I want to tell you a story about a sweet little girl. She was born on January 24, 1919, in the midst of a pandemic that was threatening to rob her of her family and her very life, on a farm in Reubens, Idaho. The War to End All Wars had just come to an end. The country was reeling from the loss of friends and family members, mourning and celebrating taking place as strange bedfellows. People were just beginning to lift their heads from the grief when the Spanish Flu began spreading.
“Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.” CDC (at that time the US population was about 103 mil, now is 331 million)
At two, this little girl became a big sister to a baby brother named Willard that she loved and doted on. A few years later, she gave her heart to Jesus at the little country church her family attended. Life seemed like it was getting better. The farm was flourishing. The family grew. The country was experiencing financial growth and security. And in 1929, when she was ten years old, the stock market crashed and the whole world entered a new kind of war. A war on poverty.
Elizabeth was a farm girl. She really did not go hungry. Her mother made all of her clothes, including her underwear. Anything that one person outgrew would be remade for a new piece of clothing for the next family member in line. Their hope had not been in financial status or a bank account. She saw her friends line up in bread and soup lines. Her peers who had once looked down on her because she was a country bumkin, now came to her home for food and scraps of material to patch their worn-out clothing.
As the impact of the Great Depression lessened, she was “sent” to college to become a teacher. In the meantime, a handsome forest service firefighter from North Carolina entered the picture, and three weeks before she finished her first year of college, he swept her off her feet, said “we are going to get married,” and they did, on May 24th, 1938. She kept the marriage a secret for three weeks, still living in the girls’ dorm. The school would have expelled her if she revealed that she was married.
Life seemed blessed, but Evil is always lurking about, seeking whom he may devour, and by 1939, evil had a new face. It came in the form of a self-righteous, arrogant, and revengeful leader by the name of Adolf Hitler. As an agent of Hell itself, he convinced millions that they were superior to everyone else and they needed to rule or destroy anyone and anything that stood in their way. Americans were not ready to step into this battle, but soon would be sacrificing their own sons and daughters at the altar of Nazism.
1 Peter 5:8 warns us, Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.
Within three years, Floyd and Elizabeth were blessed with a son and a daughter. They did not have a lot, but they loved each other. As the war raged, food was rationed, jobs were scarce, and healthcare was not easy to come by. So much focus was on the war ravaging the world, that there was not very much attention to the devastation happening in our own backyard. Elizabeth was carrying their third child. She did not know how she would love and care for another, but she had hope.
She, remembered God’s truth: Isaiah 40:31 – But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
On June 3, 1943, Martha Elizabeth Willis came into the world in Los Angeles, CA. Immediately the hospital staff took baby Martha from Elizabeth’s arms and told her she was not strong enough to have a third child and the baby was not strong enough to survive. Records show that this sweet baby girl died on June 4th 1943.
Only a year and a half later, the little brother that Elizabeth loved so much was now a grown man, kind of, he was 20, and he was called on to defend Europe and the US from the evil that was spreading throughout the world. He left his family and fiancé’ to join up. He learned quickly and flew 30 missions as a bomber pilot in the US Army Air Corps. He had done his duty and was set to come home but volunteered for one more mission. On Christmas eve, 1944, in the Battle of the Bulge, his plane was shot down over Schweinfurt, Germany. He got his most of crew out safely, but he did not survive.
Still mourning the loss of her baby and her brother, Elizabeth accompanied Floyd as he answered a call to serve in a church in Rock Hill South Carolina. This was an excruciatingly lonely time for Elizabeth, but the still small voice was speaking to her…
Hebrews 13:5 I will never leave your or forsake you.
I don’t know for sure, but I am guessing her prayer went something like this;
Psalm 33:20-22 We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield…. for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone.
Elizabeth had learned that true hope could come from no one other than God
She had two small children, did not have any friends in the area, had to deal with extreme culture shock going from Southern California to South Carolina. She did not feel loved or welcomed by the family or community in the area… But she had Jesus.
When I heard the song “There was Jesus” by Zach Williams and Dolly Parton, it seemed as if they had been silent observers of her life and had written her testimony into a song.
