Della.

From Della to Mr. Gore, July 2007…

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If you had told me two weeks ago that my first outing with Baby Shepherd would be to Ms. Della’s funeral, I wouldn’t have believed it.

But such is the nature is death…

if we knew when it was coming, we would spend every waking moment in bedside vigils, hanging onto the ankles of those we knew would soon be departing.

As it was, they were so habitual and ordinary, I don’t even remember my last words to Della.

I know we were probably standing either in the dimly-lit church sanctuary or in the fellowship hall, where we crossed paths Sunday morning after Sunday morning after Sunday morning, for as long as I can remember.

I would have told her how beautiful she looked.

(She always looked beautiful).

She would have asked how I was feeling and might have exclaimed over how much Betsie has grown or how handsome Gideon looked in his dress clothes or how Rebekah’s hair is getting so long.

(She always took time to notice the kids and ask how I was doing).

We probably hugged, and I am positive that I felt happy on the inside just to see her for that brief moment before we moved on to our respective Sunday School classes.

(Della always made me happy).

But whatever greetings we swapped during our last meeting on this earth, one thing is certain: I had no idea they would be my last to a woman who meant so much more to me than a passing hug, and who I admired for so much more than her physical beauty.

If I had known…

I would have cradled her beautiful face in my hands and told her that she was dearly loved…

I would have thanked her for consistently exhibiting to me those Christian fruits that are most admirable in a woman of God…

I would have asked her to tell me all of her funny stories one last time so I could write them down for safekeeping…

I would have recorded her speaking voice so I could listen to her rich and indescribable tone anytime I wanted…

I would have asked if I could come over and learn how to make her to-die-for homemade rolls…

I would have told her that, during the toughest days we’ve had in the ministry, her unswerving faithfulness, gentle guidance and genuine words of encouragement helped keep us going…

I would have hugged her tighter, I would have memorized the lines of her face, and I would have sat beside her at worship…

I would have asked her to wait just one more week, so she could hold my new baby…

And I would have promised her that I would miss her every Sunday and at every women’s fellowship and everytime I drove past her tidy, yellow house for the rest of my life.

Della was not a relative of mine, and if it were not for our like faith, we never would have known each other…

but when the grace of God reached down and plucked her from the road that leads to destruction to place her on the path to life, and then did the same for me years later, all of that changed; by the world’s standards she wasn’t my grandmother or my great aunt or even a distant cousin — she was just a “little old lady” who went to the same church as me.

But my redeemed heart knows better…

she was my sister. My mother. A vibrant, intrinsic part of my family.

And though I know we will spend forever in the same place, my humanity weeps bitter tears at the thought of saying goodbye.

Tears that bring to mind a day, half a decade ago, when Mr. Gore and I were discussing our future and weighing the pros and cons of him applying to be senior pastor at the church I had grown up in; to say that things at the time were messy and complicated would be an understatement. And although my husband was inexperienced and fresh out of seminary, he was a brilliant man with accolades and references galore; he could most likely have found work anywhere…

but “anywhere” wasn’t the story God had written for us. He wanted us here, and He tuned our hearts and our passion to stay, no matter how difficult the road ahead seemed to be.

The church was in turmoil, the budget was limited, and due to an unfortunate church split five years prior, well over half of the remaining membership was over the age of 65. There was one baby in the nursery and he was ours…

But it didn’t matter. We were in love.

“I just can’t leave them…” Mr. Gore said, with conviction. “I want to be their pastor. I want to walk them through the rest of their life. I want to preach their funerals…”

My heart agreed, most vehemently.

But here we are so many years later, and my, those funerals are hard…

Each lifelong friend who leaves us for “Beulah Land” leaves a huge vacancy in our hearts, not to be filled until we meet once more in our forever home; God has only caused our love and tenderness for them to multiply, and while our initial dream of walking these dear saints through life has come true, it carries with it a pain that we couldn’t have imagined…

The day before Della’s funeral, Mr. Gore went to her viewing at the funeral home. Finding himself very much alone with the body our friend left behind, he sat and wept. Della had ministered to him in ways no one else ever saw, giving him godly advice, sending him encouraging notes and cards, praying for him

much like our sister Thelma and our brother Richard, the world might not have known the tiny little lady in the little yellow house, but she mattered, and her role in the Kingdom was vital and beautifully performed.

