Small wooden houses in the Texas heat. Wild felines under the wooden floors and joists, fighting and mating. Laurel Drive and the canals on the other side of the tracks. The high school, built like a prison and emblazoned with traditional purple and gold. First Baptist Church on Main Street in the days before they built the annex.
She was young when it first occurred to her. It wasn’t a call so much as merely a desire. To serve the Lord and His people, wherever they were, just seemed instinctive. It was natural, of course, to someone who cut her teeth on stories of Hudson Taylor, Lottie Moon, and Elizabeth Elliot.
She would serve others as a nurse missionary.
So many things got in her way, though. Lacking local universities, she was compelled to move faraway. Difficult nursing classes made for frustrating academic experiences. There was the homesickness, naturally. Then, of course, came Donald.
She was married by 21 and shortly afterwards left that distant university. Gone were dreams of China and nursing. Babies began arriving in ’68, and Donald became a fellow Christian in ’70. They closed on the house out on Noble Road, across from Bogatta’s Grocery, and joined a fledging church across town. Donald taught classes at the hospital while the former nursing student raised babies.
Babies who cut their teeth on stories of Hudson and Lottie and Elizabeth; children who were taught how to have a servant’s heart.
Some things in her life worked out just as she expected. Their church was great. The kids attended good schools. She and Donald started teaching a group of single adults in 1978, and moved from there to the young married group in ’83. Her kids were all saved, married, and produced grandchildren. One even became a missionary. Like mother, his greatest spiritual gift is one of service.
She never became a nurse missionary herself, never served the downtrodden as she shared the gospel. Changed plenty of band-aids at home, though, and taught thousands of His love down at the church.
Over the years, she did it all. Church janitor, with Donald and the kids. Junior high girls’ Sunday School teacher. Pastoral search committee. Unpaid interim youth director, also with Donald. Children’s church. Young married couples’ teacher, then back to the Singles Department. Team Kids worker. Baby showers and wedding receptions. Taking turns in the nursery. Meeting young mothers for Diet Coke. Sunday School parties. Home group prayer sessions.
That was then; 30 years of then, to be precise.
Now she sits alone in an electric wheelchair out in the sun room. She can see her birds pilfering seeds in the backyard and sluicing sugar water from the flower-shaped feeders. Donald faithfully sows seeds on tree stumps and flat river rocks for the birds to snatch them away, all in sight of the back windows, and replaces the sugar water that tempts.
She lays in bed when the pain is too severe or when her weakened muscles no longer support her, serving no one. Donald stays home now, having retired 8 years ago in order to care for her. The creeping paralysis and intermittent pain have served to narrow her world. Tennis, jogging, homemade French bread, planting flowers in springtime – all beyond her. Can’t tell you where the spices are anymore since she can’t reach the cabinets anyway. Has to use a slim Bible because a larger one is too heavy. Doesn’t read Lucado or Piper as often because holding a book requires more muscles than currently function. No more emails to hurting church members; ditto for the handwritten cards and letters she sent by the thousands.
So she sits here or lies there, looking out the window or up at the ceiling. She waits for Charles Stanley’s program. She listens to David Jeremiah or the news. The old married couple watches movies together in the evening, with Donald occupying the electric wheelchair next to her bed.
On good days, she gets to sleep all night. She wheels around the block in the morning, or perhaps heads up to the garden center on Route 287. They can usually get there and back before conditions require her to return to bed. The grandkids stop by, and pictures are taken. Maybe she makes a few phone calls.
On bad days, she stays in bed and wonders how long until she can have another shot. She listens to Donald bumping his way through the house, tiredly doing what is necessary. He sleeps but about 5 restless hours a night, waking up to make sure she is comfortable; well, more or less. She endeavors to sleep, and debates whether she should stay in pain, clear-headed, or should accept the relief of more medicine despite the mental confusion that will follow.
She remembers all her church friends, folks who have moved on over the last few years. They followed children and grandchildren to other churches, and never stop by any more. It happens, and it’s fine. Were her life different, she would likely do the same as they, finding a new place of service.
The pastor used to come around, or at least call, but that ended about 2 years ago. There was some sort of trouble – she never knew or cared what kind – and Donald was made to feel unwelcome. After years of service and support for the congregation, they were out. They stuck with the church through poor pastoral hires, building projects, two attempted coups led by monied church members, through rebuilding after the flood in ’79. When asked, she insists, “They can fight if they want, but that was my church for years and all I want to do is go worship there.”
She thinks. Her mind is as active as her body is not, and she’s got plenty of time.
She prays. She prayed for her youngest for years; he finally returned to God and the church. She prays for her grandchildren. For Donald. For the new couple across the street, the one she hasn’t met. For the child she released to the mission field, like Hannah dropping Samuel off at the tabernacle with a tiny little ephod.
She thinks about that phrase, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
She thinks, ever so rarely, about her reward, her promised recompense for service and for all the things she has sacrificed. Sometimes, she wants a parade of people coming by the house, distracting her from her pain and making sure she remains unforgotten. At other times, she cares nothing for recognition; instead, she wants a divine end to it all. She’s been sick for so long.
At her most reasonable moments, she knows that her service was its own reward. She did her best with His gifts. She sleeps restlessly yet with a clean heart, for she has given her all. She surrendered every ounce she had in service to God by serving His people. Future reward or no – she is content.
And this current trial? Her struggle with uselessness and pain and isolation? In her response to this tribulation there is, too, is a chance for her to serve her Lord, though there is no longer anyone around. All along her labor has been people-focused but divinely-oriented; now the people are missing while the heavenward orientation remains.
And that’s alright.
In a very real sense, no true act of service has humanity as its goal.