Every time I tried to make it on my ownEvery time I tried to stand and start to fallAnd all those lonely roads that I have travelled onThere was Jesus
When the life I built came crashing to the groundWhen the friends I had were nowhere to be foundI couldn’t see it then but I can see it nowThere was Jesus
In the waiting, in the searchingIn the healing and the hurtingLike a blessing buried in the broken piecesEvery minute, every momentWhere I’ve been and where I’m goingEven when I didn’t know it or couldn’t see itThere was Jesus
For this man who needs amazing kind of grace For forgiveness at a price I couldn’t pay I’m not perfect so I thank God every dayThere was Jesus (There was Jesus)
On the mountain, in the valleys (There was Jesus)In the shadows of the alleys (There was Jesus)In the fire, in the flood (There was Jesus)Always is and always wasNo I never walk alone (Never walk alone)You are always there
In the waiting, in the searchingIn the healing and the hurtingLike a blessing buried in the broken piecesEvery minute (Every minute), every moment (Every moment)Where I’ve been and where I’m goingEven when I didn’t know it or couldn’t see itThere was Jesus
In that South Carolina town, on the way home from church one day, Floyd stopped to help a stranded motorist. The family waited in the car while he helped fix the broken-down vehicle and help the family waiting in it. They happened to be a black family. Remember this is in the late 40s, in the deep south. No matter to Floyd, they needed help, he could help, and so he did. However, other people in the community did not see it that way. They thought he had no business working on a black man’s car and set out to prove to him that there would be consequences if he continued to behave in such a manner.
It wasn’t long before the family moved back to CA where Floyd attended seminary. Elizabeth taught elementary school, instilling growth in everyone and everything she touched. In addition to teaching, she was the church pianist and piano teacher almost everywhere they served.
She never gave up hope.
In 1949, the Lord gave them another little girl, Beth, and nine years later, a surprise bouncing baby boy entered the world, bringing joy and maybe just a little heartache. Grandchildren were added to her fold. She loved them more than life itself. Three of her grandsons suffered grave tragedies in their lives. Two passed away as young adults and another was left with a debilitating spinal injury. Others have gone on to serve the Lord in the medical field and other professions, bringing great joy to the grandma heart.
Floyd and Elizabeth served the Lord together for almost fifty years. On a hot August day, after preaching and having a fried chicken dinner, Floyd went to visit a parishioner in the hospital. He was at the bedside, speaking words of hope and healing, when he shed the earthly trappings of a tired body, now absent from his body, he was present with his Lord.
Elizabeth was a widow at sixty-six years old, alone, but not without hope.
1 Thessalonians 4 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him… comfort one another with these words
I met Elizabeth four months after Floyd went to heaven. I never knew my father-in-law. One year after Floyd joined Jesus in heaven, I joined his youngest son in holy matrimony.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth allowed the Lord to pick her up out of the miry pit and set her feet on solid ground. (Psalms 40) She held everything and everyone with surrendered, open hands. More than anyone I know; she lived the verses in Job. She grieved her losses but found hope in the Lord.
Job 1:20-21 Then Job arose,tore his robe, and shaved his head; and hefell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of theLord.”
Retired from teaching in the public school, she volunteered to teach full-time in a private Christian school. Elizabeth was sixty-seven when I met her and lived just outside Yosemite National Park. She could hike up the side of the mountain as well as any mountain mama I have ever known.
As a busy new wife and mother, I appreciated my mother-in-law and worked to invest in her and have a relationship with her. I called frequently, and we took the family to visit her as often as possible. However, she NEVER wanted to be a bother or a burden. She often hid her physical ailments from us, not wanting to worry us or take us away from our work or ministry.
In one of our phone conversations, I noticed that she seemed distraught, but she did not want to share what the problem was. I loaded the kids in the car and headed north from San Diego to Midpines, CA. I accompanied her to the doctor who shared the news with us that she had Alzheimer’s disease. There was a time of grief and fear, but there was something that remained in her until the day she went to be with Jesus. She had a song in her heart, and this was it. Think about these words and meditate on them with me.
Solid Rock by Edward Mote
My hope is built on nothing lessThan Jesus’ blood and righteousness;I dare not trust the sweetest frame,But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;All other ground is sinking sand,All other ground is sinking sand.
When darkness veils His lovely face,I rest on His unchanging grace;In every high and stormy gale,My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His bloodSupport me in the whelming flood;When all around my soul gives way,He then is all my hope and stay.
When He shall come with trumpet sound,Oh, may I then in Him be found;Dressed in His righteousness alone,Faultless to stand before the throne.
