An Interview With
Mrs. Irven Lee
Donnie V. Rader
On October 21, 1994I had the privilege to interview Mrs. Irven (Otha) Lee. I had suggested to Mike Willis that, in light of some other material we were preparing on the role of women, an interview with a woman who has been active in the kingdom, yet within her role, would be helpful. It would show women (particularly younger women) that a woman can be effective in the kingdom of God without stepping out of the role God gave her. It would encourage other women to do the same.
First, some personal things about sister Lee and then the interview. Sister Lee is the widow of Irven Lee who died May 4, 1991 at the age of 76. She is now 79. She lives at 405 Crutcher Circle, Athens, AL 3561L Her two daughters, Judy (Mrs. Wayne Moore) and Sandra. (Mrs. Bob Waldron), are faithful servants of the Lord. Both sons-in-law are gospel preachers.
The Lees did their labors in the gospel primarily in the Southeast. They lived in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Most of their work was done in North Alabama. Brother Lee did more preaching in Limestone County, Alabama than any other place. They traveled in full-time meeting work (40 meetings a year) for four years.
Irven Lee helped start the Athens Bible School (Athens AL), one in Florence, AL and another in Chattanooga, TN.
Sister Lee is an active member of the Jackson Drive Church of Christ where she teaches two ladies classes and a private class.
Sister Lee has not and does not present herself in any way that would be questioned by others. In fact, she was embarrassed by doing this interview. It is obvious that she does not want to do anything that would leave any impression that she was even close to stepping out of her God-given role. Yet, she wants to be useful in the service of God. She refused a request to write an article about women for both Guardian of Truth and Christianity Magazine. Likewise, she refused to participate in one of the women's seminars (a woman's lectureship) because that would be "one step that leads to the next step."
There are four sections to this interview.
How did you first come to learn the gospel?
My mother was a very good Bible student. From an infant I've always heard the Bible stories. I never knew a time when I didn't know the Bible stories. I was the sixth of seven children. By the time I came along, Mother was telling them to the older children. So, there was never a time when I didn't hear them.
Through the years how have you approached your personal Bible study? It's obvious that you have a greater Bible knowledge than the average woman.
At home, we read the Bible together from the time we were able to read every night at bedtime. And, I grew up with a conscience that said if I haven't read my Bible today, then I have sinned. So, daily Bible reading has always been my practice. To this day if for some reason I haven't read any in the Bible I feel just as guilty as though I've committed some crime. Always that has been a part of my teaching.
Then, as I grew older, I began teaching children's classes as soon as I was old enough to do anything like that. I began to study for various lessons on my own. Starting very early teaching classes, there has been a particular class in mind almost always.
What have you done through the years to stay spiritually strong? What would you say to other women to help them be strong?
Marry a preacher, I suppose. I married a preacher who thought of one thing: the Bible. This is what he taught, thought and practiced all the time. Our conversation at home so much of the time was the Scriptures. And that has been so much a part of our life that I rarely have a telephone conversation or just a visit with one of my daughters that we don't talk about it. This is what's on our mind. We all are teaching classes all the time. Our lives have been centered around the church and the Bible. I haven't known anything else in my life. That's all there's been.
What do you think may be the problem with so many
Christian women who feel so weak?
They are so busy. There are just so many distractions in our day. I didn't have all those distractions. There is no time for one to study. The mother gets up in the morning and she must get her children off to school. And then there are their household duties. She has so many, many different duties that I think a lot of it is the times in which we live. We are just too busy with other things. And we let things of the world just crowd out the time for study. And I believe that is more a matter of time that we've not allowed ourselves the time.
When you don't have time, then you don't meditate on the word. Therefore, your interest wanes. If you don't have time to think about these things, then you don't have time to practice any of it. And you naturally grow weak.
Then there's an awful lot of lack of teaching our children in the homes and in the church. So, we're not bringing up our young people with a knowledge. We are not implanting this in the home or in the church. So, to start with, our young ladies simply don't know the Bible. Now, we've taken them to Bible classes. But, we've offered then little when they get there. Therefore, they just come through life knowing little. It is difficult to find a home in which the Bible is taught to the children. We're allowing a generation to grow up without really knowing God. It's like the generation that followed Joshua's time. People were faithful during the days of Joshua and the elders that outlived Joshua. Then there arose a generation that didn't know God because they hadn't been taught. And that's what's wrong with our women today. They haven't been taught.
How long were you married?
How did you build a love that lasted 55 years? What's the key?
Well, I never gave that any thought. We never considered divorce. Murder, yes, but not divorce. I married knowing this is for life. You've got to make the best of it good or bad. This idea that people live together for 55 years and never have any cross words or disagreements I think that's foolish. If that's true, there is one of them that has no mind of his own.
We were both interested in the same things. We were interested in spiritual things. It's easier to build a life on spiritual values than it is on worldly things.
