I’ve heard that name since I can remember remembering. My sister was given her middle name because of Ruth Lee. Her name is echoed in our family stories and probably will be until the day I die.
She was the thin-framed woman who lived across the street from the wild Knefley family. My mother’s wild family to be exact. My mom was one of 8 kids in a family of Irish Catholics. They have stories of reckless adventures, Grandpa’s songs and family sing-alongs around the old piano, bruises and scars from siblings who still claim they were in the right, and the laughter and grief of a home that was full of people who really needed the Gospel to change their lives. Mom tells how my grandfather would wake the house to his rendition of “The Burning of Rome” and there’s probably no better choice of songs since he was the one sitting on the proverbial hillside watching the pain that he himself caused. They were a quintessential Irish family — loudly singing, full of life, keeping secrets, and hoping for a new day of freedom.
And then there was Ruth Lee. Mom tells me how Ruth would bake them cookies, welcome each of their ruddy faces into her home, and tell them again and again that she was praying. She was a safe haven from the stormy seas of home life and she went to her knees day after day, praying for that home.
Mom would tell us this as we grew up.
“Ruth Lee prayed for me to know Jesus,” she’d say and I’d nod my head, probably rolling my eyes and full of a 15-year-old’s rebellion and angst.
“Yes, mom," I'd reply. "You always tell us about her."
Ruth Lee wouldn’t live to see my mom come to faith in a small country church in upstate New York. She wouldn’t see my mother walk my older sister and two brothers, all under the age of 10, to that humble white building on the hill on the way out of town. She wouldn’t see my grandparents confess faith in Christ only years before their death. She wouldn’t see my sister lead worship and raise 8 kids to know the Lord. She wouldn’t see my one brother travel to Tanzania as a missionary, return to lead worship for thousands and then plant a church. She wouldn’t see my other brother pursue ministry in bible school, lead kids, students, worship, trips and ultimately become a pastor of a church in northern New York. She wouldn’t see me, stumbling my way toward grace, serving in ministries and missions throughout the years and now working on staff at my church. She wouldn’t see each of us teaching our children, day after day, whispering their names in prayer as they sleep.
She wouldn’t know that every time she baked cookies, opened her kitchen door to the Knefley kids who probably made a ruckus in her quiet country home, and then whispered their names in her prayers, that she was doing holy work.
But really, isn’t that what it is? I don’t know what dreams Ruth Lee had for her life. I don’t know what grief she suffered or what hopes she never saw come to pass. I don’t know how she decorated her kitchen or how clean her floors were. Yet she is not forgotten. And it’s not for her beauty, her wit, her food or her style, but the faithfulness of someone who kept their hand to the plow and when no one was watching, stayed faithful anyway.
She was doing Kingdom work when she’d pour another glass of milk. She was doing Kingdom work when she’d pat my mama’s curls. She was doing Kingdom work when she said those simple words, “I’m praying.” In her quiet, nearly invisible life, Ruth Lee was faithful.
You don’t need a platform. You don’t need everyone to know your name. You don’t need the crowds to gather to hear you sing, or the pats on the back after you speak. You don't need the attention of a million followers, the clicks of the crowds, or even the praise from the people who see you day in and day out. The amazing and good news about this upside-down kingdom of our God is that you can be the most effective, the most faithful, and leave the greatest legacy simply by being faithful in your quiet life. The ones who impress the least, who live in small towns and are forgotten by 99.9% of the world are the ones who change generations.
I’m here because Ruth Lee prayed. A faithful woman sowed seed and someday when I get home, I’ll find her in the middle of the crowd and through my tears say “Thank you.” She’ll probably be so taken with Jesus that she won’t even hear me.
Be faithful in your field. Bake some cookies. Love those wild kids. Whisper their names at bedtime before the Lord. Trust Him with the rest.