My mother is never heavy-handed about how financially stretched her parents were when she was a child, though a few stories do come to mind. One of our family’s favorite stories, which we tell tongue-in-cheek, is of when my grandparents would splurge and buy a whole pack of Lifesavers.
Yes, an entire pack.
One roll of Lifesavers has fourteen candies, which was enough for my grandparents and their four daughters to each have two. With two candies leftover, my grandmother would meticulously cut them both in half to disperse equally to the girls.
It is safe to say that my difficulty as a child in picking out just the right candy for myself was nothing compared to the strength it must have taken to savor every gram of sugar in that half-a-candy.
I’ve always been impressed at the life my grandparents lived together as they raised my mother and her sisters. My grandpa is a pastor, formerly within a parish context, but since retirement he has firmly planted himself on a nursing home circuit. Since his adolescence, and especially after serving in World War II, he has been faithfully committed to seek and serving God in all people.
Some churches and denominations are more capable of supporting full-time ministers and their families than others…Grandpa’s jobs rarely (if ever) sustained the family completely. He took jobs as a school bus driver, substitute teacher, janitor, encyclopedia salesman, financial investment salesman, real estate agent, and veterans’ hospital chaplain among other things. He took whatever job he needed to in order to provide food (and Lifesavers) for his family.
Of course he wasn’t alone; Grandma took on her fair share of jobs too—from teaching piano lessons, to working at J.C. Penny’s, and from sewing cheerleading outfits to delivering free cosmetic supply samples door-to-door, the latter of which paid for my aunt Becky’s college application fee.
There is a tendency for many of us, I think, to worry about taking on jobs or roles that are beneath us. My grandparents may have struggled with this, but ultimately they erred on the side of doing what it took to care for their daughters. They held together their life in circumstances that were certainly not ideal, hoping and trusting in God—and trying (each of them) to figure what in heaven’s name that actually means.
The Song of Mary, or the Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55, floats around the edges of the lectionary this time of year—this week as a canticle to use at our discretion. Take a moment to read Mary’s words, remembering that her world has just been torn apart. She is a virgin engaged to marry Joseph. If Joseph believes her to be an adulteress, he could turn her into the authorities and she could be dealt with in ways that could make Dick Cheney shudder…okay, maybe not quite that bad. But if this angel is speaking truthfully, Mary is now an unwed pregnant teenager. As Carolyn Sharp wrote that Mary, “sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.”
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Mary’s song touches on our tradition of witnessing and rejoicing in the ways in which God transforms dire situations into moments pregnant with potential. Sharp also writes that, “Mary's courageous song of praise is a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life.”
Suffering and conflict are often used as evidence against the existence of a God—or at least against a God who cares for and is intimately connected with humanity. I don’t know that it is enough to say that God is behind all of the good things while we with our free will are behind all of the bad things; this seems to be a stretch and serves only to offer a fleeting bit of certainty in the midst of uncertain situations. We need no certainty in order to bow to the mystery behind our existence; in fact, certainty makes such a move utterly impossible. Certainty stifles the possibility for a soaring life much the same way the tethers keep a hot air balloon grounded.
Mary’s faithful “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” in Luke 1:38 acts as a declaration of intent in the midst of suffering and conflict, both within Mary and between Mary and Joseph. As she expresses her acute awareness of her situation, she commits to the struggle of trusting in God…whatever in heaven’s name that actually means.
While we might be tempted to think that some job might be beneath us or that we don’t deserve our struggles, it might possibly be helpful to step back and consider that even those most difficult chapters of life are pregnant with potential. That isn’t to say that bad things happen for the purpose of the good things that result—clinging to that sort of thought can get you in trouble with those who have just lost a spouse or a child or been diagnosed with terminal illness.
If God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, then surely someone other than God must have sent along this little gift basket of despair. The only thing left to do in such a situation is to clench your fists and sing to God through your tears with utter defiance and hope, committing to the struggle. Sometimes the struggle looks like working through tremendous grief; other times the struggle looks like parents who make due with whatever job needs to be done, without the likelihood of stumbling upon great riches.