How would you describe your life as a preacher's wife?
It isn't an easy life. Preachers live in fish bowls. Every-thing you do, everything you say is under scrutiny. Everybody knows what's going on in your home. You simply have to live with that in mind always. There's no privacy in a preacher's life actually. But, it can be a very rewarding life. I'm certainly thankful that I was married to a preacher. I am a much better person because of having lived with a preacher.
What advice would you give to a young wife whose husband is thinking about preaching?
Make up your mind to be content. I think one of the problems with preacher's wives is that they cannot adjust to the lack of roots. There is not much chance to put down roots and have a real solid foundation under you. You have to learn to be content with what life metes out to you. So, you make up your mind . . . if Paul could learn to be content in all that he suffered, I can too.
I was accused one time of thinking that when Paul said, "whatsoever state I am in therein to be content" that he meant the state of the Union I am in I'll be therein content or in whatever situation of life I'll be content.
And be a supporter of your husband's work. Never criticize your husband to someone else. If he just makes a flop on a sermon sometime, you talk to him at home about it. But, don't dare talk to somebody else that you think he just flopped tonight. Completely support him. It's some-times hard, but it can be done.
How did you contribute to brother Lee's work as a preacher?
I think one of the greatest things I did for him was just helping him in his speaking. He had the knowledge. In school he majored in math and science. He didn't know what sentence construction meant. He said, "If you don't know English, the best thing to do is to marry an English major." So, when we first married he said, "I know I don't use good grammar. I don't use good sentence structure. Will you help me in that?" So, his having asked me to do it, then I was perfectly free to point out any of his mistakes.
I worked with him on his oral speaking. Then, when he began his writing, he knew nothing about writing. But, he knew what he wanted to say. So, I would take what he wanted to say and help him put it into the proper words.
What about later in life as he preached, other than encouragement, were there other things you did that you felt contributed to his success in his work?
I kept the home fifes burning to relieve him of as many of the home duties as I could to give him full-time to preaching. I was the one that kept the things running at home. That's an important part because his mind was so absorbed with his work. And he did so much preaching that he didn't have time for the things at home. Well, I never expected him to do those things. That was my work. And I relieved him of as much of it as I could.
How have you adjusted to being a widow?
Simply making up my mind I will be content. Now, it has been terribly hard. The first summer I just think of it as that terrible summer. But, it was a matter of "I will do it. Others have done it. I can." It has been just sheer determination. I'm not going to be miserable the rest of my life. He would not have wanted me to spend. my life grieving. I'm not going to. And I have wrapped myself completely in my classes.
III. Role As A Mother
Was raising your children in a preacher's family more difficult than for other mothers?
I've been told many times that is more difficult. Now, I don't know. I've never tried any other situation. But, I had only daughters and very obedient daughters. They were both easily trained. I never had big problems. My little girls and I spent 24 hours a day together. We were talking together. We were doing things together. I taught them deep respect for their father. What he says this is law. This is order. I taught them that they must keep in mind that your father is in the public. The world sees everything that he does. Whatever you do is going to reflect on him. Therefore, you live a model life so that your life doesn't reflect on his work.
What would you tell a man and his wife or a mother about raising children? What kind of advice would you give to a young couple starting a family?
Keep a close, close relationship with them. Start early teaching them Bible stories. The constant association with your children I think is such an important thing. Don't ever let them get out from under your influence. Know what your children are doing. Know always where your children are. And let them know always where you are. So there is constant communication.
How have you been successful in passing the gospel on to your children?
They just never knew anything else. I brought them up the way I was brought up. They don't know when they started hearing these stories. They were too young. And then just constant, constant talking. There was never time for other things. Sandra used to say, "Children say, 'I don't have anything to do.' When do they have time to look for something to do?" Our time was so full. We went to so many services in which my husband preached.
How does the family unit differ from earlier days?
There is no unity now. Each one goes his own separate way. There is so little home life. Very few families actually sit down together and eat meals together. They are so busy in the morning. Half the families don't even eat breakfast. If they do, they just eat it on the run. There is no social life in the family. There is no visiting together. This one doesn't know what that one is doing.
And, families are so separated now that we've lost the influence of the older generation on the younger ones.
They are not together.
What's your perception of the day-care centers?
I have very, very little use for the average day-care center. It is a necessary part of our modem society, I suppose. But, there is a grave danger in it. The children end up not even knowing their own parents. And since they don't know their parents, their parents don't know them. They are closer to the one who cares for them in the day care centers than they are their parents. But, I'm not qualified to actually talk about them because I don't know much about them. But, I'm just seeing some of the product that comes out. I appreciate godly women who keep children in their homes and are trying to influence some for good. But, I think the average day-care center is a detriment to the family.
What guidelines would you give parents with teen-agers entering the dating years?
