by Maria Evans
O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our brother (sister) N. We thank you for giving him to us, his family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–from Burial, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, p. 493
Every time I thought my late friend Debby was about to rope me into one of her…um…strange and unusual good works, the conversation would go like this:
“Debby, that’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.”
“Well, you have to remember I had one parent who was an alcoholic and one who was a schizophrenic. It’s just how I think…but can you say that it doesn’t need to be done? Can you say it’s not the right thing to do?”
She always had me there. I couldn’t come up with a reason.
Enter the intersection of another improbable saint–Sterling, the town eccentric.
Every small town has a Sterling. The Sterlings of the world write letters to the editor and hand out self-published materials that, at one level, look legit, but as you get deeper into the prose, you recognize there are underpinnings of serious mental illness. They attend all the city council meetings and the school board meetings and every meeting in town that is a public meeting, often demanding their right to be heard “because it is a public meeting.” Sometimes they run for office. I suspect Sterling ran for at least seven or eight public offices in Adair County–and he always got a few protest votes. They often carry improbable or even slightly elegant names–like Sterling. Their rantings and their missives also have religious undertones. In Sterling’s case, he often equated the time he was given 96 forced hours at Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and his homebrew pamphlets decrying the evils perpetuated by the govermental authorities of Kirksville often carried the hand drawn iconography of the three crosses on the hill at Calvary, complete with an arrow pointing to one labeled with his initials, where the “good thief” would go. He claimed he had been excommunicated from his home church, but I was never sure he really had all his facts straight on that one. I never challenged him on it because I knew it was real to him.
For some reason, through the last fifteen to twenty years of Sterling’s troubled life, I had somehow managed to have a passingly friendly acquaintanceship with him when I saw him in public space–and for some reason, Sterling liked to talk to me about Jesus. Not to “convert” me, but for some reason (even well before I had returned to church life and was in my own spiritual wilderness,) but to talk to me about Jesus “because I would understand.” Well, quite frankly, what Sterling had to say about Jesus was quite reasonable. Jesus cared for the people no one cared about, and in Sterling’s mind that included the politically powerless, the marginalized, the poor, and the schizophrenic. He would tell me that these are all today’s Gentiles, and that is who we were all called to serve. Of course, Sterling liked to think he had special clarity in these analogies, and when this moved to agitation, I would take my leave–but always with a short hug and “God bless you, Sterling–now you take care of yourself.” When I was president of the Board of Governors at Truman State University, I used to give Sterling five minutes at the beginning of the meeting to exercise whatever rights he wanted to exercise as a person who had a right to speak at a public meeting, but made it clear he was on the clock, and that if he went over his time he would be escorted out by security. Only once did he get out of line, and had to be shooed away, and even then, at the break, he came to me and asked my forgiveness.
Of course, the day came that Sterling met his end in much the same way many folks of his caliber do–as a ward of the county, alone, estranged from his family, and in less than optimal conditions. Debby worked for the County Administrator’s office, and it was clear that his family had no plans for Sterling’s remains other than donating them to the osteopathic medical school for Anatomy class. I still remember Debby’s phone call to me: “Don’t you think it just seems wrong that Sterling isn’t getting a church funeral?”
“Well, yeah, I do, but you KNOW no one in his church is going to grab the ball on that.”
“I do–and that is why I think WE need to do it. No one is even writing him an obituary, can you believe that? So here’s my plan. You write well–you write his obituary. You know he played tennis in college here so the Alumni office and the athletic department will have stuff on that. You will be able to think of a way to help people see Sterling as a person worthy of being mourned. I’ll talk to our priest associate and I’m certain I can get her to officiate. The body’s already been released so it will have to be a memorial service. But he is a part of the fabric of our town and he deserves a send off like everyone else, don’t you think?”
She had me there. I wrote the obituary, and actually, it was one worthy of any citizen of our town. It included his prowess at college tennis and his service in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War period. It said that he was an avid listener of National Public Radio. My favorite lines from his obituary were these: “He was keenly interested in local politics and strongly believed in the power of individuals to shape government. He attended countless events at Truman State University, and enjoyed the company of the many students, who, over three decades, ran errands for him, gave him rides, and engaged him in spirited discussions about politics, religion, and history.” I just sort of left out that he had been thrown out of many of those events when he got a little too wound up.
As it turned out, a tiny handful of people did show up to the memorial–the most striking being two of those college students I alluded to in his obituary–two college-age women who sat together and sobbed profusely through the entire service. Debby looked at me, pointed under the pew towards them and whispered–“See, we did the right thing. Somebody needed to mourn him.”
Since that day, Debby herself has gone on to her reward. It has been three years since my friend Debby died, but I can’t seem to take her birthday off my Google Calendar or her number off my cell phone, although I’m certain it’s been assigned to someone else. Every year, on her birthday, I always think of several unusual events she and I shared in the life of the church, Sterling’s funeral being front and center. Debby’s birthday happens towards the middle to end of Lent, in that time we ache for a glimmer of the Resurrection, and I often think of how she was the only person I’ve ever known who really understood what the hope in the Resurrection meant for the Sterlings of this world. I think often of the company of Heaven as being a place where the people we’ve assigned sainthood share the table with the Sterlings and the Debbys, the impossible or improbable saints of my time on earth. It’s a place where Sterling never has to suffer being tossed out of the meeting ever again. When I have trouble wrapping my head around the Resurrection, I remind myself of Sterling’s resurrection, and in it, Christ becomes as real as if he were seated next to me.
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid