As she aged becoming very frail, we were living together; I tended to her needs. One Sunday afternoon, I prepared dinner and served it in our little kitchen. I asked her to say grace. Being raised Catholic she once knew only a prescribed prayer. Growing in her faith in Christ, she began to pray more spontaneously and with beautiful, simple language. As she prayed at the table that day, she not only asked God’s blessing on the food, she confessed: “I am so rotten, and You are so good.
“Humility is the proper estimate of oneself.” Charles Spurgeon
When my mother and father married, she was Catholic, and he was Protestant. They were married by a justice of the peace eloping, as his rank in the army did not permit one to marry at that time. My father was against their children being raised Catholic. She replied: “Well, they’re not going to be raised heathen.” Eventually, a Presbyterian minister came to speak to them, as my brother attended a public school release-time class allowing religious training in churches or synagogues. He chose a Presbyterian church in the same block. Though unchurched at the time, our mother taught us to pray at bedtime and read Bible stories to us.
Our father began attending that church taking me and my brother to Sunday school. Our mother remained at home not able to participate in Mass, as she was not considered married by the Catholic Church or by a priest or pastor. In those days, it considered children of such unions to be bastards.
One Easter morning, she decided to join us for church. She came away thinking, they worship Christ too. Subsequently, she began attending regularly and joined a women’s Sunday school class where the Bible was taught and studied.
Throughout her life, she exhibited a low view of herself. I thought she suffered from low self-esteem. Later in life, I recognized it was something else.
A week and half following my college graduation, our father died of pneumonia. Our mother remained a widow for over 30 years. In that time, she began daily Bible reading, meditating, and praying. Her faith grew, and I sensed her relationship to Jesus Christ was personal. Wanting her to experience assurance, I had her read 1 John 5: 13: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” She received assurance of salvation and eternal life because she trusted solely in Christ’s death on the cross for her salvation.
I received a diamond ring from an aunt, my father’s older sister, Helen, for whom I was named. In a conversation with my mother, she said she once had a diamond ring that belonged to her mother. I asked her what happened to it? She replied she pawned it to pay for a surgery I needed when seven years old. When she returned to buy it back, it was already sold. I was pained remembering episodes of personality conflicts with my mother and questioning her love. She never once mentioned that sacrifice to me. I found myself weeping over such a sacrifice and her never pushing it on me to make me feel ungrateful.
As she aged becoming very frail, we were living together; I tended to her needs. One Sunday afternoon, I prepared dinner and served it in our little kitchen. I asked her to say grace. Being raised Catholic she once knew only a prescribed prayer. Growing in her faith in Christ, she began to pray more spontaneously and with beautiful, simple language. As she prayed at the table that day, she not only asked God’s blessing on the food, she confessed: “I am so rotten, and You are so good.” I believe she was 87 or 88 years old at the time. I was taken aback by such words but also felt they were inappropriate for grace at a meal. Was I ever wrong! It didn’t take long for the Holy Spirit to reveal something special about my mother.
Not knowing it would be her last Christmas in this life, I was bathing her when she spontaneously broke out in prayer thanking God for Helen’s bathing her. For me, it was a picture of her intimate closeness to God and humble spontaneity. She was so frail at that point, and little did we know she had only nine days left. Days later, not being able to get out of bed herself, she said: “Helen, my time is near. I love all three of you equally, I love your father, and I love the Lord.”
On January 3, 2001, visiting her in the hospital, she sat up in bed and said, “Helen, I want to go to heaven.” I took her hand and said, “And I want you to go too, Mom.” Immediately, I couldn’t believe I said that. I certainly didn’t mean it yet. She didn’t know she would be put in a nursing home the next day. Five hours later, I received a telephone call with these words: “Miss Herndon, your mother has passed.” Grief and relief both filled my spirit. Yet, immediately, I knew God heard her and took her home.
It didn’t take me long to see her life overall and the traits most typical of the true person she was. Yes, as thought of most mothers, her love was genuine and rich. For a woman who was monetarily limited, she was generous to others. But the trait that stands out the strongest was her humility toward God and toward others. Several evidences from the past reveal her beautiful gift of humility.
First, her determination that her children wouldn’t be raised as heathens when confronted they would not be raised in her faith. Secondly, her low view of herself was genuine humility toward God and toward others. Third her humble secret of sacrificing a treasured gem—a priceless gem belonging to her mother she would never recuperate—to pay for an operation for one of her children. Then there were her prayers where she humbly confessed to God she was “so rotten” and another where she spontaneously thanked God for someone bathing her. Today, I frequently tell the Lord I’m borrowing my mother’s words with genuine sincerity, “I am so rotten, and You are so good.”
She had only an elementary school education, but she taught me with a college education and even a degree in biblical education what matters most in our relationship to God and others. Thomas Moore spoke of “Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” She possessed that “sweet root.” Despite all the accolades such a humble, godly woman deserves, God’s Word expresses her character best: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” Fear of the Lord resulted in the sweet gift of humility she left family and world.
Helen Louise Herndon is a member of Central Presbyterian Church (EPC) in St. Louis, Missouri. She is freelance writer and served as a missionary to the Arab/Muslim world in France and North Africa.