Clay Jar Treasures*
She was “only” ninety-nine. The photo taken in 2014 shows “Marnie” or Margaret Glass, at a gathering at her beloved parish, Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Marnie died this summer, June 26, 2019, only a few days shy of her 105th birthday. She lived a full, life-and-a-half, in calendar years. When I say she “lived,” I mean it, she did just that! Of the “great spirits” I have known, Marnie nears the top of the list.
Born in Chicago, Margaret was a natural, brilliant, a college athlete, playing tennis and captain of the basketball team. She graduated from Elmhurst College only a few years after the Niebuhr brothers who attended that school before her. When I met her, she was the lay leader at Broadway Church. It was the mid-1980s, the neighborhood around the church had gone through dramatic racial change as white flight was nearing completion and the gentrification that now marks that neighborhood was only beginning.
Marnie was one of dozens of wise and creative folks I knew in that parish in those years. They caused me to rethink my understandings of church, of faith and the role of parish pastor. Margaret was first among equals in challenging my preconceived, seminary-shaped notions of who lay folks are and the limited gifts they bring to ministry.
Last week I wrote in this blog of an encounter with an angry fella who sought to set me straight after a sermon preached a year ago that included positive mention of Senator John McCain (See Certitude and Its Discontents, August 2019). My concern at that writing was that some folks would think it a critique of that good congregation. I fear a few did, as I received messages of apology. None were needed. I have found sour-pusses in every parish and a few grievance-collectors typically populate the pews wherever I go. More often, however, I find remarkable saints-in-the-making in parishes I have served.
Marney was tops for me, such a spunky saint. A mischievous follower of Jesus, a conspirator in the search for abundant life for all. Her eyes would dance when she shared a story of some achievement of one of the children she tutored or some morsel of good news about a neighbor. She could change her mind — accept new ways of being church. Her winsomeness, her life, always caused me to think of the scripture: But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (II Corinthians 4:7, NRSV).
You could find Marnie at prayer meetings and protest marches. When we speak of the best of Methodism involving a vital piety and commitment to social justice, it was exemplified in Marnie’s life. I can see her grabbing the cheeks of a young woman and speaking words of encouragement. I recall the times she would take young children into her home because they needed to be in a safe place. She noticed the little things that another had done and thanked them.
She showed an ease in her faith; not that her long life was easy. She married three times as she outlived her first two husbands. Her last marriage was at age 98 and with Bob she continued speaking out on environmental and hunger issues.
Marnie was a part of a weekly Bible study group while I was pastor. One day as we finished, she said, “Please wait a minute, I have something to share.” She grabbed a brown, bulging grocery bag and headed to a nearby bathroom. She returned wearing her wedding gown and still in her tennis shoes. “This is my fiftieth wedding anniversary and I wanted to celebrate with you.” Her first husband was suffering from dementia and rather than hide in disappointment at that circumstance, Marnie invited us to join in a spontaneous celebration. We raided the church refrigerator, found lots of ice cream and other goodies there. Such was her transformative spirit.
She would probably deny it, but Marnie was my faith instructor, my mentor. As Fred Craddock would put it, through her life and words I could “overhear the gospel.” She didn’t always know that I was listening in. One Sunday in the mid-1980s, as the military adventurism by the United States in the Middle East was heating up, I faced a dilemma. The scripture lessons for that Sunday included Galatians 6 (“What one sews that one shall also reap“). My sermon called for a preference of peacemaking over military intervention.
Following the service as I headed to my office I heard voices in the hallway, around the corner ahead of me. It was Margaret speaking with a couple who were upset about the sermon. They didn’t know I was hearing them, their complaints. They said, “He is another one of those liberal preachers.” They likened me to a popular pastor who had spoken out against the Vietnam War twenty years earlier. I thought I was in good company and glad to be compared with this fellow who went on to be elected a bishop. It was then that Marnie-the-spiritual-mentor spoke. “No, no” she said, “this one is a Jeremiah, he will weep with you.” She didn’t know I heard. I turned and went to my office another way. As I was taking off my robe, Marney entered the office. To my surprise she began to chide me. Time for my second spiritual lesson! “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said. My heart dropped. Then she went on, “I am so glad you spoke against our military engagement, but don’t you ever enter the pulpit again with a difficult message and not let me know to be praying for you!”
In the span of five minutes, I was offered two of the most important lessons over the years of my pastoral ministry. First, a challenge to my pridefulness and second a reminder that such moments of witness should not be entered into alone and without prayerful support.
Tomorrow is Marnie’s memorial service. I have no doubt that dozens of other lessons from my teacher, Marnie, will come to mind. Other mentors and Great Spirits have died this year. I think of Judy Craig, Tom Trotter and George Metrovich who died in recent months. They are for me, persons who represent the insights of II Corinthians 4:7-10. Here is the text as offered by Eugene Peterson:
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! (II Corinthians 4:7-10, The Message, Eugene Peterson)