Laura’s Last Lesson

The Gazebo at Our Church.

In Loving Memory of Laura Lane Barnett. March 4, 1922 – July 31, 2012

On Easter Sunday, 2011, we attended sunrise services held in our new little church’s mountaintop parking lot, right in front of the gazebo.  An elderly couple—the oldest in our congregation—sat beside us. His name was Dr. Bill. Her name was Laura. 

I’d spoken with them a few times since we’d begun attending this church a few months earlier, enough to know that he was not only remarkably sharp (notice the intentional absence of some qualifier like “for his age”), but also full of wisdom gained over a full, well-lived life. As for Laura, gentleness and humility seemed to saturate the air around her. Her short-term memory had left her, but she always offered a kind smile and said “hello” at appropriate times.

Laura’s memory loss didn’t keep her from discipling me that day. 

We hadn’t hauled the hymnals out to the parking lot. Instead, the words to all the hymns we would sing were printed on paper. Laura and I shared one of those papers, and during worship, we dropped it. I bent to retrieve it, scanned quickly to find our place in the hymn, and pointed, with my finger, to the lyric being sung.

Laura placed her index finger under the words, and moved her finger along as we completed Christ the Lord is Risen Today. Throughout that service, that drizzly Easter Sunday on the mountaintop before the gazebo, Laura moved her finger along beneath the words in the hymns as we sang.

Later that day, I mentioned it to my husband, mildly pleased with myself that I’d been able to help her. “Did you see when we dropped our lyric sheet? I found our place for Laura, and I’m glad I did. She follows along with her finger to keep her place, you know.”

Oh, my naïve, prideful heart. My foolish, self-centered heart. 

Saturday-before-last we had the privilege of attending memorial services for Laura. I’d learned a few things about her and Dr. Bill since that Easter service a year ago. I knew they’d served as missionaries in Africa. I knew that the two of them sat close together in the second pew on the right, and that when Dr. Bill rose to share with the congregation it was always worth paying attention. 

At her memorial, I learned that Laura, a nurse, and her husband spent forty years serving in Africa. I learned that following retirement, back in the early 90s, their mission organization, Africa Inland Mission, had asked them to return from retirement to serve in a conflict-ridden locale. They returned, all right—to Mogadishu, Somalia. And they stayed there, ministering under armed guard, until our Department of State ordered all civilians home.  I learned that their first-born son serves AIM today. I learned that the family’s service to this mission stretches in an unbroken line back to 1907. 

I learned that in 1994, when membership at our little canyon church had dwindled down to nearly nothing and the one remaining faithful family visited another church in the nearby suburbs, asking for members to come to the canyon to help rebuild a congregation, Laura and Dr. Bill had come. 

Dr. Bill stood up to speak about his wife. He shared with us the tender story of their nighttime routine: they would lie in bed together, he said, and sing hymns. 

I thought back to that Easter service last year and doubt swung its sledgehammer at the foundations of my memory.

Then our pastor’s wife, Amy, who is one of our worship leaders, spoke about Laura. “From up here,” Amy told us, “I have a different perspective when we worship. And Miss Laura remembered every word to every hymn. It was as if she embodied those hymns, and I could see great joy shining through her as she lifted her voice in worship of our God.”

I felt the color creeping up my cheeks as the flimsy structure of my prideful little memory toppled down around me. Laura knew all the hymns by heart. She hadn’t been following the hymn lyrics with her finger to keep her place. No.

She was following with her finger so I could keep my place. Despite the limitations that the years had brought her, she still found a way to serve—she would rescue me from wandering about in the hymns.

A soothing balm of humility spread over my grieving heart. Even in death, Laura had shared one final lesson with me. 

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8 (NASB)

Linking with Duane Scott today at Scribing the Journey:

And with Jennifer Lee at Getting Down with Jesus:

Please stop by!