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by David Pettit
On these summer Sundays, I invite you to think about lives and what they have meant. To think not with a pietistic paintbrush, but to read carefully, in between the lines, and to discern how God’s gracious purposes might be present in the midst of life’s mixed realities, remembering that our attempt to speak for others’ stories is in some way an attempt to understand our own.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. John 3: 4-5
Alice and I were still getting to know each other when I first visited her at Rose Medical Center during her two week stay there, early in summer. She told me of her bout with colon cancer a few years ago, of how important her pastor had been during that time.
She told me of her marriage of over forty years. She was determined and faithful, functioning and over-functioning in a difficult union for many years. She was the glue that held her world and family together. But after approximately forty four years of marriage, she got divorced. She said that the last twenty years had been her best years. “My husband was abusive.” And then she said, “But as for me, I was an enabler.”
Alice endeared herself to me that day. Relationships are complicated, complex, even if there is a dominant dysfunctional person. To come to see your own place within that system and to take responsibility for your own part, for your own life and your own story, as well as your own future—well, that takes character, or maybe the willingness to develop new character.
Alice left. She started out on her own, entering into the world again with none of the prior routines to protect her. She sought out the church, found her way here to Calvary Presbyterian. For many of us, it is the Alice of these later years that we got to know.
She was a modern-day Nicodemus. The question posed in our gospel passage by Nicodemus was, “Can one be born anew when they have become old?” Nicodemus, before his being born anew, might be deemed the patron saint of the person stuck in their way of thinking. He was established and educated, keen on and committed to his view of life. And so he struggled with Jesus, to understand what being born anew could mean. I preached on this passage a while back and I couldn’t help but think of Alice—Alice as the answer to Nicodemus’s question. Yes, yes it is possible to be born anew when you have become old. For in her mid-sixties, she began anew.
She served in various ways here at Calvary. She served as a deacon, serving actively at 86, caring, contributing. She was mindful of others. She was grateful. Alice was able to be honest, open, to be prayed for. She was proud, but not too proud. She was put together, but not cut off. She was careful about what she shared, but genuine and honest at the same time.
She was fiercely committed to her family, wanting to be involved with them, but never a burden. She liked to flirt. She was a health nut. She exercised every day. She attended to her diet. But her breathing and coughing became so labored that the fiercely independent Alice went to the hospital. She sensed that things were changing. Even before the doctors fully diagnosed the large tumors in her lungs, before they discovered the multiple tumors on her brain, she felt that the page was turning to a new chapter.
In those two weeks looking at the stark walls of her hospital room, she grappled with and came to peace with the fact that she was nearing the end of her earthly life. When the full reality was presented, she accepted it with grace, dignity, peace, with that same chin turned up, that same determined-ness. She was not going to fight a losing battle; she was not going to make it all about her, not going to be a burden on her family.
She was grateful for a full life, thankful especially for these last twenty years. So she turned in her exercise routines and rigid diet for milkshakes and ice cream—eating with a child-like grin, like a kid who has been given permission to have desert for breakfast. She lived day to day these last couple months. She welcomed friends, exchanged words of love. She asked for help, ate the food that so many brought to her home. She loved.
She told me a few times in those last weeks, that the hardest part of those last days was seeing the emotion of her dear friends. It was hard to see them so torn up, and it was hard to see them leave. She said this to me one day at her home, shortly before I too left. And as I walked to the door I saw her standing in front of the light of the patio, standing alone watching me go.
Alice has left an impression, a lasting residue on me. For I hope to someday be like Alice. When I get to the point in my life when the lion’s share of one’s life decisions, of one’s deeds are in the past, when the course of things cannot be greatly altered—to get to a place where you can face your life for what it is, to accept the relationships that are long since fractured and are not in your power to fix. To accept what is, to take responsibility for one’s life and one’s emotions, to take each day as it comes, to be fervent in doing kindness, in serving, in expressing one’s love, and receiving the service and love of others.
Alice has blessed us deeply. We give glory to God for her life, born in 1929, born anew sometime in the early 1990s, and now laid to eternal rest.
David Pettit is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, and pursuing doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible at the University of Denver.