You cannot pronounce her name. Our friends and family simply call her “Ba” which means “Ma’am.” No one knows her birthday; her mother died before she was two years old. She has not, has never been, and never will be, elected to any political office. She does not hold a position in the church, nor is she responsible for any of its programs or maintenance. You will not currently find Ba cleaning the church, organizing special events, or speaking in public. Yet, my mother-in-law is a beautiful example of how God uses the weak and little things mightily for His glory.
Born in rural Vietnam to a poor family, Hồng Thị Lê made it through about third grade before she had to drop out of school. Her life was characterized by poverty and long hours of working. During the Vietnam War, Hong became a single mother. When she and her son came to America, she learned enough of the language to get by, but not enough to integrate well or have a social life. Hong worked for years at a hard, menial job, getting up early and coming home late. She can make herself understood when buying groceries, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, for her to live by herself and take care of things like maintaining a house or paying the bills.
In the life of our family, Ba’s role is somewhat atypical. When well-meaning Christian friends exclaim, “Your mother-in-law lives with you! That must be so helpful!” I tend to grimace a bit. Not to downplay the immense help she provides by doing most of our grocery shopping and spending lots of time with the baby; but her help is sometimes not fully appreciated or accepted by her western daughter-in-law. Ba gives advice about how to care for the children, but the culture gap makes such advice seem strange to my ears. She doesn’t understand modern medicine and her approach to bumps and bruises seems to involve such things as hard boiled eggs and salt. She is hard of hearing, so although the kids can understand some Vietnamese, their interactions with her tend to be mostly pointing and yelling. She can use her phone, but only knows how to call my number, so I don’t dare to leave the kids with her for more than an hour.
At this point, you are probably asking how God uses Hong mightily for His glory. God called Hong to Himself at some point in her forties. And she has spent the intervening years loving Him with her whole heart. Ba gets up at five o’clock each morning so that she can spend over an hour in prayer and devotions. If I listen carefully, I can hear my name and the names of my husband and children as she brings us before the Lord in prayer. Ba notices the general atmosphere of the family and never fails to pray for it. I remember one time in our early married life, when she became aware that my husband and I were at odds with each other. The next morning, Ba came to me and told me that she prays for us every day, and we should not be having such conflict and getting upset with each other, because that does not please God. Another time, she walked by when I was disciplining our oldest to teach him to sit quietly for Bible reading. When I told her what was happening, she committed to pray for him, and the very next day there was a marked improvement in his behavior and attitude. One day she was sick and not feeling well, and missed her usual wake-up time. While my attitude was, “I’m so glad you got to sleep in – you really needed it!” Ba’s attitude was one of remorse. She was so sorry that she missed her prayer time with the Lord. The next night, Ba fervently prayed that God would wake her up on time to pray – and He answered that prayer.
About eight years ago, my husband found a Reformed Vietnamese pastor in California. Since then, Hong has faithfully been listening to his sermons. On Sunday she goes to her Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, but the rest of the week she listens and learns at home. Ba has progressed in her love for God and for good teaching. When we first started playing the sermon for her, she would go in and out, doing her gardening and listening to the sermon in the background. Lately, however, Hong has been getting a chair and sitting close to the computer, listening with rapt attention to the preaching of God’s Word. She typically prays afterwards. A couple of times, a change in our family’s schedule has caused us to forget to play the sermon in the morning, and she has asked us to play one for her at 9:00 at night. Just last week, she listened to a sermon late at night and then came and asked us for another one!
Ba never participates in our family devotions, as the language barrier makes that impractical. She has never taught her grandchildren a Bible verse. Ba will not have long heart-to-heart talks with them. And yet, in the midst of what the world and even the church would consider an unimpressive resumé, she is my hero. I talk and write about loving God with my whole heart and life; Ba actually does it. The pastor of a church gets a lot of attention and glory, yet it is really Hong, and others like her, who are responsible for its success.
“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (I Corinthians 1:27-29).