O God of the miracles of galaxies and crocuses and children and grace that flares up in us to save us from self pity, self seeking and self centeredness,
wide-eyed for beauty and for our
wide-willed for peacemaking so that we
will confront power with a call for compassion,
wide-hearted for love and for the
unloved who are the hardest to touch and need us
we will forever be linked to justice and joy,
to pain and beauty.
American writer, Madeleine L’Engle once said that, “if we don’t pray according to the needs of the heart, we repress our deepest longings.” It is true, our most honest prayers are the confessions of our deepest longings – of what we desire for the world and for those we love and for ourselves. They are honest expressions of both our pain and joy; and of life’s affirmations and questions. And when spoken in honesty they can reveal what we see as our duty to God and to humankind. It may also be true that there is nothing more beautiful than a prayer spoken out of a profound reverence for the one to whom it is addressed and with a sincere heart from the one offering it, like the prayer I began with by Mary Lib Finlator.
I have spent the last two weeks reading Mary Lib’s book of prayers – a treasure that she left her family and friends. I have also had the great pleasure, in recent days, of listening in on the stories told by her children – Wallace, Elizabeth and Martha. I have listened closely as others of you have reflected on your memories of Mary Lib. And, finally, I have recalled my visits with Mary Lib and the wisdom she so graciously shared with me in our conversations over these last twenty years. Through her prayers and the stories of family and friends, and through my own personal reflections, I offer these thoughts on her life and living knowing that they capture only a glimpse of her gracious and courageous life.
Life for Mary Lib was an adventure to be lived, not observed. In one of her prayers she wrote, “help us to make a beginning, to be a beginning so that we may not just grow old but grow new each day of this wild, amazing life.” One of you who knew Mary Lib well told me that you rejoiced when your child had Mary Lib as a teacher, “not because she was the best English teacher, though she was, but because of what was inside of her and her soul – her spirit, her understanding, her love and her sense of adventure.” Yes, Mary Lib always approached life as an adventure. And when she met and fell in love with her beloved, Bill, life became an even more grand adventure. Without question Bill and Mary Lib’s love for one another and their deep devotion to one another was the foundation of their adventurous and courageous life together and as unique individuals. Elizabeth recounts that Mary Lib was often asked what it was like to be married to a Baptist minister. In true fashion, Mary Lib would respond that it was wonderful, as long as the Baptist minister she was married to was Bill. Mary Lib’s sense of adventure was always strong, but it came into its fullness in the relationship she and Bill shared. Yes, to Mary Lib life was an adventure, but the adventure was not without purpose and principles.
Principle One – Mary Lib lived life with more grace than judgment. Martha tells two stories that demonstrate this value Mary Lib held so dear. The first is a story about Wallace. Martha shared that when, as a teenager, Wallace snuck out of the house, Bill wanted to call the police. Mary Lib talked him out of it and, instead, locked Wallace’s bedroom window; unlocked the front door; turned on the front porch light and went to sleep. And not a word was spoken by anyone about it for years. More grace than judgment. The other story Martha tells on herself. She recalled the time when she went next door to the church in Elizabeth City during the week and “borrowed” a baby doll. Upon finding out what Martha had done, Mary Lib made her go to her Sunday school teacher on Sunday and confess what she had done, acknowledge her wrong-doing, apologize and return the doll. But Martha notes, “I did not, however, have to do this in public. Mama was careful to have me in the classroom well before any other children were there. She wanted to teach me to be honest and respectful of others and their things, but she found no need to humiliate me as she did so.” In a world that is often focused on humiliation and shame, Mary Lib taught us principle one, to live with more grace than judgment.
Principle Two – Mary Lib lived life with more compassion and understanding than control and mistrust. Elizabeth shared with me that when she was a teenager in the 60’s – a challenging time for all – she would frequently spend Saturdays with her girlfriends pursuing non-academic pleasures like bowling, ice skating, swimming or horseback riding. She said that most often Mary Lib was their chauffeur and chaperon for the events. Elizabeth recalled that she didn’t mind having her mom along because her friends loved her mother and, in Elizabeth’s words, “she didn’t try to interact with us excessively.” Elizabeth then said, “It wasn’t until I had teenagers of my own that I learned from her that she accompanied those trips not because she enjoyed them but because, by listening to our conversations, she could better understand her teenage daughter.” More compassion and understanding than control and mistrust. Everyone who has been a parent of a teenager knows how difficult it is, at times, to parent from a place of compassion and understanding rather than control and mistrust. Mary Lib, in all her wisdom, knew that compassion and understanding was the path to right relationship, to authentic relationship – not just with her children, but with all people. It was that part of her spirit and soul that drew her students to her and drew each of us to her. In a world that is dominated by those who seek control and where mistrust is rampant, we need more people like Mary Lib Finlator who are “wide-willed…for compassion and understanding.” In a world saturated with control and mistrust, Mary Lib taught us principle two, how to live with more compassion and understanding.
