: A woman in that state of desperation learns to trust God in a specially dependent way, and consequently she learns to bend the ear of God in ways that no one else can, and that makes her a unique, incredibly powerful, and entirely non-counterfeitable treasure of the church. She offers prayers, not out of piety, (praying is, after all, the right thing to do), not out of a contrived humility (we confess our humility because we know it to be true, but really, do we sense our weakness? I readily admit I don’t often enough), but she prays out of a wide-eyed awareness of her need for God’s help and a relationship of faith in God forged in the fires of absolute desperation for nothing more than basic survival against a host of heartless enemies.
Which means this to me, and forgive me if this sounds self-serving: the person whose name enters the prayers and escapes the lips of these blessed, tried, white-haired she-saints in their final years of earthly communion with the Almighty ought to consider himself among the wealthiest persons in the world. Those prayers are unique and powerful, a ministry unlike any other. I want to be, and even consider myself, one of those kinds of people rich in the prayers of these dear ones.
So yes, I have this thing for old ladies. They do for me what no other human being can do, and what I could never persuade them to do; it is strictly by the grace of God and the love in their hearts that I have this treasure of their love and prayers. I love being loved by them; I treasure their friendship, to revive an old cliché from my childhood, I covet their prayers. And you should too.
*truth be told, in our current American day of Social Security, pensions, and state-funded housing, I don’t know that I’ve ever known a widow who would completely qualify to be “enrolled” on Paul’s list of those who were “truly” widows. And while that’s true for the dear and godly old women I’ve mentioned here, since none of them were homeless or completely bereft of all family, in some cases their husbands still living, it is also true that their influence in my life so far as I know has been profound, and none but God himself knows how much influence they have had that I don’t and won’t know about.
** top picture is “St. Anna the Prophetess” by Rembrandt, if my internet sources are telling the truth, and I do not guarantee they are.