That's such a bad time. If they have waited until they are teen-agers and ready to date before they do much instructing on the matter, well they've waited entirely too late. The instruction on dating should start when they are old enough to know anything at all. Children should be taught, "Now you're going to be Christians and you must associate, as near as possible, with Christians. And, you are to marry Christians." Now, that doesn't guarantee in our modem society that they will have good homes all their lives, because we're seeing so many Christian homes breaking up. But, if you start off with too many strikes against you, why it's hard to deal with . . . the more you have in common the better.
My mother always said you're not going to marry one that you never date. Therefore, you date only one that there would be no sin in your marrying. You cannot date one who has been married. In fact, she had married out of the church. She knew the heartaches connected with that. She absolutely forbade one of her daughters to date a non-Christian.
IV. Role Of Women
What changes have you seen in the role of women through the years?
This just feeling like "I want to be more a part of things. This home life is not for me. I don't want to be tied down in the home. I want a job. I want a career."
And, its the wanting to get away from what our poor mothers had to do: "Our poor mothers were just tied down at home. They didn't have the opportunities that I have, so they missed out on so many things. And, I want something better. I don't know why I ought to have to do everything at home. My husband is just as capable of doing those things as I am. Why shouldn't he take his share of the work in the house? Why are some things women's work? Why does he think that I have to cook the meals and wash the dishes? Why can't he do those things? Why do I have to do all the care for the children? They are just as much his as they are mine."
And now, instead of giving our little girls baby dolls to play with, we give them Barbie dolls. We give them the teenagers. And we teach them to keep the hair of their dolls. We teach them that this Barbie doll now has a career. And we've forgotten the little baby doll that has to be babied and petted and put to bed at night and kissed and loved. We're not teaching them to be mothers. We're not teaching them to love little children.
How do you view subjection to a man? Did you ever view that as being inferior?
Oh no! It's so wonderful to have somebody make the decisions. My husband was the public one. He took care of me. He provided for me. I didn't have to make those major decisions. The submission was simple I had somebody to take care of me. To be submissive has been such a wonderful thing for me.
How do you respond to those women who act as if there is nothing they can do in the church?
I'd say that you have a private role. You can teach your children. You can teach your friends. But, your work is not the public work. Why should you want it to be? I can't understand women wanting it women in business meetings. Why on earth would a woman want to be there? Why do you want the public life? In your private life you can do an awful lot of teaching.
Why do you think women are wanting to teach men and be in business meetings, etc.?
I think it's the influence of the women's liberation movement that Christian women have unconsciously al-lowed to creep into their lives. They are hearing it on every side. Everything is geared to that now. Our young people are hearing this in the school, on the radio and on television that the woman must fulfill her potential that she is just as capable as the man. So, she must fulfill her potential. In so many cases, the women have more Bible knowledge because they've had more time to spend in Bible study. They think, "If I've got more Bible knowledge why shouldn't I get up here and teach these men?"
I think it is the woman's liberation movement. We've been so influenced even in the church beyond what we'd like to admit.
What kind of things have you done in the kingdom or the service of the Lord?
Of course, you know about my little Bible story books. I wrote them when my children were the age for them. I wrote them as a challenge. I told my husband, "There are no Bible stories books for children that are worth reading." My husband then said, "Write something."
Then, I began teaching the classes. The classes have been the main things that I have contributed to the work, whatever value they have been. I taught children's classes until I was middle age. There is nothing I enjoy more now than teaching ladies classes. I've taught various kinds. The kind I like to teach is simply teaching Bible topics or teaching the book of John, the book of Acts, etc. I've done a lot of teaching on the role of women in the home and the godly woman. Last year in the Vacation Bible School I took a different approach and taught a series of lessons on the "Ungodly Woman And Her Deadly Influence." That was very effective I felt. My classes have been strictly Bible.
Comment on the kind of things you did while brother Lee traveled in meetings. I understand you taught some classes.
Yes, I did often do that. I would often have, during the week, five lessons for women. In many of these classes I did teach on the home.
Did you help with the Use Your Bible series?
No, I did not. Now, I wrote some workbooks for women. They were just O.T. women and N.T. women. They were introductions and questions.
What kind of things can a woman do in the kingdom without violating the role that God has given her?
Aside from her teaching, there is hospitality to be extended. That's a very important part in a woman's work of opening her home to others and inviting in and being available in cases of sickness. Being there in case of a young woman's sickness being able to care for her children for her. Providing food. Just being there when a friend is in trouble. Be available for encouragement to others.
Why do you think we have less hospitality among the brethren than in times past?
We're too busy. So many of the problems that are in the church today are simply because we're living in an age when everybody is so busy. There is the breakdown in the family unit so that the family itself doesn't eat together. Therefore, we don't invite visitors in. It is too great an effort to fix a meal in the house. So if we invite someone, we more often take him to a restaurant. So we lose this sense of hospitality. We have just forgotten how much encouragement there is to the family itself in having someone in your home.
Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 5 p. 16-19