“My Life with the Saints” by Jackie McMakin
Every time Advent rolls around I think of a friend I met long ago. Prior to Advent she would open her soul and ask for a theme, or a word, or a phrase to focus her attention in an inward way during the season which had many outward claims on her time. Her sharing with me from this practice was so rich that I decided to do the same thing. Two years ago an Advent theme dropped in my lap in an unexpected way. This is what happened.
Another friend was crazy about a book. In fact, she read it three times and talked about it a whole lot. So I read it. It is called My Life with the Saints. In it, Jesuit James Martin devotes a chapter to each saint who enriched his life. He described the saint’s life and often the geographical setting where they lived and talked about the saints’ impact on his life. I loved the book too. I wanted to write a similar book and describe my life with the saints. But I didn’t have the time. It was Advent. Why not think of one saint each day during Advent and re-experience that saint’s blessings in my life. That’s what I did. I took some colored card stock and cut out a bunch of cards. My definition of a saint was simple – it was someone I knew personally or through reading who had blessed my life.
On your chair you have one of my cards and an extra blank card. I thought that as I described some of my saints, you might like to think of a saint in your life and perhaps jot down some of the blessings you’ve received from that person.
Most of you know that in February we are moving to Vermont. This means we must leave Seekers. I want to tell you about how much it has meant to be part of Seekers. A way to do that is to focus on four of my saints who are connected with Seekers. They are Gordon Cosby, Mary Cosby, Sonya Dyer, and Marj Bankson.
First, Gordon. He was the founding pastor of the original Church of the Savior where I was a member in the late sixties and early seventies. Saints were a big part of Gordon’s life. He would focus on one, for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and then preach about him, read excerpts from his books in place of a sermon and generally keep that going for quite a while. Teachers in the School of Living would also use the book in their classes. Mission groups would study the same book. In that way, the whole congregation was saturated with a saint at the same time. This saint began to bless your life and also the community. I loved this whole process.
At the time, I was a student at Catholic University’s Religion and Religious Studies Department. My Jesuit advisor, Bob Faricy, suggested I do my thesis on The Church of the Saviour for Catholic readers. The Catholic Church was going through many changes, particularly the religious communities, and he felt they would benefit by learning how we lived the committed life as family and working folks each living in our own homes. For the thesis I interviewed Gordon several times and tried to put my finger on what in our life was transferrable to other settings. When I was finished, Gordon suggested we pray over the thesis. He placed it on the altar during worship and prayed that it would bear fruit. I believe it did. I was discouraged at the time, having graduated with a shiny M. A. and having absolutely no job prospects and feeling that no one cared. That brief prayer meant the world to me.
Another time I felt blessed by Gordon was when he and Mary told us they wanted to visit Dave at his work at the State Department and invited me to come along. We spent at least an hour together. They asked about his work with the Agency for International Development and how he came to choose a life work in the field of humanitarian assistance. They showed such keen interest and asked such sharp questions that both Dave and I were astonished and grateful. We had always talked with pastors on their turf – the church. This was the only time, a pastor spoke with us on our turf. They blessed Dave’s mission at work. We were both deeply touched.
Now Mary. The word “delight” describes Mary. She has always taken delight in so many people and projects, and when you are with her, you feel showered with delight. She was my sponsor for membership. I remember telling her, “Mary, I love the Church of the Saviour and want to be a member, but there is a lot of structure and some rules and regulations. And that scares me. I’m really a rule breaker.” She beamed her beautiful smile and said, “That’s wonderful, Jackie. So am I!” I felt right at home and happily joined.
Annual retreat was part of the Church of the Saviour practice. I realized this last October that it was my 40th annual retreat at Dayspring. I started going on Mary’s retreat held usually in July. One time she focused on the Suffering Servant and asked the question, “Whose wounds do you feel called to heal? An answer came to me quickly. I told Mary, “I feel called to heal the wounds between Catholics and Protestants.” Mary’s immediate response was, “That’s wonderful, Jackie. Go do it!” Her encouragement and blessing propelled me into many ways of living this call. With another couple, Dave and I started the Ecumenical Dialogue Group Experiment, groups of couples – Catholic and Protestant, black and white – who met around the city to learn the treasures of faith from one another and to pray together. The Partners Community was another part of my call – a spiritual community of Catholics and Protestants which still flourishes today and has been my mission group for more than 35 years. Teaching in Catholic settings such as Trinity College, Washington Theological Union, and the Catholic study houses around Catholic University was another fruit of that blessing from Mary.