The transitional time in this disease was difficult, but it served as a refining fire for Elizabeth and for me and my family. I was given the gift of caring for her through the last years of her life. Often, I wanted to share the gift of Grandma Willis with so many people, but mostly, the gift was for me.
I received a gift in observing a saint go through the slow process of losing herself and gaining Jesus.
Everywhere we went, from restaurants, nail salons, ambulances and hospitals, people saw Jesus shining through her. I had doctors and ambulance drivers inquire at to her “religion” not so they could get the right pastor or priest in, but because they saw something different in her, a joy and peace that they had trouble explaining.
They saw hope. They saw Jesus.
I often wondered how brightly her halo was shining. I have people tell me that they didn’t know why, but they were just drawn to her. They wanted to experience the joy that she radiated.
The last several years, Grandma Willis lived in a group home type of situation about a mile from our home. She shared her love for Jesus, not by words, but being a fragrant aroma for Him. Her caregivers played her music on CD and were blessed by the joy it brought her. She always thanked them for helping her eat, shower and even use the bathroom. “Thank you, sweetie,” was always quick to her lips. A smile of gratitude and joy was a testimony of her Hope even when she did not have words. Well into her 90’s, she could play hymn after hymn on the piano. One time I said to her, “You remember all of the hymns.” She replied, “It is in here,” and tapped her heart. Some of her favorites were “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” “It is Well with My Soul,” and “Joy to the World.” All had a theme of surrender and hope. At a point, she could not carry on a conversation, but she certainly shared her hope in Christ.
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV)
Why is it important to remember her now? Because she is a picture of joy in adversity, hope in the midst of devastation, peace in the midst of the storm. She was a testimony of God’s grace in her life and an example of a godly woman. Her inner strength did not come from climbing mountains, although she did that. It did not come from healthy eating, although she tried. It did not come from being the popular kid or having a multitude of family or friends surrounding her, because that was not often the case.
Her strength blossomed from His strength becoming perfect in her weakness.
In conversation one day as I was helping her eat her lunch, I drew her attention to the trees blowing in the breeze. She loved all plants and the outdoors. She got a dreamy look on her face and said “It reminds me of the strength of the Lord…the strength of the Lord,” once again relying on God’s promises that she had hidden in her heart
But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water.Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought.Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. Jeremiah 17:8
She produced good fruit until she breathed her last breath.
If you have ever been a care provider, you know it can get ugly. It can get frustrating. It can be thankless. So, in desperation, I asked the Lord to show me the blessing in the drudgery; I asked Him to help me not to just survive this time but enjoy and thrive in it. I prayed that He would help me to love and serve Grandma as unto the Lord.
On my knees, cutting her toenails, I pictured myself, not on the floor of the bathroom, but sitting at the feet of Jesus.
On October 9, 2019, I got a call that Grandma needed me. Her breathing had become irregular and her hands that used to grip mine, holding tight, and tapping to the rhythm of the music in her soul, were limp.
I turned on her favorite hymn playlist and climbed up next to her. I held her in my arms and reached for her hand one more time hoping to feel her keeping time to the music. As I snuggled up next to her, the Hymn, Take My Life and Let it Be Consecrated Lord to Thee played in the background as she slipped from my arms into the arms of her Hope and Peace. She lived one hundred years, at least ninety-five of them consecrated and surrendered to Him.
Psalms 116:15 says, Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. It is precious because they are joining him in eternity; because He gets to welcome them to Heaven and say “Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
I am convinced that Gram’s ability to have joy in every season of life came straight from the heart of God to her. I am confident that this song, even when she could sing no longer, was the theme song for her life.
Count Your Blessings by Johnson Oatman
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,Count your many blessings, name them one by one,And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one;Count your blessings, see what God hath done;Count your blessings, name them one by one;Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?Count your many blessings, ev’ry doubt will fly,And you will be singing as the days go by.
When you look at others with their lands and gold,Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;Count your many blessings, money cannot buyYour reward in heaven, nor your home on high.
So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,Do not be discouraged, God is over all;Count your many blessings, angels will attend,Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.
I hope Grandma’s testimony helps you to remember to count your blessings and to be aware of the lessons you can learn from observing a life of a faithful servant of Jesus. Too often, we dismiss or discount the immense wisdom that is available to us through our gray haired saints.
What song is in your heart when you need to lean on Jesus name?
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about She Had Hope.