For all the saints, who from their labors rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!…
Betty died peacefully in her sleep last week. She was 88. I had coffee with her husband of 58 years the other day. The two of them have spent their lives pouring their faith into others.
In the days leading up to Betty’s death, they had added a new element to their bedtime routine. Bob would read hymns aloud. Old hymns like “For All the Saints.” On the night Betty rested from her labors, they had read it together. She had laughed and peacefully drifted off to sleep.
Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might; thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; thou in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia, Alleluia!
When during the turbulent years of segregation and the civil rights movement, Bob was pastoring a mill town church not far from the campus of Duke University and drawing fire for inviting people of color to join and help shepherd his congregation, Betty was right there with him. A quiet, under-stated and reliable presence. A stalwart partner in a difficult, often agonizing struggle.
O may thy soldiers, faitfhul, true and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia, Alleluia!
In the last five years of her life, Betty was feeble. She was often falling. She suffered a stroke or two if I recall correctly, and Bob, five years her junior, was her spry caretaker. (Note to unmarried girlfriends: there is a case to be made for younger men.) When I was pastoring at a conservative, midtown church, they would sit at the back of the sanctuary during services. Like rebels with a cause, they were always holding up a mirror to the church to ask whether the “kingdom of God” Jesus talked about- the one we read about in Scripture- was evident there. Among us. In that place.
O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!
I saw Betty in church just two weeks before she died. As usual she hobbled in with her walker and that same serene, gentle smile; and as usual she immediately took to asking about me. No matter that her life these days was taken up by the hard vicissitudes of old age. But she looked as good as she always did- young at heart and joyful in spirit. Because when other women had been staying young with Botox injections, Betty alongside her husband had been pouring her time, wisdom and radicalized faith into relationships with young people. Many of them pastors and leaders, or disaffected and eccentric church-goers, or restless lovers of Jesus. Some of them all of the above.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong, Alleluia, Alleluia!
Betty was one of the brave ones. She wasn’t afraid to listen to people instead of talk at them. The older I get the more I understand that to do this requires greater courage and inner power than inserting one’s tongue into conversations. But doing this makes room for our ears to hear “the distant triumph song”: it opens up a space in which we can better hear God speak. And what do we all need more than to hear God’s voice amid the toil and strife that so often belong to our lives?
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia! Alleluia!
My favorite line of the Westminster Catechism, one of the Reformed confessions of my church, is this: human beings’ chief aim is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Worship and enjoyment came naturally to Betty. They streamed out of her life, a bit like “pearl streams.”
Which is not to suggest that Betty was less a sinner than all the rest of us. I”m sure she had her moments. I just never saw them!
But in the end I suppose that what makes a saint is not their perfection but their posture. It is not whether they lived their life flawlessly but whether they found their beginning and end in their Creator- a realization that brings us to our knees in humble adoration and joyful worship. Betty did just that. She spent her life “on her knees”- in prayer and in service, singing to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The Psalmist speaks of all creation singing out praises to God. On this side of paradise that song has its painful interruptions. We lose the tune or forget our parts. Other more discordant sounds break in and eclipse the melody. But there is something deeply reassuring about this image of all the saints, Betty there among them, singing without interruptions. Belting out their praise to the One who knit them together and now has called them home. To that One be all the glory, now and forever. Amen.