Monday, April 7th, 2014 – The Fifth Monday in Lent
A Reluctant Hero
W.C Fields once said, “A woman led me to drink, and I never even thanked her for it.” He was funny that way, starting off his schtick with a clause you thought was going one direction and then zig-zagging somewhere else. To make us laugh. To make us think.
He played off our assumptions. His quotes would frequently begin with the idea that we all agree on things, that we’re starting from the same place. Then Fields would deliver his punch line to expose the assumptions we have about which direction things in life should move. He served as a reminder that we have assumptions about the way things ought to be, even if we can’t see them. Or won’t see them. More often than not, we walk through our day with a pocket full of ought to’s. Which is why God had me meet Petra.
My former parish gathered so often and in such numbers that we required a full time cook. We looked for awhile, unsuccessfully, and then I heard about Petra.
Five foot nothing. Bossy. Loud. Funny. Chain smoker. Pound for pound the hardest worker I, or anyone else, would ever meet, said her references. (They understated it.) An eighth grade education. Grew up picking cotton in the ’70’s in Carthage, Mississippi.
We provided her the best, most stable and lucrative job she ever held. Her report card as an employee and teammate was stunning across the board: early to work; late until it was done; smiling while she did it. In the pass/fail world of food service, she still got straight A’s. We got fatter and we still applauded.
Then came the staff retreat. The exercise about how you grew up and what it was like now. There was Petra, waiting like a poker champ, not fidgeting, not squirming, ‘not nothing’ as she might say. Her turn. A happy enough childhood. Until her father, on the way home from Sunday night church, killed his wife, her mother, in front of the family, and all six children became orphans in an instant.
What followed for her was work, a couple marriages and then not, and sons with various needs, needs whose only chance of being met were by a single mother. One of those sons was a paranoid schizophrenic. The cycle of having him committed, watching him get out, reject his meds, and then need to be committed again, always involuntarily, was as excruciating as it was inevitable. In the worst moments of his illness, he wasn’t just scary, he was violent. And didn’t know it.
How did she get out of bed in the morning? Why would she?
She showed me more about God, about resilience, about the difference between earthly success and kingdom success, than anyone I had met to that point. She was my employee; she was my mentor. She was the wisest person I’ve met; she was the least educated. She was the strongest human being I know; she is weak and will die too early because her lungs will hit ‘pause’ long before her will does.
If you ever want to know what Paul meant when he talked about being strong while we are weak, about the power of God working in us to do more than we can ask or imagine, think of Petra. St. Peter is proud to share her name.
– Christopher Powell