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Her Name is “Bitter.”

In the fall of 2010, I entered my second year of seminary and Mary entered her first. We had the same mentor and we sang in the vocal ensemble group together. She was one of the oldest cadets on campus, the mother of four, three of whom were with her and her husband on campus.

Galatians lists gentleness as “fruit of the Spirit,” but I hadn’t ever recognized it in anyone like did in Mary. Going back to school was intense, on top of raising her family, and what astounded me more than anything else was the gentleness she had throughout it all. It was a kindness and simplicity usually reserved for young or delicate children in literature, the sort of sweetness that never speaks ill of someone, bandages the broken wing of a song bird, etc. Until I met Mary, I wrote those characters off as being idealized and unrealistic.

That’s not to say Mary never had a bad or frustrating day, just that she handled it, and others, differently than I might have in the same circumstances. When my reaction would be to go to the mattresses, Mary responded with compassion and prayer. She worked for joy, even on bad days. When her heart was broken, it was often out of love for someone.

I haven’t seen Mary much since I finished seminary. Life pulls us in too many directions, but we stayed friends on Facebook. From afar, I saw pictures of her kids growing up, getting married, her first grandson, her youngest going off to school. We chatted now and then, but not as much as I wish.

I knew her health isn’t great, but one wretched day in December, she shared that she was moving to hospice care. It was the first thing I read that morning, and immediately, I sobbed. I don’t mean I got teary-eyed: I was almost heaving by the time I called my dad, who is the first one I call when the world cracks apart again.

“Mary” means “bitter,” but my dear friend has greeted this part of her journey with the same gentleness that she has always had. Her posts, though few, have been so full of the same grace that I saw years ago.

I miss my friend, am sorry I have not seen more of her, and I confess that I lack the gentleness she carries. The other day, during the Lutheran service in the activity room at work, they sang “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” which is one of the songs Mary and I sang together in ensemble. At once, it broke my heart and made me smile to remember my friend:

1. The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His,
And He is mine forever.

2. Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And, where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

3. Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.

4. In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy Cross before to guide me.

5. Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And oh, what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth!

6. And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever.

I don’t know where my faith is these days, but nevertheless, the song is comforting, at least when it comes to Mary. Someone posted a picture of her the other day, and while she looked weary, I was stunned by the grace and gentleness that still radiates from her. Her name may mean “bitter,” according to the baby name books, but not to me. Mary will forever be associated with overwhelming gentleness. I am so very lucky to get to call her my friend.

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