This past Ash Wednesday, I stood outside in the cold waiting for cars to pull into our Covid-safe drive-thru imposition of ashes. There were not many takers. Maybe people had been reminded of their mortality enough this past year?
I was excited when I finally saw a car turn into the church parking lot. I knew based upon the silver Toyota Prius that it was my parishioner and friend Jenny Hampton. She got out of her car, which I guess was technically breaking the rules, and stood before me. I rubbed my finger through the bowl of oily ash and made the sign of the cross on Jenny’s masked face. I told her, “From dust you came and to dust you will return. Repent and believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Jenny died in a car accident yesterday. Today I find myself shocked, grief stricken, and angry. The peace that passes all understanding seems so far away.
Jenny knew a side of God that I do not. Jenny was a Physicist and a professor at Hope College. A graduate of Oberlin College, she earned an M.Phil in physics from the University of Cambridge, as well as an M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University. She had received multiple research and equipment grants from the National Science Foundation and had several articles published in esteemed journals.
Behind her brilliant mind was also a love for people. She loved her students, often mentoring them through their fields of study. She told me how much she missed teaching them all in person. She loved her colleagues and her work. She would often tell me what physics ideas they were working on. I just smiled and nodded. She also loved her parents and her two sisters.
As her pastor I saw a different side to Jenny. She loved music and would often lead our congregation in singing or playing her clarinet. She loved liturgy, setting up an Advent wreath in her house and leading congregational prayers. She loved children and gave of her time to tutor those who needed help.
I mourn for the loss of a friend. But I also mourn for the loss of a much needed disciple in the world.
Jenny was a bridge, a listener, a learner. In an evangelical world that, at times, views science and the academy as the enemy of God, Jenny loved God with her whole mind. And in an academic world that, at times, views faith as mere naivete and superstition, Jenny trusted in God with her whole heart. As an expert in general revelation, she still made room for God’s special revelation. Science and faith to her were not enemies, they were dance partners who shared the lead.
As a disciple of Jesus, Jenny took her talents and used them for God’s kingdom. She shared her mind and herself with the third grader who struggled to read and the college student finishing her senior project. Her passion for music was shared with the congregation with instrument and voice. Our gifts are not to be hoarded or even shared with a few. Our whole selves are to be offered to all who are on the journey.
And as a disciple of Jesus she lived with humility. She elevated the communal IQ of every room she entered and yet lived with humbleness and grace. In a world that is consumed with being right at the expense of being kind, Jenny has reminded me that the spirit with which we use our gifts is just as important as the gifts themselves.
From dust you came and to dust you will return. Repent and believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Lent reminds us of our mortality. It reminds us that we are not as important or permanent as we often think we are. Lent is a journey of submission and service. It calls us to follow Jesus in submission, service, and sacrifice. Lent is the constant reminder that we will all die. But it’s only through death that we will experience true life.
Spera in Deo — Hope in God. That is a hope that I hold on to even though it doesn’t feel all that real today. I hope for Jenny.
As a follower of Jesus, we believe that death does not have the last word. Easter is coming. I also hope for the world. For although divisions, hate, and injustice surround us, there are still quiet and humble disciples among us who continue to live out the Gospel in small but significant ways. Somehow today, that is enough.