My next saint is Sonya Dyer, one of the founders with Fred Taylor, of Seekers. Along with her job as one of the leaders of Seekers, Sonya worked with me at Working from the Heart, a program that helped people find meaningful work. Every Tuesday we would get together to do our work. Our habit was to bring something nourishing to share to begin our work time. Sonya would regale me with tales of Seekers. She would tell me how nourished she was by one of Emily’s altar arrangements or how fabulous the clown service was or how the kids had read the letters to Paul and then written letters to our congregation. It all sounded great. So when it was time for us to leave our suburban church after our kids had grown up, it was natural that we would come to Seekers.
Sonya’s great phrase, “Life is a mix” has been a big gift to me. Once her son Larry came to visit us. He had lived in California for a long time. I said, “Hey, Larry, how’s it going?” His reply, “Well, you know, life is a mix.” I knew he had received that gift too! It’s such a realistic way of looking at things. Sonya was never afraid of the truth. Life is a mix.
Five years older than I, she was always ahead of me in the child raising game. I would frequently ask her advice. Once when the kids were pretty young, I was completely worn out and fed up, absolutely sick and tired. I moaned to Sonya. And she simply said, “Run away.” I said, “Are you kidding?” She said, “No, I’m absolutely serious.” That Sunday in the early morning I told Dave I was leaving for the whole day and would be back after the kids were in bed that night. Much to his credit, he didn’t bat an eyelid. I spent the day going to the free Sunday concerts, checking out some art shows, having a couple of meals and generally having a grand time. It did the trick. After running away that day, I was ready to be a Mom again.
Now a couple of stories about Marj. When I came to Seekers, I was already committed to my call to ecumenism and creating meaningful work, and I was in a mission group I had helped to form. I knew that I would not be attending classes at the School of Christian Living or joining a mission group. Marj agreed to be a spiritual director for me in a very special way. She suggested that she could help me, even with those limitations, use my gifts at Seekers. Each year before Recommitment Sunday, I would give her a kind of State of the Union report – how I was doing with Seekers and she would comment. She helped me see how I could contribute, by, for example, preaching or supporting individual Seekers in one way or other. She also helped me see the many dimensions of call. When my Dad died and I felt called to explore the family background he had kept hidden from us, Marj was encouraging. Dad’s mother and father had been Jewish in Germany before they left for the U. S. in 1890. On arriving here, they dropped their Jewish identity, joined a church, and never openly talked about their Jewish heritage. When I decided to explore that heritage, I was quite conflicted about doing so. I shared this ambivalence with Marj. Her reply: “Resistance often is a sign of call.” That stuck with me and helped me stick with my explorations. Later I wrote an account of them with a subtitle: “How the Skeletons in the Closet Brought Blessings.” I never would have come to that without Marj.
When I told Marj about our move to Vermont, she said, “I can hear your excitement about Vermont, but save some of your creative energy for here. Pay attention to the dynamics of closure. Good closure paves the way for good beginnings.” I took that in but didn’t know exactly what the dynamics of closure are. But the more reflection I brought to it the more specific guidance I seemed to receive for each situation. And a mantra occurred to me: I want to make our leavestaking from 47 years in Washington and arrival in Vermont to be a time of blessing for those involved in our goings and comings. Today’s sermon is part of that
Two last things, in closing. First, about the offering. Marj will take up the offering. Would you please drop my cards in the plate so I can retrieve them? And, if you feel moved, in the space Marj provides, name a saint who has blessed your life.
Second, I want to share some learnings that came from this practice of thinking about a saint each day.
First, I have been overwhelmed with a sense of abundance. I remembered every place we’ve lived and thought about the saints I met or learned about there. No place was without its saints. When I get scared about what we’ll find up in Vermont, that thought is reassuring. Hebrews is right when it says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as we run the race to which we are called.”
Second, for me, saints don’t necessarily have to be stars. Many of the people I selected are ordinary people – friends and family…the people I hang out with. Each of you in this room.
Third, people who come across to us as scoundrels can be saints. It was easy to list my Mom as a saint. She was an easy-to-love-and-admire person. My Dad wasn’t. He had some scoundrel qualities – he was much too rough on my brother, didn’t trust people, cut people off, was obsessed by money. This is all true. Should I make a card for him? The more I thought, the more I realized how many gifts I had received from him. He worked hard and gave me a wonderful education. He took a walk every day of his life, was committed to exercise, appreciated great art, enjoyed skiing, hiking and tennis. These are all gifts he gave to me. So yes, scoundrels can be saints.
My response to this practice of saint watching can best be summed up in Dag Hammarskjold’s famous prayer in his book Markings:
For all that has been – thanks! For all that will be – yes!