Friday, December 30, 2011

Lessons in Living and Dying

As a Methodist, I have been taught to believe that I am going on to perfection. I even told the bishop on the day of my ordination that I expect to be made perfect in this life since that is what candidates for ordination are supposed to say. But I am reminded daily of how far I need to travel before reaching perfection.
It's hard to believe in perfect people.
However, I said goodbye last week to the most perfect person I have ever known.
People often ask me about how Mount Vernon Place has turned around. How is it that we have transitioned from a congregation of 35 people with an average age of 82 to a growing congregation composed of countless young adults? I am still trying to put my finger on the exact recipe for the transformation but I know that Ruth DuLaney was a key ingredient.
She was not one of the young adults who joined the church in the last five years, taking a chance that change would come. Rather, she joined the church as a young adult in the late 1930s and was married at the church in 1940. She then spent the last 71 years encouraging other people to take chances - to let go of rigid ways and dream a new dream. And, she regularly told her peers that they needed to trust their new pastor - words that became my manna in the wilderness.
When I arrived at Mount Vernon Place in 2005, Ruth DuLaney was our lay leader. She was 90 years old according to her birth certificate but her energy level was on par with the average 40 year old. I met her prior to my arrival as a member of the Staff Parish Relations Committee. I next encountered her on the day my boxes were delivered to the church as she and her husband were out in the church yard pulling weeds and tending to the gardens. Her name appears on the list of those in attendance at every church meeting in my first four years. She was there when we voted to become a Reconciling Congregation and then went out to lunch with a group of young people to celebrate our church's decision to boldly welcome all people. She was there when we needed cookies baked or cards sent. She was there when we needed a location for a ladies luncheon. She was there when two young people needed a place to stay. She was there - always there. And her always being there has taught me a million lessons.
It was towards the end of the summer when a hospital bed arrived in Ruth's room. The bed was accompanied by several nurses who tended to her needs before transitioning to sitting with her round the clock. When the bed arrived, Ruth told people it was the most comfortable bed you could imagine. When the nurses started to bathe Ruth from the bed, Ruth told people it was a luxurious experience to be cared for so well. When people came to visit, Ruth lit up as she called you by name and made you feel as though you were the Queen of England knocking on her door. When cards came, Ruth shared a memory and then named a gift or talent bestowed upon each person who sent a card. In fact, reading greeting cards that arrived in the mail became one of my favorite things to do with Ruth because of the way she responded to each one.
Visiting the sick is part of my pastoral obligations. It is something I am expected to do. But I went to Ruth's not out of an obligation but because I knew Ruth would not let me leave without making more of me. She would not let me go without affirming my gifts, expressing her appreciation, telling me how excited she was about our church and then letting me know how she wished she could do more to support our church.
We knew Ruth's days were limited. I understood how each visit to her home could very easily be my last visit. And while I hope that decades of life await me, I want to embody Ruth's lessons in living and dying:
1) Serve God with all that you have and seek to really love each neighbor as you love yourself.
2) Take time to treasure the simple pleasures in life.
3) Express gratitude often.
4) Regularly name the gifts of the people around you.
5) Treat each day and each conversation as if it is your last.
The prophet Joel describes a time when old men shall dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Ruth dreamed many dreams. Thank you, Ruth DuLaney, for the ways your dreams enable me and so many others to see a beautiful vision for the way we are to live and to love.

1 comment:

cherylw said...

Thank you for posting this and sharing your heartfelt thoughts on her. She is truly amazing, warms my heart thinking of her kindness and love, and I know I will always smile when I think of her.