Marie White was 101 years of age, when she died peacefully in her sleep, the day after celebrating Thanksgiving with her family. Marie was no stranger to fun and laughter. That’s a given! She packed a wry sense of humor with her wherever she went, just as predictably as her red lipstick and compact. I would guess that having a good sense of humor is a good way to cope with over a hundred years of life. That and having an amazing family support system!
February is the month of St.Valentine’s Day. When I think of Marie’s family, I see the definition of love. Love that serves each others’ needs with compassion, dedication, and as much patience as can be mustered. Our Lord taught us that the greatest love is the love that serves those most vulnerable around us. Jesus demonstrated what that looks like when he took a towel, wrapped it around his waist, knelt down and washed the feet of each one of his disciples on the night of his betrayal and arrest. Showing that kind of love to others, regardless of who they are, or where they’re from, takes great courage, conviction, and compassion.
In all the years they supported their mom at home; all the ways they knelt and served and helped and used humor as a balm of grace; all the years they honored their mother with kindness, the best they could, Marie’s family was guarding her inherent dignity as a child of God. To me, they were modeling, whether they intended to or not, what taking up the cross and following Christ looks like: a discipleship of servanthood that makes a difference in just one other person’s life.
That’s probably one of the most difficult challenges life can bring: finding as many ways as possible to provide self-determination and dignity to our elders’ lives, as they become more dependent on others for their daily needs. Because I’m sure there were many days that weren’t easy. I believe the last thing Marie wanted was for anyone else to feel responsible for her care. She was smart. She was tough. She had amazing physical stamina. She was a professional woman, and a full partner with her husband in providing for the financial well-being of their household. She went to college, had a career, raised a family, and spent decades in the private sector workforce here in Utah. Which means she endured years of overt discrimination in her job. Men she trained for her position as she moved up, were paid more than her, because Marie was told, “they had families to support.”
Women are still second-class citizens in Utah, but Marie was truly in the trenches in her time. She didn’t suffer in silence though. She worked for progress, equality, and fairness through her involvement in the democratic process; channeling her experience of discrimination into volunteerism for change. It’s an understatement to say she was a force of nature. And the last thing she wanted was for anyone else to feel responsible for her care. Particularly her family. Her home and family was her greatest treasure. I believe they were everything to her. And she was their Rock. I cannot imagine the grief she, and all of them, experienced when her daughter Joan died. I would guess that it her was faith in God’s promises that saw her through that time: the faith that God’s love, compassion, and justice will have the last word.
In all of this, she was teaching us what love looked like. She was showing us what it meant to follow the way of Christ, the servant discipleship that her family would later give back to her. It’s a servanthood that isn’t coerced. It isn’t restricted to gender. It isn’t a means of manipulation, or a response to domination. It’s a path that’s freely, and mindfully chosen. It’s a decision that comes from one’s spirit; even a way of connecting with God. It’s hard work. And it’s the work of a lifetime. But it brings life to everything it touches. It’s what the highest form of love, agape love, looks like.
I think Marie believed that everyone, and everything, needs a home. And that welcoming the newcomer to her table, welcomed and honored the presence of Christ himself. I believe she had such gratitude in her heart for all the grace she had experienced in her life: adopted as an orphan into a loving home, and given the encouragement and support to spread her wings, and find fulfillment, confidence, and self-reliance as an educated professional woman at a time when women were expected to put everyone else before their own advancement. I believe that life experience, coupled with her incredible compassion, informed every aspect of her life.
She welcomed the next door neighbor, a widowed professor, to their dinner table every single evening. She brought in and cared for, any and every kind of lost or homeless bird or animal. She gave the lonely a place to feel loved and a sense of belonging. That’s all the story of the Emaus Road on Easter evening! Inviting the stranger, the friend in disguise, to find shelter and belonging. A discipleship of servanthood: freely chosen; connecting her heart with God’s love.
Breaking bread with newcomers, with gratitude to God. It’s so simple. Yet simply profound. It’s a way that can guide us for a hundred years. A way to be a blessing to those around us, and empower us to work for the progress Marie believed in; for change that cracks open the door of opportunity just a little more, for those standing outside, letting the light of the kingdom of God into this world.
Marie’s way of being in the world was the Way of Christ: there was always room for another, because God is good, and God’s love provides. We are the servants of that kind of Love. Because as Marie showed us, everyone and everything needs a home.