June (not her real name) was a member of a mid-morning bible study I used to teach twice a month. She'd be about 90 years old now, and was the second or third oldest member in the congregation at the time. I think it secretly irritated her that she wasn't the oldest. She was a quiet leader in our church, a strong woman to be reckoned with. She could also be crotchety. I say that with love.
When I was newly ordained, I attended my first of these bible studies, my infant daughter in tow. It was my third day of work, and I had this crazy idea of getting to know this new church, and my days-old identity of pastor, while juggling my kid at the same time. It was an attempt to put off child care for as long as logistically possible. I am glad that Caroline didn’t have to start daycare until she was almost seven months old, but looking back it would have been easier just to be reverend for a while each day, then switch to mother, and so on, back and forth.
That day at the bible study I cradled Caroline in my weary arms for the duration of the two-hour meeting while the women went around and introduced themselves and shared some of their stories. They were mostly retired, a few were charter members of the church, and one was a classic Steel Magnolia, a feisty woman from Mississippi with hair of liquid silver.
When it was June’s turn, she sized me up through her huge eyeglasses and said: “I’m June. I’m 84 years old. I have a granddaughter your age. That’s all I have to say.”
Hey. You. Little girl, with the squirmy baby in your lap. You see that spot over there in the corner of the room? That’s Your Place, and I just put you there.
That fall we began a study of prayers in the Bible, and any interaction I had with June took place from the semi-seclusion of My Place. She didn’t acknowledge me very much, although over time I realized that she was not overly chatty with the others either; she chose her words carefully, spoke little, and emoted even less.
One day we studied the psalms of lament. Most Presbyterians I know are good stoic Calvinists who would never think to cry out to God. God’s got it covered, right? And yet, Uncle Walt trained me well on these psalms. That day I went on at great length and with all the zeal of a fresh seminary graduate who had discovered something important that simply must be shared—that lament is a powerful statement of faith, a sign that we are able to bring anything to God; that we have become too nice and genteel in our prayers; that laments are a great gift to us, a gift to be reclaimed and even celebrated.
June drew herself up in her chair, fixed her owlish gaze on me and said: “Those psalms sound pretty sassy to me. If I were God I’d be tempted to smack someone who talked to me like that.”
From the shady corner of My Place, I had to chuckle. The woman had a point.
Several months later, it became clear to me that June could not see the Bible well enough to read along with us. June is a proud woman, so I mustered up my courage, crawled out from My Place and asked her, “June, I have a way to print out the bible passage very large on my computer. Would you like me to do that?”
She snapped back, “That would be nice. Thank you.”
Two weeks later, I brought in a sheaf of papers and placed them into her hands, which trembled ever so slightly. Hmm, maybe mine did too. She looked up, smiled, and her eyes twinkled: “You remembered.”
For the years following, I never forgot. What’s more, I received countless notes from her, scrawled in thick black pen, asking for additional verses. Psalm 23, Psalm 121, the Beatitudes. Her eyesight was going fast, and she wanted to commit as much to memory as she could before she was completely blind. Of all the things I did as leader of that bible study, I think perhaps that is the one thing that had lasting impact. The ministry of the 26-point font.
One day, while studying one of the passages that says that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” we found ourselves talking about death. The topic came up a lot, and I always let it. The thief image is troubling for many people, like God is lurking in the bushes, ready to pounce when we least expect it. But these women got it. It’s the surprise of it that’s the issue here, not whether God is good and trustworthy. God’s goodness goes without saying.
Yes, for these women who’d buried husbands and siblings and even children, who dealt with broken bodies and flagging energy and who strategized how best to get their yearly flu shots, who felt overwhelmed and disoriented by talk of stem cells and social networking, God’s goodness was the one thing that went without saying.
In the middle of this discussion June announced that she had something to say. I braced myself, but not as much as I used to, because I’d gotten used to June’s sometimes blunt zingers.
She turned to me and said, “I have this image in my head. One day, I will be walking down the street. And a stranger will come up to me and call me by name. And I will say, ‘Do you know me?’ And the person will say, ‘I am your God. Come with me. I have prepared a place for you.’ And I will go. And I am not afraid.”
She stopped, her eyes filled with tears.
I thanked her. She honored our group with the sharing of an image of her own death, a place beyond brassy words. She honored me. And in the telling, she put me in a new place. I was her pastor. And her friend.
June moved away from the church, and so did I. I'm not her pastor anymore.
But I hope it all happens for her just like that.