Written in memory of Betty Jo Mathis, who died at age 90, November 29, 2018
Back in the 1940’s a pretty, nice, religious, dairy farmer’s daughter caught the eye of a skinny, confident, hard-working, irreligious run away from the city. Opposites attract. In this case, like magnets. They were married as soon as she turned 18.
Together they determined their destiny. They would have a prize-winning dairy herd. They would have prize-winning children – lots of them.
Their first child, Mary Ellen, was born premature, dying at 12 days old. Amidst their anger, befuddlement and sorrow they also had to deal with a religious fanatic under their tutelage. Don’s younger brother, Ken, had changed; he couldn’t stop talking about ‘being saved.’ Ken now sought to live a life pleasing to Christ – something foreign to savvy boys from Detroit.
The haunting realization they were not in control didn’t go away; neither did kid-brother Ken’s changed life. Now Don and Betty Jo found themselves wrestling with the truth: God is holy, they were sinful, and their only hope was the substitute God offered in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Religious Betty Jo bowed the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ Palm Sunday, 1950. Irreligious Don had been born again a week before. Though rookies in all things Bible and salvation, the desires of their hearts had been forever altered.
Here is the change I will focus on: An insatiable hunger to understand the Bible for what it really is – the Word of God. It would be correct to say they devoured the Word. It would be even more correct to say the Scriptures devoured them. God changed them. A new life had begun.
The dream of an enviable dairy was gone; the herd was sold. Don and Betty Jo took their two prize-winning young children to Grand Rapids, MI where dad enrolled in a Bible institute.
With Christ and His word now preeminent, truths had to be learned — and applied. The Spirit must do battle with the flesh. Humility must triumph over haughtiness. Reliance upon God must cripple street-wise bluster and farmer pride. Yet through this transformation there was the consistent pulse of what had brought this change – the Gospel. Christ and His Cross must be proclaimed from His unchanging, all-sufficient Scriptures.
More children came along (today there are seven, all above average). Dad began pastoring churches in Michigan (He would later minister in Wyoming and Nebraska). He had not forgotten how to milk cows. He pastored dairy farmers with a helpful hand and the Gospel forthrightly explained. In the West he would do the same with ranchers and wheat farmers. As a pastor books of the Bible were outlined, sermons prepped, verse and chapter memorized. Prick Don Mathis, he bled Bible. He still does.
But you know why you’re reading this. This is about Betty Jo. Shortly after mom’s conversion, she wrote a poem, Transformation. You can read it below. What became clear over the next few years was our Lord had given mom a gift with words.
While husband preached, prayed, pled with sinners, Mom nursed the latest infant and instructed the older ones. As she put together meals, sewed patches on jeans, swatted rears, swapped recipes, wiped tears, wrung and hung diapers, ironed dad’s shirts, Mom wedged into her day time to study her Bible, and write.
Oh, how she studied and oh how she wrote. As a young teen I remember examining the desk she kept at the church parsonage in LaGrange. Her tear-stained Bible, her ample notes in the margins. Her diary, Bible dictionary, Matthew Henry commentary, thesaurus. Her scraps of paper with a rhyme, a question to be answered, an idea for a poem. Her typewriter. From that desk came poems written through the tears of a life examined by the ever-sharp loving, sanctifying Word. From that desk came poems and plays and essays exulting in the empty cross and the One who purchased her salvation. Simple rhymes came from that desk, relishing the everyday graces of God. Sweet recounts of God’s saving grace in others. Sobering sentences of God’s kindness rejected. Bible characters brought to life in measured meter.
And silly. And clever. And fun-making at her own foibles. Oh, how mom loved to laugh. And like a spring of water can’t help but overflow its banks, her delight became ours.
I remember hearing her sounding out syllables, counting them for matching meter. Yes, mom had a gift, but she worked hard at it – with much joy. Frustration and impatience had to be recognized for what they were – not the fruit of the Spirit. Mom would put aside a poem and go do something else until ‘something would click’ and she’d be able to finish it.
Over the years, age and audience seasoned mom’s writing. God’s grace was now observed through bifocals. His preserving care recounted from countless people’s lives spanning decades. More stories, fewer poems. Lessons written to be used by others in nursing home ministry. Repeated recollections for forgetful nursing home residents. Age-appropriate illustrations for dad’s nursing home sermons.
Hundreds of poems, hundreds more of short stories, Bible lessons, skits, newspaper columns.
But I’m missing something. And there’s really no means to quantify it. How many letters, postcards, encouraging notes on a scrap of paper jotted to saints — struggling or otherwise? How many prayers offered up over her desk? How many groanings too deep for words for her children, her grands? How many ladles of tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, simply served to whomever stopped by? How many Kleenex offered to weeping wives? How many Bible truths offered with a firm voice and gentle smile? How many puns to break the tension? How many recounting to others her own failures and her sense of being a stumbling, bumbling soldier in God’s army, yet still plodding on?
In the end poems didn’t define mom. A life brought into union with the living Christ did. Hers is the story of the power of the Gospel conquering a stony heart with overwhelming grace and changing her for all eternity.
Let’s let the Scriptures have the last word: ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.’ – II Cor. 5:17.
By Betty Jo Mathis, written soon after her conversion to Christ in 1950
My heart once dreamed of a country scene:
A farm of my own, with pastures green.
A sturdy red barn and house of stone;
My thoughts lingered long on this farm of my own.
Contented cows in yonder field,
Land that would never fail to yield.
A happy family, we would be –
When this dream farm belonged to me.
Happiness, security, comfort, ease –
My farm would assure me of all of these.
But little did I know that soon my plans
Would be turned over to another Man’s hands.
For in these dreams of owning my sod,
I’d left One out – and that was God.
I wanted a place I could call my own –
But never gave a thought to my eternal home.
“I died for you,” He whispered to me,
“I shed my blood on Calvary’s Tree,
Now won’t you let me your life make new
That others may see what Christ can do?”
I begged to know, “But what was wrong
With my plans I’ve dreamed of so long?”
“Nothing wrong,” He eased my doubt;
“The plans were fine, but they left Me out.”
“You cannot serve riches and God above
For the one you’ll hate and the other love.
There’s no middle ground – it’s a narrow way;
You’ll see what I mean at the close of life’s day.”
“For what shall it profit,” that question of old –
“If a man gain the world yet lose his own soul?”
My heart was heavy with the sinful fact
That I’d left my Lord out of every act.
“I paid sin’s penalty on Calvary’s Tree,”
He whispered in love, “Now believe in Me.”
I wavered a bit, I must confess,
But the sight of the cross made me say yes.
“Oh Lord, I do thee, now believe;
Just take this load, my soul, relieve.”
I plan no more for future dim;
Each day at a time I walk with Him.
And how precious He grows each passing day;
There’s much more joy than in my own way.
If He gives me a farm (for which I’ll not plead)
I’ll thank Him for it and trust Him to lead.
But in the meantime, His will I see:
It’s a step at a time – “Just follow Me.”
II Corinthians 5:17