Principle Three – Mary Lib Finlator lived life with more laughter than tears. Wallace tells this great story that demonstrates this principle. He writes: One year, one of her students at Broughton High School was a big, popular football player who thought mom would cut him slack. He handed mom a term paper that was woefully inadequate after she had already given him one or two time extensions. It made mom mad. Mother threw the football player’s term paper in her classroom trashcan right in front of the whole class to the astonishment of the class and to the embarrassment of the football player. The next morning, at 7:30, when mom arrived in her classroom, everything had been turned upside down, but very neatly. Every chair, table and the fateful trashcan were turned upside down. Mom’s desk was face down, legs in the air. The pictures on the walls had been carefully re-hung upside down. Even the pencils in the pencil bowl on mom’s desk were all pointing their sharp ends towards China. As mom approached her classroom, she noticed that something was amiss because four or five students were standing around the door waiting to see how mom would react. They were very nervous. Mom entered her room and saw the situation and broke out in laughter – laughing as hard as she could. Seeing mom’s reaction, the several students who had been standing by the door rushed in and immediately and silently began straightening the chairs and tables and pictures and fateful trashcan and all the pencils and everything else. Within ten minutes, every item in the room was back in its correct place, and that was the end of the matter. Mother did not undertake an investigation to find the culprits. She did not report the incident to the principle. All was forgiven and forgotten, and the school year continued on its preordained course. Anyone who has ever been a teacher knows how quickly a room full of clever, yet sometimes rebellious adolescents can reduce one to tears in frustration. Mary Lib chose laughter. More laughter than tears.
I was struck in reading Mary Lib’s prayers how often she included the word “laughter.” In a prayer dated February 9, 1994, she wrote, “O God of All People: First world people, Second world people, Third world people, All this wondrous, puzzling and incredible world so full of sound and fury, but also singing and laughter…Help us build bridges of hope over chasms of indifference” Again on April 11, 1994 she wrote, “Something stirs in us; we hear ourselves laughing. There is the mystery of life all around….” And a year before writing those prayers, she wrote in another prayer, “O God of children and clowns, martyrs and bishops, Saints and sinners and all of us other folk who don’t quite fit any of the above, Thank you for this day with its chance to love and hope and laugh….”
Mary Lib’s laughter was not an empty laughter. The sound of her laughter was rooted in a sense of joy and amazement in life’s goodness and grace and mercy. It wasn’t a laughter that ignored the hurt and pain of the world. No, it was a laughter that brought healing – the kind of healing that binds up the broken hearted and releases the captives. Her laughter was the sound of justice and mercy – a balm for those in Gilead. In a world of profound weeping, Mary Lib taught us principle three, more laughter than tears – not empty, haughty laughter, but healing laughter.
Principle Four – Mary Lib lived life with more hope than despair. She wrote, “O God…help us to share the bread and wine with the hungry, to make plowshares out of swords, to heal bodies racked with pain, to liberate minds locked in prejudice and hate, and thus live with a kind of reckless peace knowing that, as in the beginning, we too can look on creation and behold “it is very good.” Through all the pain and suffering in the world, through her own pain and suffering and hurt, Mary Lib possessed a hope that would not be overshadowed by despair. One can only assume that her hope was rooted in the faith of her childhood and in the forged faith of her adulthood. Just as her laughter was not an empty laughter, neither was her hope a naïve hope – a pie in the sky hope. No, her hope was firmly planted in a belief that affirmed the goodness and worth of every single human being – young and old – in a knowing that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends towards justice,” and in a faith that teaches of a hope that is active not passive, alive and never static. In a world that is often drowning in despair, Mary Lib taught us principle four – more hope than despair.
Earlier, you heard read from the gospel of Matthew the parable of the lost sheep. To some of you it may have seemed an odd text to choose for Mary Lib’s memorial service. The reason I chose that text is because I believe that the foundation of all the other principles that Mary Lib Finlator lived by is found in this parable. She believed that every single person counts and is worthy of God’s love. It is why her students loved her. She saw something special in every one of them – especially those who were hardest to love and those who had a tendency to stray. It is why her friends loved her so. No matter how lost or how far from the flock we might have wandered, she came after us – often with toughness, but always with the truth and with love. She rejoiced in our joy and cried with us in our pain. She was a good shepherd for folks like us who don’t always fit into the other categories.
From Salisbury to Greensboro to France and Italy and Berlin; from Pittsboro to Elizabeth City to Raleigh; in classrooms and living rooms, in book clubs and Sunday school classes, in the privacy of her home and in the public halls of education and religion, Mary Lib Finlator enlarged our understanding of life as “one wild, amazing adventure” sustained by God’s love and grace and mercy. With a wide-eye for beauty and for her neighbors’ needs, with a wide-will for peacemaking to confront power with a call for compassion, with a wide-heart for love and for the unloved who are the hardest to touch and who needed her most, Mary Lib Finlator will forever be linked to justice and joy. Thanks be to God for her life and living.