No Matter the Test, Pick up the Broom!
By Elisabeth Elliot
Four more days until she would be 17. It would be her father’s birthday, too, but there would be no celebration this year. It was the depth of the Great Depression and her father was dying. The children knelt around the bed while their mother prayed, but the girl wondered whether anyone was listening. Was God near enough to hear a prayer? Did he take any notice of their situation?
On the day of the funeral it rained. Only the mother’s friends came—the father’s didn’t bother. The girl, who was working as a maid, had to borrow a dress for the occasion. When they returned to the empty house the sense of desolation was nearly overwhelming. But the widow, who had been silent for three days, went into the kitchen, picked up her broom, and began to sweep.
“I cannot explain how that action and that soft whisk-whisk sound gave me courage to go on,” the girl wrote many years later. “My mother was now the head of the house, and we followed. We did not sit down and ask “What next? What will we do?” Our home was mortgaged and my father’s lawyer stole her property. She walked out of his office a penniless widow with seven children, ages 8 to 18. Later someone asked my mother how she stood it. The answer was simple: “I prayed.”
The combination of prayer and faithful carrying out of duty had been balm to many, when all hope has seemed to dissolve. The Word of the Lord came to Ezekiel: “I am taking from you at one blow the dearest thing you have, but you must not wail or weep or give way to tears. Keep in heart; be quiet, and make no mourning for the dead” (Ezek.24:15-17 NEB). God denied Ezekiel the usual expressions of mourning and told him he was not to “eat the bread of despair.” Ezekiel’s response was, in effect, Yes, Lord. “I spoke to the people in the morning,” Ezekiel said, “and that very evening my wife died. Next morning I did as I was told.” Obedience was his consolation.
So the psalmist also found it. “Happy are they who obey his instruction . . . In thy statutes I find continual delight . . . I will run the course set out in thy commandments, for they gladden my heart” (Psalm 119:2, 16, 32 NEB). Happiness, delight, gladness—where can they come from when the world has fallen in?
A study of this psalm reveals the psalmist’s firsthand knowledge of nearly every sort of human woe. For each he finds the same comfort: the Word of the Lord, variously called “commandments,” “instruction,” “counsel,” “law,” “statutes,” “truth.”
He understood the sense of alienation all of us experience: “I am but a stranger here on earth.” He knew unfulfilled desire: “My heart pines with longing.” He had been “put down”: “Set me free from scorn and insult . . . the powers that be sit scheming together against me.” He knew all about the sense of utter desolation: “I lie prone in the dust . . . I cannot rest for misery.” He had been persecuted: “Bands of evil men close round me . . . Proud men blacken my name with lies.”
The one who wrote this psalm had plenty of reason, humanly speaking, to feel very sorry for himself. But it is not self-pity that prompts him to list his troubles. It is rather a candid assessment, in the presence of the Lord, of the truth of his situation, each item on his list followed by prayer for the particular help needed, or by a renewed affirmation of trust in the Word of his God.
The one who is called “a Roaring Lion” (1 Pet. 5:8) knows well that his prey will be much easier to catch when weakened by sorrow or trouble of any kind. The woman with the broom shamed the lion. She did not “faint in the day of adversity, “ collapse in a heap, or wallow in a slough of self-pity. She knew where to find the strength to carry on. She went there at once and received the power which, as the apostle Paul discovered, “comes to its full strength in weakness.”
In the same way I have been rescued from the lion’s claws when everything in me said, “You can’t take this.” I woke one morning in a tiny temporary leaf shelter in Ecuador’s jungle to find rain falling in solid sheets. The river had risen dangerously. The thought of trying to pack up in the downpour, get into a dugout canoe with my little daughter, and be poled up another river all day long to a remote clearing was too bleak. I was lonely, desolate, trapped. But that “Amazing Grace” that had brought me safe thus far reminded me of what I should do. I looked up to the Lord. “Lo, I am with you all the days” came the word. All the days, no matter what the weather, or how total the isolation. I took heart and, like the woman with the broom, did the next thing, which was to pack up and get myself and Valerie into the canoe. I think it rained all day, but it didn’t matter, for the weather in my soul had cleared up.
A wonderful thing happens when we turn to the Lord and “pick up the broom.” We find, as the psalmist found, that “this day, as ever, thy decrees stand fast; for all things serve thee.” (Psalm 119:91 NEB)
This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, March 1987.