Since the day we pursued this ministry, God has been so faithful to us and to our church. The division we inherited has flown the coop. Old wounds are being healed. Our membership, though smaller, continues to grow purer and purer. Love abounds. And while our budget is still limited, God has met every single need.

If the thought ever crossed my mind that we would be giving something up to “lay down our lives” for a church that was tiny and troubled and, frankly, not-the-coolest, five years with Della (and so many like her) has proven me stupid…

we have gained the world, drinking in priceless wisdom and encouragement from some of God’s very best, and learning what it means to be the body of Christ.

We grieve over the precious and important member we lost this September…

even as we thank God for the gift of knowing her at all.

~

Della, holding Baby Rebekah at our women’s fellowship in 2009

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Want to know more about Della and the sweet people in our church? Read one of my favorite posts: The Early Birds

The Early Birds

~ It felt very important to me a couple of weeks ago to jot down this Sunday routine…one of my favorite times of the week ~

As we pulled into the church parking lot, I saw her walking swiftly down the street toward the church, her Bible tucked beneath her arm.

Her hair is as white as snow, thick and curly and cut in the shorter style of most of our senior adult women. She is trim and petite, and always put together.

She is my friend and her name is Della.

Della almost died this year, and spent many months recovering at home. Every Sunday morning following her hospital release, I looked for her. When she didn’t walk through the darkened sanctuary where the kids and I waited to say ‘hello’ to her as our paths crossed week after week after week after week after week, my heart felt bereft and I wondered if she could feel how much I loved and missed her.

But, thank God, she is doing well and is back with us, and as her journey toward the church building caught my eye, I smiled and hopped out of the minivan to greet her.

The plucky thing is so spry and sure-footed, she made it into her regular side door before I could chase her down; but I knew I would see her inside and I entered into the front entrance of the church I love, ready to greet the “early birds” who show up 30-40 minutes early every Sunday morning.

It is the same every week…

In the first room to the right, I stop in to say “good morning” to Paula and Virginia, who catch up with one another in their domain, our church library. Paula has white hair with specks of grey, vintage spectacles and a vintage shirtdress for every Sunday, always topped with vintage costume jewelry like my Granny had in her special jewelry box. She has the most uniquely beautiful soprano singing voice, and if you close your eyes during her solos, you can imagine a young girl on the stage rather than an elderly lady. Paula and her husband, Jay, used to keep me in the church nursery when I was a baby, and so it was with great sentimentality that I released Gideon to their Sunday morning care when he was an infant. 

And Virginia is a dear woman, also with snowy white hair and glasses, but partial to jewel-toned polyester pants with printed silk button-up shirts. She and Paula have been taking care of the church library for as long as I can remember and nearly every week, Virginia recalls the time that she looked down and saw a young and painfully shy Mrs. Gore (Miss Jackson, then) with her chin on the library table, huge and solemn eyes looking up in hopes to check out a book without uttering a word – it warms my heart that we share this piece of history together, and that it means as much to her as it does to me. She and her husband, Kenneth, have been beloved friends to me for many years. They have no children and I would give anything if they could really understand how serious we are when we call them “family”.

Speaking of Kenneth, I usually go straight from the library to see him in the fellowship hall, but it is a long walk and I usually pass several other friends along the way. Miss Jessie, one of our African American members, has a different head of hair and a different style of dress every Sunday and she is always there by the church office looking for her class’s roll sheet, a stack of bulletins already in hand. I could fill a book with her interesting outfits, and even more books with her funny characteristics, but what I love most about her is that she loves my children and chases them down for some lovin’ every Sunday morning. Sometimes they scream and cry, but sometimes Rebekah surprises us and kisses her right on the mouth and I get a good chuckle. I sit behind Jessie in “big church” and spend most of the sermon finding quiet and unobtrusive ways to wake her up from her loud snoring. Sometimes I cough. Sometimes I drop a hymnal. Sometimes I laugh a bit louder at the pastor’s jokes than I normally would. Her medicine makes her sleepy, so she really can’t help it…plus it makes me feel useful. The jobs of a pastor’s wife are varied and amusing, for sure.

