I think we can all agree. It’s been a hell of a week. The pandemic, the fires, the ominous sense of having the breath choked out of us by smoke. But then there’s more.
On Thursday we buried my mother-in-law Jean. On Friday we learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Jean was born in 1929, Ruth in 1933. Both were daughters of immigrants, Jean’s parents Italian Roman Catholic and Ruth’s father Russian and Jewish. Both women shared the shattering experience of the early deaths of their mothers, Jean when she was just 8 years old and Ruth at age 16 just before she finished high school.
Though their era and circumstances were similar, the direction of their lives were seemingly radically different and unconnected. Jean struggled with poverty, the inability to attend school regularly and a difficult family situation. Her early years were full of turmoil and insecurity. She had two children out of wedlock, something that was shocking and shameful at the time. It was when she met her husband, Dick that her life stabilized and improved. She counts that day as the “best day of her life.” Marriage and four sons followed. She supplemented the household income by working at the Puyallup fair, baking pies and cleaning offices. Aside from a couple of cruises and trips to Reno to gamble, she remained close to home. She focused on raising a family and then caring for grandchildren. Those of us who were privileged to know her generosity, lively spirit and warm affection miss her terribly.
Remarkably, as a widow she lived independently, in her own home until her final illness required hospitalization and a brief period on hospice where she died in an adult family home just 3 days after her 91st birthday.
RBG, on the other hand, is notorious, celebrated, and renowned. Her education, accomplishments and influence put her in the forefront of American life for decades. She is admired for her tenacity, her fierce intellect and her principled defense of equal rights for women. She is already missed by hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention her family and friends.
Remarkably, as a widow, Ruth Bader Ginsburg maintained her independence and worked effectively to the end of her life in spite of her illness.
Which of these women lived the more important life? Which was of more value? In the face of systemic sexism which impacted their lives and careers at every stage, were they treated fairly? Did they receive what they deserved?
Knowing the obstacles, discrimination and criticism they each received, didn’t they both have a right to complain, to be bitter, to give up or give in? Of course. Yet both, in their own way, were indomitable. Both relied on a deep sense of their value in God’s eyes and their belief in fighting for what was important. I know for a fact that Jean could have complained about a lot of things, especially the pain and discomfort of her last 2 months. But when she was alert, over and over again she said, “I’m blessed. I’m in God’s hands. I love you.”
None of us will ever know Ruth’s last words and communication to her family. We do know the final message her husband wrote for her when he lay dying in 2010. He wrote, “You have been the love of my life.” His were words of pride and support and a love that never dies. And I imagine her Jewish faith and the love she knew carried her over the final threshold of death. I can’t imagine her wasting too much energy complaining.
The readings from Scripture give us a divided response to the unfairness of life. Jonah and the disgruntled workers who were paid the same for a full day’s work as those who barely worked an hour are complainers. They’re so angry that God is not responding the way they think God should that they refuse to find any joy in life. They cannot be glad for the repenting Ninevites, their children and animals whom God has spared from destruction. They can’t be happy that desperate workers who had waited all day for a chance to make a few denarii actually received what they needed for their survival. Instead these disgruntled people live with resentment, they perseverate on the supposed injustice of God’s generosity and forgiveness.
The Apostle Paul and the Psalmist take the opposite approach. They focus on the goodness of God, the ways God is “gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.” Although Paul is facing danger, persecution and jail he perseveres and makes every effort to survive so that he can share with others the joy of faith. It is not that their lives are without trial and suffering, it is rather that they know and rely on the presence of God with them and can see the possibility of God’s realm, a place of plenty and wholeness of life and light and love. They know a God who creates a place at the table for everyone, the outsider, the repentant sinner, the one who come at the last minute as well as the well-behaved older brothers who follow the rules.
They persist because of their faith. They love because they know they have been loved. They have hope in spite of life’s circumstances because they see a vision of the Kingdom where there will be a place for everyone. And they work as long as they can to bring that vision to reality here on earth. They never give up.
Jean and Ruth had different spheres of influence, different roles to play, different responsibilities to fill. I am so grateful for both of them. The world is a better place because of them. The light shines more brightly because they allowed light to shine through them. They remained in the flesh as long as they could but now that they have departed, their spirit is united with God’s Spirit and we are, each of us, stronger because of them.
Now it’s up to us. A legacy is a lot more than words on paper. It’s the continuation of what an individual felt was worth fighting for. I’ll remember Jean every time I cook for someone and offer hospitality, every time I forgive and show compassion, and especially when I overcome my own, natural restraint and the Seattle Freeze to reach out, with warmth and love and draw someone into the circle of love that she is still a part of.
I’ll remember and honor Ruth by fighting for what is right, using every talent and privilege I have on behalf of others and work to develop relationships and even friendships with those I disagree with and those who differ from me.
Maybe you’ve read the poem by Maya Angelou that is providing comfort to many who mourn the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It also speaks to those who mourn Jean Hansen and the ones you love and see no longer.
When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou…
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.