On Sunday afternoons — late in the afternoon — I get around to reading the Sunday paper. Unlike most of the reading I do all week, this is lazy, grazing reading. I go with whatever catches my eye.
At some point, I land on the Obituaries or, as they were known in the neighborhood where I grew up, “the Irish funnies.” The older I get, the more the Obituaries fascinate me. First, there is the brief, euphoric moment of realization that I am not in the Obituaries, that I have lived another day, thank God.
And second, I am always astounded by the unlikely, accidental community that is created on those particular newspaper pages. It is another reminder that, no matter what our accomplishments in life, we will all leave this world and those accomplishments behind.
Yesterday’s paper had a particularly unusual and varied group who shared the act of dying in the same week: Chaleo Yoovidhya, the inventor of Red Bull; John Demjanjuk, the alleged Nazi camp guard; James Moorehead, a World War II flying ace. Also, there was someone who danced for Martha Graham; a comic book artist; an architect; and a voodoo drummer.
In the vast majority of obituaries, as you can see, a person’s life is reduced to four or five words. No matter how famous.
Ellen Hoffman was not famous. She didn’t invent anything. She didn’t play out her life on the world stage. But among us who knew her, she deserves an obituary.
I’m sure it took one kind of courage for James Moorehead to be a flying ace. It took another kind of courage for Ellen, when she lived on Chapel Street, to go into Boston each day (she used braces on her legs then) and, when she came home, to go up the stairs one by one, situating one leg on the next stair before lifting her other leg up. Day. After. Day.
It took another kind of courage to turn misfortune into optimism. This almost never makes it into the paper. Why? Truth be told, misfortune rarely does this. It makes some people bitter, some people callous. It turns others to addictive behaviors or self-medication.
Not Ellen. She had, as we heard at her Memorial Service, a “daunting” optimism. By optimism, here, I mean a belief in the natural goodness of all things. We have a name for those who can turn, through the grace of God, misfortune into goodness. We call them saints.
The thing about saints is this: they do not exist in isolation. A saint is active in the world — creating, changing, affecting the behavior of others through example. Who among us was not changed by interacting with Ellen? People gravitated toward Ellen because they sensed there was a font of goodness there — and they wanted to be near it. I’m certain this is why Ellen had so many people who were willing to help her with her day-to-day activities — rides, cleaning, cooking. Because it offered a chance to be in contact with this goodness, to be reminded of this goodness.
It is a strange thing to say that a congregation has an individual spiritual center. First, we are Christians and we approach our lived together communally, not individually. Second, we are Congregationalist and … (well, you know how this part goes.)
But if we have (and I do use that word in the present tense) a spiritual center, it is Ellen. Ellen brought out the best in each of us, brought out the best in people we only got to know at her Memorial Service. I can sum up her life — as if for the newspaper — in six words. (Ellen deserves an extra word or two.) Love, and all will be well.
Ellen wrote those words on all of our hearts.
The “Remember, Rejoice, Renew” video ends with Ellen talking straight into the camera. She says: “I would not be here if it wasn’t for the people of this church.”
To which I say: And a big part of the reason we are here is because of Ellen. Each generation gets one or two saints, God’s grace which lives inside a congregation. Somewhere out there in the pews, or perhaps waiting to join us, there is another saint. But for the time being, it remains Ellen Hoffman.
Love, and all will be well.