Luke 1:51: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
I saw my Mammaw this morning. She’s 90 years old and every time I see her, I ask for stories. She’s got some great ones, about my great-great grandmother, Granny Guinn, who was widowed and dealt with the economic fall out by sending her kids to live with relatives, selling her land for a horse & a shotgun, and making a living as a midwife delivering babies up and down the mountains that stretch across the Kentucky/Virginia border.
And then there’s my Mammaw’s mean Aunt Belle, who charged her own niece an inflated price for butter and when her husband lowered the rent on the house Mammaw and Pappaw were living in – lower, at least, than what she thought it should be – she decided to plant corn in the adjacent field right up to the drip-line of the roof in order to make up the losses.
Mammaw’s memory is fading, though she can still painstakingly name all her cousins in birth-order, if you’re patient enough. She doesn’t really remember the stories I like best, even when I prompt her. But I think we might have discovered a 1918 pandemic story, today.
Mammaw’s father, Paris Stiltner, was married twice. His first wife, Sarah Sawyers, had two children before she died sometime around 1918 and Paris got re-married, to my great-grandmother, Elizabeth. Mammaw doesn’t remember what killed Sarah, but she does remember that the whole house was so sick during that time that when my great-grandfather, Paris, recovered, he couldn’t even remember getting the news that his wife and oldest child had died of whatever had nearly killed him.
Life in Eastern Kentucky in 1918 was no picnic. Mammaw paused, this morning, staring out into the distance, and said “you know, a lot of people died there in that time.” It’s hard to tell if Sarah and her daughter, Marie, died from one infection or another, but the story sure does fit the timeline and the outline of so many similar pandemic stories. I am left with the possibility that my very existence, like so many, is possible, in part, because of that unspeakable pandemic a century ago.
Paris wouldn’t have married Elizabeth and Mammaw would never have been born if Sarah hadn’t died. And if Mammaw hadn’t been born, of course, my mom wouldn’t exist, and neither would I.
The story of Christianity is the story of death and resurrection. Just like all of creation, humans are subject to the cycles of birth, death, and re-growth. Compost and humus feed the next season’s crop. Letting things go makes space for new life. It is not always the life we want or the life we would choose, but we humans are part of the cycle, nonetheless. In the empty spaces, God nurtures newness.
I have seen this happen when a parent’s grief makes room for incredible compassion, when a lost job opens up unspeakable opportunities, when a destroyed building frees a congregation to embrace more immediate ministries. I have seen the end of relationships lead to deep flourishing of individuals. I have – this year – seen smelly, rotten food waste be transformed by time and warmth into compost that fed the garden collard greens I ate last week.
Can we allow that kind of transformation to take us over? Reframe our losses – after mourning them – to be what they are: open space for something new? What will grow, here in the nutrient-rich ground that’s been tilled up with loss and watered with grief?
It’s easy for me to think this way when the timeline is generational – I never knew Sarah or Marie and even Paris and their second daughter, Stella, exist only as characters in my Mammaw’s stories to me. I know it is harder to see grief and loss as a clearing of space, a making room for something new when the losses are fresh and raw and barely even old enough for us to name. I know.
But God’s timeline is so much less immediate than our tiny human ones. It’s even bigger than generations; it is COSMIC. And when Mary sings her song – that she learned from her own great-great-great-great grandmother, Hannah – she insists that this God is the one who puts things to rights, nurtures newness, orchestrates justice, comforts the mourning, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and remembers his promises that he made to the ancestors…FOREVER.
So. I don’t know to what all I owe my own small existence. The 1918 flu pandemic certainly might be one contributing factor to my direct ancestral line. But I do believe that loss makes room for possibility, even if it takes years – or generations – for our tiny human hearts to see it happening.
What will grow in our grieving hearts? What new life is God tending, even here, even now?