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Sometimes in parish ministry there are encounters with parishioners that leave one simply gasping, frustrated beyond comprehension, and there is little in the pastoral toolkit to help either pastor or parishioner.

I am thinking of Violet, hurting so badly, someone in so much pain, rage, and anger that absolutely nothing—not counseling, reassurance, prayer—offered any real resolution. In Violet’s life the peace of Christ could not penetrate a heart calloused by misery. The wounds were too deep, the scars always angry and red.

Violet is not her real name, of course, but I have been thinking of her. I think of her often. She puts me in mind of those few saints who were so driven by their loss and their anguish that they unconsciously come to live a faith—with frequent turbulence—where the deepest pains they bore became a channel for God’s love, a love often yawning, dark, and terrible.

In the six years I was Violet’s pastor she made better than seven hundred baby kits for Lutheran World Relief. That was just in the time I was her pastor. It doesn’t put a dent in all the decade before I met her. These small packages of baby supplies are distributed through LWR and other world Christian relief organizations. They are given to mothers across the world: two receiving blankets, several soap bars, wash cloths, two shirts, two sleeping gowns, cloth diapers and pins, lotion, all that. These items are all wrapped up inside a blanket and shipped away. I have no idea how many tons of supplies LWR and other groups’ process every year, but for the most part they are gathered by women’s groups composed of women like Violet.

Violet’s life was defined by her mother-in-law. The woman had an unrelenting hatred, a personal contempt, for her daughter-in-law and ample opportunity through the years to act on it. Violet and her husband lived with the woman until she died. Even the old mother’s death brought no peace to Violet. Violet’s husband had married her over the fierce objections of his mother. Knowing Violet’s husband, that was probably the first and last time he ever really defied his mother. The old woman’s death was not the end of her influence over Violet.

In 1943—think on this—Violet, then eighteen, was an unwed mother, giving birth to a son. She did not give her child to adoption nor leave the community. Nor did she go into a self-imposed seclusion. She got a job, stayed with her parents, and lived with the scandal. She did not marry until 1946. Her husband adopted the boy as his own; two more children resulted from their marriage. The mother-in-law could never accommodate herself to her son’s defiance.

Nobody in the congregation ever shared this story with me; there was no gossip about Violet I ever heard. I got it from Violet herself. She found out I was also adopted, also born of an unwed mother; it was no secret. As a result I became not only her pastor but in some way her ally against a dead mother-in-law.

She clearly suffered from the woman, from memories rising unbidden. I was often called to their home to listen to the latest outrage, usually directed at her husband. Her car keys went missing on one occasion. He took them and hid them; she was certain of it. He denied it, quietly. “It was just like that time when,” she started. She was flashing back to one of the mean tricks her mother-in-law would pull. If her husband didn’t do it, well, it was just like someone else who did. Calmer, she’d find the keys in the last place she put them and things would become peaceful, until the next time. There was always something to summon the baleful shade of the dead mother-in-law. For all this and apart from the flare-ups, she and her husband doted on each other with an obvious, habitual fondness.

Violet told me the previous pastor had taken her to the mother-in-law’s grave. There, he had Violet tell the woman how her cruelty had hurt her through all the years, the harmful things she had done to her, to her children. Violet took to this with relish, but at the end Violet was to say, standing before grave, “I forgive you.” This she relished less, but she did it. Nonetheless, the pain would burst again. The trauma inflicted by the old woman was extensive. Post-traumatic stress, that’s what we call it today.

Violet threw herself into making baby kits for mothers. She made 120 one year; but only 118 the next. I got a dirty look, teasing her about slowing down. Her efforts, it came to me, were too serious for any frivolity. She was caring for mothers under terrible conditions, mothers, I think, as she once had been, and it was nothing to mess with. She traveled a monthly route to retailers seeking free surplus, and she’d get them. She’d pester, collect, and pester some more and package everything up. She was especially adept at getting new, unwrapped soap bars from a series of area motels.

That’s where she put all of her pain and passion and her tortured soul. She wrapped it up tight in a baby kit, and God used it, or maybe God drove it. All the trouble in Violet’s life became something for good, for someone else. That’s what I find so inexplicable about God’s economy of grace. It is never as we imagine.

On the Sunday after learning of her death, the gospel reading featured St. Matthew: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

I thought of Violet when reading that and said so as I preached that Sunday. I think of her, see her still, rushing cool water to a mother off in some forlorn, forsaken land. Maybe, finding diapers and pins, the mother would say “Thank you, God,” or “Thank you, Allah.” But what she really said was thank you for Violet’s life.

Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.

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