Sunday, October 2, 2011

In Defense of Pious Old Ladies

My friend Joe sent me an article by Mark Galli in Christianity Today titled, Jesus Is Not Nice. The article is an excerpt from a new book by Galli – so I guess the article is a marketing thing. A while back I purchased Galli’s book, Jesus Mean and Wild, in spite of the title – as I recall I didn’t finish the book. I guess the title is a knock-off from another author’s book, Wild at Heart – a book we could all do without.

Just for the record, Jesus isn’t mean and He isn’t wild – and He is nice. Galli says that Jesus is a revolutionary; he isn’t the first one to say that – but Jesus wasn’t/isn’t a revolutionary either, not in the context in which the term is typically used – Jesus is God incarnate – that’s who He is and that’s who He says He is – when Jesus Christ proclaims His identity He is unequivocal – He is Son of Man and Son of God.

Galli writes: We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him "meek and mild," and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. 

I find it unfortunate that the editor of Christianity Today chooses to use terms such as pale curates and pious old ladies. Why not talk about slick pastors and religious marketing gurus or somber old male trustees who control the purse stings of mega-church endowments and treat the money as their own? But I slightly digress – I want to defend pious old ladies.

First, may I remind us that it is written concerning Christ in Matthew Chapter 12: He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench. The context of this passage is one of opposition – in the midst of opposition and conflict Matthew reminds us of the character of Jesus Christ – He is, after all, the Prince of Peace.

I have known a number of pious old ladies in my time, and I don’t think I come close to measuring up to any of them. Sure I’ve know a few old biddies, but in retrospect they’ve had to put up with me as much as I’ve had to put up with them – and they’ve probably had a lot more to put up with me – after all I’ve been a pastor who has rocked the boat more than once.

Paul writes that we are to treat older women as mothers – not as pious old ladies.

When I pastored in Becket, MA we had a number of pious old ladies in my parish – and they were better to me than I deserved. They let me sit in on their weekly Bible study, fed me treats, laughed with me, prayed with me, and cared for me. Sally Poland was our organist at Becket Federated – and working with her on Sundays rivaled anything Johnny Carson had with Doc Severinson, especially as Sally and I were leading people in worship and were not about entertaining, but we did try to make folks feel at home on Sundays.

Then there was dear Mary Saville. I’ve read some things people have written about the song, In the Garden; often these are the same people who want us to think that Jesus is mean and wild. I’m sorry boys, I’ll never forget us singing that song at Win Saville’s funeral, seeing the comfort it gave Mary – I think Jesus, the nice Jesus, enjoyed that song that day in Becket, MA.

A few years after leaving Becket I was back in the area and I visited Elizabeth Furlong. As I sat in Elizabeth’s kitchen she said, “Bob, I pray for you everyday.” There is a lot to be said for pious old ladies.

Give me a group of pious old ladies as opposed to trendy preachers and magazine editors and authors; I’ve been blessed to know pious old ladies ever since I came to know Jesus as a teenager – and they’ve been a better model to me than a good many people in the limelight – and as I said, I can’t hold a candle to them, not even a flicker.

If you’d like to ready more about Elizabeth Furlong keep reading:


Every pastor needs an Elizabeth, and no church should call a pastor unless it can provide an Elizabeth.
Not long after I arrived in Becket I encountered my first counseling challenges.  As you would expect, this included both men and women.  I was concerned about counseling women one-to-one because of the realities of our times.  I well recalled the fact that Billy Graham always leaves his office door open when meeting with women one-to-one.  The issue with me was that I could leave my office door completely open but it would make no difference because, unlike Billy Graham, I was the only person on staff in Becket.
I decided that I needed to find an older woman, respected by others, who could keep a confidence, and invite that older woman to come alongside me as a ministry partner. After praying about the matter and seeking the counsel of others, I approached Elizabeth Furlong.  It was one of the best decisions I made while in Becket.
Elizabeth was around eighty years old at the time, was born and grew up in Becket, and had owned and operated a nursing home in the adjacent town of Washington. She lived in Washington with one of her daughters, her husband Joe having died not long before my arrival.
One of my distinct pleasures was driving around Becket and Washington with Elizabeth. She directed my driving down unpaved back roads, talking to me about the history of the people on each road, what changes had occurred in the landscape, and speaking to me of her own family history and childhood memories.
Becket is now mostly wooded, but it was not so in Elizabeth’s childhood. Once, when driving by the farmstead where she had grown up, she pointed to a high hill and said, “When I was a girl I could climb that hill and look all around this area. There were no trees then, it was all farmland, and as far as I could see was my father’s land. I didn’t see anything that didn’t belong to my father”
I thought of Abraham as she spoke, of God telling Abraham to look around, to look all around, to view the land, and that every parcel upon which his gaze fell would belong to him and his descendants some day. I thought of God directing Abraham’s vision to the night sky, to the stars, and God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as the stars of the sky.
I can imagine Abraham standing with Elizabeth on that hill, looking all around and enjoying the view with her.
Elizabeth always gave me good counsel and she always was there for me, even when she didn’t quite agree with my approach to certain things. When I needed to talk things out I could go to Elizabeth. When I just needed to sit and have a cup of tea with someone I trusted, I could go to Elizabeth. And when I decided that it was time to leave Becket and return to Virginia, Elizabeth was the first person I went to see. She wasn’t surprised, she had anticipated my decision, something she could not have done had she not known me.
Elizabeth assisted me in visits to the most difficult parishioners I had to serve, the ones who didn’t like me for one reason or another. She’d help me serve communion to them when they were sick, she’d join us in prayer, she’d do her best to help me build bridges.
Elizabeth often sat with me in counseling sessions with others, while at other times she’d be just down the hall praying while I’d have my office door open. I’d request permission from counselees to share the elements of our sessions with Elizabeth in order to solicit her feedback, such was her reputation for integrity and confidentiality that no one ever refused my request. Have I mentioned that every pastor needs an Elizabeth?
Elizabeth drove a green mini van. At least it was green most of the time. Over fifty percent of the roads in Becket are dirt, at least sometimes they’re dirt, the rest of the  time they’re mud. During “mud season” they are, as you would assume, more mud than dirt. Elizabeth had a thing about driving on dirt roads regardless of the season. I don’t know if was to recapture a sense of her childhood and youth, or whether it was a sense of adventure, or if it was to prove to herself that she could still negotiate the problematic roads, or whether she wanted to be able to say to her children, especially to Richie her eldest, that she had traveled on dirt roads that particular day with no harm to herself or her vehicle.
 The days in which Elizabeth’s mini van was not green were the days it was covered with mud from driving on unpaved roads. There were days when, upon my meeting Richie at church, the general store or the town hall, that he would say to me, “I had to pull mother out of the mud yesterday. She was stuck up to her axles” And then later in the day upon meeting Elizabeth she’d say, “I guess Richard told you that he had to pull my car out of the mud yesterday?”
But then there were other times when Elizabeth would say to me, “Now don’t you tell Richard, yesterday I got stuck in the mud but I finally managed to get myself out of the predicament.”
I think that every time Elizabeth got stuck in the mud was a day when she could have taken a paved road to get where she was going, but there was just something about the challenge of driving in the mud that she couldn’t resist. Perhaps the best thing for us all to have done would have been to have purchased her a Jeep with huge tires and high suspension.
Her gentle voice, her soft white hair, her hesitating walk assisted by a cane, her quiet prayers, her thoughtful counsel, her sense of humor and irony; her friendship was a place of trust and safety for me, a place where I could relax. Did I mention that every pastor needs an Elizabeth?
I hope when I’m in my eighties that I’ll want to drive in the mud. I also hope that people will trust me the way they trust Elizabeth. I hope that I’ll learn to be more gentle and caring and conciliatory and slower to speak, and that I’ll maintain a sense of humor and irony and that perhaps, just perhaps, I’ll be able to be a blessing to someone the way Elizabeth was a blessing to me. Every pastor really needs an Elizabeth.  

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