where fortitude and kindness meet
Smoothing the pleats of her stiff, woolen skirt, Mary Ann Bickerdyke leaned forward in her pew and listened attentively. The pastor was reading a letter from young Dr. Woodward, a member of their church who was now serving under General Grant’s command. Her heart raced as she pictured the surgeon’s words; men were dying, he reported, not from battle wounds but from infectious diseases and malnutrition. What could this small congregation do to aid in the war effort?
After her physician husband had died years before, everyone in the community turned to Mary Ann for medical help, knocking on her door at all hours of the day and night, asking her to deliver babies and provide herbal treatments from her garden. So it wasn’t surprising when someone called out, “We must send Sister Mary Ann!” A rousing chorus of “amens” filled the room and within a few days the spunky middle-aged woman boarded a train headed south, accompanied by boxes of clean bandages, bottles of medicine, and baskets of fresh homemade food, as much as the church ladies could provide.
Immediately upon her arrival, Mary Ann was stunned by the overwhelming circumstances that greeted her but she quickly rolled up her sleeves, doing just what needed to be done! Knowing there would be no hope for healing unless the wounds were cleaned, she set out with hot soapy water and fresh dressings, smiling and caressing each young head, offering a word of encouragement and hope along with fried chicken and biscuits. Grateful, Dr. Woodward was amazed to see what a bath, kind words, and delicious food could do for morale as well as good health!
Over the next few years, “Mother Bickerdyke”, as she was lovingly called by the troops, continued to travel from one campaign to the next. After serving in the field hospitals during the day, each evening found her walking through grassy knolls littered with the wounded and dying. Lantern in hand, she searched for anyone who was still alive, staying to comfort those near death.
One evening she heard a voice crying, “Mama, mama, is that you?”
“Yes, here I am,” she replied.
Casting her light in his direction, a young man raised himself up on his one remaining arm, calling for his mother. “Why, he cannot be more than 13 or 14!” she thought.
Stepping precariously, Mother Bickerdyke stooped down and, gently drawing the young soldier close, said, “Here I am, son! You’re safe now, let’s go home.” And her heart’s cries were for another mama somewhere far away as she listened to the boy draw his last breath.
Not everyone appreciated Mother Bickerdyke. Some found her brusque and pushy, unpredictable and downright bossy. One officer, no doubt the recipient of her motherly “orders” once asked “Ma’am, upon whose authority are you here?” and her reply was simply “On the authority of the Lord God Almighty; have you anything that outranks that?” Nonetheless, on the home front, her name became synonymous with both fortitude and kindness. Those who understood the role she played in the war simply stated “The boys needed a mother.”
It is at the intersection where fortitude and kindness meet that motherhood finds its greatest success.
Growing up with no siblings, two things confounded me greatly as our family grew. The first one was why boys seemed to be perpetually physical and rowdy and the second was why siblings seemed to find no greater delight than teasing and provoking each other. Being married to a boy who also had a sister, I was instructed that our children were not an anomaly and that, yes, this was a normal part of family life. But as much as I accepted this truth, there were some days that I was exhausted from the “normal” by the end of the day. Dishes, diapers, teaching phonics, I took all these in stride, but the mommy wear and tear came from kids being kids and I often wondered how I would survive!
Now, on the other side of those experiences, I know that those days were a part of the Lord’s bigger plan for my life! He was calling me, simply, to “just do what needs to be done” and in the process He taught me fortitude! Ephesians 2:10 assures us that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” In His providence, wherever we find ourselves is part of His master plan; it was written down in His divine lesson planner before He even created the world! Better yet, we are encouraged that “Through His divine power He has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3) God is equipping us to do everything He asks of us! Perseverance, resilience, fortitude, true grit…these are His gifts to us!
But fortitude does not stand alone. Our greatest strength as mothers comes when kindness is part of the equation! First, we must recognize that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. “Do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). And we will continue to receive His kindness in our relationship with Him through Jesus! “In the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”(Ephesians 2:7) In turn, we are to pour out that same kindness on others! “Be kind one to another.” (Ephesians 4:32)
Interestingly, the Greek word for kind in this command, “chrestos,” is the same word used to describe Christ’s yoke. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) It literally means that which makes something easy, makes another’s burden lighter, and has nothing harsh or galling about it. Our acts of kindness to others are to provide the same kind of respite from the weariness of life as Jesus’ yoke does for those of us He calls “weary and heavy laden!”
Let me encourage you today to recognize God’s hand of kindness to you! Step back and take a long look at your circumstances. What gifts has He given to you to prepare you for this moment? Survey the “battlefield” around you. In what ways have you lessened the burdens of your children? Does your kindness draw them toward repentance and a relationship with Christ? How have you given them a rest from their trials and troubles? Be confident, knowing God is in the process of making you into a mom of fortitude and kindness. Carry on!
This narrative of Mary Ann Bickerdyke is based on various resources. For a more complete biography of her and other mighty women of faith, I highly recommend Alabaster Doves ~ True Stories of Women Whose Lives Were Characterized by Strength and Gentleness published by Moody Press.
(This article was originally published in Home Educating Family Magazine, 2013.)