This post is long overdue and I’ve been thinking about it for most of a month. I didn’t know where to begin, or end…so, instead of something comprehensive, I’m posting just a sliver of remembrance and reflection of her legacy.
A woman’s voice cut through the silence of the day: “Well isn’t this a fine row of bishops?” I looked up to see her smiling at me and some friends, sitting by the fire. “God forbid,” I retorted. She responded with that skeptical, knowing look of hers. “They’d have to drag me, kicking and screaming!” I added. Deciding she had triumphed, she said, “And that, dear one, is exactly what a godly bishop does.” Not ready to surrender, I said, “Doesn’t mean it’s me.” As always, she was unfazed. Every conversation—whether we disagreed or not—ended with her being victorious (I say “victorious”, not “right”).
But I suspect that her way of being victorious in conversation is more the tool of how she has shaped me than the example she sets. Nearly every way I had conceived of pastoral ministry had been effected by her example and victoriously-concluded conversations. She had me over for dinner and I learned that hospitality is not just a good plate of food and making people feel at home, but inviting them to become the hosts and share their lives while I receive from them. She drove me around while she ran errands and I learned that there is always time for those you are pastoring, even when there isn’t. She yelled at me enough that I took myself seriously and laughed at me enough to know I needed to lighten up and just be myself.
I learned that she was crazy. Not mentally ill. Just crazy. And that craziness—the wily look in her eye, the smirk on her face, and the way every word was enunciated with movement—is precisely what made me pay attention just a little more. After all, a priest being crazy is good hope for someone considering ordained ministry. She was in my corner—and went to bat for me when I had challenges from friends, rivals, priests, and professors (some of whom, no doubt, had legitimate questions and concerns). She may have even agreed with them. But, the way she saw it…she had her pastoral work cut out for her when it came to me and no one else got to lay down the judgment before she was finished.
I remember that when we met, there were no introductions. No handshakes. No “Where are you from?” small talk. I simply became her charge. She came to know me as I grew up, as I learned to have my own voice, and walk on my own. As for me, I could only trust her from the beginning and learn how to return her love. Seamlessly. I don’t even remember thinking that there was anything the least bit strange about it, but as I tell this story, it dawns on me how fundamentally odd it is. At the same time, we don’t remember learning to trust our mothers when we were children, so perhaps it isn’t at all strange.
So, this “other mother” of mine, when I saw her last, celebrated my acceptance as an aspirant. It represented the fruits of her fights as much as it did my own. She hugged me, pulled me back and crossed my forehead, and then my hands, and with one hand on my head and the other holding my hand, she prayed—words blessing, provision, joy, and love and, in all things, a bold witness to the Gospel of grace and ferocious defense of Jesus’ Bride. When she finished her prayer, she hugged me again and said, “You have a dear, mighty heart, my son, and I love you.” Everything about the priesthood, for me, can be found in the implications of that saying: a work of love to those whom God has adopted in Christ, and given great, mighty loves of their own by his merciful Spirit. That is the legacy of my pastor, friend, and sister. That is the love of my hero, Mama Martha.