Lenten Reflection: Flowers for a Forgotten Hero

Mar. 6, 2024

“Beautiful flowers,” quipped the woman, pushing a metal meal cart down the hallway.

Outside room 126, Edith slumped in her wheelchair, seemingly unaware of the exchange taking place between my wife, Pam, and her caregiver.

“You know who she is?” exclaimed Pam.

“She’s a hero! She deserves beautiful flowers.”

“Hero?” stammered the astonished aid. “Our Edith? What do you mean?”

Then Pam shared a story. Twenty years ago Edith and her husband, Jack, retired to Savannah from New Jersey—in their mid-seventies.  Foregoing golf games and afternoon bridge parties, together they birthed an outreach for inner-city youth inspired by our work in Camden—UrbanHope. An unusual and amazing “fourth quarter” contribution to their community that continues to this day.

From her oversized smock pocket, Edith’s caregiver quickly retrieved a worn iPhone, googled the website and scrolled. “Look at this everyone,” commanding her colleagues to gather, “Ms. Edith created something really beautiful for kids.”

Minutes earlier Edith was forgotten and story-less, surviving her final days in an obscure memory care unit. Nobody knew of her making hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for hungry after school kids. Nobody comprehended her infinite hours coordinating tutors, mentors and church volunteers. Nobody appreciated the phone calling, envelope stuffing, stamp licking evenings to raise a few extra philanthropic dollars to keep gas in the program van. Even her beloved Jack left her, passing away a decade earlier. Yet today Edith was rediscovered as a hero by those who fed and bathed her each day.

Lent’s a strange season, isn’t it? It’s a season asking you and me to courageously wrestle with the competing tensions of being human.

It’s a healthy wrestling, I believe. Many disagree with me—thinking Christians are a bunch of guilt-ridden prudes who focus too much on the more despairing aspects of existence. Billy Sunday famously quipped, “Christians can have just enough religion to make them miserable.”

Competing tensions? On one side there’s the Ash Wednesday pronouncement:  our lives are finite and very vulnerable. From “dust we are made and to dust we will return,” announces the priest as oily ashes are smeared on our foreheads.  In a culture hell bent on denying and hiding death, we’re asked to acknowledge it during Lent.  A downer, for sure.

Essentially this means the accomplishments we secure, the wealth we accumulate, the degrees and titles that follow our names will soon mean nothing. We’ll leave this world with empty suitcases, trophies still on their shelves and no access to our bank accounts. Deny it all you want, but no one escapes. Charles de Gaulle said it best:  “Graveyards are full of indispensable men (and women).”

Many choose to avoid such thinking. Too despairing. Too negative. Too frightening to ponder. Too inconvenient. But acknowledging this reality can be a great gift. Conscious of our finitude, we are challenged to re-assess what’s truly important, precious and true: Relationships. Love. Health. Spending time on things of eternal significance.

Fortunately our faith offers an equally compelling vision of the human condition. Perhaps that’s why Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. How we spend our precious days on earth really matters.  Stepping off life’s treadmill to discern one’s calling and purpose is critical. It’s no accident that before Jesus ever heals, feeds, teaches, preaches….he spends time listening in the desert, praying, resisting various temptations and clarifying a vision to define his few short years of public ministry. Our lives are so much more than a ball of dust.

“There are no ordinary people,” affirmed the Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

Wrapped in bodies that betray us with brevity and decline, Lewis reminds us that every life walking this earth is so much more than decaying cells and molecules.  “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses,” he continues, “to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.” Every life has the potential to become something incredible.

Like Edith.

She may not remember she’s a hero. But her one brief and beautiful life continues bearing eternal fruit as young, impressionable children find refuge from the streets in the sacred place she labored to build.