There is a beauty in simplicity. And there is a greater beauty in harmonious complexity. Referring to Jesus, Jonathan Edwards said that there is in him “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” That’s a quaint way of saying that sometimes things that seem contrary to each other come together in beautiful harmony.
Simplicity That Is Complex
My mother, Ruth Mohn Piper, was like that. She was the more beautiful for being utterly free from duplicity in her complexity. My father’s tribute to her, after she was killed at age 56 in a bus accident in Israel, included this:
“Her beauty knew no vanity. She disdained the cheap, the tawdry, the make-believe. She loathed everything farcical and hypocritical. Her genuineness was transparent. She radiated reality. Life to her was neither a mummery nor a charade but a daily expression of untainted sincerity.”
So, in a sense, there was utter simplicity. Not because of the absence of complexity, but because of the presence of unity, concord, integrity. Like the pure simplicity of an impartial judge whose verdicts have perfect harmony, though one defendant goes free and another goes to the gallows.
My mother’s “diverse excellencies” were woven together in such harmony that I was never off balance. She was predictable — like the rising sun. Which brought brightness and stability and security and restfulness into the hearts of her children. Her smile and her frown, her affirmation and her anger, her yes and her no were never enigmatic. They always came from the same root of truth and faithfulness and consistency. She was never a wild card, never erratic, random, capricious, arbitrary. She was a rock in the stormy waters of my life.
Laughter and Labor
The first pair of “diverse excellencies” that dominated and pervaded all the others was her joy and her industry. Her laughter and her labor. Her singing and her diligence. I know that Snow White and the seven dwarfs whistled while they worked, but my mother took this to a new level. Because she was almost always working. And she was the happiest woman I have ever known.
“She burned the midnight oil. Her hands were never idle.” Those are my father’s words. But my testimony is the same. I would go to bed with mother straightening the living room, and wake up — on Saturday — to the sound of the chamois (pronounced shammy) squeaking as mother polished the glass table in the dining room. No smudges. Ever.
One of my stereotypes of Germanic DNA (her maiden name was Mohn) is sauberkeit (cleanliness)! During the three years I lived in Germany, I saw part of what made my mother (and me) tick. The women, with pails and rags in hand, daily washed the stone steps leading up from the sidewalk to their front doors.
Go to the Ant
As you might expect, her favorite book in the Bible was Proverbs. At least that’s the one she quoted most often to me. It’s practical. (It is also mainly about trouble-prone boys.) And it celebrates industry! “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). “Her ways?” No surprise to me.
The hand of the diligent will rule,
while the slothful will be put to forced labor. (Proverbs 12:24)
The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,
while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. (Proverbs 13:4)
Whoever is slack in his work
is a brother to him who destroys. (Proverbs 18:9)
My mother would spare me being put to forced labor, and abetting the destroyer. So she taught me how to work.
And I mean she. My father was an evangelist and was away from home about two-thirds of every year. I was raised by two German women — Ruth Mohn Piper and her mother, MaMohn, who lived with us during much of my growing-up years. So when I say she taught me how to work, I mean she. Daddy taught me to fish and golf — and set a great model of powerful preaching and praying. But as far as practical work goes, mother taught me just about everything.
“Hang up your clothes when you take them off, and you’ll never have to clean your room.”
“Overlap with the lawnmower the part you already mowed, and you won’t have skippers.”
“Change the oil, and the motor will last longer. Do it yourself. There’s a special wrench for the filter.”
“When you weed the flower bed [which we did continually], grab the Bermuda grass at the roots; otherwise it will be back in a week.”
“Be sure the cooking oil is boiling when you put in the sliced potatoes, else the homemade fries will be soggy, not crispy.”
“Turn over the pancakes when you see the bubbles around the edges.”
“Run cold water over the pressure cooker before you turn the lid (or you’ll get your head blown off).”
I never heard a philosophical word come out of her mouth. What could you do with something philosophical? You can’t clean it, or fold it, or stack it, or put it away.
I heard one time that women don’t sweat — they glow. Not true. My mother sweated. It would drip off the end of her nose. Sometimes she would blow it off when her hands were pushing the wheelbarrow full of peat moss. Or she would wipe it with her sleeve between the strokes of a swing-blade. Mother was strong. I can remember her arms even today, 60 years later. They were big, and in the summertime they were bronze.
A Matrix for Merriment
For all this work, as far as I could tell, life was joy. She was the happiest woman I have ever known. And I don’t mean she coped well. I mean she smiled, laughed and sang. My dominant memory of her is a smiling face. Work was not drudgery. It was a matrix for being merry.
Whether it was her mother, sitting at the grand piano (which tells you something about our home), singing with full-throated, silver-haired vibrato a 1906 parlor song like “I Love You Truly” — the kind of sound teenage boys love to imitate with hilarity — or whether it was my mother humming “Heavenly Sunshine” while she ironed underwear (!), or my father and mother together singing “When We All Get to Heaven” in the front seat of the car heading for vacation nine hours away from Greenville, South Carolina, at Daytona Beach — my life was embedded in music.
This makes it hard for a young fellow to distinguish where work ends and play begins. And yes, my mother could play. She and Daddy drew my sister and me into their Scrabble games as early as they could. And when guests came over, the games of Rook or Pit or charades were raucous, with my mother’s laughing voice above them all.
Vision of Health and Joy
Never did she laugh more than when my father came home from being away for three weeks, or four weeks, or two weeks. It would be Monday night (since his meetings ended on Sunday evening). Daddy flew home in the afternoon. There was a special meal prepared. And at the table we would hear tales of the triumph of the gospel, and we would hear the new jokes that he had learned.
It didn’t matter whether they were funny. My father laughed so hard at his own jokes that the rest of us could not help but join in — mother leading the way. It would start with a short, soprano burst (at the punch line). Her silver head would toss back, and her long white teeth would flash under her sharp nose. Her tanned neck would redden as the tendons flinched. She was a vision of health and joy.
And not just in domestic settings. Once, on a deep-sea fishing trip in Florida, she hooked a seven-foot swordfish. The kind that cause boat captains to fly special flags as they dock. It took over an hour to reel it in, with everyone in the family taking turns at the reel. But it was her fish. Instead of having it mounted, she had salted steaks prepared and shipped to us on dry ice.
So the diverse excellencies of work and joy, laughter and labor, singing and diligence pervaded my growing up. The effect of that on me has been, I suppose, incalculable. Only God knows. But I am thankful.
For the rest of the article, visit Desiring.org, where it originally appeared.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He is author of more than 50 books, including “Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist,” and most recently “Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.”
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