Kenneth, Virginia’s husband of 64 years, is always stationed by the back door where he has been greeting our members for years. If he is standing, I know he is feeling particularly good, if he is sitting I know that his legs and back are giving him trouble and he is due another steroid shot, and if he is gone, I know that he is home sick. I hate it when he is gone. But most usually, there he is, and I sit with him in the small pew by the door and see how he has been faring for the past week. He always makes over Baby Betsie, he always gives Gideon “five” and he always allows Rebekah to rifle through his shirt pocket, pulling out his comb, his pen and his glasses case before putting them back where they belong. Without fail, he wears polyester pants and a short-sleeved button up shirt, and is often sporting a large veteran ballcap on his grey head of hair. No matter what is going on in his life or with his health, he is chipper and kind, his personality a carbon copy of Virginia’s. While we talk about health or the weather, my heart is bursting with gratitude that I get to call this man my friend and brother.

After about five minutes with Kenneth, I head through the backstage doors, entering the sanctuary at the front and walking to the back where I usually run into Della. She always looks my babies in the eye and exclaims over their church clothes or over their growth spurts, smiling and talking with a voice that always captures me with its indefinable quality. I feel just sure she could be an audiobook narrator, but she just laughs when I tell her so. She has worked her whole life, cooking and scrubbing, raising a family, tending to her late husband, cleaning the church…so such a silly notion would never have crossed her mind! Della is…beautiful. Slight in stature, but so very strong. Funny and quick-witted. Kind. A true woman. A true lady.

In the hallway once again, I pass many friends, sometimes stopping to chat, sometimes waving and smiling as we head to our respective classes. Miss Sharon. Miss Nettie. Miss Erma. Love them all.

Then I shake hands with one of our only widowers, Mr. Titsworth, and talk about the weather and what he’s growing in his garden and I always remember the time he pulled over to a garage sale to see if they were selling any vintage plates I could use for my wedding reception. “I wasn’t sure if  you’d like what they had, so here…take this instead.” he said, before handing me a $5 bill. My heart melted on the spot and it still does everytime I see him. He is a good man and our church would not be quite right without him there.

Before long, one of my most beloved friends breezes through the front door. Kate, a widow of 10 years who never ages a day, is one of the most smartly-dressed women I know. She walks every day and has a body to prove it, but what I admire most about her is her work ethic. A country girl who moved to town after her husband died, she keeps most of our church clean (for free) and knows how to help someone without asking.  She loves to read cookbooks and has a cackle that you can hear for miles. When I see Kate, I always think of her husband, Calvin; they were one, and now they are half of one. But she has been so strong and brave and she calls my husband “Pastor Chris” and asks him to pray for her when she needs it. I admire her humility as she submits to one so much younger and inexperienced than she. But then, all of these friends do. They have made our ministry and our life an absolute joy.

Linda is next. She has been teaching 4- and 5-year olds for what seems like an eternity, and it is no small thing to me that my own son is in her class now. Although she recently had to have her foot amputated due to complications with diabetes, she is never, ever down, finding joy and adventure in every single situation – her eyes disappear into crinkles when she smiles and her deep tenor singing voice ministers to my soul. She is dear to us. So dear.

Then comes Joy, one of the most meek and faithful women I’ve ever known. Every Sunday, she is there early to teach her young Sunday School class. Every Monday, she mails out a letter to each of her students. Every Wednesday, she teaches another children’s class. And through it all, I have never heard her complain or gossip or make a negative comment…she quietly goes about her work with gladness, week in, week out, years coming and going and passing. The more I grow and take note of the world outside of my own, the more I admire her…

Before long, the younger crowd starts to show up, rushing in with children in tow, and the  Sunday morning pace picks up as the chatter grows and moves into separate Sunday School classes, children running and squealing through the hallway, Cheerios being distributed in the nursery, roll sheets being filled out and turned in to the church office. Sunday morning has officially begun…

But I know I’ll see my early birds next week.

9:00 sharp.

Me and Kenneth, friends forever.