A long time member of our church passed away this week, at the age of 92.
I had never met Ruth, as she'd been homebound since before I joined the church four years ago.
Hers was just one of those names that floated in the periphery, her contributions and presence noted in passing and always in the past tense. She wasn’t a recently active member who had taken a spill and was temporarily out to pasture; she was officially off the radar screen. Her name was there every week in the church bulletin, in the “Please Keep In Your Prayers” section. But after seeing it week after week with no face to attach to its presence, no story to call up in its wake, the name became as ubiquitous as the note about the Pastor’s office hours and the plea for liturgists and ushers to sign up in the Martin Room.
I attended Ruth’s funeral yesterday; partly to find out more about a women who’d been a member of the church that I love for over 60 years, and partly to be there for those who knew her; to be that someone who hadn’t heard all the stories or been first hand witness to her ‘Christian presence,’ to be the newcomer who is willing to listen when those who were there need to share.
The church was only half full – on a hot Wednesday morning in August – and the elderly retired Pastor leading the service (the deceased’s brother) was a throwback to simpler times. He gestured wildly in the pulpit, made his voice carry into the balcony with little need for amplification, recited the scripture passage from memory, and spoke freely and frequently about the Grace of God and the need to claim Jesus as our own personal savior. He was an old-fashioned teacher-preacher, who punctuated his recitation of the scriptures with explanations of the text, and even stopped us mid-hymn – waving frantically to the organist – so he could explain the meaning of the verse we had just sung. The organist was his wife and he introduced each peace of music by saying “…and Mrs. Forbes will now play…” or “You may begin, Mrs. Forbes.”
In our tiny clapboard sided church with the windows wide open, the pastor’s elderly wife pumping the organ, and the black suited, small in stature Rev. Forbes holding court in the pulpit, it was if we had been transported to an early time.
As I had immersed myself earlier this past week in our church’s history in preparation for Anniversary Sunday, I left the church yesterday morning feeling as if I got a bit of a taste as to what it may have been like to sit in one of our pews in a much earlier time.
I love the way the church is now, and I have no desire to return to that earlier time when Rev. Forbes version of Christianity would have itched and restricted me like a hand-me-down Sunday dress – but it was nice to visit.
It was nice to step into Ruth’s world and get to know who she was, and to be with the people who loved and cared for her.
I learned that when conflicts arose at church meetings, Ruth was always the last to speak, and the congregation would inevitably choose to follow her wizened advice. I learned that Ruth was instrumental in getting our education wing built and she served on nearly every committee that we had. The Rev. Forbes also informed us that none of his sisters, Ruth included, was given a middle name. This was done in foresight that when they married they would carry on the family name as their middle name, keeping the ‘clan’ alive.
Family was what was most important to her.
After the service, I introduced myself to Rev. Forbes as a newer member and a current seminarian. He grasped my hand and pulled me in real close either to better hear me or because that’s just his style – up close and personal. He asked where I was attending school and when I told him he winked and said with a smile, “Nice school, but I didn’t go there, I’m a conservative you know.” Then he told me all about his radio program and his love of Jesus and wished me well in my studies, the whole time never letting go of my hand.
We were separated by 50 years, ideology, theology, and gender – and I’m pretty sure he had no idea that I was not heterosexual (I had left my “Future Gay Pastor” T-shirt at home) – but yesterday we were just two people, two Christians, who came together to celebrate the life of someone who loved our little church.
As we parted I made sure to mention to him that I HAD been given a middle name, to honor not my family but my mother, and that middle name is Ruth.
“Ahh, my favorite book in the Bible,” the Rev. Forbes said.